Ellen van Neerven
Paper ships, many fires

I know what you’re thinking

                                 how can we save the world?

                                                  when we have barely

                                                                   just survived it

when we have been disposed of

                 raped and murdered

                                 erased and orphaned

                                                  and lost 90 per cent or more of our kin

when we are just getting to our feet

                 when we are hurt

                                 and barely breathing

                                                  from the impact

when we have been dispossessed more than once, more than twice

                                 by killings, disease, poison

                                                  mining companies, governments, floods and

                                                                   White fire

Aunty and Uncle fight to stay

                 on their sacred land

                                 they won’t leave

                                                  but we don’t see them on TV

can you guess two “c” words

                 so closely connected, they are the same?

                                 cook and cunt?

                                                  nice try. colonisation and climate change

fight one and you fight them both

                 we endeavour to save this world

                                 guided by elders, remembering and restoring

                                                  old science and medicine

a flame burns at the Tent Embassy in Kamberra

                 still burns

                                 this fire represents many fires

                                                  reminding us we are still here




This year, Australia plans to mark the 250th anniversary

                 of a landing in two views

                                 the view from the ships

                                                  and the view from the shore


                 when we imagine the shore

                                 we imagine our men

                                                  holding spears

                                                                  watching the tall ships come closer


                 and our womxn?

                                 I’ve been looking for you

                                                  I find you in the absence

                                                                  I go back home


                 feel the strong defence of country

                                 through the blood

                                                  and placenta

                                                                  of grandmothers


                 with tears in my eyes

                                 with determined bones

                                                  the blood soaks through

                                                                  and speaks truth


                 inhaling 250 years of smoke

                                 it takes all our hands

                                                  to lift the masts of those ships

                                                                  out of the dirt




This is everything I’ve learnt about paper

                 it comes from trees

                                 the tree and us are one

                                                  we breathe together

we look after trees

                  like they look after us

                                 some are our ancestors

                                                  we belong to them

we give to trees

                 to receive

                                 they are our life

                                                  and death

we never forget

                 they are in the paper

                                 we wear

                                                  crap on

                                                                   and write

shelter, medicine and food

                 words mean nothing without action

                                 language is empty

                                                  without ceremony


Ellen van Neerven joins Maxine Beneba Clarke and Omar Sakr as The Saturday Paper’s poets for this year.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 25, 2020 as "Paper ships, many fires".

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Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh writer and the author of Heat and Light and Comfort Food. Their new collection of poetry is Throat.

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