December 2022 – January 2023

Noted

Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella’s ‘ART’

By Declan Fry
Cover of ‘ART’
The poets’ second collaboration, including work from the late Nyoongar artist Shane Pickett, interrogates the settler-colonial mindset

Writing, like poetry, permits collaboration: between writer and reader, writer and subject, language and perception.

ART is Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella’s second work of collaboration following False Claims of Colonial Thieves (2018). If that volume offered the work of a duo, ART (Magabala Books) is a trio record, with the late Nyoongar artist Shane Pickett providing a visual backbone between which Kinsella and Green interweave. (Green’s own paintings, some made in collaboration with fellow Yamaji artist Mark Smith, also appear.)

It’s worth remembering that some of Green’s work is premised on call and response, as in the series of letters with her mother that frames Nganajungu Yagu (2019). Although Shane Pickett passed in 2010, the work of reflection and collaboration, as Kinsella writes, consists of what cannot be foreclosed or predicted in advance, “reaching into where / things continue”.

The trio, or idea of three, works its way formally through the poems, as in Kinsella’s “Dazzled by Shane Pickett’s ‘Three Faces of the Sun’”, which divides into interconnected columns, hymning a triptych of sun praise (“sap blossom limb claw feather roost nest feed”). In “Responding”, meditating on Green’s use of the concept of data, the poem’s columnar form recalls everything from binary code to more bibliographical associations – library columns, pulpit preaching.

Kinsella’s ruminant and self-reflexive mode, tracking the past and its materials, forms an observational refrain throughout the collection. Yet there is scepticism towards the valences of this act. It is a new turn in Kinsella’s decolonial poetics. Since the 1980s, he has written of colonisation’s effect on inherited forms such as the pastoral. Here, he inhabits questions of form, in large part, by disclaiming them (“I don’t go near stars that aren’t mine. / I don’t get near their stories and origins”). Habitation’s entitlements, he suggests – their capacity to offer insight – are limited. As Evelyn Araluen wrote in Dropbear (2021), not every white eucalypt is a ghost gum. It is a rejoinder to the truism that the imagination has no limits – even if the imagination is limitless, authorial discretion is another matter.

For Green, who observes engravings at Kurnell in Sydney, shell middens, Balga grass trees and Pilbara heat in fibro homes (“Childhood below the 26th parallel // In Western Australia when the / social housing criteria did not // include fans for cooling down people / ice blocks from the trains were taken”), the “post referendum language / we live with” avoids confronting the strength of colonial thinking’s faith in – and desire for – nullius. The concept of nullius recurs throughout her poems, invoking the erasure that her own existence disproves: “Yamaji had a voice before you arrived / Because Yamaji was different / Yamaji was Yamaji”. Nullius is designed to ensure Indigeneity is never seen or heard, least of all in its own right (“Yamaji was Yamaji”). As Green knows, to write and to talk and to protest is to fight, and to fight makes you a target: it raises questions that in turn risk making your existence questionable.

Kinsella’s “voicings of presence” have often invoked colonial economic summa, too: sheep skulls, salt degradation, exhumations of finch and parrot, the desert necrosis through which he, living on stolen land amid frontier violence, moves.

Questions of habitation, our ability to represent the experience of living and yarning on unceded ground – whether through Indigenous traditions or otherwise – are not abstract ideas. They are asked and answered collectively, over and over again, across the continent. Holding on to these as ethical praxis, ART functions as a salve to the paralysis – a desire for absolution to be offered by Indigenous peoples, the guilt of moralism – that can be so immobilising (and counterproductive) in settler-colonial politics. Through their collaboration, Green and Kinsella embody what an alternative might look like: finding the wriggle room of freedom, nurturing rage and resistance.

Declan Fry

Declan Fry is an essayist, critic and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta.

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