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,

	                                                     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.


Read the rest of Overland 223


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Evelyn Araluen

Evelyn Araluen is a poet, educator, and co-editor of Overland. Her Stella Prize winning book DROPBEAR was published by UQP in 2021. Born, raised, and writing in Dharug country, she is a Bundjalung descendant. She tweets at @evelynaraluen

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