TEXT review

A deep archive flows

review by Natalie Harkin


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Jeanine Leane
Walk Back Over
Cordite Books, Melbourne 2017
Pb 84pp AUD20.00


As a lover of poetry, family history, rivers and archives, it is not easy to stay afloat when immersed in the torrent imaginings of Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane’s latest book, Walk Back Over; best to surrender, ride with the undercurrents and open up to savour it all. This work extends her first chapbook, Dark Secrets After Dreaming (AD) 1887-1961, which ‘moves from campfire to captivity to confinement and through colonialism’ (2010). Over time Leane has fine-tuned a poetic rage juxtaposed with love from her sovereign Wiradjuri woman standpoint, as deep and layered as the rich sediment of her ancestral Murrumbidgee River – grounded, yet never still.

This collection is dedicated to Leane’s Aunty Betty who taught her to love words, and for this we can be thankful. Ellen van Neerven’s stunningly astute introduction ensures that we too ‘will return often to this scented writing’ (xiii); we inhale, slowly: ‘When we absorb knowledge, we become larger’ (xiii).

Aboriginal women are the great gatherers of many things. (xi)

There are four distinct parts to this collection: ‘Walk Back Over’; ‘Country’; ‘The Montego-Yangshou Express’; and ‘Walk Back Over’. Leane begins by paying homage to those women who raised her; those women with ‘vast reserves of inner-strength’ (xi) who survived oppressive histories under segregation, protection and assimilation, and who passed on their creative resilience as acts of activism. Their inner-strength reserve is indeed vast, for Leane’s words seek out and divine history’s painful depths, through and beyond the colonial archive, so we may share a weight that is the collective burden of colonialism.

‘Archive’ is the feature metaphor here, where memories, knowledge and literary imaginings are mindfully mined from body, country, river, tree, and family story. Leane also writes back / Black to those archival ‘institutions’ such as State records, museums, universities and libraries; institutions that have collected, catalogued, contained and displayed insurmountable data on Aboriginal lives, in the name of science. These institutions profess to know our families through a cultural and physical-anthropology sampling of bodies and minds; dissected and carved on cutting boards in blood-quantum portions:

That’s my past on your cutting board
dismembered, cut up, mutilated
and dispersed – posted around the world in boxes
for examination. (8)

These myth-making institutions proliferated a racist and eugenics-based ideology that directly informed public policy that governed Aboriginal lives. Leane’s opening poem, ‘Cardboard incarceration’, is a visceral entry-point to the contents of a colonial archive-box which left me gasping for air and straining for light:

This cardboard prison they call an archive
is cold, airless and silent as death. (3)

The act of consigning truth and order to the official record also required that some things be discarded, suppressed or consigned to the margins. Our history books are thus replete with ‘black and white pages where nameless, the placeless and timeless, historyless people dwell’ (29), and Leane’s poetry challenges us to question all that is centred and normalised; to seek what is rendered invisible or lost, and to question whose voices and truths are privileged and represented in these spaces. The archive-box is replete with secrets, ripe for revelation. She speaks to the un-spoken and writes to the un-written, spearheading what has been omitted from official documents, including ‘emotion and the other sides of paper’ (xi).

In part one of this collection, Leane’s blood-memory pumps every syllable to rupture that point of colonial desire where racism and sexism intersect – like an embodied requiem ‘for the Black women in the white archive’ (5):

how your first record is deep in my body.
Your memory lives deep in my body.
I’m still looking – don’t let ‘em tell you
that I ever forgot. (5)

With all the tension and allure of a good mystery, her words keep us sifting, dusting and scratching at the colonial ‘crime scene’ surface of her story, which is indeed everyone’s story.  In a moving tribute to Lady Mungo she writes:

First time I left my Country was
in a suitcase bound for university
to be studied by experts.
Why are you stealing us –
Dead or alive? (6)

Her selection of poems in part two, ‘Country’, read like an ode, to memories of childhood and apricot sunsets; to felled river red gums and wide brown lands; to Murrumbidgee tides, and to beloved elders passed. Her poem ‘River Memory’, the life-blood of her country, is the pulsing heart of this collection:

The bend
of the Murrumbidgee – a deep archive – flows
steady and slow. (25)

This ‘deep archive’ can never be fully erased and will make itself known in unanticipated moments. It can trigger a haunting re-memory; it can reckon with iconic colonial structures – ‘the river rose and swallowed the bridge and town’ (25) – to leave an empty stone convent and a half-standing bridge in its wake.

Part three of this collection, ‘The Montego-Yangshou Express’, is a kind of travelogue interlude beyond local archive and country, and works to inform our global imaginings through an astute anti-colonial lense. Her observations are epitomised in ‘Montego Bay, 2012’, as Jamaican labourers load foreign ships in the blazing sun, with sugar, tea and spirits – ‘A long day in Montego Bay / for an English high tea’ (46).

Jeanine ultimately returns to those many spans of Australia that require us to revisit and contemplate a bit longer; to walk back over – bridges, rivers, memories, loss – so we might collectively gain something new and renewed, even in the face of longing and forever-mourning. Her final poem ‘Easy’ (57) is a profound comment on the un-resolve that shadows suicide. Some tragedies and secrets can never be healed or fully revealed, but she shows us how a gathering of words, a poem, can sustain that inner-strength resilience from ancestors like those women who guide her, so we do not drown, but rise-up and continue to breathe, long into the future.

Walk Back Over is an exciting addition to Cordite Books’ second series. It is an archive-intervention; a deep contemplation on country and the history of place. It reveals Australia’s violent foundations that continue to inform an ongoing project of colonialism, and it is Jeanine Leane’s poetic-justice reminder to us all – to listen to voices that drive the tides; to move with the turbulence and settle where we are meant to, with the finest shifting and drifting sands.



Natalie Harkin is a Narungga woman from South Australia. She is an academic and activist-poet with an interest in the state’s colonial archives and Aboriginal family records. Her words have been installed and projected in exhibitions comprising text-object-video projection. She has written with Overland, Southerly and Cordite, and her first poetry manuscript, Dirty Words, was published by Cordite Books in 2015.


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Vol 21 No 2 October 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews editor: Linda Weste