Book cover for Archival–Poetics by Natalie Harkin

Natalie Harkin
Archival–Poetics
(Vagabond Press, 2019)

Response by Judy Annear

Buy from Vagabond Press

A boxed set of three

Natalie Harkin is a Narungga woman from South Australia. Her written and performance works bring colonial archives into the light, in this instance those archives pertaining to women and girls. Harkin is a weaver of words and papers. She examines government archives and re–presents the words of the ‘archons’ of white colonial power, their deliberations on and determinations of Aboriginal Australians. These are both literally and figuratively interwoven with the words of Harkin’s peers, for example Julie Gough, Vernon Ah Kee, Judy Watson, and her own meditations on what she finds within such archives.

Harkin’s previous book, Dirty Words (Cordite Books 2015) was an A to Z index of poetry. Familiar words, thoughtlessly spoken by others are put on the page with words and phrases weighed and considered. There are gaps as words move across the page, the white space of silence which the archive aims to fill in and Harkin leaves open for thinking and feeling. This unbinding of words from their past uses and opening out of spaces continues in Archival–Poetics, published as a set of three chapbooks in a slipcase. The three books are subtitled 1 Colonial Archive 2 Haunting 3 Blood Memory.

Archival–Poetics 1 Colonial Archive examines what was recorded and by whom, who surveilled who and for what purpose. Harkin considers her need to enter the colonial archive, the ‘fever’ induced, the clash of those who would measure the blood of others to demean, and those who feel blood coursing through their veins carrying and preserving precious memory. The search is for origins in the archive (after Derrida’s 1996 Archive fever), and there is the documentation of the search for total control over those not seen to be fully human. There is the record of the arbitrary enforcement of the order of the ‘archons’, of what can be described as whiteness and therefore goodness. There is the puzzlement that people do not want to be ‘nice white girls’, trained to perform whiteness but always seen as subservient.

How is this material poetic? There are lists, for example of titles which are rendered facile through their naming and shaping, there is prose where words tumble out as they actively encounter what was pressed into pages and filed away. The records of what was attempted, done, the annoyance at ‘failure’, and the occasional protest, the letters that ask for the fair and reasonable – Dear Sir.

Harkin is active in her writing and recording of what was done and to whom. People from the past return through her words, they do not remain buried in the archives. Harkin weaves from words, re-presenting those desires for normal human justice and bringing air and space to them. The text is interleaved with images of those words woven and other fragmentary images from Harkin’s performance work:

Ode to the Board of Anthropological Research
she’s not your hybrid– ‘between–world’ –wonder nor your noble–
wretched–girl not your savage Australian–nigger waiting to die she
was never ‘destitute’ from Mother–love and she won’t let you see
her cry you will never know her fully / tilt her chin up–slightly to
the right and shoot her body once again down the barrel of your
camera drag her image through your lens / you will never know her
fully / make her draw fish on a chalk–board test her reading and
her sums and teach her time with the clanging–mission–bell you
think she’s making progress clawing back from native–hell but you
will never know her fully / teach her to scrub and mop and sew
remove her three times from her lands document her features and
bleed–her till she bends then examine her brown–body through your
microscopic lens but you will never know her fully / you can frame
her you can name her through your science stake your claim but
you will never stop her thinking for her mind you cannot tame her
sacred truth her choices we’ll recover I’ll reclaim no you will never
know her fully never know us never know you will never know her
fully never know. (p 26)

Archival–Poetics 2 Haunting exposes the always unfinished business of attempted dispossession. The endurance of ‘rememory’ is signified by Harkin through, amongst other things, the projected work of r e a at Hart’s Mill 2011, and the 2016 words of Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck and the Super Futures Haunt Qollective:

The opposite of dispossession is not possession. It is not accumulation. It is unforgetting. It is mattering.

Archival–Poetics 3 Blood memory considers the colonial obsession with blood and the insistent measurement of that vital substance alongside the fundamental nature of lived experience and embodied memory. The puzzlement of the colonial powers threads through these texts of Harkin. She is adroit in her voicing of both rulers and those they wish to subjugate and re–make in their own image. The fallacious nature of the ‘archons’ activities is laid bare because they cannot see those they wish to colonise as themselves and therefore un–colonisable.

Although Harkin does not mention ‘indigenisation’ in her writing, she is in effect indigenising the colonial archives. She is bringing her voice and that of others to bear on what was and continues to be deposited by the ruling classes over the last 230 plus years. Each page that turns brings forth those long forgotten by those who would oppress them, never forgotten by their descendants. The language Harkin uses is not conventionally poetic in form, it is full of gaps and gasps, repetitions, stutterings, a channelling of the women and girls who were forced to be what they were not and had no wish to be. The archons ignored the fundamental aspects of humanity at their peril and documented that ignorance. Harkin restores humanity to her subjects through her weaving of words and images.

 

 

Judy Annear is an independent researcher and writer based in Victoria on Dja Dja Wurrung land, never ceded.