A review of Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today edited by Alison Whittaker

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today
edited by Alison Whittaker
University of Queensland Press
March 2020, ISBN: 9780702262722, 192 pages, Paperback, $24.99aud

In her introduction to Firefront, Gomeroi poet and academic Alison Whittaker talks about the power of language to change the shape of the world. Whittaker has taken this as an axiom in the structuring and careful choices of work in Firefront: First Nations Poetry and Power Today. The collection, which contains 53 previously published poems, is wonderfully balanced, with each of the five sections prefaced with an essay by notable writers and scholars Bruce Pascoe, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Chelsea Bond, Evelyn Araluen and Steven Oliver.  The essays frame the sections, providing cohesion and context for the poetry and are rich pieces of work themselves, addressing many of the issues which this book explores  including notions of ancestry, connection and what it means to be, what Chelsea Bond calls the “latest living Ancestor” – or being an elder before time, about the impact of the Colonial canon from Dorothea Mackellar to Joan Lindsay and Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock).  

Many of the poets included are vey well-known, but Whittaker has taken care to include a broad range of poets and poetry styles from the prosaic to classically lyrical, slam, dialogues, lists, visual poems, songs like Archie Roach’s “Took the Children Away” and Briggs’ “The Children Came Back”, narrative pieces, and multi-lingual, visual work. Elders that will be familiar to most readers include Lionel Fogarty, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and Kerry Reed-Gilbert and not only are these works included, the poets are referenced and threaded through the works of emerging poets. The variety included here, and the way in which the work is grouped together amplifies the impact of the individual poems which become informed and enriched by proximity and collective meaning. 

These are poems that chart a history of trauma and oppression, with blood soaking into the earth repeatedly – reminding us of the pervasive and ongoing destruction of colonialism, as in Lisa Bellair’s “Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum”:

Not too long and there are
fewer red river gums, the
Yarra Yarra tribe’s blood becomes
the river’s rich red clay

A number of the poems make use of the rhythms and tonal inflections of First Nation languages, incorporating and subverting English elements in ways that resonate as much in the body (particularly when read or listened to aloud) as in the head, as in Deborah Doorlak L Moody’s “Bilya Kep”:

Nitya null bilya-kep korrliny
Ngank Kirra Yaaginy,
Shimmering silver in the morning
Koorliny down through the bilya
in the deep moon kep.

These are defiant, beautiful and resilient poems that are always imbued with a rich sense of place, and an inherent connection to the natural world. In “Honey to Lips Bottlebrush” Charmaine Papertalk Green reclaims “decolonising respacing” into “Wattle seeds eating tasting time ago” which feels almost like a remediation of the land.

Arualuen, whose essay “Too Little, Too Much” opens the second section, ‘Despite what Dorothea has said about the sun scorched land’, speaks about “callers to collaboration” and “communal acts of voice and inscriptions”, which is very much in evidence throughout the work, especially in Araluen’s own piece “Dropbear Poetics”, which tackles literary appropriation head-on (“for making liar the lyrebird/for making mimetic”) Araluen references Samuel Waagan Watson, while Lionel Fogerty invokes Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal (“pregnant us again”).  This sense of community and mutual support is evident throughout the book, in repeated refrains, from the stolen generation, Invasion Day, false anthems, death in custody, and dispossession, through the reclaiming and restoration of country through old and sacred knowledge, love, mutual respect, and the power of art to recreate the future:

could you take
your broken heart,
and paint
the most magnificent masterpiece
the world has ever seen (from Romaine Moreton’s “Are You Beautiful Today?”)

In the final section, ‘This I would tell you’, Eckermann talks about the oral tradition and the many poems she’s heard around a campfire that were not able to be anthologised here (“Medicine In, Obligation Out”).  We can, however, sense a kind of reverberation from what isn’t included in the work that is. There is very much a sense of that even the missing poems – those that were thrown into the campfire “vessel that holds many of our stories” are part of a  collective voice that seems to reverberate throughout the book, even when, as is often the case, the individual poem is exquisite. Though there is much to keep the reader engaged in this superbly structured, beautifully designed collection, reading and reflecting is only a part of the work.  As Ali Cobby Eckermann puts it, Fire Front includes a call to action:

Sadly, I think that a lot of people who come to listen only listen and don’t respond. When you’ve read these poems, also act. (147)

There is so much to learn from Fire Front.  Not only about “the pain, the indignity, the sorrow, the humiliation, the frustration that white people were deaf and blind to the beautiful planning of a culture over 120,000 years old.” (from Bruce Pascoe’s “Bleat Beneath a Blanket”), but also to what will be lost to everyone if we don’t right these injustices, change our paradigm, and amplify these voices we need to hear if the human race is to survive into the next century. Fire Front is critically important reading – not just for the messages it contains, though they are timeless and relevant to the world we’re living in right now, but also because this is work that is urgent, astonishing, beautiful, and heart-rendering, with the power that Whittaker illuminates in her introduction, to change the shape of the world for the better.