Award-winning novelist and essayist Gregory Day has written widely on subjects as varied as the powerful owl and Australian poetry. Many of his nonfiction essays have appeared in notable literary publications over the years, each demonstrating Day’s eye for detail and ability to fold the metaphysical resonances of landscape within personal histories.
In Words are Eagles, Day’s various essays finally sit side by side. As a collection, it offers a deeper sense of the author’s continued interest in language. Day sees language everywhere – in the dominant “blood-orange, or orange-red, or ochre-red, or rose-gold” pigment of the landscape where he lives, or in the untranslatable “splash marks on the surface of the bay”.
The world of his essays offers a sensory and rhythmic oscillation between the personal – memories, family history and relationships – and vivid descriptions of the beauty of the natural world. This vital combination creates a necessary exploration of the language of Country – specifically the Wadawurrung and Gadubanud languages – as well as others transplanted to Australia through colonial settlement and migration. For example, in his tender essay “The Ocean at Night”, Day charts the migration of his family to the coast, inspired by his grandfather’s visit to Lorne after the death of his wife, long before Day was born. Day poses the question: “Are we that live in and around the coast … suffering from our lexicon of borrowed names?” The borrowed names he repeats are familiar: “gannet, myrtle beech, crayfish, bullant, bluegum, wattlebird, sheoak, bandicoot, leucopogon ... Pull these words out by their roots and see how little soil is clinging to them here.”
Day’s exploration occasionally dips into etymology. He considers whether English is incapable of expressing the deeper resonances of Country, how unqualified the Roman alphabet is to represent the orality of Wadawurrung, and the connections and disconnections between place and language within the colonial realities of dispossession and white settlement. Even as Day recounts the arrival in Australia of his Irish and Sicilian ancestors in “The Watergaw”, he asserts the custodianship of the Wadawurrung: “So hollowed-out English would not suffice for MacDiarmid, and so often also it won’t suffice for me. Not when there is a language that comes from here, is of here, that sounds of here, in timbre and noun, beat and retroflex, and that we were never taught.”
Upswell, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Words are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Nature and Language of Place, Gregory Day".
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