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Poetry and the pathos of our first peoples

Ralph Genende
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Published: 6 January 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

RALPH GENENDE’s first visit to an Aboriginal settlement was an epiphany that pushed him to find out more about Indigenous Australians and inspired him to write a prizewinning poem to reflect his experience.

Several years ago, I visited Darwin for the first time and also took a light plane to an Aboriginal settlement to spend Shabbat with a doctor friend doing a locum there.

Even though I had lived in Australia for almost two decades, I had never been to an Aboriginal town. The poverty and pervading sense of hopelessness and helplessness drilled deep into me. My mood shifted, however, when a local elder took us on a trip into the surrounding bush to a hidden waterfall and river.

It was a beautiful and refreshing escape from the oppressiveness of the town. The elder’s quiet wisdom and belief in his people and connection to the land was even more remarkable and inspired me to pen the following poem, which I titled Outback birth:

Moving into the interior the tall grasses
wave me to a river
and there suddenly silently I awaken to a waterfall
small and gentle it hovers in the drifting sunligh

There are moments when peace petals into our troubled lives
leaving little blossoms
in our slumbering selves

tiny messengers from the outback
memories of a distant star reminders of a faraway birth

I am sharing this poem to highlight both the power of poetry and the pathos of our first peoples.
I know that for many, if not most people, poetry is inaccessible and even mystifying. Possibly just as challenging and enigmatic as the struggles and conditions of our First Nations.

I do, however, believe that the human spirit needs more than just rational and factual information and ideas. It yearns for the spiritual and emotional as well. The ordinary or quotidian is fine for the head but fails to speak to the heart and the soul. Most prose addresses our rational side but poetry awakens our feelings and often expresses the inexpressible.

Great literature recognises the need for both. So the earliest storytellers often spoken in poetry – think of Homer’s Odyssey, the fabled stories of the Arabian nights or the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who has been described as the "most popular  poet" whose works still resonate across the centuries and are still widely read and popular from  Azerbaijan to the USA.

Judaism has always appreciated that life longs for the lyrical as well as the prosaic. The earliest of Jewish writings - the written Torah, the five books of Moses - is legal in large part, but also contains lively poetic pieces and passages. What Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Palestine called the “poetry of the law”. called the “poetry of the law”.

There are the two most well-known fabled pieces of poetry in the Torah or Pentateuch: the first is Song of the Sea (Shirat Ha Yam) that the Jewish people sing after they victoriously cross the seemingly impassable Red Sea (Exodus 15).

The second is Moses’s final message to his people shortly before his death, known as Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32). You can recognise these passages in a Torah scroll because they are written in verse. These are passages that soar with beauty and arresting images; they lift the human spirit, they take you onto a different plane.

Both pieces are written out of heightened emotion – the elation and relief of deliverance from enemies, and the poignancy of a great leader’s final departing words to his beloved people.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out, Moses at the very end of his life turns to emotional intelligence, so that his teachings would not only enter the minds, but also the hearts of his people.

Songs and music move us in deep and often mysterious ways. They have the ability to touch the human spirit when words falter and fail.

It is feelings that move us to act and give us the energy to aspire; they inspire us to aspire! I’m not talking about a gush of raw or sentimental emotion, but about emotion recollected in tranquillity (Wordsworth’s definition of poetry), or what TS Eliot called “felt thought”.

In other words, fine poetry is often distinguished by the balance of cognition and emotion; the Torah records the builders of the Tabernacle or religious sanctuary were people with “wise or informed hearts”. So are the constructors of poetry.

This is why poetry and literature in general is vital for a life fully lived. One of the great Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, and head of the well-known Gush Etzion Yeshiva of recent times, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, championed the value of the humanities in general, and literature in particular, to benefit the religious and spiritual life.

He contended that by engaging with what the British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” provides a spiritual complement to the lives of religious believers.

I wrote this poem on my first visit to that Aboriginal settlement. This stay was a kind of epiphany for me: it stimulated me to find out more about the plight of our first peoples and to try do more to advance their concerns and dreams.

It helped me look deeper into myself and to understand not only intellectually but also emotionally and empathically what it means to be an Aborigine in Australia today.

I hope I will always carry the messages from the outback with me, their memories of the distant stars of their ancestors and their hopes for a better future, those still faraway births.

The Uluru Statement From The Heart is surely about recognising those stars and song lines and bringing that birth a little closer. 

It can help bring some peace and fulfilment into our troubled times.

Ralph Genende’s poem Outback Birth won the Open Poetry section of the 2022 Glen Eira My Brother Jack Competition

About the author

Ralph Genende

Rabbi Ralph Genende is the Interfaith and Community Liaison at the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He is also Senior Rabbi to Jewish Care Victoria.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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