The Poetry of Geography

I grew up near the ocean.  For the first eighteen years of my life a twenty-minute walk would bring me to docks and lapping waves, sand and seaweed and salt air.  I didn’t know how much a part of me the saltwater was until I moved to upstate New York, where rivers and lakes were the only waters to be found.  Or more pointedly, until I moved to North Carolina and found myself, gloriously, in striking distance of the ocean once more.

In the last days of the wild, windy winter of my first year in Carolina, a bunch of us literature grad students rented an oceanfront house for a week.  We arrived late at night, dumped our bags and coolers and raced down to the shore, stumbling in the darkness, but cleanly guided by the tart salt smell of the wind.  We stopped breathless, our boots barely above the point where the wavelets slid back with the tide’s pull.  Moonlight rocked on the surface of the sea, black and white rolling back and forth.  There was a moment of no sound but wave and wind; then there was John’s voice, basso, riding over the top of them both:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.

Then no sound but wave and wind again, and the echo of John’s voice and Byron’s bleakness in my head.  With them came the forging of a bond between poetry and geography that has never escaped me since.

gularriThose moments on the windy beach returned to my mind more than once while I was watching Gularri: That Brings Unity, a film produced in the late 90s by Bangana Wunungmurra and Jennifer Deger from the tiny community of Gapuwiyak in eastern Arnhem Land.  The making of the video was the subject of Deger’s fabulous 2006 book Shimmering Screens: making media in an Aboriginal community (University of Minnesota Press).  I wrote extensively about the book almost seven years ago, but had to wait until recently to see the film for the first time.

I would strongly urge you to follow the link in the paragraph above to get the fullest understanding of the backstory of this remarkable work of art and ceremony.  Briefly, though, it came about when Deger, who was working to develop broadcasting capacity in Gapuwiyak, teamed up with Bangana, who had recently returned to Gapuwiyak after a period of exile in Darwin that resulted from the desecration of a sacred dilly bag.  Bangana was seeking a way to find his place in the community again and to demonstrate his respect for the Law.  Deger summarizes the project in this manner:

In 1997, with the assistance of an indigenous television production company from central Australia, Bangana and I completed a major video project entitled Gularri: That Brings Unity. The video tells the story of Gularri, the sacred fresh waters that flow through the waterholes, rivers, and seas of Yirritja clan countries across northeast Arnhem Land. Infused with Ancestral potency, replete with layers of story and significances, Gularri, and the sacred sites associated with it, is an important source of Yolngu identity. For Yolngu of the Yirritja moiety, these waters are a foundational source: not only do they and the rangga come from Gularri: they are Gularri. Gularri does not simply represent them, it is them (Shimmering Screens, p. 138).

Writing in another context, Howard Morphy says “In the wet season, the country floods and the power of the floodwaters, Gularri, is immense, coursing down the rivers to become great plumes of water stretching out into the sea.”

Shortly after Bangana completed the film, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of  thirty-seven.  This event, and the deaths of some of the elders who featured in segments of the film, caused it to be withdrawn from circulation for over a decade, but Deger has lately secured permission to release it on DVD.  (If you are interested in obtaining a copy, contact Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts for further information.)

I didn’t know quite what to expect.  Deger had warned me that this was very much a Yolngu film, made for Yolngu not to record ceremony, but to embody it, to recreate it, to revitalize the efficacy of ritual for his community.  The closest I came to anticipating the experience was this description, derived from Deger’s book:

Part of the genius of Bangana’s direction of the film lies in his choice of visual shots and, remarkably, his ability to be non-specific in his instructions to the production crew from CAAMA. What emerges is a picture of the country in which sacred sites may be glimpsed, or may even be off-camera, but which are nonetheless present to the knowledgeable viewer. In creating these fleeting images of country and in close-ups of waters that conceal the rangga of the clans, Bangana invokes the essential interplay of inside and outside meanings that characterizes Yolngu ritual. By integrating the span of the Gularri waters into the length of the cinematic experience, he emphasizes the unity of the clans and hence of Yolngu identity.

When I finally popped the disc into my DVD player and settled in to watch the film, the first thing that I was struck by was the sheer beauty of the imagery.  In its opening frames there is a series of images of crystalline waters streaming, rushing, undulating, splashing over shallow river beds; images of larger creeks with lush growth along their shores, translucent falls over rocks, all accompanied by the songman Charlie Ngalambirra’s voice and clapsticks.  Soon we see Charlie himself, sitting at the edge of a calm waterhole, speaking to us:

This is my grandfather country
We call this country Nuga Gamaldal Bungirriinydju Yirrgirrinydji
This is where the fish jumped
Gunarrwirr Dhulungu Malwarwar
It jumped and the water called Gularri started to flow
Flowing and making noises, the water is still my grandfather.

In this manner, Charlie relates the story of Gularri, starting from this place and traveling across the country, sometimes flowing underground, splitting into two streams, ultimately its fresh waters meeting the salt, where the two become calm.  He stresses the primacy of Barmal, this starting place, this primal clan; he notes how the water has spread out through the lands, through the clans, always, as the film’s subtitle avers, creating unity.

As he speaks, scenes of the water flowing through country are intercut.  We take to the air and see the thin line of the water cutting through dry country dotted sparsely with trees.  We are shown the splashing of waves along a coastline, the water leaping and bouncing on salt-gray rocks, but always we come back to Charlie, sitting at Bungirriinydji, telling the story of the water and the clans.  Finally, the narration done, he begins to sing.  We are taken again along the course of Gularri, following it from the sky, the sun’s reflection tracing a moving journey across the country, then cutting down into the water itself when the fish swims a solitary path along the riverbed.

This opening chapter sets the pattern for the remainder of the film, as Bangana traces the flow of Gularri from a thin thread in dry country downstream to the sea.  Along the way, Charlie is often joined by others, custodians of the particular stretch of country, Warrawurr, Baygurrtji, Baralamana, that we are passing through.  The waters broaden, the country grows lush.  At times the flow is placid, at others the water rushes and tumbles over rocky outcrops.  At Matjaka we see Charlie seated on a large rock that raises its surface above the river.  He calls out the names of the water, tells stories of the creation of the river, invokes the sacred log that surged its way through the country.  Finally we reach the sea, where winds bluster and Garngirr (the water) rises and splashes on the stony coast line.  The aerial shots of the placid water farther from the land, its surface rippled below clouds and buffed to a golden gloss by the sun, offer a contrasting calmness to the blustery shore.  The incantation of the water’s names is done.

For me, as a balanda, this journey is one of mystery as well as beauty.  I can’t pretend to appreciate the impact this film had when it was first shown in Gapuwiyak.  But it is a moving experience, whether one responds to the intensity of Charlie’s narration, to the vastness of the country in its ever-changing moods, to the variety of its topography, to the stunning magic of the water itself.  The experience left me, however, with a renewed appreciation for the genius of Yolngu experience the natural world, and for the genius of their vision.  I want to say that the visual experience of Gularri reinforces my appreciation for the gift of metaphor that drives Yolngu expression, but I fear that I may do an injustice by suggesting that the waters of Gularri, winding and surging their ways through the landscape, are merely a metaphor for the unity of the clans.  Metaphor suggests the substitution, verbally or visually, of one thing for another, the expression of an idea through analogy, “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”  To reiterate Deger’s point quoted above, “For Yolngu of the Yirritja moiety, these waters are a foundational source: not only do they and the rangga come from Gularri: they are Gularri. Gularri does not simply represent them, it is them.”  I understood that point intellectually when I first read Shimmering Screens; now having seen the film itself, I find it lodged within me like the echo of Byron’s verse that I hear every time I stand by the edge of a windswept, darkened sea.

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2 Responses to The Poetry of Geography

  1. Dick Williams says:

    Your description has made me eager to see the DVD!

  2. Pingback: Video Culture / Museum Culture | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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