Near the end of her book True north about Mary and Elizabeth Durack, biographer Brenda Niall writes of Mary Durack‘s poem, “Lament for the Drowned Country”, which she says “has been judged her finest poem”. Of course, with such a statement, I had to read it. I could have Googled* it, but I decided to check my Penguin Book of Australian women poets and, hallelujah, it was there. (Once again this book didn’t let me down!)
“Lament for the drowned country” is a long poem and is presented in the voice of an Aboriginal woman, Maggie, mourning the drowning (for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme) of her “born country”. It’s a poignant poem – for obvious reasons – as it’s about the loss of country (for the indigenous people) and home (for the Duracks, whose Argyle homestead went under the water). But, there’s something else too – an irony, because the idea of damming the Ord River was first proposed by Mary’s brother Kimberley Durack in the 1940s. Mary supported her brother** at the time … but the reality many years later, after her brother’s death, was sad for her.
The interesting thing about the poem is that Durack chose to write it in the voice of an Aboriginal woman. Niall writes of this that:
At a later time, her creation of a first person voice for Maggie Wallaby might have been questioned. In 1972 it was taken as she intended it, as a work of empathy and imaginative identification.
This made me think of Thomas Keneally‘s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1972. It was written in the voice of the Aboriginal protagonist, but Keneally has since said that he wouldn’t presume to do that now, and would tell the story from a white point of view. This says something, I think, something positive, I hope, about Australia’s cultural development. In the 1970s and before, indigenous voices were hard to find. This is less so now – and will hopefully only get better bringing us more voices, and a greater variety of story representing the diversity of indigenous experience.
Anyhow, back to the poem. According to Niall, the poem was inspired by Mary seeing Maggie “catching fish and unaccountably throwing them back into the [new] lake”. Mary saw this – realistically or romantically, who’s to say? – as signalling hope. She has Maggie saying:
I sit along river coming down from my born country.
That heart place! I got to talk to that water.
I got to tell that fish: ‘You go back – you go back now –
talk strong my country. You tell him that spirit can’t leave ’em.
You tell him – Wait! Hang on! This is not the finish!
Later in the poem, Maggie talks of the land drying, the sun coming once again to warm it, and the animals and birds returning. Maggie also makes a reference to the Durack homestead:
You go back up there, that old station – Argyle station –
(poor fella my old boss, my old missus. Nothing left that
house, where I sweep’m every day!) You look out that house,
you look out
windmill, tank, garden, kitchen, saddle shed.
The remarkable thing about the poem is how well – or so it seems to me – Mary Durack captures the cadence, the intonation even – of Aboriginal speech and story-telling. I shouldn’t be surprised though, because Durack spent much of her childhood playing with Aboriginal children and spent her adult life, when she could, not only arguing for but working with indigenous people in their fight for equal rights. According to Niall, as Mary Durack left the north for the last time, “the Aboriginal women, knowing they would never see her again, began to beat their heads and wail inconsolably”. We all know the psychology of master-servant/white-black relationships is a complex one, but that doesn’t deny the fact that amongst it all there can genuine feelings and mutual respect.
I’ll be writing more on the Duracks, and particularly on Mary whose love for the land of her birth was, like Maggie Wallaby’s, absolute:
she can’t forget ‘im, my country, she all day heart-crying.
Meanwhile I recommend this poem …
“Lament for the drowned country”
In Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn (ed)
The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets
Ringwood: Penguin, 1986
* I did Google it too, to provide a link for this post, but I only found excerpts rather than the whole poem. Hence no link here. I guess it’s too recent to be in the public domain.
** Kim Durack was an agricultural scientist. He apparently loved the land and was committed to improving it after the damage caused by years of over-grazing.