On Tharawal
Type
Poetry Prize
Category
Nakata Brophy Prize

Runner-up: Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal

                                                                       Above his desk it is written:
                                                     ‘I wish I knew the names of all the birds.’

I know this room through tessellation of leaf and branch,
wurahŋ-bil and jaran-gir,		
in the shade of a kulsetsi —		
	(Cherokee) ‘honey locust’ [a flowering tree]. 

                                                        I am relearning these hills and saltwaters
                                                  and all the places wrapped around this room
                                                                           We both have dagahral here,
	                                                          lovers/fathers/friends/conquerors/ 
                                                                                                           ghosts.	

	                                                     But here, in this new and ancient place, 
                         I ask him to name the song that swoops through this mosaic:
                                   Sometimes it is wattlebird sometimes it is currawong —
                      when we drive, he tells me king parrot, fairy wren, black cockatoo

and I know jalwahn and bilin bilin and ngarehr
	but the rest are just nunganybil,
	the rest are just: ‘bird’	

It is hard to unlearn a language:
	to unspeak the empire,
	to teach my voice to rise and fall like landscape,
a topographic intonation. 

So in this place the shape of my place 
I am trying to sing like hill and saltwater,
to use old words from an old country that I have never walked on:
	bundjalung jagum ngai, nganduwal nyuyaya,
and god, I don’t even know
		if I’m saying it right.	

But I watch the bark twist:
grey and slate and vanilla and vermillion
		he tells me this is ribbon gum — 
so I find five words for this bark
and I promise I will learn them all

                                                       Because to hold him is to hold the tree
                                                         that holds these birds I cannot name,
	                                                                     and a word spoken here
	                                                           might almost sound like home.

We are relearning this place through poetry:
	I open my book and say, wayan,
here is a word which means road, but also root
and in it I am rooted, earthed,
singing between two lands
	I learn that balun is both river and milky way,
	and that he is baray-gir, the youngest child 
	and the top of the tree,
	where the gahr will come to rest —
	to call its own name 
	across the canopy, 
	long after his word for it 
	is gone.

 

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Evelyn Araluen is a teacher and researcher working in Indigenous literatures at the University of Sydney. In 2017 she was the winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. Born, raised, and writing in Dharug country, she is a descendant of the Bundjalung nation.

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