Review by Joshua Klarica
Everywhere there are fires burning. This is impossible to ignore across the landscape of Evelyn Araluen’s blistering debut Dropbear, the Stella Prize winning hybrid work of poetry and essay. Dropbear interrogates the topographies of the Australian psyche and the enduring manifestations of Australia’s colonial past. It is a work incendiary and unrelenting. It is scathing and deeply moving.
On the evening Dropbear took home one of the books of the year award at the Australian Book Industry Awards, Araluen gave both an acknowledgment of country and a reading of ‘Acknowledgement of Cuntery’. The latter ended with an applause. The former with a reminder: it was a threat. And Dropbear makes good on that promise, as it rages against the pastoral that gently accommodates white Australia.
I would like r e s p e c t and a c k n o w l e d g e m e n t For all this respect and acknowledgement
Separated into three parts—Gather, Spectre, and Debris—Dropbear is best understood as the site where two images of Australia have warred: the idyllic, have-a-go of Cronulla’s finest meets the tumult of a burning Australia that has failed to heed lessons, one unable to speak about trauma if it cannot do so in platitudes.
Decay is commonplace in Araluen’s Australia. From the collections second outing, ‘The Ghost Gum Sequence’, we encounter ‘rusted windmill[s]’ and ‘burnt-out cars’ interlocked with scavenger life. Images on the wreckage of Australia pepper the scenes throughout Dropbear, whether spectral or subject. This is, above all, a work of revolt.
Returning images of this sunburnt country evoke familiar Australiana to the reader, only where this was once used to invoke a kind of national pride, Araluen looks upon a more devastating reality, with a particular focus on the 2019/20 bushfires. The narrative it unearthed was one of ignored knowledge and a lack of empathy hand-in-hand with political opportunism. In response, Araluen is deft at work gouging out the hypocrisies of a nation.
Yet much like the balance of play and ferocity in the book’s title, the motif of burning is also one of prospect and new life. There is a stunning history shared between First Nations traditions and fire, detailed in the poignant and painful ‘Breath’. And so, as much as Dropbear is protest, it also seeks healing in the aftermath. The intergenerational trauma the poet faces is not an isolated event, and so what is done in Dropbear is done both for the now and those that follow. Says Araluen to those:
Look what we made for you Look at this earth we cauterised The healing we took with flame.
Throughout Dropbear, an essential fire ravages the landscape.
Araluen’s economy of language is flawless. Their voice masterfully modulates what is jarring and aggressive alongside a register candid and elegiac. And for the work that Araluen is doing, this becomes a necessity: They are well aware who it is that makes up the book’s readers. Dropbear then becomes a marker, identifying this distance between what is said and what is meant, which, in Australia, has often meant the doubling down of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trauma through an unwillingness to recognise it across the socio-political landscape.
Taking its cues from Frantz Fanon, Araluen makes it known that colonialist violence is perpetuated, and let to endure, by language, words, and print. So throughout Dropbear, Araluen’s attempts to reclaim and reject language, to antagonise colonialist narratives and tropes, remains insatiable. For example, Araluen notes how Australiana kitsch quietly yet insipidly goes about inserting itself over First Nations culture, a pastiche of settler anaesthetic featuring the likes of ‘Snugglepot’ and ‘Cuddlepie’ and ‘Kylie’s hot-pink koala knit.’ Accepting these forms of Australiana without an eye to that which preceded it all is a means of ensuring the violence of colonial Australia remains. After all, Araluen reminds the reader, ‘(did) you know that none of the trees your poems bleed are ghost gums?’
Far from merely a semantic brawl against inveterate colonialism, Dropbear is acutely aware that the purest, most devout forms of nationalism, political activism, and other plaguing isms, are those issued by preceding generations. Blinky Bill and co. and their blue-sky Australia, made up the ‘national ephemera’ of Araluen’s childhood but were passed on ‘with salt grains and disputations’. Disrupt the colonial narrative, says Araluen. And mean what you say.
Dropbear is a challenge—to see and write and acknowledge the real Australia even though, or perhaps because, it contravenes the one you see. At the ABIA awards, Araluen flagged a very particular threat. Late in Dropbear, they explain this further: ‘IF THERE WILL BE NO JUSTICE, WE WILL NOT PERMIT PEACE.’
Dropbear was published by University of Queensland Press and has an RRP of $24.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.
Joshua Klarica is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He writes poetry, essays, and fiction, and recently finished up his honours year studying English Literature at The University of Sydney. His work can be found across the internet, and in Australian and international journals such as Mascara Literary Review, Backstory Journal, Bluebottle Journal, and Wild Court.