Friday, August 28, 2009

WA's best ever poem by its greatest poet

Roebourne is a uniquely Western Australian town. Situated 1200 km north of Perth in the Pilbara Region, it lies in the traditional lands of the Ngarluma people. White settlement dates back to the arrival of pastoralists in 1864.

It is one of my favourite places in Western Australia. It was events in Roebourne in 1983 that inspired Jack Davis, arguably, WA's finest poet to write what I reckon is the greatest poem ever written in WA. For me this is what poetry should be about- engagement with the social and political issues of the time.

Jack Davis's poem was written about the death in 1983 in a Roebourne police cell of John Pat, a 16 year old Aboriginal boy who died of head injuries alleged to have been caused in a disturbance between Aboriginal people and Police. Four police were charged with manslaughter but acquitted. The death was the catalyst for the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Here we are nearly 30 years later and little has changed.

John Pat
by Jack Davis (from the book John Pat and Other poems, published 1988)
" Write of life
the pious said
forget the past
the past is dead.
But all I see
in front of me
is a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

Agh! tear out the page
forget his age
thin skull they cried
that's why he died!
But I can't forget
the silhouette
of a concrete floor
a cell door and John Pat

The end product
of Guddia law
is a viaduct
for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell
like Roebourne's hell
of a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat

He's there- where?
there in their minds now
deep within,
there to prance
a sidelong glance
a silly grin
to remind them all
of a Guddia wall
a cell door
and John Pat
Jack Davis's poem has been put into song by Archie Roach and Mark Bin Bakar

Guddia is a Kimberley term for the white man term

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