Red Room Blog
16th September 2015
Arriving at Moongalba - Rhyming The Dead - Reflections - Judith Rodriguez
By Judith Rodriguez
Writing of Oodgeroo, I paid a long-time debt. Not a debt exclusively mine - but how can an Australian not owe mightily to a poet who saw beyond the ornate posturing of much intellectual poetry, an activist who saw beyond anger and division?
I chanced to meet Kath Walker at what was to me, in words I've used before, a second university. John Manifold, rebel scion of a Victorian squatter family, was a fine sonneteer who also wrote the best elegy - except perhaps Five Bells - in Australian poetry, for his friend Lt John Learmonth. He was a published researcher into old musical instruments, an instrument-maker and recorder-player. Saturday afternoons, he had people down to his Wynnum weatherboard home to sing and play bush ballads, one strand of his Communism. Preferred takers for the ballad sessions, culminating in an annual Ballad Night, were Realist Writers (Kath was one), Aborigines, and the “intelligentsia”. His literary ideals are spelt out in A Hat In the Ring, with his admiration of Henry Lawson and Garcia Lorca – politically rather than aesthetically akin. My parents would have disagreed 100% with John's views; indeed, they were daringly different in Brisbane. How wonderful, to imbibe something different from the milk-and-water middle-class respectability which clothed Brisbaneites like a uniform or straitjacket!
Kath seemed to me to connect with John's English wife Kate more than with John, who with all his talent and virtues was a hearty, and something of a bully - that's how you get people to play. I have no idea if he ever saw Kath's poetry, he probably did, or how he may have advised her. But poetry was there, protest was not an un-literary mode at John's, and the political atmosphere chimed with her Communism (the Communist party alone dissented from the White Australia policy) and later membership of activist Aboriginal groups.
Re-reading Kath/Oodgeroo's poetry has been a revelation of her extraordinarily steady long view of black / white relations in Australia. The anger is there, but also a looking forward to what's now, sometimes glibly, called reconciliation. She knew the heart as well as the head, custom and participation as well as intellectual grasp, had to come to this feast. There was too much money-grubbing in the sophisticated Aboriginal art scene, too much heated argument among activists, to achieve her aim. She went back, to "Sitting Down" at her own tribe's meeting-place. Thousands of school-children must have a memory of the shady Stradbroke island bush where they saw a land - their own land revealed - foreign to the metropolis of bitumen, concrete, glass and brick, with its tamed, token parks and remnant groups of trees. And where the stories went with the land, rather than being tatters of exotic nursery lore or marketed concert culture. Stories so simply told!
In only one place, writing of her at Moongalba, have I dared to echo Oodgeroo's just and determined directness of speech.
My own first memory of Moongalba was of Oodgeroo's 1993 funeral. By chance I was at the Warana Festival in Brisbane; my UQP publishers took me to Straddie with them, to bear witness to this true poet.
My poems book-end with these memories an imagined sketch-history of Amity and Oodgeroo's formation. There are too many omissions for it to be called a biographical poem. I do not mention the two sons, a dancer/writer and an activist; or that notable example of "amity", leading poet Judith Wright, reader for the Jacaranda Press, who recommended publication of We Are Going in 1964, and whose close attention to nature complements Oodgeroo's (see "Gum-Trees Stripping"!). Wright became a close friend, her own partisanship in indigenous issues continuing into her partnership with Nugget Coombes.
The history of Mudjerribah / Stradbroke has been well documented. At the Dunwich newsagency I found three books full of the personal and community histories of residents. But the most evocative book of all is Oodgeroo's Stradbroke Dreamtime, now published with illustrations by Bronwyn Bancroft; vital knowledge of the poet, a vital companion to the poetry.
Judith Catherine Rodriguez AM (born 13 February 1936) is a contemporary Australian poet. Rodriguez was born Judith Catherine Green in Perth and grew up in Brisbane. She graduated from the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts. She then travelled to England, where she received a Master of Arts from Cambridge University in 1965. She has published numerous volumes of poetry, some illustrated by her own woodcuts, edited an anthology and the collected poems of Jennifer Rankin. From 1979 to 1982, she was poetry editor for the literary journal Meanjin, and from 1988 to 1997 she was a poetry editor with the publisher Penguin Australia. The play Poor Johanna, co-written with Robyn Archer, was produced in 1994 and her libretto for Moya Henderson's opera Lindy, about the Azaria Chamberlain disappearance, was performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2002. She is a recipient of the Christopher Brennan Award and taught at La Trobe University (1969–1985) and Deakin University (1998–2003). Her two new books of poetry, Flares by Mark Time Press and The Feather Boy and Other Poems by Puncher and Wattmann are due out this year.