Samuel Cox reviews Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty
Reviewed by SAMUEL COX
Despite having been named the ‘poet laureate’ of Aboriginal literature by author Alexis Wright and the ‘greatest living poet in Australia’ by poet John Kinsella, Lionel Fogarty’s poetry, previously published by small independent presses, has remained both critically and popularly underappreciated. I count myself as a relative newcomer to Fogarty’s work, but with the weight of his body of work growing, the publication of his fourteenth collection, Harvest Lingo by Giramondo, presents the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with Fogarty’s fiery and yet sophisticated poetics. As Fogarty reminds us in this collection, being a poet, let alone a black protest poet in Australia, is bloody ‘Hard Work’ (4). However, for those readers who are ready to roll up their sleeves, this collection offers a rich harvest indeed: lingo that unearths a sense of global solidarity through transit across cultural and linguistic boundaries, disrupting underlying assumptions that form the solid ground of the English language in the process.
Lionel Fogarty is a Yugambeh man from South Western Queensland who, since publishing his first collection in 1980, has built up a formidable body of work. His longstanding commitment to poetry is deeply intertwined with his experiences as an Indigenous rights activist, which led Fogarty to arrive at the realisation that poetic understanding must precede (and enable) politics. Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is divided into four sections and taking a cursory look across the poems in this work, the reader will recognise the Indigenous fight for land and rights in Australia as a common theme. However, what makes this collection especially distinctive is the geographic reach of Fogarty’s work, most strikingly in Section Two’s ‘India Poems,’ but also apparent in poems such as ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ ‘Save Our Inland Sea G20,’ ‘By Our Memories Zapata.’ Fogarty looks out onto the world, often to inevitably look back upon Australia, finding common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, revolutionary spirit and with those who Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano famously referred to as ‘Los Nadies’ (The Nobodies): the poor and the oppressed of the world. Underlying Fogarty’s Harvest Lingo is a rich lingua franca of experience and history that has slipped through the cracks of official records.
The collection opens strongly, with the second poem ‘Hands Bleeding,’ allusively grabbing the attention. On the back of this edition, Fogarty declares that he seeks to use English ‘as a tool,’ and this poem reminds the reader of the complexities of this undertaking. Fogarty self-reflexively writes of the ‘protest poet’ (4) struggling with his task. This ‘protest poet’ must labour in the open fields of language, even as his very tools and hands – calloused, we must assume, by the difficulty of the task – drip with blood. Fogarty writes, ‘massacre the thoughts of murderers’ before concluding, ‘Be a Poet: Fucking Hard Work’ (4). This final line not only resonates with Fogarty’s present personal precarity (https://www.gofundme.com/f/donate-to-support-lionel-fogarty), but undoubtedly refers to the protest poet’s task of grappling with politics, history and that double-edged tool (the English language itself), which finds itself implicated in the very thoughts he seeks to fight.
Patrick White once spoke of struggling with the rocks and sticks of words to describe the struggle to match the English language to the Australian environment. For an Indigenous writer, this difficulty is doubled by the need to fight against oppression in the very language of the oppressor, with poetics – the question of how we represent – the natural and arguably the most fundamental battleground. Fogarty labours, hands bloody, at his task – ‘Fucking Hard Work’ – but it is not simply the author who toils; Fogarty puts his reader to work, defamiliarising the working tools that create that seemingly stable ground of the English language, disrupting the established roots and spreading new tendrils, only to enlist the resulting harvest in the fight. Familiar words combine in unusual ways, as language takes on an opacity that makes the familiar terrain of English appear suddenly a foreign land.
The ‘fields’ Fogarty is tending might have deep resonances with the history of colonial oppression, but they are conceptually antagonistic to that heritage. He makes this clear in the final poem of Section One, ‘Modern Canvas Boats Comfort Who Cares’:
This world is not homeland
The earth is a homeland …
Seasons are the timeless fields
Set them to write speak sing the struggles
Fogarty seems to suggest that this world, in its current form, shaped by Western modernity through colonialism (often mediated through the English language), offers a false home. The earth, which is in many senses has become merely another of the oppressed, is truly home and this collection suggests that it is not only the Indigenous people of Australia but the native and exploited people of the world who possess the knowledge to ‘write speak sing’ its song.
However, the English Language is not merely a tool of oppression; its spread across the globe has led to creolisation and the development of many keys and registers, not least, the Aboriginal English within which Fogarty has been said to operate. Tyson Yunkaporta has noted that English was a trading language – a conduit to other places and lingo – and Fogarty retraces some of these routes: through dirty back streets and tea fields of the subcontinent; over the Tasman and out into the Pacific; across to the revolutionary plantations of Central America, even as the roots of his poetry are grounded in those who ‘write speak sing the struggles.’ Inverting many of the dominant associations and viewpoints of one who might travel through these regions using the English language, Fogarty finds common cause in Trans-Indigeneity, those who are native, and solidarity with the poor underbelly of society in all places. There is a sense across this collection that these are the places where the fight (for land and rights), human life (intertwined with the earth), and even language itself truly flourishes, yielding lingo ripe for the harvest.
‘Ideal Crowded Streets’ from Fogarty’s India poems catches the many moods and sheer dynamism of India’s street life; however, his authentic sense of identification with the underclass of Indian society speaks to a common cause that elevates his work beyond what we might deem ‘touristic.’ From this place of authenticity, there is a rich cross-pollination of lingo and resultant ideas. ‘Dalit Lets Fees Histories’ (22) references ‘Dalit’ identities and the oppression that has subjugated those previously known in India as ‘untouchables’. Fogarty uses wordplay and the fertile shifting ground between languages to great effect. The poem continues with ‘Coffee pays fees, tea rewriting history’ (22), drawing on two colonial ‘harvest’ crops, before Fogarty plays on the presence of the abbreviation ‘lit’ for literature in ‘Dalit’, writing, ‘Lit area coming century / Dalit must light the writers / Where multilingual arise powers must’ (22). Fogarty appears to suggest that in this century, it is the Dalit – the broken and scattered in society – where stories will flourish. His final sentence shows how his disruption of conventional sentence structures is not merely a technique of defamiliarisation, as I have highlighted, but is a tool to undermine the emphasis and meaning of words. A conventional construction of this sentence might read, ‘Where multilingual powers must arise’; in Fogarty’s creation, instead of the emphasis falling on ‘powers,’ which evokes the nation-state and geopolitics, it centres on ‘multilingual,’ altering the hermeneutic yield.
Such techniques are evident in the excellent and expansive poem that dominates Section Three, ‘Aloha for Aotearoa,’ where Fogarty utilises the homophonetic similarities between ‘Murri’ and ‘Maori’ (39) to poetically and humorously entwine the two; this is a fraternal and sororal relationship based on the shared groundwork of Trans-(Tasman-)Indigeneity. Native is a term Fogarty uses throughout the collection, and like so many English terms it carries with it colonial baggage, but Fogarty imbibes it with fresh meaning when he writes, ‘… Maori brother and sister are native wise bright’ (43).
‘Aloha for Aotearoa’ references 1840 as the year of The Treaty of Waitangi, but this date is also roughly approximate to when Europeans first entered Yugambeh lands, a connection Fogarty appears to draw upon in Section Four’s ‘MINYUGAI (WHEN) BUD’HERA.’ Seemingly asking ‘When Good’ (78) the poem begins:
1840 IS NO DIFFERENT
BAD BLOOD BREW
On one hand, the poem confronts the endurance of racialised ideas and structures in society, a reminder, as the collection opened, that Fogarty’s poetics is gritty and even bloody work; on the other hand, it draws upon the global connections he has mustered across this collection. Fogarty alludes to these connections through the modern technological language of networks, presenting a ‘bite-sized’ ‘international interface’ of ‘modules’, and intertwining them with ‘warrior’ encounters and strategies (78).
Fogarty’s final poem, ‘By Our Memories Zapata,’ expands this interface to include the iconic Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a people’s revolution centred on land rights and agrarian reform, based on the premise that the land belongs to the tiller. Making common cause, Fogarty declares ‘We are these Mexican Australian’ (84), connecting the year of Zapata’s birth, 1879, with August 2018, a month in which far-right politics made an obvious resurgence as One Nation Senator Fraser Anning advocated for the return of the White Australia policy in parliament. In response the poem, and indeed the collection, concludes defiantly:
… rasping flags causes we’ll
Sone your ideas down.
Non poets never revolutionary
Cultivating his poetics through outrage at enduring colonial and societal oppression and a deep sense of relation to the earth, Fogarty has his hands on the tiller: the resulting yield is one that lingers and continues to grow, in the mind of this reviewer at least, long after the initial harvest.
SAMUEL COX is a PhD candidate and researcher of Australian literature at the University of Adelaide. His work has been published in The Saltbush Review, Westerly, JASAL, ALS, Motifs, SWAMP and selected for Raining Poetry in Adelaide. He won ASAL’s A.D. Hope Prize in 2022.