Review: Fire Front poetry anthology, by Shelley Timms

Title: Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today
Editor: Alison Whittaker
Genre: Anthology/Poetry collection
Publisher: UQP

“Our legacies become futures, written from and for anywhere.” Evelyn Araluen, Too Little, Too Much

“When non-Indigenous people tell us to move on, they assume we want to be stuck in a painful place. That we love having to constantly get angry, annoyed, upset, political or any of the other words they love applying to us when standing up for ourselves.” Steven Oliver, Lead You to the Shore

Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today is a timely and brilliant example of the creative talent that has emerged from First Nations communities throughout Australian modern history. Alison Whittaker has collated an extensive collection of previously-published pieces from Indigenous authors, including Alexis Wright, Claire G Coleman, Ellen Van Neerven and Dylan Voller. Each poem is as powerful as the next, touching on subjects such as colonialism, ancestry, racism, and familial relationships.

The anthology is split into five sections, each beginning with an essay from a prominent Indigenous author addressing the poems in the section and providing context to the theme. I really liked that there were some names that I recognised, followed by a slew of new authors that I can make note of and research further. Indigenous literature is woefully underrepresented within the publishing industry, and yet the culture of storytelling is so rich and expansive within these communities. I think Whittaker has done an amazing job of putting these resources into one book, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the culture and storytelling experience. Poetry lends itself to thoughtful, emotional prose and I was impacted by the themes presented. Given the current political climate, acknowledging Australia’s own history of racism and violence is incredibly important, and to hear the impact from those directly involved is especially informative.

Standout pieces for me include the following:

  • Unearth by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Eckermann explores how the bloodshed of our Indigenous ancestors will result in lasting change in society. The language was deeply evocative, and I particularly loved the line “boomerang bones will return to memory”.

  • Domestic by Natalie Harkin

Harkin’s poem draws on the past descriptions of Aboriginal women as housemaids/servants, and the language used to describe them. It is particularly confronting to read the belittling language used by Helen Coleman in 1926 (Harkin uses Coleman’s account to flesh out her poem and effectively set the scene), and it is an example that there are so many things that need to change within our society. It is an excellent juxtaposition of past and present.

  • Expert by Ellen Van Neerven

Van Neerven portrays the so-called ‘experts’ within the debate surrounding race and discrimination/violence, using the example of a non-Indigenous girlfriend stating all of these facts and figures she has gleaned from the media and stating to the subject of the poem that they are “closed to other sides of the debate”. It shows the bias and ignorance of some non-Indigenous people and how they don’t fully understand the extent of life as someone who is subjected to prejudice constantly.

  • Nanna Emily’s Poem (Mount Isa Cemetery 2014) by Declan Furber Gillick

Furber Gillick’s poem tells the story of his grandmother Emily Furber and her experiences being taken by the government during the Stolen Generation. A few of the poems depict the Stolen Generation in some iteration or another, but this one was so beautifully written and detailed that it affected me emotionally and educated me on the personal experiences of some victims. What I really love about this poem is the final note, stating that you should take some quiet time and read this poem aloud to yourself and just bask in the magnitude of the subject it is portraying. I think it is an incredibly poignant poem.

  • I am the Road by Claire G Coleman

I haven’t read any of Claire’s fiction works (yet!) but my goodness her poetry is outstanding. The imagery was rich and intense, and the language was expertly crafted. It depicts the author’s relationship with Country and her family, describing facets of her father’s identity in a way that captures his sacrifices to Australia (he served in WWII) despite the horrific mistreatment of his people at the hands of White Australians.

  • Justice for Youth by Dylan Voller

This poem stood out to me in particular, because of Dylan Voller’s backstory. I think most Australian’s know Voller at this point, especially as the image of him tied to a chair with a hood over his head is burned into a lot of people’s memories. The bravery it took for him to write this poem and address the atrocities that he faced is immense. I think the addition of this poem in the anthology is an incredibly powerful example of how the arts can be used to tell raw, unforgettable stories.

If you are wanting a resource to educate yourself on Australian history and racial discrimination and also want to support Indigenous authors, I highly recommend this book. I would also encourage you to seek out the further work of the authors featured in this anthology.

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