The magic and poetry of Parraruru from recovery to discovery in aboriginal literature.
Since first contact with white settlers, Aboriginal Australian communities, cultures, and languages have been under constant attack in attempts to eradicate or assimilate the people into a white "mainstream" Australia. Many indigenous Australian communities are now looking back to their twentieth-century poets and storytellers in an effort to preserve and breathe new life into their languages and oral traditions that have been fragmented, marginalized, and almost forgotten. The contemporary poets and storytellers in these communities are on a similar mission as the linguists and cultural preservationists--in fact, they are often the same people. They are searching for a nearly lost lineage that will reanimate their culture and inspire a new generation of literature and engagement with their native language. It is a search for lost words, customs, idioms, and poetic as well as grammatical forms.
Parraruru, a feared mawarnkarra (sorcerer), died in 1975, leaving behind a wealth of poetry and recorded oral narrative for today's Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi people of the Pilbara desert in the north of Western Australia. His poems, such as "How I Make Spears" (see page 46) capture the harsh daily realities of traditional Pilbara existence with transcendent fascination, masterful timing, and clinical brutality. These qualities make his work an ideal record for the new generation that is attempting to preserve and renew its culture and language: his matter-of-factness and precision give us an understanding of the details of traditional Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi life and the specialized language that describes it. How do you kill a spiny anteater? Parraruru says:
Men used to hunt the spiny anteater. When they found him, he would close into a ball.
The hunter would look for a white stone or a crystal. The hunter would return to the anteater and say:
"Look at my scar. But where is your scar?"
The anteater lies listening.
"Can I see your scar? Where is your scar?"
When the anteater opens, throw the stones and crystals at his stomach until he dies. Pull out his tongue, cut out the glands, and throw them away. Cut out his belly, pull it out, throw it away. Light a fire in the shade, light a fire in a pit. Cast the anteater into the fire. Turn him in the fire until he crackles and sings:
Ants, I hunt you when the sun is low, when the sun is low. Ants I hunt you when the sun is high, when the sun is high, ki ki ki kii! Ants, I hunt you when the sun is low, when the sun is low. Ants, I hunt you when the sun is high, when the sun is high, ki ki ki kii!
Now the anteater is smooth and thin.
Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma are closely related neighboringlanguages, and Parraruru composed in both, sometimes moving from one tothe other within the same poem. Movement between different languages ismore fluid in Pilbara culture than in that of the Western world. Youwould probably be confused if I suddenly switched to German in themiddle of this article and then used some Icelandic words for rhythmiceffect. But this is considered good style in Pilbara languages. Most ofthe poem "Killing Anteaters" is in Ngarluma, but theitalicized song of the spiny anteater is in Yindjibarndi. This switch inlanguage gives the anteater the voice of a near other. The Pilbarapeople do not only move between languages for stylistic and poeticreasons: borrowing words from neighboring languages is common practicewhen dealing with certain cultural taboos. When a person dies, wordsthat sound like his or her name are avoided and sometimes fall out ofuse. These forbidden words are often replaced by words from neighboringlanguages.
This is one of the reasons why the contemporary generation ofYindijibarndi and Ngarluma speakers often does not understand thelanguage that had been used by older generations. The Yindjibarndilanguage and culture preservationist Lorraine Coppin calls it "alanguage that we've never really heard before." For peopleof her generation, encountering Parraruru as their poetic lineage hasbeen almost as uncanny as Parraruru's poetry itself: the languagehas changed so much within only a generation or two, the search for thepast having turned from a recovery into a discovery. So much can seemunfamiliar today--ritualistic language, language of initiation, names ofspirits and stars:
Pleiades, the Seven Sisters The Seven Sisters will rise in the east and rain their chilling piss over the land. "Girls, girls, mother blood in your vulvas, girls, girls, with hot hot haunches, girls girls, mother blood in your vulvas, boys boys, your foreskins pulled back." When the Seven Sisters cross over the east, chilling the land, the girls should take up fire sticks against them; they do not. The Seven Sisters will ruin the girls: "Girls, girls, with hot hot haunches, girls girls, mother blood in your vulvas." This is what they sing to the women and girls, the girls who should take up fire sticks against them--they don't. The Seven Sisters ruin the boys, the boys who carry their foreskins pulled back.
Parraruru's name means Smallpoxer. It is said that he was able to curse an entire settlement withsmallpox. His magical powers were revered throughout the desert. TheNgarla poet Narnutjarri says of Parraruru: "I have seen you leavethe ground, leave the crowds of men and fly high up, out of my sight ...your feathered crown burns with magic." Magic is immediate inParraruru's work--it is a fact of daily life. In one of hispoetic narratives he tells us how to kill a man by using astingray's tail to stop the man's ability to urinate.Elements that might seem shocking to us are part of the fabric oftraditional existence. Magic lives in the composition of poetry:Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma poets often receive their poems when they arein communion with beings from a time before time,ngurranyujunggamu, "when the world was soft." Now a new generation isreencountering this world through Parraruru's continuinglegacy.
Shon Arieh-Lerer's articles and translations of Aboriginal Australian poetry haveappeared in such magazines as Modern Poetry in Translation,Poetry International, Translation Review, and Words Without Borders. His own poetry and other translations have been published inCircumference, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Chronogram, among other publications.
How I Make Spears
I broke a branch off a tree and thinned it down and made a barb and fitted the barb onto the branch. I smoothed it. I straightened it. I heated it in the ashes. I went and had a fight. The tip pierced straight through the man. I pulled it out and with it came some flesh. The man fell down. Because I had stabbed him, he let urine. "I can't get up." Because I had stabbed him, he stayed lame for good.
Translation from the Yindjibarndi By ShonArieh-Lerer
Tarda Tells the Moon
The new moon rises. The new moon rises in the west. An old woman sees him rise, lights a torch and incants to the moon in the west: This time you will not become a full moon, for you will eat none of our food. None of our meat! No, you will eat nothing! The meat is for us, for me. The lizard is for me. The kangaroo is for me. The emu, for me. Nothing for you! Turkey for me. Fish for me. Nothing for you! All meat is for us, for me. All food is for me! Not you! Every fruit is for me! No fruit is for you! You used to never eat at all-you were only the moon, alone, lighting the land. I have to cook in the ashes. Meat, seeds, kangaroo, lizard, emu, bustard--I have to cook these in the ashes. You don't! You are only there to light the land. But I have to cook meat in the ashes. We must eat our meat well cooked, well cooked in the ashes. And we cook our seeds in the ashes too-all seeds, Wajurru pods and runner beans, we cook them in the ashes. You will have nothing!
Translation from the Ngarluma By ShonArieh-Lerer
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|Title Annotation:||SPECIAL SECTION: Native Lit|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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