Ben Hession reviews Whisper Songs by Tony Birch

Whisper Songs

by Tony Birch


ISBN 9780702263279

Reviewed by BEN HESSION

Tony Birch is a Naarm (Melbourne) based writer, who is probably better known for his prose, including his short story collections and novels, of which, The White Girl, won the Indigenous Writers’ Prize of the 2020 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. He was also the winner of the Patrick White Award back in 2017. Whisper Songs is Birch’s second volume of poetry and comes five years after Broken Teeth. Much of Whisper Songs was written during last year’s COVID -19 related lockdowns and may be seen as a meditation on his Aboriginal identity. However, in Whisper Songs, the reader is more than a mere spectator of the poet’s autobiography and revelation. Rather, Birch invites us to share something of a largely personal journey, exploring a sense of heritage and connection to Country.

Throughout Whisper Songs, Birch creates narratives that are underwritten, yet offer a vivid sense of a time and place which are traced towards their meaning and impact. As we see in ‘Dragster’, and the masculine trials of youth: 

red bicycles ring in tandem

slalom empty streets

chrome                             on morning sunlight

tyres                                 on crumbling bitumen

floating                             on air

we rode the world together

fearless 501s barefoot 

no shirts no hands


reckless                            bodies battling

we were                            born to pain

Similarly, in ‘How Water Works’ the movement of water between the macrocosm and microcosm appears as an essential life-force:

bowl of arctic water
moving slowly south
sleeping ebbing rising
upwelling loops of life
seconds     centimetres
patience slowly spirit
beauty and humility

shape shift onward
through air bodies
entwined with other waters
in plants in soil in Country

The collection is divided into three sections – Blood, Skin and Water – which are stages of a lateral exploration of something of what Lyn McCredden describes as a ‘locatedness in poetry’ (McCredden 3). In Blood, Birch deals with family connections with much of these educed through a “meat on the bones” (Birch, 267) social history, which, as Carolyn Masel and Matthew Ryan note, with respect to Birch’s short story, ‘Shadowboxing’, provides ‘the map-like evocation of place and the idea of an alternative ‘obscured’ history running through that place’ (Masel, Ryan 5). But rather than use the fictive elaboration of a short story to access the “individual experiences of marginalisation” (Masel, Ryan 5), Birch uses recollection and emotional attachment. This, at times, is elegiac, as we see in ‘Leaving’, with its fusion of day, the suburban place and personal relations: 

a moment of light,
a painted face of beauty
glimpsed in Saturday shop window
forever waiting our return

blood ties on every street corner
aunties uncles cousins
grandparents haunted shades
of black on white all gone   (25-26)

Similarly, we see in the poem, ‘Little Man’, place, time and connection:

searched for you at night
beyond the creaking gate
old haunts street corners
back lanes dressed in rain
big sky darkness

spoke soft words
calling your name
echoes to glimpsed light
fell with a dying moon
our whispered songs for you  


In this poem, as well as in ‘Dragster’ and others in the collection narratives are not filled out, but are kept allusive with the bonds with family members being as deep as their stories are implicit. This may prove a little difficult to follow, at least initially; though, identity is often about piecing together the past, and the past with the present while our bonds with others are carried within us, unseen. In ‘Blood’, Birch opens us to a small-letter sense of familiarity. In ‘Fading Light’, this allows us feel the sense of loss for the poet’s grandfather: 

my mother a girl of twelve
found his soulless body
slumped across the bathtub
he left her no story
and the coroner gave little away:

              well-built man
             aged forty-seven
             came home from work
             took carving knife
             cut his throat

Blood is symbolic as an elemental part of Birch’s Aboriginal lineage. Its loss, as seen in this poem, or potential for loss, as seen elsewhere, therefore, is emblematic of a disruption that is shown to be violent and self destructive. Importantly, what remains is not silence, but the cold language of the State, and, particularly in Trouble, Trouble, Trouble: Probation File 29/1957′, the colonizing apparatus. Here is the choice is made between the blood associated with internalized violence or the affirmation of identity and the resistance to colonization: 

the boy himself becomes that which he fears
violence courses his veins and therefore –
therefore he must become the protected one
by us for us and himself and for the country
this the only Nation girt by sea

Blood is thus political as it is personal. It provides that locatedness, which, as McCredden says, ‘is able to speak with earthy, experiential and historical authority, and to offer alternatives to the often too readily universalising, national and global discourses.’ (McCredden 3) And, as demonstrated in the poem Isobel, written for the poet’s granddaughter, the bloodline carries hope and strength for the future:

beautifully stubborn
four years and rising
deep frown eyes fierce
limbs of courage
a girl holding ground
bone and memory
of women reaching back
meeting deep time then
cartwheeling forward
armour for her courage

            she is the circle we gather

 With blood, Birch establishes a personal sense of locatedness and identity.  Skin, we see, then explores the external definitions of these parameters. The section opens with ‘The Eight Truths of Khan’, wherein Birch’s Punjabi ancestor, must affirm his humanity against the racist formalities of the White Australia Policy, which restrict the movements of people of colour.

‘I agreed that yes, I was fortunate to be allowed to reside
in such a fair prosperous Nation. That evening I again
sat with my wife & child, I again bathed & my wife &
I shared the same bed.’ (33)

In this poem, Birch uses parody as a means of emphasising the absurdity of the restrictions imposed upon his ancestor, as well as the casual and banal nature of the racism: 

applicant Khan should be seen, physically,
& compared to image held of him
by Customs, in grey metal filing cabinet
(alongside the oven) in staff kitchen (36)

Here, and elsewhere in Skin, Birch interrogates history by mimicking the language of institutional racism, recontextualising it, thus denying any erstwhile pretences towards “civilized” or legal neutrality. We see in ‘Forbearer’, the subject’s humanity is set against the dry inventory of attributes that routinely deny it. Again, Birch puts flesh back onto history. In the subsequent poem, ‘A Matter of Lives’, (where the title, itself, alludes to Black Lives Matter), this idea is given a more contemporary setting, with powerful effect, with a reference to the situation concerning Tanya Day and her death in police custody. Here, her humanity is also set against the cynical machinations of mainstream media:

a black woman asleep on a train
is no news is good news
until the day arrives
and she becomes
a fact of death
a number

Throughout Skin, Birch demonstrates the specialised use of language as an instrument of power for white people over black or brown, who have thus been forced to populate the feared and denigrated ‘Other’. The poem, ‘Razor-wire Nation’, shows this intentioned positioning through a language reserved for an enemy belligerent:

while love is an empty box
we busily tend the cages

gun-turret warriors
for a razor-wire nation  (50)

Conversely, skin and colour as a self-signifier of collective identity allows its assertion as a form of strength and power, against a world “slumbering at home”, as seen in ‘Waiting for a Train with Thelma Plum’:

we slouch beaten
except for a Girl in Blak
kiss of life in black boots
black jeans and hoodie
black/red/yellow flag on her back
headphones soon to pounce

she moves raises an arm
fist clenched ‘Hey!… Hey!’ –
Fuck that                                 (45)

The poem, ‘Tunnerminnerwait’, closes the Skin section. Here, identity is signified through the white skin of the coloniser’s language.  The inherent sense of identity, as elsewhere seen in Skin, is confronted by colonial laws, naming and presumptions. Through capital punishment, these attempt an absolute control with the overbearing threat to one’s own body, one’s own life. Against these, an ineffable, physical connection to Country provides resistance.

his name was Waterbird
and on the morning of
execution he announced

I have three heads

one for your noose
one for my grave
one for my country   (55)

The condemned bears insight, dignity and intransigence. These qualities permeate the underlying premise of ‘Whisper Songs’. In this collection, as blood courses throughout the body, so water does the land, each metaphorically reflecting the other. As Birch writes in ‘Birrarung Billabong’

Our hair was long and curled and magical, our eyes the
richest brown, our skin carried water, our water carried skin.
The sounds of the river rushing at the falls shared a pulse.  (66)

For Birch water is a vital element of the visceral. It becomes, as we see in ‘Desecrate’ – in spite of urbanisation and canalisation: ‘sacred blood of Country/ running with a song’ (76). Water alludes to life and locatedness at its most vivid. As an integral part of Country, it shares a sense of the maternal. In ‘Beneath the Bridge’, concerning the Westgate Bridge collapse, the tenderness is poignant and profound:

when the monster span thundered
across the west the bridge gave way
thirty-five workers came falling
and the Birrarung lay waiting
to gather the dead together 

she gave their souls a home
comforted fear and sadness
and returned battered bodies
to riverbank mourners clasping
soft hands of fatherless children    (74-75)

The essentially feminine nature of Country is rendered once again, in ‘Black Ophelia’:

deny the lord
the holy word
deny the gun

the wire and hoe
caste and colour theft
of ground of bodies

now be and be
with drifting river
with spirit water     (63)

The poem’s title alludes to Ophelia, the character in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Unlike Shakespeare’s character, though, black Ophelia does not drown herself, but rather as an individual becomes sublimated with the river. She asserts an autochthonous presence, and an undeniable sovereignty over the land – one that is not negotiable.


to Black Ophelia
shimmering within
a sheet of glass 

open lips rising breasts
she sounds – always was
always will be…

A similar transcendence is seen in the final poem of the collection, ‘The Great Flood of 1971′. Here water overwhelms the landscape, and in turn demonstrates the inherent power of Country. Given the negative impact of organized religion, as noted in the poem ‘Sacred Heart’, the flood offers a chance of a genuine spiritual connection, with a kind of baptism in its own right, but where one becomes unified with nature’s vitality or elan:

surface gasping in a deluge
lightning tearing holes in sky
this river of rising life

            flood me  

In Whisper Songs, Birch moves beyond ordinarily compassed notions of authenticity, as something that is something self-consciously existential. Birch brings history and Country together in a journey to the soul. It is a journey of pain, poignancy, hope and sometimes humour. Birch’s abilities as a writer adeptly convey the songs whispered along the way. This is the gig. It is time for us to sit and listen.


McCredden, Lyn. ‘The Locatedness of Poetry’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 11.6 (2009).
Birch, Tony. ‘The Trouble With History’, Australian History Now, Eds. Clark, Anna and Ashton, Paul), New South Publishing, University of New South Wales Press, UNSW (2013).
Masel, Carolyn and Ryan, Matthew. ‘Place, History and Story: Tony Birch and the Yarra River’, Australian Literary Studies 31.2 (2016).
‘Tony Birch’s “Whisper Songs”’. Spoken Word, 3CR, broadcast on 1 July 2021, Naarm (Melbourne).


BEN HESSION is a Wollongong-based writer. His poetry has been published in Eureka StreetInternational Chinese Language ForumCordite, and Can I Tell You A Secret?, the Don Bank Live Poets anthology. Ben’s poem, ‘A Song of Numbers’, was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry …