Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone

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.

– Amelia

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6 Responses to Song Cycle of the Moon-Bone

  1. Nick Reid says:

    Hi Amelia, Intrigued to see that you’ve loved Berndt’s translation of the Wonguri-Mandjikay song-cycle of the Moonbone. My colleague in English, Russell McDougall, and I used to teach this class where we took the original song text, and Berndt’s translation of it, and Les Murray’s The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle (see which is a calque of Berndt’s translation, and do an analysis across all three texts – it was a lot of fun. Chase up Murray’s poem – Iet me know what you think? cheers, Nick Reid

  2. Dave Crane says:

    Hi Nick,

    Just stumbled across your post today. I found a copy of The Moon Bone Cycle translation in a penguin anthology of oral writings some 20 years ago, and it stuck in my head – I eventually adapted it (rather loosely) as a painted comic book. The contrast between the sense of belonging, and the isolation and lack of meaning experienced by the early settlers echoes, for me, some of the themes that I dealt with in my book.

    I lost the anthology, great to see that it’s available in print again, I’ll look up Puncher & Wattman.



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