A poetry of justice: on Lionel Fogarty

I am often asked why I consider Lionel Fogarty the ‘greatest living poet in Australia’, and his latest collection, Harvest Lingothat I reviewed earlier this year for the Saturday Paper—gives me plenty to back up this claim.

Really, however, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘greatest’ anything, and hierarchies inevitably create oppressions, the very thing Fogarty writes against.

Rhetorical flourishes aside, I do think Fogarty’s is a unique and essential poetic voice in ‘world’ poetry, that has determinedly pushed change in ‘Australian poetry’, and maybe most relevantly, has disrupted both English usage in Australia, and even taken this use well beyond hybridity into a full-blown reclaiming of the space of meaning of words that is anti-colonial, decolonising and, actually, revolutionary. He has contested the ‘Western imagination’ and helped contribute to an alternative, anti-literary imagining.

The word ‘revolutionary’ is quite specific in Fogarty’s lexicon, as it fuses rapid dynamic change and justice for his own people, but also impels world revolution for oppressed peoples. The ‘local’ is the essence of his writing—come out of his own country, propelled through his Murri voicing and community—but in Harvest Lingo in particular, he reaches out to a world Indigenous social revolution that upturns the rich, refutes class oppression, and undoes colonial power structures. This is a book of pluralities and not ‘monos’ (not mono power, not mono agriculture, and no mono thinking).

I agree with Fogarty’s aims but, as a pacifist, I will inevitably disagree with aspects of his warrior purpose and even vision. In speaking his own lingo, he is part of community, but he is also refuting the categorisations of his poetic speech within a colonising linguistics, and also reaching out to all other local and immediate speeches around the world. He is participating in earth-communities (not ‘world’) in search for a plurality of justice. He addresses wrongs and hypocrisies of history by de-historicising and also retelling history with regard to ‘facts’ but also the very language with which it is conveyed in different contexts.

‘Warrior’ is a very specific identification in Fogarty’s work and life. It is something complicated by gender, and complicated by access to knowledge, or the colonial suppression of access to tribal knowledge. Part of Fogarty’s purpose in writing poetry is to preserve knowledge, but also to project knowledge into an activist sphere in which the oral-written binary is broken down and his poems enlist supporters to enact redresses of wrongs, and to activate inherent rights. It is a remarkable achievement as a poet—to actually impress poetic language with social and spiritual purpose so it becomes more than a ‘tool’—it becomes another way of expressing wrongs and declaring rights. It becomes activism.

Harvest Lingo is divided into four parts, with each doing very different things rhetorically and anti-lyrically, but with strong overlap. One of the driving forces behind his prosody is allowing the line to be the measure of the poetic gesture, and not the stanza. Lines pulse in varying lengths and syntax compiles as much as ‘lists’ of words themselves. It’s a radical orthography that compels a poem to speak, to utter, through juxtapositions and proximities of expression, rather than letting the shape of a poem become a mere receptacle for sensibilities. A poem seems a living, pulsing active space for Fogarty, not a curatorial object.

The ‘set up’ of the book is such that we are immediately led into a very personal zone of self-critique and self-questioning in a way that is quite different from other Fogarty books. How and why he became a poet, and what the implications of being ‘a poet’ are. There are poems of sublimated and even displaced love, and also tension over the role of ‘lovers’ (throughout), but all comes back to an obligation to people and cause in the end. There are some frankly beautiful lines in Harvest Lingo that strip ‘nature poetry’ bare, often juxtaposed with lines about settler rapacity: ‘Moths that gave death to the butterfly assembled mankind.’ (‘Sense of Elation, Tranquillity’)

The second section of the book de-centres poems around visiting India via a social contesting of the rich, but also the ‘literary’ rich. There is a strong empathy for Dalit oppression and poverty, with an attendant celebration of resilience and resistance, and there’s almost a fusion of empathies in the search for spiritual solicitude and certainty. These are not poems of a tourist, but poems of an activist respecting difference and searching for commonality. They are complex poems of observation and partial involvement which ultimately ask questions of the self as much as they scrutinise social and cultural conditions, while always attempting to understand and respect the ‘social’ within a revolutionary matrix.

To fully appreciate the extent of Fogarty’s efforts to make a ‘worldview’ of revolutionary activism, the first poem of the third section might almost be a ‘bridging’ ars poetica via an aural ‘conflation’ of ‘Murri’ and ‘Maori’, which is literally deconstructed and then brought into dialogue. ‘Aloha For Aotearoa’ is one of Fogarty’s most resonant poems and starts with analysing personal prejudice (‘disagreement of a racial think’ … ‘I said to one of them you brown people hey;/And they all jump up and said/ we are black people and Aboriginal like you’) originating in a fight as a young person, to an intense empathising and also correlating of colonial resistance. Different dynamics of treaty-manipulations (as the conflict persists) that finds commonality in spirituality and purpose, that aligns blackness against racist and oppressive whiteness. Fogarty’s wry, dry and cutting sense of humour will cause distress to some when they read lines like: ‘So Maori brothers, you are warriors even today,/ well come over here and kill a few whites Ha Ha’, but I feel I can ensure such readers that though the ‘Ha Ha’ is something to officially hide behind, it’s also a conversational ploy within the greater poem and should not be taken as incitement.

‘Aloha For Aotearoa’ is really a call for ‘togetherness’ against ongoing injustice, and as with many poems in Harvest Lingo there is a great beauty within the ‘warrior’ that is really about fighting for compassion and common purpose: ‘Across the sea you are and we are but we will be together/ in sternness and respectful love for all native’. In some ways, these lines are at the core of Harvest Lingo.

The final section of the book contains an amalgam of largely ‘political’ poems about loss (of country), betrayal (by colonials), deep loss (elegy), and ‘language’ taking back the poetic space from English. ‘We’ is a powerful signifier in these poems. The book finishes with ‘By Our Memories Zapata’ in which common purpose decries unjust peace, and the linguistic and material ‘agrarian’ is lifted into a relationship between poor and the earth that refuses capitalist control. This counterpoint works as one of the various ‘Harvest Lingoes’ in the book that act both as a motif of workers and exploited, and a critique of external control systems:

We are these Mexican Australian
Let no peace be government member families
August 2018, 1879 rasping flags causes we’ll
Stone your ideas down.
Non poets never revolutionary


Poetry that won’t be restrained by semiotics

Lovers, legacies, obligations; the rich and their gutter ploys and plays; the failure of Western imagination while it seeks to possess the semantics of imagination; earth as homeland, but not world as world which is a construct of imperialism and class oppression … Harvest Lingo encompasses these elements and ‘issues’ by decentring a self which also comes up for scrutiny in a way not prevalent in activist poetry. Such divergences and ‘divagations’ make this one of Lionel Fogarty’s most intense collections. It is troubled and strangely calm as well, with the older poet speaking across travels/journeys to younger selves, and to a series of possible futures. These poems travel spatially and temporally across geographical and cultural spaces, reclaiming ‘history’.

There are at least three ways of both reading and parsing any given Fogarty poem, and likely many more. One way is via lines of list-words in which words undo each other through juxtaposition and add up to an immensity. Another way through the staccato interrupting of English’s flow to make us concentrate on the impact of each word as colonial toxin. And yet another, and maybe most vitally, is reading with a flow, taking these other factors into consideration, and letting them sing their ghost tracks, samizdat, and cultural communiques that are not for all ears (to hear what you don’t hear and possibly can’t hear).

These are poems of branching words and ideas where the interconnections have different hiddenness and different transparencies. Fogarty notes on the cover that he sees English as a ‘tool’, and that’s how he uses it: he does not want to identify with the expression of the occupier, but he wants to wield English as a means of bringing international attention to the plight of his people, and to use it to liberate. He is not merging with English—he is upsetting English.

And in those poems in which he writes entirely in transliterated ‘language’, he contests English and Euro-language structures through his use of familial Euro-poetic lineation and verse structures; again, a contesting of the means of transferring the oral (and land-written) into the registerable by those to whom he addresses his poems: ie those he is working against, those he is working with, and those who he is working for.

In poems such as his Wizard of Oz ‘over the rainbow’ play, ‘Under Over the Rainbows’, in which irony and parody resonate with the horror of control over Aboriginal bodies, families, birth and death, and ‘Accept the Queen’s Lovers’ where disturbance over people (especially Aboriginal people) accepting royal honours as part of reward for compliance, there is a devastating use of ‘oscillating lines’ in which ‘we’ almost bounce through the horrors visually and orally. Lovers is such a played-with concept in Harvest Lingo: there are positive and negative allusions. Sometimes the poetic-register détournements with received official colonial language, at other times with explorer narratives and ‘belief’ tones of poets like Francis Webb (and in some ways Fogarty’s liberations of language are an antithesis and correlative to Webb’s intertwined Christian syntaxes). Fogarty’s poetic voice is unique because it is not culturally unique—it is a shared voice that, as an activist, he has had to individualise, to project as a physical expression of a set of complex anti-colonial ideas and ideations.

This collection is about loss of country and a revolutionary attempt to reclaim it—never giving in—and a compassionate alignment with other oppressed peoples, especially in terms of class. Also, there’s a deep desire to connect across geographic and spiritual difference to find commonality because of, or in conjunction with, the need to confront tyranny and to celebrate community. Through use of cutting irony that play both ways as it attacks and praises (attacking power structures, praising the people), Fogarty has created a ‘boustrophedon’ of contested/contesting meaning. This is doubly ironic in that an inverted pastoralism, through which ‘Harvest Lingo’ becomes both the speech of the poor and the speech of the coloniser, complicates simple readings of any text.

What’s so impressive about Harvest Lingo is that it’s a ‘nature poetry’ book as well, in which ‘nature poetry’ is inverted into a kind of poetry-nature, where nature is inherent rather than a construct, and life is an extension of living in country.

Though also always refusing the violence of the police-colonial-state, where I differ with Fogarty’s exemplary attempts to overthrow is that while he will meet force with force, I won’t deploy violence under any circumstances. But I am a pacifist. However, I can still greatly admire his linguistic provocations that wreck all possible readings from privilege. I comment through the privilege of English, and yet have no idea how to control the English I use (which in itself is mutable, of course). Fogarty, in using English and interjecting with his own language and then interjecting his own language with European language-driven syntax, has almost taken hybridity out of the equation by making poems that are events, that perform, that relive their moments of creation and sometimes fury.

This is one of Fogarty’s finest books because of its empathy, but I bother myself by latching on to this empathy as if I might share it. I can’t. Caught in a monetary relationship to poetry and poetic language, Fogarty must shift the grounds by biting all hands that feed the poetic. He can’t be anything like the Western idea of a ‘poet’; he has to be a storyteller and a recorder of long strings of knowledge that need to be restated so they become revolutionary language while preserving the beauty and intactness of their singing. He needs to do this while also protecting the sources, provenance and sacredness of some or even much of that knowledge. Harvest Lingo is for those who are fighting, not for those outside the impacts of colonialism who wish to decolonise.

Sexuality is often evasive in Fogarty’s poems, and the kinships of refusal are frayed across gender lines. There’s actually a self-deprecating ‘humour’ between words of these poems—a sense of the poet asking inner questions while projecting a social activist voice. I find this fascinating and challenging as a reader of Fogarty. Further, I can never read these aspects of his poetry in the ways they will ‘mean’, so I fuse them with the issue of isolation brought about by pressure both community/ies and ideas/realities of aloneness forced upon a warrior. For Fogarty, positioning as warrior himself means using warrior language and making warrior language. But there’s peace in there as well—great beauty of love for his people, for country, and for the encodings of song. And yes, ‘Decolonise Medicines’—how can this be allowed to not be the case?

If JH Prynne has forever altered the way a poetry of justice might undo the imperialism of language within the conventions of a British poetic education, Lionel Fogarty has done the same outside that imperial dynamic and within Indigenous empowerment, and shifted priorities in knowledge, reading and learning. We can all learn to be more just through reading Fogarty’s poetry, and we can grow into this astonishing literacy of action through collective respect and by changing the way we enact poetry.
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John Kinsella

John Kinsella’s new work includes the story collection Pushing Back (Transit Lounge, 2021), Saussure's Kaleidoscope Graphology Drawing-Poems (Five Islands Press/Apothecary Archive, 2021) and The Ascension of Sheep: Collected Poems Volume 1 (UWAP, 2022).

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