• Reneé Pettitt-Schipp

In 2011 I began the job of working with ‘un-Australians’ in ‘un-Australia.’ Teaching asylum seekers on Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands over the next three years became a border crossing of my own. As I heard story after story of suffering and overcoming, I began to hear a larger narrative that spoke to what it meant to be human, a story in which I found myself implicated. At the same time, large tides on Cocos meant other binaries like land and sea were blurred daily by the ocean’s dynamic movements. In all that flux I lost my father to cancer, and it was at this juncture I turned to poetry. In this paper I will explore how tidalectics and critiques of insularity informed a body of poetry that became a process of counter-imagining, helping me find my way back to ‘others’ and a world I thought I knew.


Keywords: tidalectics – insularity – crisis heterotopias – asylum seeker – un-Australia – Christmas Island – Cocos (Keeling) Islands – Thonglines–detention


‘When we act, we modify the shape of the world.’ (Sartre 1943: 455)

When I came across this quote several months ago, the room fell silent. I looked up: the fluorescent lights of the bland university lab continued to stare at the floor, but I could feel a shift, a new whir and hum. Looking back at the screen, my mind became a slow engine, turning the idea over, and a sensation of warmth spread through my body. I know this, I know this…

To an extent, we all know this. To protest, speak out, or organise rallies are all intentional acts that change, even in some small way, the shape of the world we know. But sometimes our actions can be almost imperceptible, bearing witness, deep listening, slow expansions of self, growth in our capacity to love, authentic, creative responses. I believe these acts also change the shape of the world.

When my family and I moved to Christmas Island in 2011 (three weeks after the devastating events of the Christmas Island boat tragedy), we did not know the way in which our lives, our understandings of the world and the ‘Australia’ we thought we knew, were going to be irrevocably altered. Stepping out onto the tarmac of that exotic and tropical place, we were oblivious to the fact that we were entering into an enormous narrative, a story so big that it gave birth to ‘un-Australia’, an in-between zone that both was and was not (and is and is not) ‘Australia.’ (Perera 2009: 64).

The liminal space of un-Australia was created when Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands were excised from the Australian mainland for migration purposes in 2001, immediately after the September 11 terrorist attack. This move was designed to strip asylum seekers of their right to seek asylum by claiming the new arrivals had, technically speaking, never set foot in Australia and were therefore no longer entitled to access Australian law or to claim asylum in our country (Crawshaw 2008: para 2).

While my family and I arrived ignorant of such polemic re-categorisations, there was the distinct sense that something about the exciting new place we were coming to know as ‘home’ was not quite right. We believed we were immersing ourselves in a unique territory within Australia, yet we boarded our flight at the International Airport. When passing through Customs, an officer asked us to produce our passports, yet (somewhat disappointingly) did not stamp them.  Suspended over the brilliant blue of the Indian Ocean 2000 kms later, we found ourselves filling in an Incoming Passenger Card, told without irony to tick ‘Leaving Australia’ (mark the box ‘X’) with the country where we were to spend the most time abroad being ‘Australia’ (please write on the line provided). 

As my family and I settled into our new home on the steep slope of this lush, semi-submerged mountain, our windows looking out over the azure waters of Flying Fish Cove, my experience of my own privilege was, at times, breathtaking. Like many of the two thousand or so members of the Anglo, Chinese and Malay population, we lived a slow-paced, comfortable life with well-paid jobs in an idyllic, tropical setting. For asylum seekers, however, Christmas Island was a site of incarceration and punishment within a detention system that was both highly secretive and intentionally cruel.  Children locked inside the camp on the periphery of the community did not have so much as a swing or a slide with which to bide their (often indefinite) time in detention, and there were frequently not enough places created for all children to attend school. Detainees were transferred suddenly, and seemingly randomly, in the middle of the night with a few hours’ notice to pack their meagre belongings. This meant I did not get to say goodbye to the children I taught or know where they went when I found them absent from class the next day, while the friendships formed between unaccompanied minors (children who arrived without their parents) were brutally and unapologetically severed.

Joseph Pugleise, drawing on Foucault, describes Christmas Island as a ‘crisis heterotopia’, a frontline space whose faultline status allows for ‘violently contradictory differences’ in people’s experiences of space (2009: 663, 664).  In other words, the border zone of Christmas Island - its ambiguous and unresolved status - allowed the simultaneity of the island as a holiday destination as well as a space where men, women and children could be imprisoned for no crime behind razor wire, out of sight yet never quite out of mind.

The ‘crisis heterotopias’ that dominated my experience of the islands were achieved not only by the construct of the ‘camp’ and zones of exclusion that operated both ‘within and outside the law’ (Polombo 2009: 614), but also by a calculated use of language. Perera tells us that the extraordinarily successful divide between asylum seekers and the Australian public has been achieved through a strategic use of terminology: ‘Linguistically the government has achieved almost total success in its ability to substitute loaded, pejorative terms like “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, ‘‘economic migrants’’ and “wealthy customers of people smugglers’’ for the neutral term ‘‘asylum seeker.’’’ (Perera 2002: 20)

My sense of the deliberate distancing of the Australian public from the lives and stories of my students became more acute the longer that I worked on the island. The tension in the air around the issue of asylum seekers on Christmas Island was almost palpable. In particular, the silence around the boat tragedy that had occurred only weeks before troubled me. I began to witness the enactment of individual, collective and institutional prejudices against asylum seekers. This was both shocking and confusing. Initially I believed this prejudice must have been coming from a lack of understanding – that if people heard the stories I was hearing they would no longer perceive asylum seekers as a threat and act in far more compassionate ways. It was at this junction I began to turn to poetry.

In order to facilitate the process of sharing students’ stories, I collaborated with Fremantle Press to organise an exhibition of both mainstream and asylum seekers’ short forms of poetic works written on thongs that washed up on the beaches on Christmas Island[i]. The timing of this humble launch coincided with the Gillard government’s announcement of the now failed ‘Malaysia Solution’. Suddenly I found myself thrust into a media spotlight while at the same time being under enormous pressure to tread carefully as a new resident.


Figures 1. and 2. Thonglines artworks.   A young Iranian student (left) and an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan (right) share significant moments in their lives through short forms of poetry presented on washed up thongs.  These pieces are part of the Thonglines exhibition the author co-curated with Fremantle Press in 2011 (Photo: Pettitt- Schipp, 2011).

The sharing of the students’ stories and poems with the Australian public (through the exhibition, in Western Australian newspapers and on radio) was powerful. There was a thirst amidst all the media hype to hear from asylum seekers directly, to understand them, and the students’ poetry gave me media-sized ‘bites’ to share the students’ worlds and struggles in their own words. However, the more I advocated for the asylum seekers that I worked with, the more ostracised I became in the small island community. There was a clear sense that ‘what happens on the island stays on the island,’ a code with which I felt I could not comply, and the result was social isolation.

At the same time as I withdrew from the community, the Thonglines project allowed me to sit one on one with asylum seekers and hear their stories, and through this process I began to experience a profound sense of connection with the students I taught. Many of the young men I worked with already had a strong love and appreciation of poetry stemming from their predominantly Persian backgrounds. The limited amount of English they possessed forced them to be creative with what they had: devices of metaphor and simile were daily strategies in which to negotiate meaning. 

The process of negotiating meaning and co-constructing poetic works was a rich one, yet in all this richness there is one experience that still stands out strongly for me. During the Thonglines project, an Afghan teenager had written a short, sad poem which I was unsure whether to discuss with him, being untrained in dealing with issues of torture and trauma.  Instead I asked him whether he wanted to include an illustration with his work. The student took a piece of paper and began to draw a scene for me of women sitting together watching children play cricket in an open space. The student then began to draw trucks and armed men. He demonstrated, using his pen, that the armed men had come out of the truck and opened fire on the women and children by the roadside. He turned to me from his drawing and said, ‘I just stood there. All the children fell down, some dying and the women too, and I am just standing over here watching it all happen. I still don’t know why. Please, can you tell me why? How can this be allowed to happen?’

The grief and dismay expressed by the Afghan student was raw, yet his experience was expressed without drama or self-pity. In this moment, witnessing his heartbreak, the last of my barriers between myself and the ‘other’ of a ‘Muslim’, ‘male’, or ‘asylum seeker’ came crashing down. Here in front of me was a person as real as I was who had experienced the most inconceivable trauma. He was reaching out to me as another human being to help him make sense of his world. I had a choice to raise my barriers and hold his pain at bay, or to stay with him and try to hear him, to go deeper in my ability to understand. The latter meant sharing in his trauma, and in doing so, an extraordinary shift began to take place in me. Elements of this process are expressed in the following poem.

Me.  You.  Us.

There are twenty-seven young Afghan men
that come to our makeshift school
in the afternoon.
At first I battle to tell them apart;
the Mohammeds, Alis and Ali Rezas.

Today is their third day
the guard brings me three
sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys.
We sit in the demountable
by the whir of an ancient air conditioner.
On the window painted wire
forms thin bars.

We look at
letter sounds and names
pronouns, proper nouns, conjunctives.
They are struggling
to form the ‘n’ sound, so I show them
a little self-consciously
how my tongue is positioned
behind by teeth.
The students try,
furrow their brows and try again
until the strange task
has us eye to eye, laughing
in one language.

Suddenly they seem so proximate
the blood and breath of them.
I look toward Ali and see the shape
of his eyebrows
notice the way they thicken then disperse
the gradations of brown in his iris
when lit by the light from the window.

I witness the wounds crudely stitched
that run up Mohammed’s arm
until they disappear beneath
his shirt sleeve.
I inhale the warmth of Mussa
his scent of cigarettes, spice and sweat.

The music teacher arrives
with drums, CDs and a whiteboard marker.
Together the students sing,
‘I am, you are, we are Australian’.
I turn and quickly leave the room.

As I negotiated meaning with my students through mime, pictures, English to Farsi and Dari to English dictionaries, thesauruses, gestures of the head and learning to wait, I could feel myself breaking open and what I thought I knew became more and more uncertain. I started to learn how to roll the rich Persian vowels around on my tongue: ‘vâysâ,’ ‘goosh kon.’ The students laughed and word by word I inched my way toward their world.

Yet as the students and I negotiated with goodwill behind the wire, the sinister attempts to demonise and criminalise my students and others like them continued on the mainland. The language used by politicians and media was divisive by design, and I knew the students and I could do little to counter the fear and prejudice being inflamed by national politics. It was this powerlessness that found itself expressed in a poem that arrived as a cry of outrage against the injustice I perceived.

The Politics of Entry

Coming in the back door
like you could wait politely at the front one.
Coming in the back door
like survival was a party, you’re just not invited.
Yet in all this facelessness
there is the coming from;
coming from a landscape in shadow
where rape is tactical, procedural, political
hold the daughter still
plant your flag in that dark place,
force the life out of her eyes until she
is pregnant with the violence of it.
Let despair grow round
and firm and hungry.
We say; the welcome mat,
red carpet, flood gates open
when all you see is light
from darkness
a door ajar

Like Perera, I could see that the term ‘asylum seeker’ was not only becoming substituted with words like ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumper’, but, through repetition and re-enforcement by politicians and the media, the term ‘asylum seeker’ was becoming synonymous with ideas of criminality and illegality. The poem strategically avoids using the term ‘asylum seeker’ and its inevitable baggage, instead adopting the very language used against asylum seekers in order to recast it.  By using the metaphors designed by the Australian government and media to evoke fears of personal invasion by asylum seekers, ‘The Politics of Entry’ attempts to show the way in which the media both trivialised the lives of people seeking asylum (‘coming in the back door’) and demonised them, resulting in a deliberate distancing of the Australian public from the lived realities of those fleeing persecution, such as rape, abuse and torture. The poem juxtaposes the mundanity of the way in which prejudice expresses itself (‘you’re just not invited’) with the horrific consequences for those cast as ‘other’.

‘The Politics of Entry’ also marked the beginning of my realisation that ‘facts’ were only part of the solution in influencing others, as the issue of border protection was not entirely rational for the Australian population. Our policy of mandatory detention spoke to shadow, pathos and denial, and to fear actively inflamed in the hearts and minds of the public. In order to change people’s perspectives, the emotional landscape of our border policy had to be navigated, allowing people to get closer the ‘heart’ of the matter. I started to understand poetry as a disturbance to national narratives around border anxieties. I saw how metaphor in my work and the work of my students worked as a form of resistance through its capacity to bypass the biases and prejudices inflamed by media and national politics and instead connect with the emotional life of the reader. 

The stories of abuse and heartbreak shared by asylum seekers that motivated ‘The Politics of Entry’ drove me to consider what more I could be doing to help those detained on the island. A friend with contacts in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship drove me out to the high security detention centre at North West Point where I met a young man called M. An asylum seeker in his early twenties, M. came from an ethnic minority in Afghanistan. He was seeking to be reunited with his family in Melbourne, who had already been granted asylum in Australia several years earlier.

The day we met, M. sat retreating into himself under fluorescent lights in the detention centre’s clinical interview room. As we talked, we were watched by security staff sitting on the other side of a glass panel. CCTV cameras angled toward our faces from the room’s corners. Outside, the fat coils of razor wire that surrounded the compound glinted in the sun. M. told me he thought he was going crazy, that he was worried he simply would not make it through the indefinite wait for his Visa. Looking around me it was easy to see why. I promised M. that my husband and I would take him out of detention each month until he got his refugee status, to hang in there, we would help see him through. 

In the months that I got to know M., through the help of another asylum seeker translating for him, he began to share his life with me. M. told me about the anguish of being separated from family and his longing to see his mother. He recounted the day of his decision to flee Afghanistan, and his dangerous journey by land and sea to Australia, as well as his ongoing challenge to hold onto hope while in indefinite detention.

When my husband and I first took M. out of detention to visit parts of the island, I worried that M. was already too depressed for us to help him, and that he would not be able to open up to the beauty of the island we had hoped to share. Yet each month, M. stood a little taller and smiled more often, until the incredible day we took him to the Dales, the island’s Ramsar-listed wetland, where he stood tall, arms reaching up to the sky, whirling around and around whooping with joy as the frigate birds called from high in the rainforest canopy.

During the same period that I was on Christmas Island, the Federal Government funded a report that found at least twelve asylum seekers per day on Christmas Island alone were attempting to take their own life or self-harming in some way (Iggulden 2011: para 22). Devastatingly, despite our efforts, my friend became one of these statistics. Unable to take the conditions of his life in detention, one morning M. attempted suicide by drinking cleaning fluids. This event, while clearly horrific for M., also had a severe impact on me, and it was to be years before I found a way to come to terms with my grief over what had taken place.

At the same time as this incident, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I knew that my time on Christmas Island was coming to an end. I returned to the mainland to be with my father while he died, but simply could not reconcile with the idea of returning to my life there, as my perspective on my country and my place in it had changed so radically. It was then my family and I decided to move to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 970 kms south-west of Christmas Island, and where I knew writing was going to be my only way through.  

While the singular semi-submarine mountain of Christmas Island thrusts 360 metres above the ocean, the twenty-seven islets that form the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a mere one to four metres above sea level. You experience yourself differently low to the ground, so visibly surrounded by water. You also experience yourself differently when immersed in a language and culture that is not your own, in this case, sharing a small atoll with around five hundred Cocos-Malay residents. And so it was that I found myself somewhat reinvented, sitting behind a desk in my new home on West Island.  It was also on this landmass, a mere half a kilometre wide, that I found myself once again inhabiting un-Australia.   

In her work on insularity, Perera demonstrates how Western culture’s ‘terrestrial bias’ is made manifest in Australia through the insistent belief in our country as a discrete island, a ‘massive, singular and self-enclosed’ entity (2009: 2). Perera describes this belief as the ‘thereness’ of island-Australia – a master metaphor largely unquestioned as our unitary, sovereign geo-body appears to ‘naturally coincide with (our) continental landmass’ (2009: 21, 22, 59, 61). This belief performs an important function of social unification as ‘the island works as a unifying figure holding together populations fractured by multiple incommensurabilities’ (2009: 17).

Perera argues that the insistent belief in ourselves as a contained nation-state fulfils a fantasy of social belonging that helps to cohere the diversity of people within our borders: ‘we are one, but we are many’[ii], or so the song goes.  Yet while uniting many under its flag, insularity simultaneously denies the violence and hostility within its worldview, a view that is ultimately rooted in exclusion. In the words of Jacqueline Rose, insularity also has the ability to surface as ‘fierce, blockading protectiveness, walls around our inner and outer, psychic and historical selves’ (2011: 126).

In a post-September 11 climate, I found my seemingly ‘Fair-Go’-driven nation becoming brutal in its treatment of a vulnerable population of people fleeing persecution and violence. This ‘othering’ began to express itself in more and more extreme ways, including incidents where the Australian Navy and Airforce chose not to respond to calls of distress by asylum seekers, and the Government’s failure to retrieve the corpses of the people who subsequently drowned. This meant the bodies of those who died were never returned to their loved ones[iii].

I railed daily against this objectification of other people on the basis of race, and poetry became a vital vehicle for me to hold onto the sanctity of life despite what was playing out around me. For example, the desire to hold onto life’s inherent worth is evident in ‘Boys with Wings’, written in response to a conversation with two young pilots at my local beach, while the poem that follows (‘The Will of Water’) directly links the drownings at sea to the famous speech made by John Howard during the 2001 election.

Boys with Wings

a terrible insect
the military plane
drags us from sleep

all over our island its deafening whine
seeks out silence     ends conversations mid-
word     dull machinery raging against the wind

that afternoon     by the ocean
the two pilots arrive bringing their drifting eyes;
a man’s gaze     yet with bone white skin
and adolescent arms     the pair seem
hatched     newborn

detached by slice of sea
one bright head tells me his facts about flying
about last night     the Sri Lankan boat      alone
in a place in the ocean     where ocean
is all that there is

says     it should be here by tomorrow afternoon     adds
that is     if it comes at all        and I wonder if he knows
what he means.


The Will of Water

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
         – Rumi 

out beyond the reef
beyond the horizon, beyond
the breakers
there is a space
that will break
that will break, that will
unmake you

out beyond the breakers
beyond borders, tankers, Customs
out beyond eyes
beyond sight and the light
of conscience

hear the timbre of strain
sing a low, sad song
this vessel was never meant
to contain such weight

out in the middle of
we will decide who comes
and in the thick of the circumstances
every fear of each imagined ending
will engulf you
for we are a land that will not
(a line that will not)

out where mothers
are grasping for children’s limbs
we are losing patience with pity, turn away
we will not witness, it will not stick
for we did not see
heard no screams
let me wash my hands
I know nothing
of the will of water

out beyond the ocean
and all its undoing
you had a dream. I will meet you there
for when each life is at last allowed its living
the world will be too full
to write about.

The ‘master metaphor’ of island-Australia means we don’t ‘just think about islands, but with them’ (Perera 2009: 21). A counter-imagining of islands that actively departs from such ideas of insularity can be found in Carribbean poetry and literature, in particular in works centred around the concept of ‘tidalectics’. Tidalectics, a term coined by Kamau Brathwaite, has been expanded by theorists such as Elizabeth DeLoughrey and Edouard Glissant and includes the work of the recently deceased poet Derek Walcott. These writers seek to re-imagine our relationship to place by using the motion of the sea as a means of explaining ‘an alternative model of space and time, a “tidalectic” between past and present, land and sea, the local and the global’ (DeLoughrey, 2011: 803). Ultimately tidalectics shifts away from a traditional dualistic lens to an understanding of the world, like water, as inherently reciprocal, fluid and dynamic.

Other island writers, such as the Tongan Fijian poet Epeli Hau’ofa, also move away from terrestrially biased ideas of insularity and their resultant reductive view of areas like Polynesia and Micronesia, instead redefining the spaces in which they live as ‘a sea of islands’ (Hau’ofa 2009: 7), a reconceptualisation inclusive of both land and sea. Hau’ofa’s perspective is similar to that of Antonio Benitez Rojo. Instead of the analogy of the ‘sea of islands’ that Hau’ofa uses, Benitez Rojo uses the analogy of the Milky Way to describe the Caribbean islands (2008: 432).  


Figure 3: The Cocos (Keeling) Islands; a ‘sea’ of twenty-seven islands set in the Indian Ocean.  (Picture:  Pettitt-Schipp, 2016)

Thinking in this way about the relationship between land and sea made it impossible to see the atoll I lived in as a ‘landscape’, the inherent terrestrial bias in the term now rendered as problematic as using ‘mankind’ to denote all people. What Caribbean and other island writers show us is that we cannot discuss the land without hearing the sea lap at the fringes, always shifting the boundaries, changing and moving. Our islands are a site of rhythm, flux and repetition. The writers’ unique islander perspectives offer us a dialogue based around relationship and connection. This connection not only breaks down binaries of land and sea, but those of self and sea, as well as self and other, our lives instead become an expression of innate fluidity and rich interdependence.

The ubiquitous presence of water on the tropical islands of the Indian Ocean Territories is also a useful tool for thinking about the fluidity of borders between self, sky and sea. My personal shift to a more fluid self-concept is reflected in the following poem about Christmas Island.

This Same Humidity

after the borrowing 
the fracturing, rain
returns the ocean
to itself
this drawing in
surrenders distinction
between sea and sky, blurs
their bold titles
with one rich smear

your skin, a scent
like belonging    
the rhythm of you breathes
to me all night

in this same humidity
the oceans of our selves condense
and with each body’s slow
sweat we bleed
our beginnings.

On Cocos, the work of tidalectic poets and writers was both reassuring and confronting. With large, fluctuating tides, all day the island’s landmass would retract and expand. In the atoll’s lagoon (formed by twenty-six of the twenty-seven islets forming a horseshoe formation), it became unclear what fitted the definition of ‘island’ and what was sea, as the sea floor would repeatedly rise in bumps and ripples above the ocean’s thin film of water at low tide. After a cyclone, I woke to find a place where I used to sit and read several metres inland had completely disappeared, while some of the smaller ‘islands’ came and went over time or within a week in response to oceanic surges. I was drawn to the island writers as they recognised my world and described it back to me.

However, living in such a changeable topography made me realise how much my life was vulnerable to, and therefore inseparable from, the physical environment around me. I found the ideas of tidalectics confronting because I had experienced so much change in the last twelve months, including losing my father and brother-in-law, and I was yearning for stability and permanence. I was aware, though, that writers from the tidalectic field were arguing that projecting ideas of stability and permanence onto place and self was both inaccurate and revealed a problematic, unconscious prejudice stemming from larger populations living in countries often defined by their land mass (Hau’ofa 2009: 6-7). 

The tension between my desire for stability and the atoll’s innate rhythm and flux began to surface in my writing, such as the following two poems.  The poems include sections of my work co-translated into Cocos-Malay by my Indonesian-speaking husband (Indonesian and Cocos-Malay both have their origins in an ancient form of Bazaar Malay) and two Cocos-Malay colleagues, designed to reflect the fluidity evident even in the use of language for those living on the atoll’s shores.


With many thanks to Pak Yati, Mak Sofia and 
 Pak Greta for the translations into Cocos Malay.

apa arti nya hidup sekejap saja
di atas luatan...

what does it mean to live     subsist     just a moment
above the ocean    where the slow coral
grows its mighty mountain     and life explodes
as atoll meets air

all night I hear the sea’s
secret undoing     all day witness
uncountable beings

some early evenings when the sun is stirred
into the trees     and the water returns
to reclaim its margins     kami sepi
we are still

only then will crabs appear     bodies below   
in air their eyes     between worlds
like sharks pushing sail-fins
into sky

here the sea’s skin looks
like something you can trust
the statement of its reflected surface     
is sure     promises we belong    



seperti hujan terbalek
like rain inversed
tiny fish
push into air
bodies showering toward
high cloud

tempat ini adalah milik
this place belongs
to itself
you arrive on its terms
remain terrestrial     peripheral

kehidupan belum tentu
life is tenuous
here on the merest
suggestion of soil
that contracts

with the lagoon’s
slow exhalation

a rhythm we all
wait for
live by
har-hari ter gantung
days poised
on the rush of its breath.

Despite my initial resistance to the changeable topography of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, poetry was now becoming my means, in Cixous’ words, to feel my way from ‘pre-knowing’ into knowing (1993: 38), from resistance and rigidity into understanding and acceptance. In the act of writing, the experiences that had isolated me from others and my environment were now becoming my means of making sense of the world and entering back into connection. In Hershfield’s words:

Seeing through poetry’s eyes, hearing through poetry’s ears, we come to know ourselves less tempered, more free than we were, and connected to - emancipated into, if you will – a larger world….In its musics, its objects, its strategies of speech, thought and feeling, a poem plucks the interconnection of the experiencing self and all being.  In poetry’s words, life calls to life...  (2015: 7,14). 

The act of writing poetry that would be accessible to others was a call of ‘life to life’. This overt willing toward a more vital existence than what I had witnessed playing out in the Indian Ocean Territories was also a means of survival.  There were times when I simply could not (and are still times when I still cannot) come to terms with what I had witnessed working in Australia’s detention system. Art’s alchemy becomes an impulse to reconcile the irreconcilable, to heal the holes in weave of our worlds. As Hershfield says,

In whatever realm the artist’s discomfort arises, it tears open the fabric of the psyche and the universe, leaving a hole the creative impulse rushes to repair.  The artist cannot help this anymore than a spider whose web has been shredded; his or her survival is at stake.  (2015: 464).

The tearing open that Hershfield describes caused me to consider the absolute broken-ness I experienced on Christmas Island when my friend M. attempted suicide. I simply could not find a way to begin to write my way back toward light and beauty. I carried so much shame at not being able to save him, felt so much grief and anger at what vulnerable people were forced to endure, became so overwhelmed by the dark heart of my country, I could not find a way to begin.

Then one afternoon two years later, I was walking along the reef on the Cocos Islands watching the white egrets feed from rock pools listening to an ABC Poetica podcast about the Chilean poet, Gabrelia Mistral. I was struck by Mistral’s passion and ability to navigate shadowlands. Once at home I began to research her work and came across the poem ‘The Dancer.’ All the beauty and agony I wanted to express were held in images of the graceful and broken woman painted there, and finally, crying my despair, I found a way toward repairing my world.

Within an hour I had written ‘Parting Glass’, drawing on the stories M. had told me: the pain of missing his family, fleeing Afghanistan to arrive at a refugee camp in Pakistan, leaving Pakistan to make his way to Malaysia, hiding barefoot in the jungles of Malaysia until at dawn his boat to Indonesia came. From Indonesia, M. hired a people smuggler as the only means available to him to get to Australia, to find himself behind the razor wire and stepping unexpectedly into, and then out of, my life. ‘Parting Glass’ was written as an act of grief and honouring, but also as resistance to silence, a bearing witness to what was taking place around me.[iv]

Works like ‘Parting Glass’ became, for me, an expression of deeply held intention. Writing became a will to influence (in Sartre’s words) ‘the ‘shape of the world’ as my country morphed into something I could not recognise and no longer believed in. My words, and the words of my students, became resistance and disturbance to national narratives based on insularity. Our poems were often acts that maintained the sanctity of life while also bearing witness to the cruelty and suffering that took place away from the gaze of the Australian public. However, it was poetry’s alchemy that gifted me hope through it all. 

Charlotte Wood says that art ‘is a candle flame in the darkness: it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply…a place to find stillness in a chaotic world’ (2016: para 6). ‘Parting Glass’ and the many other poems written during my time on the islands remain my ongoing way back to a life-ful vision of my nation. The poems are also an invitation to others to resist the will to dehumanise those that seem different from us, and instead to feel deeply, to inhabit the lives of ‘others’ in order to carve out a place for compassion and connection – a place of stillness – in the complex world we share.

Parting Glass

the act is simple enough
remove lid from bottle
pour liquid into cup
pour like rain at midnight
a river’s sheen by firelight
your childhood framed in puddles
like a dream

the liquid claims light like
a jungle newly varnished
bright fishing boats in moonlight, until
ocean deep with dawn
like a prayer

lift the vessel high
to all you’ve ever known
close those eyes
to lovers and glances
music and dancers
beautiful hunger
shiver of sky

and in that moment
when rim meets
your mouth
outstretched arms, eyes
of nieces
pull of letters
your own face

then swallow
there will be searing
like villages blazing
plumes from boats
wire and want

at new dark freedom
promise of oblivion, after pain
when this world sways
leave the afterglow

without your name.


Author's Note

All poems in ‘The Poetics and Politics of Paying Attention in un-Australia’ are part of the collection The Sky Runs Right Through Us pending publication February 2018 (UWA Publishing). ‘Me. You. Us.’, ‘The Politics of Entry’ and ‘The Will of Water’ were first published in borderlands e-journal (11:3). ‘Boys With Wings’ was first published in Poetica (6 Dec 2014), ‘This Same Humidity’ was published in Regime (03) and Pinggiran first appeared in Westerly (59:2). ‘Parting Glass’ was shortlisted for the the ACU Poetry Prize (2014) and published in ‘The Language of Compassion’ (ACU University).

The authors/artist would like to acknowledge the contribution of an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship in supporting this research.


[ii] Newton and Woodley, 1987

[iii] In May 2013, Australian authorities found an unexplained batch of life jackets washed up on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The failure to launch a search in response to the find has attracted criticism of the current government by the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) (‘Life Jackets ‘Should Have Prompted Search’’). In June 2013, criticism were also made of the failure of Australian authorities to launch a search when a stationary asylum seeker boat was spotted several hours from the Christmas Island coast. Later, the sixty asylum seekers aboard drowned, including women and children, and no attempt was made to retrieve their bodies from the water (Jabour 2013). 

[iv]  The lines ‘beautiful hunger’ and ‘shiver of sky’ were used from a poem written by an asylum seeker during the Thonglines project (unfortunately unable to be named) as a way of incorporating an authentic Afghan perspective of home.


Works cited: 


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