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A mythopoetic reading of Tony Birch’s Ghost River

Always was, always will be

if I gotta stay here, you might as well kill me,

barrel in my mouth, my thoughts on a wall,

buildings burn, oceans rise, empires fall

– Briggs, ‘Purgatory’

 

‘The past is never dead. It is not even past.’

– William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 

What I want to do in this essay is to offer a suggestive and perhaps even a provocative reading of Tony Birch’s Ghost River.

I do so with the expressed interest in trying to spark conversations, at a range of levels, around addressing the difficult subject of intergenerational trauma and the possibilities and practices available for healing. I will do this by offering a reading of the novel that attempts to bring to the surface a range of the complex but identifiable patterns that Birch is working with through the subtle and constantly changing interplay between land (water), history, memory (silence), language and the enduring legacies of collective trauma associated with British colonial violence in South Eastern Australia.

The identification and exposition of these patterns are the way Birch attempts to map what US anthropologist Michael Taussig refers to as a space of death. I contend that the widespread dispossession and attempts at cultural annihilation of the Indigenous peoples of South Eastern Australia that began in 1835 and continues in numerous unabated forms have created ‘a culture of terror’ where ‘torture is endemic’, and that this is the very essence of a space of death.

In Ghost River, Birch writes against this terror, and to do this he employs metaphors, symbols and rhythms – key components of the now much maligned and largely forgotten mythical thinking – to fashion a story whereby storytelling itself becomes a form of medicine. What Birch is doing, I would argue, is re-imagining the role and practices of the shaman-as-writer, so that he can transform the space of death from one being framed by wicked deeds, malignant shame and self-destructive behaviors to one being concerned with reclaiming and reimagining the multitude of connections to the living cosmos both within and without (what is perhaps best described in the coloniser’s language as thetribal soulscape’).

In the first few chapters of Ghost River, we meet and get to know a little of the three main characters of this tale: Sonny, Ren and the Yarra River (Birrarung in Wurundjeri). Sonny and Ren are both around thirteen years of age, and the key protagonists of what is, at one level, a coming-of-age tale set in the inner northern suburbs of Fitzroy/Collingwood in early 1970s Melbourne. From the very first page Sonny wears ‘a fuck you attitude and liked to show it off’. In the ensuing pages we also learn Sonny’s dad is a drunk and violent and largely absent. His mum is long suffering and Irish or of Irish descent and from an early age Sonny is in trouble with the law and he doesn’t mind taking a beating from his dad or fighting off bullies, which is how he first meets Ren. Sonny is a young outlaw and so many of the basic elements of his life subtly reflect that of the now highly mythologised Ned Kelly story. Even Sonny’s name is a lyrical allusion to Ned Kelly as Robert Drewe’s 1991 novel about the outlaw is entitled Our Sunshine. There is also the Paul Kelly and Uncle Bill song of the same name from 2010.

Sonny, like Ned on the early colonial frontier, is an active agent in this novel. He saves Ren from bullies, gets beaten regularly by his father, at thirteen is already working for his keep, has to deal with local gangsters, corrupt coppers and smashes earthmoving equipment that will be used to destroy his beloved river. At the mythic level Sonny is Ned Kelly and as such is the embodiment of the avenger archetype.

In making explicit a link between Sonny and Ned Kelly I want to propose that what links them is their indigeneity. In Ghost River the identities of Sonny and Ren are largely examined through the prism of class and their need to find their way through a complex maze of different languages, cultures and economies which frame the largely working class inner-city Melbourne suburb in the late 1960s. As characters their relationship to their Aboriginality is largely unconscious and left mostly unspoken. It is merely hinted at in their encounters with the marginalised river men and with the Yarra River herself. In creating this fertile yet completely understated relationship, Birch is a master of saying more by saying less.

I want to offer the argument that while Ned Kelly the historical man was Irish or more precisely of Irish descent, Ned Kelly the mythic figure is actually Indigenous. This observation comes from two angles. The first is reflecting on Sydney Nolan’s iconic paintings of Ned Kelly. It was these paintings that popularised and framed the Ned Kelly myth, and to appreciate their importance it is crucial to focus on the visor of Kelly’s mask. When we look into or more precisely through Ned Kelly’s visor, rather than seeing pale skin and blue or green or brown eyes, it is often the land or the sky that is present. Nolan’s Kelly represents a major perceptual shift in that he sees the land that constitutes Australia and its history, not through eyes of the coloniser (or indeed through the eyes of the colonised from other lands as in the historical Ned Kelly), but rather it suggests the land perceiving itself. These paintings and the Ned Kelly myth are still working themselves through the Australian landscape and psyche.

Ned Kelly 1946

The second vital element that reveals the emergence of an Indigenous Ned Kelly myth is the existence of Ned Kelly Dreaming stories associated with both the Yarralin (Victoria River district) and Gurindji (Wave Hill) peoples of North Western Australia. In evoking the notion of Dreaming stories I am at one level pointing to a complex temporal/ontological storytelling formation that lies at the still beating heart of Indigenous cultures in Australia, which frames interactions between people and the land. In the late William Stanner’s words:

The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot fix ‘the Dreaming’ in time, it was, and is, everywhen.

At the same time, and at the level of the political unconscious, by drawing on the notion of the Dreaming in the very language of the victorious coloniser, we are starting to draw back the mask on the still largely unthinkable colonial wound, which is founded upon widespread and in many cases successful attempts at land dispossession, cultural annihilation and physical extermination.

I want to suggest that these still largely unaddressed experiences have led to what psychoanalysts Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok refer to as the ‘entombment of trauma’ within communities. In other words, the trauma of violence and dispossession experienced by First Nations peoples through time can be overwhelming and, having now passed through several generations, can also be largely unspeakable and unthinkable – but not unimaginable, and this is precisely what Birch is attempting to do in Ghost River.

This novel creates the imaginary space for us (especially for those of us who live in or near the city of Melbourne) to start approaching, even if indirectly the painful legacies of colonial violence, cultural annihilation and land theft in the very place where we live and where the violence actually happened.

In their respective travels and research, authors Deborah Rose Bird (Yarralin) and Minoru Hokari (Gurindji) encountered different Indigenous versions of the Ned Kelly legend that have been transformed into Dreaming stories associated with different landscapes. In the stories associated with both these communities, Ned Kelly is taken from the historical dimension and inserted into the mythic realm, to become a creator spirit, present at the everywhen of the Dreaming, and involved in the ongoing creation of the world. That Ned Kelly has been incorporated into a range of different Dreaming stories is acknowledgement that he is the articulation of a living myth, and as such, acts as a largely unacknowledged bridge between worlds. The Ned Kelly myth exists, but what we are largely lacking at this moment are rituals that can make this myth truly cosmological and transformative.

When we first meet Ren he is ‘sitting at the table, with his pencil in hand, drawing a picture of a blackbird he’d seen preening itself on the back roof that morning’.

There is some ambiguity as to who or what exactly is being referred to as the ‘blackbird’. Is it the introduced small blackbird common in the Melbourne region, which is a type of thrush? Or is it the much bigger raven who in Wurundjeri Dreaming stories is called Waa, and is a trickster and a moiety ancestor? What is revealed though is that Ren comes from a much more stable family background than his friend Sonny. He is gentle and a somewhat dreamy character with artistic sensibilities, concerned with learning as much as he can about the sky and the birds and the local river. Even though he is only a child Ren, already shows many signs of being a wounded healer and as such is fascinated by the workings of the collective unconscious.

Evoking this term connects my reading to the later Carl Jung, who reveals that the inner and outer worlds are but mirrors of each other. To reach this point he had to break from the assumptions of a Cartesian-Kantian philosophical framework, which assumes a crisp separation between the human subject and the objective world.

Even though he never directly thinks or talks about it, Ren is acutely aware of the devastation wreaked upon himself, his ancestors and the land by colonisation, and because of this he is intuitively involved in the intergenerational healing process. While he is not necessarily fully articulate about what he is doing, Ren’s interests and activities help both he and Sonny to find and reconnect with the cultural practices and stories of ancestors. In my reading, Ren is the embodiment of the shamanic archetype and is essentially a passive agent in the text.

Ren is also possibly an allusion to John Wren, immortalised in Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory (John West is his name in the novel). Hardy’s Power without Glory is at one level about John Wren and the deep roots of corruption in Melbourne, and at another, it also uncovers many of the layers that constitute the development of class society in Melbourne, and the central role the Yarra River plays in this process.

Hardy makes the point that the Yarra is a signifier of class distinction: north of the Yarra means working class (the area he referred to as Carringbush [Collingwood]), while south equals the ruling class and the establishment. In making explicit the link between Ren and John Wren, I am place more than character. While the class distinctions may not be as apparent now, Ghost River tells the story that both precedes and is the continuation of that presented in Power without Glory.

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Ren and Sonny need each other to survive. They both have vital skill sets that temper and curb each other’s weaknesses and foibles. Alone, their very survival is threatened. What really saves them both though is the spiritual tempering they receive at the dark hands of the Yarra River.

Coming to know and appreciate the river is the way they learn about who they really are, and their growing appreciation of their ‘tribal soul’, which also demands, when they are ready, to address what and who has been stolen, murdered and destroyed. Becoming rooted in place is central to Ren and Sonny’s inner and outer journeys.

When we first meet the Yarra River she is not very appealing: ‘At the bottom of a steep bank below the mill a wide river ran from the hills in the distance and wound its way through the suburbs and inner city to its mouth at the bay. The water was the colour of strong black tea …’

Moreover, she was polluted by the effluent from nearby factories and filled with rotting carcasses. Initially it was Ren who found the river, and spent his time studying and drawing it; he then shares it with Sonny after they became friends. In encountering the river, they start learning vital lessons about who they are.

Their long initiation process, which is largely unconscious, commences. Vital to this learning is that on the banks of the Yarra, they meet some homeless Aboriginal men: Tex, Big Tiny, Tallboy, Cold Can and Doc, who take them under their wings. And whether the characters are conscious of it or not they start the long and involved process of becoming men in a context where the language is not their own. Many of the vital stories have been smashed and the traditional social structure has been largely destroyed, but despite this they are still able to tap into the partly obscured memories of the place in which they live. In other words, the land remembers.

Phonetically Ren’s name also evokes the local indigenous bird, the Superb fairywren. When Ren first meets Tex he makes the point that ‘the wren is a bird I know from another time. And you’re that one.’ Perhaps this alludes to both the time of the Dreaming when creator spirits were making the world, as well as a time pre-invasion, when stories and totems were the glue that bound the human and the natural worlds together into a powerful mythical cosmology. It is obvious that others can spot Ren’s resulting special powers, and his central and growing role in his community.

Superb fairywren

Superb fairywren

With this group of men, Ren and Sonny participate in a practice with a millennia-long history: they sit around a fire telling stories. While not much is consciously remembered of the old ways, they are often hinted at and pointed to as being hidden just below the surface of the nearby flowing waters. Some tales are profane, others are sacred and ‘recited in hushed tones’. To accompany some stories, Cold Can draws beautiful pictures: ‘sometimes as they gathered around the fire, he drew the face of one of the men with a piece of charcoal, or nothing in particular but swirls and lines mapped in the dirt’.

The boys commence their quite elaborate process of initiation or getting to know the Yarra, which in this novel are one and the same thing. The boys start with a relatively easy test – jumping off the pontoon into the river – and while scary, ‘from that day on, the boys carried the river home with them’.

After this event, Ren studies and shares with Sonny a picture of an eagle. I contend that this eagle is actually Bunjil, the creator spirit of South Eastern Australia. With such a reading, the novel is presenting a very out-of-focus and completely understated inquiry as to whether or not one of the main dreaming stories of this region, as well as by implication a form of mythic thinking itself, can be brought back into these lands. It’s a question I think central to the novel.

Graffiti image of Bunjil from Fitzroy St, Fitzroy

Graffiti image of Bunjil from Fitzroy St, Fitzroy

Amid these activities, pretty Della, with her strictly religious family, move into the boys’ street, they at first pay scant attention to this new energy that has entered their lives. Sonny and Ren are somewhat preoccupied with falling back into an ancient pattern or rhythm of relating, which helps them not only to transition into adulthood, but also start comprehending their place in the cosmos.

Visiting Deep Rock, a disused initiation site, they engage in a series of tests associated with ‘the hanging bike’, and in the process get covered in mud and meet a brown snake, mythic symbols of transformation and rebirth. But this is far from the end of their trials and tribulations because it is not only the largely unconscious elements of their own culture or lore that they are being initiated into, but also the violence, hatred and greed of the settler-colonial society in which they exist (what Taussig refers to as the space of death).

After visiting Deep Rock they meet workers who are in the process of organising to destroy parts of the river and construct the Eastern freeway. Both Sonny and Ren, whose identities are now greening and large enough to include the river, want to resist this unthinkable destructiveness, which is symptomatic of the unnamed and unutterable destruction already wreaked upon lands, cultures and bodies. Sonny, true to his avenger archetype, wants to meet fire with fire and won’t stand for this destruction: ‘this is our place. We can’t let them do it,’ he explains. His plan is to confront their wanton activities by any means necessary. Ren’s response is no less incisive, but takes a little longer to gestate and take form.

In the meantime, they undergo yet another trial, this time jumping 65 feet off Phoenix Bridge into the Yarra. Their squaring up to death gets even more real when they discover a very sick Doc, who dies in their presence. At Doc’s funeral on the river bank, the boys are introduced by Tex to the ghost river, who ‘after beating his open palm on his thigh and stomping the ground’, explains:

This is her. And when a body dies on the river, it goes down, down to the ghost river. Waiting. If the spirit of the dead one is true, the ghost river, she holds the body to her heart. If the spirit is no good, she spews it back up.

Following Doc’s death and his meeting the ghost river, Ren finally reveals how he is going to resist the destruction of the river, and by implication that of his people and culture; he draws Bunjil the eagle. This moment is momentous in the novel, and like Jesus’s crucifixion, the moment is marked by thunderous storms and a change in the seasons. Ren embodies the archetype of the shaman and as such is concerned with re-invigorating and reworking the ancient stories to help heal the eviscerated ‘tribal soul’.

In several of the reviews of Ghost River, one of the main criticisms leveled at the novel was the paucity and lack of depth associated with the female characters in the novel. While there may be some truth to this claim at one level, I want to suggest that what largely goes unnoticed in these very same reviews is the incredibly complex representation of the feminine or more precisely the divine feminine in this novel. Della is a young woman who has a major role to play in the unfolding transformations. In Latin, her name suggests a preposition that means ‘of the’ or ‘from the’, and of course the object to which she is related is never directly named. It is possible, and I may well be missing the mark here, that who Della is ‘of’ or ‘from’ is actually the other major creator spirit of this part of Australia, Waa the Raven.

Raven

Waa is a trickster spirit and she is obliquely hinted at in Ren’s initial drawings at the outset of the novel. She may in fact be the architect behind this story and its presentation in this land. As a trickster Waa takes a number of forms: she is Della dealing with her lecherous father; the ‘more broken than virgin’ Mary statue that the boys find along with a ‘keep out’ sign; and the Yarra herself.

The real introduction to the ghost river doesn’t happen through Tex’s words, but rather in the transformative flood scene (an allusion to climate change?) where the now young men encounter and enter the dark, damp womb-like wheel house, emerge from this space to witness the cosmic (but again unnamed) battle between Della and her father, and her very calculated and central role in his eventual drowning.

After these events Della ‘slid up on the bank like a giant eel’ and said ‘The Lord preserves all who love Him, but each of the wicked He will destroy’. Sonny and Ren (as well as the readers) are encountering here the terrifying dark mother archetype. The dark mother goes by different names in different places; Kali in West Bengal, Coatlicue in Central Mexico, Morrigan in Ireland and possibly Waa in South Eastern Australia. By evoking the giant eel in the character of Della, Birch is very carefully marrying both her life-giving capacities (the eel being a major food source for people who lived along the Yarra River for millennia) as well as her ability to destroy or take life.

Image of Kali (The Dark Mother)

Image of Kali (The Dark Mother)

The Morrigan (The Dark Mother, Irish mythology)

The Morrigan (The Dark Mother, Irish mythology)

In encountering the trickster spirit Waa, we are simultaneously meeting the dark mother, and this insight is vitally important especially in the context of trying to heal from intergenerational trauma, or being able to move through and beyond the space of death.

The dark mother reveals herself in this novel for two reasons: the first is because she is the source of stories that are able to contain and work with such powerful creative as well as destructive energies; and second, she is able to access and work with such stories, a level of mythic thinking or more precisely shamanic culture needs to be to reimagined and reinstituted, so that trickster spirits can be properly respected, engaged and understood. When Ren says, ‘Some people believe in religion. Well I believe in stories’, this is possibly the author speaking, who is using storytelling as a way to facilitate healing. Birch, who emerges alive through the space of death, is in Ghost River creating the rhythms and songs to transform himself into a receptacle that allows the stories of place that need to be told, find voice and speak through him.

In other words, what we are actually witnessing through reading Ghost River is the land or more precisely the Yarra River speaking, and we as readers can grow the eyes and ears to be able to understand and appreciate this reality. In bringing into communion the living mythology of Ned Kelly with the largely dormant local creator spirits of Bunjil (the Eagle) and Waa (the Raven), what Birch has done, in a thoroughly understated way, is create the imaginary space and assemble many of the vital elements that could constitute the rebirthing of mythical thinking (in Stanner’s terminology ‘the Dreaming’) in the lands and waterways of South Eastern Australia. The difficulties as well as the possibilities and implications of resurrecting a mythical cosmology in this small pocket of the world, against the desires of capital-fuelled Empire, are quite mind-boggling. Perhaps our survival as a species in this brown dry land is predicated on this endeavor?

Before continuing, it is necessary to address the obvious but as yet unacknowledged history in the room. As a non-Indigenous person perhaps it is not appropriate for me to engage in any way with this discussion or any of its associated dynamics. And without doubt there are many people, Indigenous and not, who believe this to be the case. When it comes to the healing of intergenerational trauma, Indigenous peoples need to own and lead this dynamic. This doesn’t mean there can’t be dialogues with a range of others about useful practices and processes, but it can be argued that the very nature and healing of what I previously referred to as the ‘tribal soul’ necessitates an internal as well as a collective dynamic. What isn’t so clear is whether there are possibilities for building trust across communities emerging out of this dynamic and stepping into this breach.

Which is why the Ned Kelly myth is of vital importance. For not only does this myth give insight into how Dreaming stories can potentially be reworked and re-imagined, but the myth also potentially acts as a powerful bridge that spans the settler/First Nations divide, as well as offering a story in common that perhaps can start to heal the divides within and between communities in these now often depleted lands.

Of course, all of this is taking place in the context of anthropogenic climate change and innumerable threats to being posed by the Anthropocene (or is it the Capitaloscene?). It may seem obvious, but the way we treat the soil, water and air, and the many creatures that inhabit these mediums, is of course deeply informed by how we perceive and engage with First Nations peoples. Addressing climate change demands that we not only take seriously the ongoing Indigenous presence in Australia, but also understand there is much to learn in dialoguing with these very same people.

What is most compelling about Ghost River is that it is able to crack open a wounded space and time, amid the ongoing rupturing and imploding associated with the legacies of colonial violence, to initiate a healing process whereby Dreaming stories of these lands we now call Melbourne and Victoria can find their way back to life. But perhaps even this is not exactly correct as it is not the dreaming stories that severed their links to life, but rather a capital-fuelled Empire, with its tenuous relationship to life, which has bulldozered this continent into ruins, covering these stories with rubble.

If we want to be attentive readers, we need to understand how history frames and informs the present: this insight is the source of our power.

Ghost River is a product of the author jogging amid the ruins, and he shares with us his findings. Birch’s search is clearly much more focused and determined than initially meets the eye. What he is really doing is looking for is a red thread, that can start binding back together the land and stories and bodies, and in this search he doesn’t need to be quite so alone.

 

Bibliography

Abraham, N & Torok, M (1994), The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bird Rose, D (1998), ‘Ned Kelly Died for Our Sins’ from Charlesworth, M, Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, pp: 103–119.

Crutzen, P (2002), ‘Geology of Mankind: The Anthropocene’, Nature, 415, 23.

Hardy, F (1950), Power without Glory, Realist Printing & Publishing Company, Melbourne.

Hokari, M (2001) ‘Cross culturalizing history: Journey to the Gurindji way of historical practice’, Unpublished PhD, Australian National University.

McGrath, A (2012), ‘Australia’s Occluded Voices: Ned Kelly’s History Wars’, from O’Heodha, M & O’Callaghan, J (eds), Narratives of the Occluded Irish Diaspora, Peter Lang, Oxford, pp: 7–36.

Stanner, W (2009), The Dreaming and other essays, Black Inc. Books, Collingwood.

Taussig, M (1984), ‘Culture of Terror – Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Report and the Explanation of Torture’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp: 467–497.

 

 

Lead image: Yarra River (Hawthorne) / Warrick Wynne

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Colm McNaughton is a Walkley Award-winning radio documentary producer. He now teaches literature at Trinity College, Melbourne University.

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Comments

  1. “The difficulties as well as the possibilities and implications of resurrecting a mythical cosmology in this small pocket of the world, against the desires of capital-fuelled Empire, are quite mind-boggling. Perhaps our survival as a species in this brown dry land is predicated on this endeavor?”

    I reckon, if we don’t want to dehydrate and dessicate on a non-physical level. Kinda mindboggling contemplating the chasm between the two worlds. Interesting times, huh.

  2. Quite so, and re the above quotation, I’d suggest (with some temerity), putting the case another way (there is no meaning unless stuff can be said differently), that a loss of indigenous lands (country) and languages (forced to speak pigeon, say) meant / means also a loss of myth, ritual and associated ceremonies, and so too the complex metaphysical / esoteric knowledges embodied in country (land) through dreaming tales. No point living otherwise – hence the subsequent social degradation – when alienated from country, and so too religious revelation housed in the dreaming. We whites might learn a lesson there re our own lack of reverence for land, and the inevitable degradation post white settlement due to drinking from those dry Cartesian wells of knowledge.

  3. Thank you so much for this Colm. Since the publishing industry little understands what’s between the covers of its books and cares even less so long as they sell and can make a buck out of it, any close reading of any text is potentially provocative and I welcome it, especially so if the book is that from an Indigenous voice.
    I’m not so enthusiastic for Ghost River though. Rather than dealing in archetypes as you propose, it seems to advocate an all too familiar masculine stereotype. “You were the best boys. Now be men” says Tex with his dying breath. The worst thing is to be a coward, a word that crops up somewhere in the final pages. “…you got to fight back. Show the river you got courage and is ready to live. She needs to see that. Or she’ll take you.” It is the kind of all or nothing masculinity, suitably premised and skewered on a Manichean dilemma, that I experienced in suburban Brisbane, on a river too, in my Huck Finn days. And am still resisting.
    When Sonny is arguing with an equivocal Ren against bringing Della with them, “The pounding on the stable door got louder and they could hear the sound of a girl’s voice calling for help.” The young red-haired girl is being molested by the Rev Beck. But the boys are preoccupied in argument and with effecting their own escape (from an absent Foy.) They simply walk away from the situation: “Ren took Della’s hand and they followed the beam of light form Sonny’s torch.” It is as if no molestation is taking place. And yet the text says it is. What are we to think? Later it is entirely left to little Della to take vengeance on the Rev Beck and for this she gets described as a slithering giant eel, shedding a second skin, which is both confusing and a touch too misogynistic.
    This is the only book of Tony Birch that I have read.

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