Sunday, February 04, 2007

Mentor Memoir

’d like to be able to say it’s been a strange week but strange weeks are becoming fairly commonplace so I don’t quite know where to go with that one. Sometimes the only direction to go when you’re feeling a bit besieged, is back. I frequently bemoan the absence of a mentor in my personal and professional life and am often convinced that if only a kindly and experienced person would take me in hand, I would give that Hanif Kureishi (whom I love and worship – don’t get me wrong) a run for his money. I do, very obviously, need looking after and it is much more difficult for a woman to get a devoted partner/carer. That’s my excuse anyway.

Because I’ve been away from Australia for most of the last twenty-five years, I sometimes forget that I was lucky enough to meet and stay with Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker as I knew her), on a number of memorable occasions. Oodgeroo first entered my consciousness at primary school when we studied her poems along with those of her close friend and contemporary, Judith Wright.

I was a student when I first went to stay at Moongalba, on beautiful Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), Kath’s birthplace. By the time I met her, she had lived about ten lives. She was probably Australia’s most famous Aboriginal personality at the time, neck and neck with tennis champ Yvonne Goolagong maybe. She entered domestic service at 13 and, when the Second World War broke out, joined the army. Returning to housekeeping in the 1950s she worked for the prosperous Cilento family, (Diane Cilento became an actor and married Sean Connery). She was a leading figure in the Aboriginal rights struggles of the 60s and, travelling on a diplomatic passport in the 70s, was a passenger on a hijacked airliner in the Middle East. She loved to tell the story of how confused the hijackers were to see a black woman with blue eyes travelling first class on an Australian diplomatic passport. She was celebrated internationally as a poet, story teller and artist but liked nothing better than to set up a barbeque for visitors and get down to some serious drinking.

Anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about Kath today, maybe because the sky was so blue, the sunset so bold and gold and the swans, ducks and geese on my canal so loud with life. Below is a poem I wrote about her a couple of years ago. There were always packs of young people staying at Moongalba in tents or one of the old caravans she had set up and she showed us the Aboriginal ways with such loving enthusiasm that I have not forgotten a single word. Since ‘the sieve’ was named after my memory, that isn’t half saying something.

The poem describes a particular trip when four of us sailed over to Minjerribah from Brisbane in a small yacht and stayed for a week. Kath loved the boat because it was an old and much cherished vessel owned by skipper Peter Baillie’s family and she wanted to go out sailing in it every day. She gave Sea Belle the Aboriginal name for Moreton BayQuandamooka. I heard from a friend who’d attended her funeral that two whales came very close to shore during the ceremony and I wasn’t at all surprised by that. She knew all the creatures of the sea and they knew her too. I’m blessed beyond measure to have known this extraordinary and beautiful woman and don’t ever let me forget it please. I give you my poem more precious than luncheon vouchers…


There at Moongalba where you sat yourself down
in your circle of caravans, you told us that the bush
has its own economy and showed us how
to count its currency in roots and shells.

We’d sail to you in the English boat you named
Quandamooka and trained to find the fish; you’d
talk to her gently and whisper where they lived and
she would turn stealth at your command and pounce.

You’d show us the patience of a million years of knowing
as we asked you to tell us how the world works and why
we couldn’t get it right no matter how many metals and
minerals we dug and fashioned into bombs and guns.

One time, leaning low and scanning with your old
blue eyes you pointed out a long shadow and said,

look there as a dugong hunkered below us like a
u-boat on the losing side of a long and dirty war.

But you built forgiveness from the homecoming
that made the little things all right and the years
of scrubbing and healing fade to kindness as you
found the heart to return the waves of comrades at the RSL*.

There at Moongalba, when you died and I had long
gone from the reach of your outstretched hand and
forgotten how you dreamt for all of us, I heard that
two whales came; perhaps they even sang for you.

*RSL – Returned and Services League – Australian armed services veterans’ organisation.

Picture from I have my own pictures but I have no idea where they are- up in the loft somewhere. This one looks like how I most remember her.


Ms Melancholy said...

Beautiful. Beautiful poem, beautiful post x

That's so pants said...

See what nice friends I have!


Well I've just spent a very enjoyable last wee while looking through the front page of your blog. I've found myself neglecting your front page lately, because I've been trawling through your archives (with relish).

With the exception of the first part of your answer to Ms Baroque in the post "wasted youth" - which had me gasping queasily - I have loved every moment of it. And, moving from the bottom up, I am glad to have landed so softly here, in this tranquil and melancholic post.

It's very hard to know what to say about the poem, as I am so very far from being an expert on these things. I can only tell you that I felt it.

And that is intended as a compliment, I promise you, for a most beautiful and sad piece of writing.

Kind regards etc...

That's so pants said...

Dear Mr PE - I can see how that might have looked but my dad had played Aussie Rules football and the short shorts thing, although acutely embarrassing for his daughters, was standard dress in 1972 for a man with his history.

Thank you for what you felt. It's all I ask. This is the first time I've ever posted a poem on this blog. I know it's a bit cheeky but every now and again I feel like doing something subversive

Meredith said...

Why is it cheeky to post a poem? I loved it, absolutely.

That's so pants said...

Hi Ms Meredith. Cheeky I think because normally i trash people for being naff and here I am displaying so much syrupy sentimentality I make the Coen Brothers look like the Disneys.

nmj said...

This post made me sad in a good way, and I have learned of an extraordinary woman I had not heard of - Thank you, Pants.

That's so pants said...

You're very welcome NMJ. Three of Oodgeroo's poems can be found at poem hunter, if you're interested -

Reading the Signs said...

I don't know what to say. It might sound naff.

Nothing syrupy here that I can taste. A lovely homage.

Poets have to take risks - lyric poets risk being sentimental. We know we do.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs - I am claiming the naff crown for myself on this one so fear not.

Penless Artist said...

Ever so rarely, some of us -- those somehow blessed or lucky enough -- will enter the life of an old soul. And we get to stay there for a while and share their space and their essence. And we learn some of what they know. And we learn some other things just by being with them.

Your poem for Oodgeroo Noonuccal is wonderful. I've read it several times. Slowly. It makes me wish I could have known her. Perhaps next life.

Having spent much time in the Queen Charlotte Islands in Northern Canada with Haida Natives, I'm quietly certain of the connection between human and animal spirit. I've no doubt whatsoever that the whales arrived during her ceremony to honour her.

That's so pants said...

Cheers Penless.