The Darkness in Behind the Sun
A poem by Leah McGarrity, Sydney, NSW.
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The darkness when your eye is poked: the mass of red-smeared sodden light and colour imprint of congealing, like a memory tricked into an outline for a moment, then sliding down and fading round the yoke-like black of an eclipse, rimmed with fleshy membrane red and the quickening flash of yellow light. It’s closer than you think, than the altar of transparency where your life is built, undone; and then remade into an instant; there it is: and lost, and gone again in blinking, stumbling in a moment’s reeling back and blinking forward an idea, an answer to protect yourself, blinking hard behind a wall of lathered SPF15, you run into the shade of air-conditioned mother’s arms. Remember this, amnesiac; remember this, Australian child, this first taste, this warning, this prophecy you'll spend a life denying; trying to control the sun, to turn a slow burn fury to a makeshift tan the taste of heat subliming into melanin: an alchemy you thought could be restrained, held back at a laconic distance and taken off, put on at will, kept dangling there outside of you; you dragging down the sun to distant brightness, cut-throat ingenuity, the radiance of a clever country light enough to talk about; but there; there it is: you feel its thumping, pulsing, see it watching you, and when it hits, your thinking turns, wide-eyed, and bolts; you see inside yourself the cornered animal, snarling, pale down there below the sunlight, feel the cold and inky blackness of a crow’s wing up against your skin, and know the liquid ball of darkness in behind the sun is your own eye looking back at you: the dead-weight haunting time before reflection, opaque blackness of your pupil you must swallow, absorb into yourself, absorb the darkness in behind the sun and grow it from within and feel it crack you open, wind you in the gut, and leave you flat against the ground, until, finally, you’re here.
Helping understand Leah's poem
The poem is addressed to non-Aboriginal Australia (the "you" of the poem). It is meant to be dream- or trance-like series of ever more concentrated images, and takes up the gradually intensifying rhythms of an initiation ritual, painful but ultimately healing, integrating.
The ‘darkness that is in behind the sun’ – not just behind it, but more embedded, immovable entrenched there in behind it – refers to the darkness of non-Aboriginal Australia's denial in behind the sunny, superficial comfortable story, and way of life, that it has taken for granted.
The gradually more intense focus of the poem builds from the abrupt interruption of the eye being poked. This is the first, mere inkling of this darkness, an inkling of an Australia that was there long, long before.
Eventually this builds to eventually being forced out, exposed, being no longer able turn away from the scorching intensity of the sun – no more amnesia, no more “air-conditioning”, no more “SPF 15” sunscreen – and, in that scorching, the darkness of the sun is revealed as embedded there within us, inescapably in behind our subjectivity as Australians.
How can the sun have darkness within it, in behind it? The eye is often compared to the sun in poetry, but in this poem, Leah split this common image into two parts. Firstly, the brightness of the sun, giving the transparency of light is compared to the outwardly directed visual capability of the eye’s seeing.
Secondly, the darkness, the dancing flickering blackness we glimpse at the centre of the sun - when we close our eyes after looking directly at it - which she compares to the central darkness of the eye, the pupil, and the inward looking gaze of introspection.
Leah equates the latter with Aboriginal Australia and the former with non-Aboriginal Australia. The former perspective – brightness, transparency, light, outward movement in the instant, in the present, progress and ‘doing’ – has been and still is, what most Australians have focused on and has been promoted as our national character.
But the latter – the darkness within, timeless, primordial subjectivity in behind and before reflection, our embedded ‘being’ – has been ignored as too uncomfortable, too awkward, too unpleasant and guilt-ridden for how many Australians would prefer to see themselves. They have preferred to turn away. Leah suggests that both perspectives need to be integrated into our vision in order to be here, in this land.
The poem is about non-Aboriginal Australians finally acknowledging where they are, facing the past, the hard truths, and accepting the bitter medicine of listening to Aboriginal people. It’s about non-Aboriginal Australians feeling the discomfort of their own shame, their own guilt, their underlying, gnawing unease, their primordial original sin, rather than running away from it, aggressively covering it over and denying it, with their laconic ‘she'll be right’ attitude that belies so much insecurity and anger.
It is about non-Aboriginal Australians no longer protecting themselves from this darkness, but withstanding it, swallowing it, and finally being here. Australia cannot just have the comforting brightness of the sun without accepting the darkness that lies there in behind it too.
The above explanations were supplied by the author.
About the author
Leah McGarrity is not Aboriginal. But, if it weren’t for the Larrakia (Darwin) and Umbakumba (Groote Eylandt) communities (NT), she probably would not be here. Her parents were both doctors working there; her father was from central India and came to Australia during the White Australia policy due to a shortage of doctors willing to work with Aboriginal communities, while her mother was from Sydney and of English and Irish descent.
Leah was raised in Sydney by her mother, who worked as a GP with the Redfern, Erskineville and Waterloo Koori communities. She says that while much has happened since, these are the small ways her life has been directly shaped by Aboriginal communities.