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On not knowing

Bonny Cassidy 19 February 2014

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On not knowing


In December I responded to remarks by Fairfax book critic Andrew Riemer concerning Lionel G Fogarty’s poem in the Best Australian Poems 2013 (Black Inc, ed. Lisa Gorton). As I pointed out, it seemed unbelievable that Riemer selected Fogarty’s work as an example of what he saw as “in the strictest sense of the term, meaningless” poetry contained in the anthology. As Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson pointed out decades ago:

It is impossible to read Lionel without realising that he is Black; it is impossible to read him  and not realise the crimes committed against the Aboriginal people, and it is impossible to  read him and not realise that here is a poet using the English language in a unique and new  way.1

Absent from Riemer’s review was a broader critical understanding, which Sabina Paula Hopfer articulates in her discussion of Fogarty’s poetry. In her article, titled “Re-reading Lionel Fogarty: an attempt to feel into texts speaking of decolonisation”, Hopfer makes clear that:

a global postcolonial literary debate challenges Western literary critics to take the responsibility of becoming active readers of  postcolonial narratives and the realities that inform them.2

Riemer’s insistence on pointing out the (deliberate) error in Fogarty’s English is out of step with this global literary debate; and is an impoverished way of grasping contemporary language, whether it be in poetic form or at the supermarket. This is illuminated by a recent review of Fogarty’s latest book, Mogwie-Idan: Stories of the land, in which Melbourne poet and critic Tim Wright mounts an argument for the postcolonial reader to belong within aesthetic difficulty rather than to find it nullifying. In the case of Fogarty’s poetry, this critical decision leads Wright (following Hopfer) towards a reading that permits a space for reconciliation in both its social and aesthetic senses:

... to emphasise the potential dialogic space that is created by the linguistic complexity of Fogarty’s poetry, one that a reader is required to work towards ... to move outwards, further towards the language, rather than trying to draw it closer to her or him.3

The ethics of belonging within alienation has been thoroughly discussed in the realm of local art criticism and theory. Indeed, issues surrounding contemporary art provide local literary criticism with a mirror to itself, suggesting that we might benefit from more often engaging these discourses within cross-disciplinary critique. In this spirit, we might glance at the issue of perspectives in art writing, and consider how its discussion offers a method as well as a vocabulary for reading postcolonial situations of “intranslatability and defamiliarisation” in poetry.4

In a radio interview last year, the Darwin-based journalist and writer Nicolas Rothwell described “the doubleness” that characterises much contemporary Indigenous art: “its generous communication of culture, and its strategic concealment”.5  In the culture and market of contemporary Indigenous art-making, audiences (both settler and Indigenous) have become accustomed to experiencing a dynamic of engaged alienation: an acceptance of what art historian Terry Smith calls the “sacred-secular (as distinct from secret) communicative messages” in contemporary Indigenous work.6  During the late 1980s and 1990s, art criticism—particularly within Australia—wrestled with how this dynamic of doubleness could and should be approached by critical language. Indeed, a new language needed to be forged. As Rothwell explains, “a lack of critical vocabulary” means “it’s hard to make our way”.7 The debate pushed and pulled between anthropological and aesthetic perspectives on Indigenous art, frequently seeking to strike a middle ground that remains a rightly contentious space.8 The world of art writing continues to work through authentic yet rigorous ways to negotiate postcolonial art-making and -receiving.

Hopfer’s article on Fogarty undertakes a comparable search for critical vocabulary. It emphasises the effect of concealment that may be found in Fogarty’s postcolonial poetics:

The non-Indigenous reader is left in a void and may have to accept  ... an untranslatable and  silent part of the text. Such untranslatable parts seem to reveal to non-Indigenous readers what it feels like to find oneself at a loss for words and understanding, and to be overpowered by a foreign language and a foreign perception of the world. Rather than to translate, non-Indigenous readers are asked to let themselves be affected by the linguistic territory the writer has created for him and his own people.9

Hopfer’s remarks stress the critically disabling and exclusive nature of the poetry’s effects. Fogarty’s use of complex titles and rapid pace, she writes, “causes despair in the English speaking reader”:

Non-Indigenous readers are overpowered by words, as Indigenous people must have felt   when words of a foreign language were thrown at them. I am made to understand what language genocide feels like rather than what it means in abstract terms ... Such poems evoke the image of a shouting crowd with the non-Indigenous readers standing in the middle, not understanding the words that hail down on them. Yet, rather than understanding  the single words, we are forced to understand the feelings the words seek to evoke.10

This remark may be compared with Wright’s review, which reinforces how “the protest of Fogarty’s poetry is taken into the fabric of English; it can be seen as an attempt, as he has said, to conquer, or crush, English.”11 After reading this, however, I emailed Wright, who articulated frustration with the critical position of a cultural impasse:

There is a point there, isn't there, about a kind of willed masochism relating to (liberal) white guilt that Hopfer's point comes close to advocating—a kind of wish to be punished for—or purged of—sins? I didn't want to dismiss it because it really is a  metaphor  that's both interested and irritated me—in the sense that it's niggled me, I've never had a good response to it.12

Wright questions Hopfer’s perception that Fogarty's poems are not really for the settler reader—that reading them is a kind of trespass on “linguistic territory”. Wright experiences Fogarty’s challenge to English—the coloniser’s tool—not as an exclusive challenge to the non-Indigenous reader but to the relics of colonialism that anglophones feel and find in the language.13  In his email, Wright explained this point:

The words in some of the poems do seem to "hail down". But the metaphor is skewed   because [Hopfer] says specifically 'on the non-Indigenous person's head'... it's important to  be specific there, I think, because it ultimately makes the suggestion with no evidence that  LF's poetry isn't and hasn't been complex/experimental/difficult (etc.) for Aboriginal people  too.14

This invites not only the settler but the postcolonial reader, to engage within the territory of Fogarty’s language and to be alien/ated there. For Wright, echoing Rothwell, our critical concern must be with the vocabulary and manner of articulating the “complex/experimental/difficult” tension within Fogarty’s poetics: “how to talk about that resonance is the difficulty ... I'm reminded of that point Pete Minter made ... about the necessity of fostering a sense of diplomacy and ‘refined embarrassment’”.15

Looking to the example of art criticism and theory, we can observe a coming-to-terms with the dynamic of simultaneous communication/concealment in postcolonial Indigenous art. It reflects the way that Hopfer and Wright, following on from Johnson/Mudrooroo, go on to develop critical vocabularies to talk diplomatically about the resonance of postcolonial poetry such as Fogarty’s, which both engages with anglophone tradition through language and interrupts or “crushes” the language into new shapes of meaning. Their critical perspective would seem to be relevant to readers of a range of postcolonial poetry that both utilises and interferes with the colonial language of English, in which cultural representation is ‘double’ or mixed.

In 2001, anthropologist Howard Morphy wrote about finding a balance between anthropological and aesthetic perspectives of Indigenous art:

While people can ... obviously appreciate any work of art through the lens of their own culture’s aesthetics, just as they can appreciate the aesthetic properties of found objects, they must realise that this is precisely what they are doing. They must not be under the illusion  that they are experiencing the work as a member of the producing culture would ... The anthropological perspective would not deny that the search for human universals and for categories that can be applied cross-culturally is perfectly compatible with a recognition of cultural difference. But the recognition of cultural difference requires that those categories  be distanced from particular Western cultural assumptions...16

These two perspectives had to a great extent been separately explored, a situation that, according to Morphy, calls for a third language. Is it the language of diplomacy and refined embarrassment to which he gestures? Perhaps; we are not all anthropologists, and nor should we wish that such a discipline be reduced to amateurism. By the same token, an all-out aesthetic perspective risks charges of wilful universalism.

What do categories of cross-cultural perspective, distanced from Western cultural assumptions, look like? In 1995, curator Judith Ryan argued for the validity of reading postcolonial Indigenous art through aesthetic principles that she saw as drawn from both Indigenous and Western art traditions:

For most of the [twentieth] century we have been locked inside an anthropological, scientific quest to pith the frog, dissect its heart, uncover, expose and publish its secrets ...  One of the barriers to a frank and open discussion of Aboriginal art has been the misapprehension, gleaned from anthropological texts, that art it is European construct. It is  nothing of the kind ... Visual art is a universal language that is open to all peoples to use and  appreciate ... Sensibility and vitality are aesthetic principles inherent and observable in indigenous Australian art.17

The categories or principles of sensibility and vitality—and there may be many more—are reinforced by Rothwell, who suggests that a critical vocabulary for contemporary Indigenous art may be found through a partial focus on “aesthetic pattern” both “visual and emotional”.18  It seems to me that Hopfer and Wright focus on these very patterns in Fogarty’s texts: by attending to the sensibility of their visual and spatial dimensions by using drawing, dance and song to inform their interpretation of Fogarty’s poetic line; and by describing the vitality of its emotional affects.

Hopfer and Wright craft a visual and kinetic critical vocabulary, drawing less on Western categories of poetic mode and focusing more on how Fogarty’s cultural practice might reflect back into his poems. Hopfer suggests a motile reading procedure that follows designs of dance and song: “first reading the book forward, then backward and, finally, from different points out of the centre. We indeed need to read the collection in circles, circles that develop from various points. Fogarty's poetry defies linearity as he moves in circles through time and writing.”19  She shows that a visual-spatial reading of the poems is based in intentionality, quoting Fogarty: “‘What I want to achieve in my writing one day is to put Aboriginal designs of art inside the lettering to bring a broader understanding to the meanings of the text’”. But Hopfer also turns to Fogarty’s own drawings with an affective eye, to find that they “emphasise the feeling-images contained in the written words ... A spear is thrown into the English language and a rhythm of pictures is developed”.20

This is a multi-dimensional way of reading, which frames Fogarty’s writing as a practice interconnected with other cultural expression. It seeks to find a vocabulary not so much interdisciplinary as continuous with other media and Fogarty’s aesthetic aims. Hopfer distances her reading from what Christine Watson identifies as the “linear perspective vision which has now become naturalised into western ways of seeing”, thereby attempting to replace or complicate that way of seeing.21

Wright undertakes this critical manoeuvre more directly, with regard to Fogarty’s drawings published in Mogwie-Idan. Taking time to describe their compositions, Wright effectively suggests “analogies between the fully articulated, holistic systems of these drawings and those same qualities present in the poems.”22  He shapes a vocabulary of line and form that enacts his notion of moving “further towards the language”. This perspective may be illuminated by Watson’s study of women’s art from the Indigenous community of Balgo, where “paintings go deep in their sounding of the beings of their viewers, communicating cross-culturally by using the forms of the human body”:

While the choice of a particular set of icons—arc, circle, line, dot—is culturally specific, the  use of these forms of the body are symbols which we in the west also know at deep, visceral  levels of ourselves.23

Hopfer and Wright also discover such deep and visceral levels in the poems’ emotional affects, although their responses differ from one another in tone. As quoted above, Hopfer’s response makes sense of Fogarty’s poetics not entirely through visual-spatial sensibility and intentional interpretation, but also by listening to her self as she reads. Consider the language she uses, which conveys an affective rather than “abstract” or theoretical scenario: in a void, at a loss, overpowered, hail, shouting, force, despair. Wright listens a bit harder, perhaps—a bit more freely—when he suggests that “word hail” need not only be a despairing affect. It can be a new experience of the English language that might also be thrilling for the reader:

While I believe the metaphor of hail is an accurate one to carry the  force of Fogarty’s   poetry, I now think that Hopfer’s reading of it risks overemphasising the response of despair. What about the exhilaration of reading the poems/getting hit on the head with hail?24

What is critically constructive about this point is that, rather than feeling personally crushed by the poetry’s communicative “doubleness”, Wright feels activated by Fogarty’s “crushing” of language. This leaves the problem of the colonial language in the hands of both poet and reader; a common problem to be negotiated and handled. This seems to me to define a diplomatic critical perspective.

Reflecting approaches to art writing, and in fact using visual-spatial language to broaden the critical categories of poetry criticism, Hopfer and Wright make a critical space for themselves between the lines of the poetic text. They don’t, however, have an interest in “dissecting” it. As Hopfer concludes: “Estrangement need not be negative, provided that we are willing to understand it as a challenge to set out and let ourselves be educated, knowing that at times we will be overpowered by not knowing”.25 Wright reminds us that “exhilaration” is always at once the thrill of communication and the difficulty of concealment.

Dwelling in alienation, both critics show refined embarrassment at their being emotionally and linguistically exposed by the text, and they deal carefully and thoughtfully with their articulation of this experience. They try to understand its reasons and to make it productive. What’s happening here is a balancing, a gentle moulding, of the aesthetic perspective: a way of enjoying and using its affective permission, without mistaking this for open license. We might look here to art historian Rex Butler, who offers a nuanced view of aesthetic and affective agency: “It is not a universality of generally-shared standards of truth, reason and progress, but a universality of singularities, spectators individually interpellated by the work of art.”26  It is treading gently through the text, listening and looking to be called over towards language.


1. Johnson, Colin (Mudrooroo), “Guerilla Poetry: Lionel Fogarty’s response to Language Genocide”, Westerly 3 (1986), p48.
2. Hopfer, Sabina Paula, “Re-reading Lionel Fogarty: an attempt to feel into texts speaking of decolonisation”, Southerly 62.2 p45.
3. Wright, Tim, 'Review of Mogwie-Idan: Stories of the land by Lionel Fogarty', Mascara Literary Review 14 (December 2013): http://mascarareview.com/tim-wright-reviews-mogwie-idan-stories-of-the-land-by-lionel-fogarty
4. Hopfer, p62.
5. Rothwell, Nicolas, interviewed by Sarah Kanowski, Weekend Arts, ABC Radio National, 14 December 2013: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/weekendarts/was14/5146766
6. Smith, Terry, “How to write about Aboriginal art”, ed. Ian McLean, How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011, p209.
7. Interviewed by Sarah Kanowski.
8. The developments and key voices of this debate are thoroughly surveyed in Ian McLean, ed. How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011.
9. Hopfer, p59.
10. Hopfer, p60.
11. Wright, Review (n. p.).
12. Wright, Tim, Personal email correspondence to Bonny Cassidy.
13. See Brennan, Michael, ‘Interview with Lionel Fogarty’, Poetry International July 2011: http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net
14. Wright, Personal email.
15. Wright quoted these rather compelling terms from a paper given in Melbourne a couple of years ago by Peter Minter—a paper I have cited elsewhere due to its significant consideration of how criticism might operate in a postcolonial aesthetic landscape. Minter's paper is published in Southerly 73.1 (2013).
16. Morphy, Howard, “The necessity of anthropology and the limits of art criticism”, in Ian McLean, ed. How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art, p231.
17. Ryan, Judith, “Sensibility and vitality in Aboriginal art”, in Ian McLean, ed. How Aborigines invented the idea of contemporary art, pp244-245.
18. Interviewed by Sarah Kanowski.
19. Hopfer, p47.
20. Hopfer, pp16-17.
21. Watson, Christine, Piercing the Ground, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2003, p50.
22. Wright, Review (n. p.).
23. Watson, pp295-296.
24. Wright, Review (n. p.).
25. Hopfer, p63.
26. Butler, Rex, “Aboriginality”, in A Secret History of Australian Art, Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002, p121.
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