You ever seen Alison perform? The first time I saw her hold poetic space I was enthralled. So much popular performance poetry relies on the loud, the fast, and the dramatic to capture attention and claim space. Yet Alison lingers. Whispers into the space. Claims your attention for herself. And pauses – the longest pause you’ve ever heard on a stage. So long it makes your eyes dart to the side uncomfortably. Was that a question? No, a suggestion? Do I clap now? Periphery fades as you tune into the carefully pronounced poetry and when she looks out into the crowd mid-pause you swear she’s looking straight at you. So when she turns back to the page you let out a small sigh of relief and lean in.
You ever read Alison’s poetry? It’s a mouthful, a mindful, a tongue-twister of brain matter and a torrent of controlled emotion. Every word is an intentional, heavy-footed, don’t-you-forget-me. I’ve spent half an hour reading the one poem, sitting with every word and staring out of a window to unravel its form and message. Poems become less poetic, more puzzle, holding a labyrinth of meaning and knowledge.
You read Blakwork yet? Alison’s latest publication is an amalgamation of her identity, her mastery of poetic form, her academic prowess and her story telling finesse. Queer, Indigenous, Harvard Law graduate. If fully appreciating one poem took me half an hour, working through the book took me weeks. This isn’t any old regular collection of poetry. This is the mind map of someone looking to make sense of the world. And just as making sense of the world makes you wanna stand on your head, Alison has you sitting on a tram at 8.30am, stuck in peak-hour traffic and spinning the book around to read poems printed on different angles. As though making sense of colonialism and your position in it wasn’t dizzying enough.
Football player hunky blak
Mermaid, bearded, chunky blak
Flaming blak, complaining blak
Got afro got a mullet blak
Throughout Blakwork Alison explores conceptualisations of Aboriginality. When the coloniser is holding the paintbrush, we are often painted in two frames. We become either the impoverished bludger or the noble savage – one leg balanced, standing on top of a hill, waiting to dish out cultural knowledge to the next white maiden to waltz on by. In ‘bpm 100’, Alison complicates and fleshes out the concept of Aboriginality through a light-hearted and repetitious rhythm, literally listing the many ways to be blak. I found myself chuckling along, placing faces of family and friends to these characters she conjures in just a few words. And I was hit hard when I reached confronting lines that I also had names and faces for: “Compromised and trembling blak / All those loved and missed her blak.”
This structure of subtle disruption is a technique implemented consistently throughout Blakwork. Alison lures you in with deep description, humour and playfulness but never lets you forget the harsh underlying reality of Indigenous displacement and labour. ‘bpm 100’’s final stanza closes on one of the most divisive and aggressive signifiers the colony placed on Aboriginality: skin colour. Alison beautifully folds the many colours of Aboriginality into the characters and lives she has listed, drawing a relationship between the people and the lands that they come from. Challenging the oppressive notions of blood quantum, Alison envelopes all shades of blakness and all blak lives into blakness.
Skin like coolin’ night sky black
Skin like earth in flight dust blak
Skin like firecourse now blak
Skin like glare off noon clouds blak
Skin like. Blak, skin like. Blak
Alison’s unique intersection of identity, poetic skills and legal knowledge are continually translated through her creative practice. Some of her most unique poems are ‘exhibit tab’, ‘the skeleton of the common law’ and ‘of the’, made up of the forty-nine most common three-word phrases in the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu, the case of Mabo v Queensland and the case of Trevorrow v State of South Australia respectively. These high-profile cases concern the lives and rights of all Aboriginal people and the stakes are high. There is a collective intake of breath among Aboriginal people when a case discussing the claims or fate of one of us will mould the future of all of us. The mainstream media’s coverage of these cases and the colony’s general response to these injustices is cold, distanced and often malicious. At the core of these cases is the reality that sits with all Aboriginal people: that settler colonialism is founded on the eradication of Aboriginal bodies.
These cases are a drop in the ocean of Australia’s ongoing genocidal agenda and to engage with this knowledge as an Aboriginal person is so deeply agonising and maddening it can often leave me feeling mentally isolated and emotionally desensitised. Creating poetry out of the State’s cold, lifeless terminology through a ranking system makes order out of the chaos of colonial law. It turns the structure of the language back on itself and gives it the raw numbness that I feel when reading about another Aboriginal death in custody, another mine being built on our stolen lands or the continued removal of Aboriginal children. Alison curves the seemingly unrelated roads of legal methodology and poetic construction, bringing them into intersection. And from these crossroads, she builds poetry that expresses the colonial echo chamber that all Aboriginal lives are locked in – cold, overexposed and at the centre of an emotional whirlwind.
Ought to have
Western Australia police
Class Constable George
Through his counsel
The varied themes of Blakwork are hard hitting, and as an Indigenous reader, often highly emotional. Deaths in custody, displacement, language reclamation, moving through country and being connected to lands that we often aren’t afforded the ability to access in the ways we need. Throughout the book I was nodding my head in agreement, shaking my curls in shared frustration and sometimes just resting my head on a cafe table top in a moment of sadness or mourning. Then, just as I was certain I had peaked every possible emotional wave, Alison slips in arguably the most vulnerable fantasy that I imagine every Indigenous person entertains. An alternative reality, ‘The Centre’ speaks to the heart of Indigenous longing. What would it be like if the coloniser had never arrived? If we had full autonomy and land? Freedom and space to philosophise and heal?
In ‘The Centre’, the reader is drawn into a not-too-different colonised future, a parallel world, where the full effects of climate change are in motion, the State exerts an oppressive and belittling relationship with Aboriginal peoples and virtual reality becomes a place that stereotypes are simultaneously affirmed and subverted. The Centre starts off as an Aboriginal-owned-and-run initiative, quickly becoming the government’s solution to Aboriginal imprisonment and protectionism where ‘the natives could be, and be gone’, with some mob ‘logging in’ voluntarily and others forced there against their will. Yet The Centre is at the same time free from ‘mission managers’, giving space and freedom for mob to philosophise, create art and technologies, replace English with Gumbaynggirr and live virtual lives within the full capacity of their virtual sovereignty.
I heard murmurs, good and bad. The Centre was a place of contradictions. It brutalised and sustained everything.
Just as our physical countries were colonised, so too is The Centre. Just as our lands were used to imprison us and make us invisible, so too is the virtual. And just as there are modes of resistance within the literal colonial ‘meatlands’ that we live and breathe in, so too is there agency within ‘the cloud’. Even though the platform is still susceptible to colonial control, the distance and time afforded from the coloniser allows for self-governance and cultural healing. However, there is a limit to what the virtual world can provide and the platform crashes as mob prepare to return. Even within a virtual utopian mission the underlying element of our freedom is absent. There is no substitute for our sovereign countries.
I feel as though ‘The Centre’ is a futuristic response to the themes expressed throughout Blakwork. Poems and short pieces of memoir concerning deaths in custody, generational displacement and sovereign land rights had prepared me for a conceptualisation of the future and the role these themes might play in our lives. ‘The Centre’ speaks to a deep, ever-churning longing that sits in the pit of my being. A longing for freedom from colonial control. An opportunity for Aboriginal-led healing and empowerment and an opportunity to exert the full extent of our sovereignty. When these elements are aligned, we are able to return in full force and claim back what is rightfully ours.
On reflection, the title and theme of Blakwork, centred as it is on labour, essentially foreshadows the work that you as a reader will have to do. Alison questions notions of Aboriginality and her own positioning in its definition while drawing you in to question your own locale within the colonial discourse. She brings her skillset of academia and poetic creativity into intersection and challenges colonial law and its isolating use of language bringing us into its cold centre. Blakwork also brings into question Indigenous futurity and our ongoing relationship with the colonial state. You will be challenged. The channels in which you put your energy will be challenged. Your understanding of the past, present and future will be challenged. Alison’s got the goods and she’s gonna make you work bloody hard to earn them.
Laniyuk was born of a French mother and a Larrakia, Kungarrakan and Gurindji father. Her poetry and short memoir often reflect the intersectionality of her cross cultural and queer identity. She was fortunate enough to contribute to the book Colouring the Rainbow: Blak Queer and Trans Perspectives as well as winning the Indigenous residency for Canberra's Noted Writers Festival 2017. Laniyuk received Overland’s Writers Residency for 2018 as well as being shortlisted for Overland’s 2018 Nakata-Brophy poetry prize.