According to wikipedia a drop bear is a fictional creature, an urban myth, designed by Australians to scare tourists. It has even been given a fictional scientific name – Thylarctos plummetus. According to folklore it looks like “a predatory, carnivorous version of the koala” and lives in gumtrees, dropping onto the heads of unsuspecting bushwalkers. The Australian Museum even has a page dedicated to them.
On the 1st April, 2021, The Australian Geographic published a hoax piece about a study, out of the University of Tasmania, that showed how drop bears target tourists with non-Australian accents. This is an in-joke with long legs and one that is often held up as a fine example of Australian larrikinism.
The narrative occupies a conceptual space of possibility; infused with humour and ambiguity, and located somewhere between truth, lie, joke, fact and fiction.
Man-eating teddy bears of the scrub: exploring the Australian drop bear urban legend | 2017 |James Cook University | Catherine Livingstone, Felise Goldfinch and Rhian Morgan
Like the mythological drop bear that attacks unsuspecting tourists, Araluen’s poems attack popular culture and Australiana head on. She embraces the dangerous, unpredictable nature that imbues the myth of the drop bear as her own, even as she deconstructs it and shows it up for what it really is.
But nothing is that simple or easy. It’s also very personal and very complicated. In ‘The Ghost Gum Sequence‘ Araluen reveals her own tangled, intermingled history,
Somewhere in all this tabula rasa and terra nullius my black and convict ancestors met, each from somewhere else between one and two centuries - some taken, some lost, some left. We try to care through entanglement.
Caring imbues every poem and essay. As does tenderness and beauty and strength and resilience. The kind that draws on respect for country, language and culture, no matter how incomplete or fractured that knowledge may now be. Araluen discusses the joys and the frustrations of trying to relearn a language that her family had all but lost in several poems:
‘Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal’
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 unspeakable the empire,
to teach the voice to rise and fall like landscape,
a topographic intonation
This loss of language and loss of culture comes at a cost though. Into the gaps and spaces, despair falls, hopelessness and grief…and anger. Lots of righteous anger.
‘Bastards from the Bar’
I learn hate and love and men from the sound of your voice
spinning out the intergenerationality of wars too close for forgiveness. Nothing makes violence holy, resolves the prize,
gives room in harm for legacy. I know the poem and it lied.
Araluen grew up on a diet of May Gibbs and Banjo Paterson like many of us did. Thanks to her academic background, she can now deconstruct and play around with these myths of Australian legend. Showing them up, showing us their colonial foundations, showing us what they cover up.
I suspect there were plenty more riffs on Australian stories that I did not guess. Some poems, some phrases, verged on the edge of familiarity, but I couldn’t name that name in the end.
At the end of the book, I discovered her afterword that acknowledges her references to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Watkin Tench, Thomas Mitchell, Samuel Coleridge, Kenneth Sleesor, Les Murray, D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Wall and Ethel Pedley as well. Movies and shows figure as well – Wake in Fright, the Two Cathedrals episode of The West Wing and Jonathan Jones 2016 exhibition barrangal dyara (skin and bones). She invites that any,
responses to this intertextuality, and the tone in which it is presented, should be read with the understanding that the material and political reality of the colonial past which Indigenous peoples inherit is also a literary one. Our resistance, therefore, must also be literary.
I can name the colonial complexes and impulses which structure these texts but it doesn’t change the fact that I was raised on these books too… History is a narrative and they did everything they could to write a new one for us with whatever tools they could find.
She is often furious, and this fury can feel unrelenting. Araluen demands that the reader take notice, pay attention and listen. She talks of the past – remembering, honouring, truth-telling, but her poems are also contemporaneous with bushfires, black lives matter and the almost obligatory pandemic poem! Araluen shows us how and why this shared history is still moving amongst all of us.
See you tonight:
We always said we’d swim the dam one day. You play bunyip, I’ll be dropbear…. If all we get from history is each other, isn’t that plenty?"
Truth-telling requires vigilance. Facing the past can be exhausting and demoralising. It can take a personal toll.
To the Poets: “Mostly I’m tired of myself and of the work of being, so I leave loving you to muscle memory.”
To the Parents: “Sis, I’m haunted in and out of dreaming. I don’t know if we’re nightmares.“
Yet Araluen persists.
There is a sense that this time in history, is the right time for such persistence. Confronting the realities of our colonial heritage is not only a national imperative, but something that fits into the much larger world-wide movement to acknowledge that black lives matter as much as white lives.
For all our sakes, I hope she persists.
Evelyn Araluen was born and raised on Dharug country. She is a descendant of the Bundjalung Nation.
- Shortlisted 2021 Queensland Literary Awards – Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection
- This post is part of Poetry Month.
Title: Dropbear Author: Evelyn Araluen ISBN: 9780702263187 Imprint: UQP Published: 2 March 2021 Format: Paperback
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.