Aboriginal Place Names in Haiku

Japanese haiku writers often reference locations by name, thereby inviting the reader to bring their knowledge of place into the poem. Take, for example, this haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902):

biting into a persimmon
a bell resounds
Hōryū-ji

While Shiki did not write this haiku at the Hōryū-ji Temple, it’s thought he referenced the temple because it was located in an area well known for its persimmons, his favourite fruit. Japanese readers of the poem would have been aware of this link with place.

In Australia, it’s becoming increasingly common to identify geographical features and places using their Aboriginal names. Nowadays, for example, the great sandstone monolith in central Australia is widely referred to as Uluru, rather than Ayers Rock.

Aboriginal place names are often associated with stories from the Dreaming. There are many Dreamtime stories relating to the creation of the land, people, animals, plants, laws and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.

Hence, when an Aboriginal place name is referenced in haiku, an awareness of the related Dreamtime story can add depth of meaning to the poem – a practice similar to that of a Japanese haiku writer referencing a location in his/her country.

Consider for a moment this haiku of mine which was published in Poetry from the Edge: Haiku Down Under Anthology 2022 (I have written previously about the anthology here):

Gulaga
a young whale rises
beside his mother

People who have lived on, or visited, the south coast of New South Wales will likely be aware of the mountain, known as Gulaga, which looks out over the sea. Equally, many people will be aware that humpback whales migrate north past Gulaga each year to give birth in warmer waters before returning to the Southern Ocean with their calves.

On that level, the haiku makes sense.

For the local Yuin people, though, Gulaga is a place of cultural origin and a symbolic mother figure. They see the profile of the mountain as that of a pregnant woman laying on her side.

The associated Dreamtime story, which you can read here, speaks of Gulaga looking out over her two sons, one of which is the nearby Barranguba (island).

Once you consider the significance of Gulaga to Aboriginal people, then the haiku takes on extra meaning. The haiku is not just one of practical description, ie a whale and her calf passing Gulaga mountain.

It has another level where the Yuin people’s spiritual Mother-mountain is looking out over the whale calf. The calf is not only rising next to his own mother but also next to the Yuin symbol of motherhood.

Non-Aboriginal people (such as myself) are not usually aware of individual Dreamtime stories. However, even a relatively limited knowledge of these stories can add a richness to our understanding of place. And an understanding of place can add depth to the haiku we write.

Aboriginal Culture in Haiku

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following material contains the name of a person who has died. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (1971-2017) was a highly acclaimed Aboriginal singer/songwriter. He was blind since birth. Gurrumul Yunupingu’s songs, usually sung in the Yolŋu languages of his land, have a calming, contemplative quality that is…