Native-Born | Eve Langley #AWWpoem

East Gippsland panorama | Image source

Native-Born, according to Wikipedia, regularly appears in Australian anthologies. However I had never come across it until an article in The Conversation last year when Donna Mazza^ referenced it.

Mazza declared that,

Native-Born…is still startlingly relevant to contemporary ecofeminism by subtly linking the discovery and cremation of a dead female kangaroo to women and the nature of the Australian landscape.

I was intrigued.

The curious thing is how it relates to her 1942 novel The Pea Pickers. Or perhaps not. Much of Langley’s writing was obsessed with focused on her time living and working in the East Gippsalnd area of Victoria with her sister in the 1920’s, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that her poetry was more of the same.

What struck me with this poem though, was the title and tenth line lamenting that she had ‘no native song’ with which to mourn the dead kangaroo. Eve was born in Australia and therefore, could say she was native-born. The kangaroo is an indigenous animal and also native-born. However, except for the mention of a ‘woomera’ later on the poem, no consideration is given to the Indigenous native-born. If there was a Gunnaikurnai dirge for a dead kangaroo, no white Australian knew it.

I read an interesting comment from Bruce Pascoe in his 2007 book Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love With Your Country that said, The Pea Pickers:

…is set in the market gardens of East Gippsland and celebrates the Australian worker not in soft focus Empire glory but as it was, full of Italians, Germans and battling Australians. Dramatically different from how the Bulletin saw the iconic worker of the wide brown land… but [Langley] is colour blind. The pea, bean, maize, grape and fruit harvesters of that era were predominantly black…

The picking industry is dominated by Aboriginal families but [after one brief encounter between Steve and an Aboriginal man] Langley never mentions them again, preferring to concentrate on the Italians with whom she shares almost no language but does share the knowledge of European culture…(209–10)

Lucy Treep^^ has a lot more to say about Eve Langley’s approach to indigeneity and Indigenous people in The Pea Pickers and concludes by saying,

In The Pea-pickers, Langley depicts not so much an accurate picture of 1920s rural Australia, as an accurate image of common societal attitudes of that time. The novel works to consolidate most of these attitudes, while seeking to challenge prevalent gender constructions.

It would seem that her poem Native-Born works at the same level.

Native-Born | Eve Langley (1940)

In a white gully among fungus red
Where serpent logs lay hissing at the air,
I found a kangaroo. Tall dewy, dead,
So like a woman, she lay silent there.
Her ivory hands, black-nailed, crossed on her breast
Her skin of sun and moon hues, fallen cold
her brown eyes lay like rivers come to rest
And death had made her black mouth harsh and old
Beside her in the ashes I sat deep
And mourned for her, but had no native song
To flatter death, while down the ploughlands steep
Dark young Camelli whistled loud and long,
'Love, liberty and Italy are all.'
Broad golden was his breast against the sun
I saw his wattle whip rise high and fall
Across the slim mare's flanks, and one by one
She drew the furrows after her as he
Flapped like a gull behind her, climbing high
Chanting his oaths and lashing soundingly,
While from the mare came once a blowing sigh.
The dew upon the kangaroo's white side
Had melted. Time was whirling high around,
Like the thin woomera, and from heaven wide
He, the bull-roarer, made continuous sound
Incarnate lay my country by my hand:
Her long hot days, bushfires, and speaking rains
Her mornings of opal and the copper band
Of smoke around the sunlight on the plains.
Globed in fire-bodies the meat- ants ran
to taste her flesh and linked us as we lay,
Forever Australian, listening to a man
From careless Italy, swearing at our day.
When golden-lipped, the eagle-hawks came down
Hissing and whistling to eat of lovely her
And the blowflies with their shields of purple brown
Plied hatching to and fro across her fur,
I burnt her with the logs, and stood all day
Among the ashes, pressing home the flame
Till woman, logs and dreams were scorched away
And native with the night, that land from whence they came.
  1. ^ Gender-ambiguous author Eve Langley is ripe for rediscovery. A new biography illuminates her difficult life | 6 July 2021
  2. ^^ The Pea Pickers: An Introduction | Lucy Treep | Westerly Vol 60:2 | 2015
  • 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.

3 thoughts on “Native-Born | Eve Langley #AWWpoem

  1. I love Eve Langley who I think has been shockingly treated by the literary establishment. And I am inclined not to believe that she was colour blind about the existence of Indigenous pickers.

    Aboriginal people, not just the local Gunai/Kurnai, but from all around the state were confined to Lake Tyers –
    “It became the depository for half of Victoria’s dispossessed people, and, in 1908, was taken on by the government.
    Nine years later, Victoria’s Aboriginal protection board voted for a policy of concentrating all ‘full-blood’ and ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people on the Lake Tyers Station.” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-21/lake-tyers-history-piece/5170896)
    So, by the 1920s and up to the 1960s Aboriginal people weren’t free to be pickers.

    Secondly, the white view at the time, no doubt Langley’s view too, was that what few Aboriginal people there were were dying out. This view was arrived at by not counting Indigenous people with mixed heritage as ‘Aboriginal’. Which is why Langley says there were no Aboriginal people to teach her the traditional laments, which she nevertheless ‘feels’ from the Gippsland forests which surround her.

    In passing, the bull-roarer is also Aboriginal.

    Like

  2. I’ve never heard of it either … so I thought I’d check. Of the three Australian poetry anthologies I have, it only appears in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn).

    As for colour-blind or not, I have no idea! I’ll let Bruce and Bill fight that one out.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s