Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

The final line of “Gather”, the opening poem in Evelyn Araluen’s collection Dropbear, announces her intention – “got something for you to swallow”. Well, I can tell you now, if you haven’t already read the book, she sure has.

Dropbear, self-described by Araluen as a “strange little book”, won this year’s Stella Prize, the first year, in fact, that poetry was included as an eligible form for the prize. It has also been highly commended or shortlisted for several other significant Australian literary awards. I can see why. It is a fiercely intelligent, confronting and discomforting read that tells truths we all need to hear – and feel. It is also, however, a literary feast, replete with allusions to Australian literature from May Gibbs to Kate Grenville, from Banjo Paterson to Peter Carey, and more. There is a reason for this as Araluen explains in her Notes at the end. Dropbear should, she writes,

be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.

In other words, you fight fire with fire! What this means is that in this collection, Araluen, from her Notes again, “riff[s] off and respond[s] to popular tropes, icons and texts of Australian national culture”. In doing so, she upends prevailing attitudes, challenging the colonial project and making it very clear that it’s still in play. This all starts with the title which comprehends the myths and dishonesties at the core of Australia’s settler culture.

In the collection’s second piece, “The ghost gum sequence”, she revisits Australia’s early colonial history, concluding with

Tench’s gaze is still there – but so is ours staring back.

Simply said, powerful in impact. Araluen, and her peers, are no shrinking violets.

However, she also recognises (as does Larissa Behrendt in After story), that she too was brought up on these same texts she uses in her resistance. Hence

the entanglement: none of this is innocent and while I seek to rupture I usually just rearrange. I arrange the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too. (“To the parents”)

“To the parents” is one of the more autobiographical pieces in the collection. In it she reconciles her younger self’s frustration. She had seen her “parents as easy victims of the colonial condition, and not agential selves who had sacrificed everything” for their children, whereas in fact:

While my siblings and I consumed those stories, we were never taught to settle for them. My parents never pretended these books could truly know country or culture or me – but they had both come from circumstances in which literacy and the access it affords was never a given. They just wanted me to be able to read.

The resourcefulness of First Nations people is palpable in experiences like this. For Araluen, there is challenge in teasing out the “entanglement” of her own “black and convict ancestors” (“The Ghost Gum Sequence”). This includes that hard “yakker” of connecting with black heritage lost through generations of dispossession: “It is hard to unlearn a language / to unspeak the empire” (“Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal”).

Another autobiographical piece is “Breath” in which she writes of being overseas with J when the 2019-2020 bushfires hit and the pandemic starts. She is confronted by her personal dreams in dystopian times:

We came to talk about temporality, about literature, about the necessity of art in the time of crisis … We spent our youths imagining this kind of life, dreaming of ourselves as writers and thinkers who travel the world to tell stories. Being here tastes sour and hollow – it feels like relic-making. What use is a poem in a museum of extinct things, where the Anthopocene display is half-finished? … What use is witness at the end of worlds.

And yet, she doesn’t give up. In poem after poem she witnesses and shares what she sees. It’s exhilarating to read, if that’s not too positive a spin on tough content. “The trope speaks” addresses the many ways in which settler literature has usurped place, ignorantly and arrogantly:

The trope feels a ghostly spectre haunting the land, but smothers it with fence and field and church

The trope thinks every tree is a ghost gum

Later, in “Appendix Australia”, which comprises bitingly funny footnotes, this latter point is referenced again in “37. sic: not a fucking ghost gum, ibid”, reminding us yet again how little we settlers really do know country, as we muddle, if not stomp, our way around it.

The collection is divided into three parts – Gather, Spectre and Debris – which reflect a thematic and narrative trajectory that takes us from historical imperatives in Gather, through more personal reflections in Spectre, to marrying present and past in Debris, though I am making this sound more clear-cut than it really is, because the connections are more organic than formal.

The pieces vary significantly in form and style, and include prose poems, upper-case poems, a redacted poem, and memoir, but there is a coherence that transcends this difference. This coherence lies in the book’s overall unrelenting exposé of the workings of a colonial-settler society that still avoids the truth, and it is supported by recurring ideas and multilayered images, like banksia men and gumnut babies, ghosts/spectres, smoke/ash, and haunting/hunting. Each of these contain opposing ideas that jolt the reader into stopping to consider the meaning and argument being presented. It’s not easy reading, but it is worth persevering.

The final piece in Gather is “The Last Endeavour”, which tells the Cook story. It’s a prose poem that makes no bones about what these “ghosts” were doing: “we have the promise of history, the order to bring light to the dark”. It’s dramatic, ironic and, like most of the collection, satiric.

Immediately preceding this is the telling “Dropbear Poetics” which concludes with:

you do wrong        you get wrong
you get
gobbled up

Can’t say plainer than that.

The book, then, conveys ongoing loss, and critiques how deeply settler-driven history and literature is implicated in that, but it is also a hymn to country. Araluen is Bundjalung-born and raised in Dharug country, and her descriptions of the birds, trees and rivers of these coastal-riverine places are paradoxically beautiful when set against the overall narrative.

Dropbear is an impossible book to review, because every time I pick it up to consider how to end this post, I see something else I want to share. I must finish it, but I must also mention the irony and wit to be found in the collection. Poems like “Acknowledgement of cuntery” and “Appendix Australis”, for example, are breathtaking in their use of humour to skewer settler hypocrisy and obliviousness.

In a final act of deconstruction and, perhaps, reconstruction, Araluen ends her book with the defiant poem, “THE LAST BUSH BALLAD”, that sees the Banksia Men, the Bunyip, and the Dropbear defeated. It concludes on a reminder of the opening poem:

I told you I was prepared to swallow.

Araluen’s Dropbear might be a “strange” book, but it is certainly not little. It’s audacious, erudite and unsettling (pun intended), and warrants every bit of the time and attention I gave it – and more. Recommended.

Brona (Brona’s Books) has also posted on this book. However, I don’t think she will be offended if I say that Jeanine Leane’s First Nations analysis in the Sydney Review of Books comprehends and explains this work far better than we ever could.

Evelyn Araluen
St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2021
ISBN: 9780702263187

Written for Lisa’s First Nations Reading Week

22 thoughts on “Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (#BookReview)

  1. Woo hoo!
    I think you (and Brona) are more than a match for Leane’s thoughts, because you’re coming from a non-Indigenous perspective, and I think that’s important too.
    I’ve added it to the Reviews page and the Reading List page (in the Drama, Poetry, Art and Music page).
    Thank you for participating Lisa x

    • Thanks Lisa … you’re right that it needs non-Indigenous responses … but I was so impressed by Leanne’s response albeit I realise that she knows specifically where First Nations thinking is right now.

      • Oh, I agree, but let me give an example. It’s like those reviews of history books by professional historians. Of course, they attend to accuracy and historical theories and all sorts of academic stuff, but a review by you or me or any other general reader is a guide to other general readers about how interesting it is for a non-specialist and whether it’s written in accessible prose or incomprehensible jargon. So I think both kinds of reviews are important.

        • Yes true … but I think this First Nations area is a bit different and I become nervous commenting on their critique essentially of us! I feel it can be a bit of damned if you do snd damned if you don’t, if that makes sense?

        • I hear you. From time to time I get hostile comments on my blog, which I treat with care. I don’t mind being wrong, and I’m willing to stand corrected, but I will not tolerate abuse of me or my authors or any of the people who comment on my blog. So if they cross that line, whoosh! straight into the delete folder and then I do my best to forget about it.

  2. I hadn’t realized there were so many forms in Dropbear. I thought it was a collection of poems, but quite a bit of what you quote appears to be of the prose poem or memoir variety. This gives a new window into the book. Thank you for that.

  3. No, it’s a very good review, Sue.
    One can imagine this book becoming a standard high school text in the near future. Or rather, I think it should be. It remains to be seen if its messages will remain too unsettling to the ongoing paradigms for that to happen. And I’m sure Araluen herself would want the actions in response to her work to go much further than that.

    • Thanks very much Glen. I really appreciate that. It would be a challenging text for schools but I agree. In the hands of good teachers it would be an amazing book to study at school and discuss with your peers.

      I like the fact that it is somehow angry without being alienating because if you alienate non-Indigenous readers you risk losing them and that helps no one.

      • That’s a significant (and unfortunate) point regarding anger, as expressed not only by Indigenous writers but also by women, and the prejudice and censure that they risk in particular as a result. I’d like to think that, for me, unadulterated invective is difficult to engage with when it comes from anyone, and that wit, satire, gravitas, and sheer facility and inventiveness will sway and ennoble the conversation, regardless of who the speakers are. Of course, it’s also a question of knowing when to speak (and when not to), and of how one responds to the challenge: how much discomfort can you stand, and what will you do with it?

        • Yes, good response Glen, and one I agree with … I was thinking as I wrote what I did, that I’m willing to be uncomfortable but not to be yelled at. Being uncomfortable encourages me to think but being yelled at tends to make me put my defences up.

  4. What a fabulous – and confronting – review by Jeanine Leane! Thanks for providing that link Sue. I thought this book was fabulous when I read it some time ago, but after reading Leane’s review I am going to have to read it again.
    I feel quite sad sometimes that my amazing grandmother, who was involved all her life in working with Indigenous Australians, did not live to see literature like this published – she was a voracious reader, and how I would love to be able to discuss this with her! She would have been thrilled to read this.
    Thanks for the review!

    • Thanks Sue … and glad you enjoyed the Jeanine Leane. She’s pretty fierce but not unreasonable, I find in her commentary. I’ve never forgotten seeing her speak at an event.

      What a lovely grandmother you had.

  5. Thank you for the mention Sue and the continuing discussion on this exhilerating collection of poems (a very choice of word Sue).
    I hadn’t come across Jeanine Leane’s article, so will save it for my day off (when I am hopefully less tired)!

        • Good for you Brona – as our doctor told my husband yesterday about behaviour post-COVID, trust your body. I really feared ending up with a residual cough as that seemed most likely given my past history with viruses which started with sore throats but the cough didn’t really develop, thank goodness. I feel for you, coughing can be so debilitating.

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