I was given a copy of the Puncher and Wattman Anthology of Australian Poetry about 2 weeks ago and I’ve been flicking through it on and off since then. The book contains 450 pages of poetry arranged in chronological order from the newest to the oldest work, which is a nice change in itself – going backwards for once. But most interesting of all is that the very last poem in the book is a translation of the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone which belongs to the Wonguri Mandjigai people of eastern Arnhem Land, as translated by Ronald M. Berndt. It’s a pretty incredible thing to read in itself, but the context it appears in makes it even more powerful. The poems immediately preceding it were written by homesick Europeans, dismayed and despairing of the emptiness, ugliness and lack of meaning they felt themselves to be surrounded by. Turn the page to the Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone and there’s a shattering contrast. It’s all about belonging. And it’s a beautiful thing to read.
Anthologies of Australian poetry so often begin with the forlorn, dusty and depressing. What an excellent surprise this book has been! My new hero, the editor, John Leonard, recommends two more books of indigenous poetry in translation – The Honey-ant Man’s Love Song, and Little Eva at Moonlight Creek, both edited by Martin Duwell and R.M.W. Dixon and published by the University of Queensland Press.