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Dan Disney reviews Natalie Harkin

Natalie Harkin — Dirty Words

 
(Carlton South, VA: Cordite Books, 2015. Paperback, 45pp, AU$20.)
 

Reviewed by Dan Disney

 
Australian poet Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words is a book of historical, ethical, indigenous consciousness; a savvy repository organized as if an archive. Or indictment. Framing each of the poems are quotes from a range of sources, and each text is codified alphabetically: thus we work (harrowingly) from ‘Apology’, ‘Boat People’, and ‘Climate Change’ through to ‘Xenophobia’, ‘Yothu Yindi’, and ‘Zero Tolerance’. This is non-fiction poetry casting light on drolly authorized, antipodean plutocracies, and Harkin’s orchestrations enumerate persisting narratives of (white) entitlements and their profusely dehumanizing subjugations. In his introduction to the collection, poet and scholar Peter Minter references William Burroughs' claim that language is a virus, before asserting that ‘Dirty Words is an inoculation’ (xi); indeed, this is an A-to-Z of writing back, a deterritorializing of the Roman alphabet in which the poet seizes a colonizers’ material to then destabilize and interrupt the message.
 
If, after Mallarmé, the task of the poet is to indeed purify the dialect of the tribe, then Dirty Words actively impurifies the creation myths of a 200 year old colony in which an already-populous land, newly discovered by British occupiers, was declared a Terra Nullius. Of course the land was anything but empty, and Harkin ironizes this fact in the book’s second text – 
 
Oceans storm with First-Fleet waves navigating
imperial-claims                      a float of Tall-Ships convict-
slaves exiled and bound                   antipodean shores
(3)
 
‘Boat People’ is especially acerbic when we understand Australia’s current government won office partially on a promise to ‘Stop the Boats’; advance a little more than 100 years (and two pages), and in ‘Domestic’ the poet shifts gaze toward a phallocratic new nation busily interpellating Aboriginal women – 
 
I got her direct from a camp some miles from here and until she
became used to things I had to tolerate the company            of her mother   and
younger sister for a fortnight [she] was then about 12 years
(Jaykay 1926) With all their drawbacks        however             the gins are more or
less handy          about the place                                though      one     needs        tremendous patience
to work them (Colman 1926)
(7).
 
There is much here to be shocked by, and Harkin cites author Jackie Huggins to underscore one of her themes: ‘The stories of Aboriginal women domestic servants cannot be told enough. They illuminate a deeply-rooted racist facet of Australia’s history’ (6). Foucault illuminates how truth cannot exist outside power which, when spoken, both enshrines and effaces; Harkin deploys a range of quotes across her book so as to showcase the logic of colonization playing into barbaric, outrageous soundbites –
 
Unemployed no-good-Aborigines [could collect welfare cheques from a central location] … and when they had gravitated there I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future and that would solve the [Aboriginal] problem. (8)
 
Stunningly, this statement was made (by mining magnate, the late Lang Hancock) not in the far reaches of a colonized past, but in 1983. Harkin knows only too well that ‘words/ like lives/ have histories/ actions/ like knives/ cut-deep’ (23), and she speaks from a place where a dispossessed people are regarded as merely a problem to be fascistically and eugenically made to disappear. Dirty Words from whom, one wonders? 
 
Indeed, the poet is illustrating just how pungently rotten are those sensibilities suffused with a ‘Team-Australia-nationalism’ (9), and Harkin’s war cry calls for reconnections to place in which traditions have been severed by dully expedient rhetoric issuing forth from the Lang Hancocks et al of Australia –
 
Justice to all elders and ancestors                enslaved […]
Justice for all the missing women […]
Justice for the Samaqan Water-Walkers […]
Justice for our brothers stalked        stabbed                      one Adelaide night […]
Justice for our Ngarrindjeri-warrior                musician                     so gentle […]
Justice for asylum-seeker children                locked up in detention
(14-15)
 
The agenda never focuses toward retribution though, and this consciousness raising is to remain egalitarian, provocative, always-hopeful –
 
What would it take            to listen to the Traditional Owners      to     learn     from     the      lessons
of the land      to respect voices that refuse to be      brought       buried sold? (43)
 
In her preface, the poet tells readers that this book is ‘a reminder that what is (re)produced and (re)presented for general consumption, by institutions of power, is often steeped in myth-making and persistent colonial ideology’ (ix). Dirty Words is a prodigious and fearless document of remembrance and remonstrance, a ‘restless offering’ (ix) that refuses to accept a regime’s truths – 
 
Dear Profiteering-Capitalist-Economy with your pursuit of progress and no-limits to growth you may try to wipe us from your accumulation-by-dispossession-slate but we will always be here to bear witness … to your land-grabs for more access to finite-natural-resources      more mines and marinas     more      cultural-site      desecration      
            digging up more bones      offering more techno-fix-solutions        to        
counter more pollution        more privatization      more      excess      more consumption       more waste more      
More      MORE!
(17)
 
In his Areopagitica, Milton makes argument toward supporting the right to freedom of speech, asking ‘who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ In Dirty Words, Harkin inscribes the Antipodes as both literally and etymologically ‘wrong-footed’, and challenges us to walk away collectively from drearly misanthropic past narratives, toward an encounter with a future Australian place where ‘sacred-truths and beliefs/ can be valued-respected-honoured/ outside white-western-patriarchal frameworks’ (29). This is a book by which to unlearn constructed stories, a book to break the repetition compulsions of history-as-misrepresentation.
7 July 2015