One true note?

The meaning of sound in the language of place

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  • Published 20190205
  • ISBN: 9781925773408
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN IAN D Clark’s Aboriginal Languages and Clans: An Historical Atlas of Western and Central Victoria, 1800–1900, in the section entitled ‘Wada wurrung language history and demographic decline’, there is a list of variant spellings of the name of this country and its people. Wadawurrung country, or Wadawurrung tabayl, in south-western Victoria, is bordered by Werribee River in the east, Ballarat and Beaufort in the north, and the Painkalac Creek here at Aireys Inlet in the south-west. Removing mistranscriptions from the list, Clark has identified 133 different recorded spellings of the word.

Watowrong, Wartorong, Wotowrong, Watourong, Wat-r-ong, Waddow-row, Wad-thou-rong, Waddow ro, Waddow, Wattowrong, Wattouerong, Wadthowrong, Wadthourong, Wadourong, Watouring, Waturong, Witowrong, Wadawerang, Wad.dow.wer.rer, Wartowerang, Wartowerong, Wartow werang, War.tow.wer.rong, Waterwrong, Wortowerong, Watawerong, Woolowrong,, Wor.tow.erong, Wad-dow-wer-rer, Wad dow wer rong, Wod.dow.wer.rong, Watowerong, Waddowerong, Wad-dowerong, Waddowerang, Wadong, Wadoung, Wadouro, Wadowrong, Wot-tow-rong, Witourong, Wadower, Witswrong, Wadowio, Wodowro, Widowra, Widoura, Wadowro, Wadoora, Witaoro, Waddorow, Wawtowerang, Wartowong, Wotowerong, Watowerong, Woodowrow, Wodourow, Wodowo, Witowurrong, Woddowrong, Witouro, Wiitya whuurong, Wot-tow-rong, Wod-dow-ro, Watorrong, Witowro, Wuddyawurra, Wathaurung, Wudthurung, Wudthau’rung, Wudthauwurung, Wadthawurung, Watchaora, Wood-thau-rang, Wuddiau rung, Wudthawurung, Witowurung, Wud tha wrung, Wuddyawea, Wuddyawurru, Woddowro, Wudthaurung, Wodowrong, Wito-wu-rrong, Witoura, Wudjawurung, Waitowrung, Wataurun, Wudja:wuru, Wudjawuru, Woodowro, Wudja wuru, Wothowurong, Wataurung, Woddowerong, Wathaurung, Wadthaurung, Wadourer, Wollowurong, Wadjawuru, Wadhawurung, Widouro, Watha wurrung, Wudtharung, Waltaurun, Wudjawurong, Witowurong, Wuddjawurro, Wudthaurun, Woltrowurong, Watdjurang, Wathourung, Wadiwid, Wadawrang, Wateran, Water-ang, Watowerang, Wadthaurang, Wadawio, Woddoro, Wotherwurong, Wittowurrung, Witaioro, Wad-ja-wurru, Wud-ja-warra, Wadja-wurrung, Witherwerong, Wittoro, Wad-dow-er-er, Witoura, Wit-ya-whaurung, Wada wurung.

A single word. 133 versions. That the European colonists privileged a written Roman alphabet over oral communication, and that the Wadawurrung language at the time of first contact in the early 1800s was exclusively oral, are of course key reasons for this polyphony of misnomers. Perhaps, though, as a tool for understanding how complex the realities of colonial dispossession are, this list amounts to a compelling metaphor. It denotes both the pitfalls and the possibilities of trying to interpret this place in the exogenous language of written English.

I can read this list as both tragic and musical. It is also inherently farcical, or tragi-comical. Also, as a pure coincidence of the number of words – 133 – the list has taken on an association for me with Wallace Stevens’ prismatic poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Try, just for starters, ‘133 Ways of Looking at a Heartland’, or ‘133 Ways of Misunderstanding Tabayl’. In its permutative nature, the list feels like a programming code of what some academics call our ‘Anglo-Indigenous’ landscape. Full of such close orthographic modulations, it requires the most intensely ironic concentration to transcribe the 133 spellings precisely.

HALLDÓR LAXNESS, THE Icelandic novelist who broke with modern tradition by writing in his own native Icelandic language rather than colonial Danish, won the Nobel prize in 1955 just before the publication of his novel The Fish Can Sing. In the novel, an opera singer named Garðar Hólm, a local boy made good in the opera houses of Europe, intermittently returns to his native soil with the promise that he will honour his countrymen by singing for them. As the singer repeatedly fails to fulfill this promise, the myth of his artistry burgeons to fill the space left by the absence of his song. The myth is further encouraged by Garðar Hólm’s philosophy, which he bestows on the novel’s young narrator, Álfgrímur, that life is the quest to attain the ‘one true note’. The catch is that whoever attains this note will thereafter cease to sing. Thus Laxness, who with inspired and seemingly superhuman effort, returned his island’s literature back to the autochthonous tongue of its ancient sagas, knew both the vast energy that such a quest for authenticity requires as well as the illusory, even impossible, nature of the task.

Language, like the wind, is hard to pin down. It relies on movement for its existence, as we rely on breath for life. The sound of language also often reminds me of water. It forms, runs, braids, pools, knocks, rustles, rushes, flows… Like a river it is always moving, even when it appears to be still. Its currents are endlessly various but the river itself remains the sum total and singular shape of those currents. The river is cadence.

Is the language I write in – English – a second language on this littoral where we live?

Or a third?

JOHN BERGER, IN a small essay called ‘Self Portrait,’ which he published just before his death in early 2017, writes that, ‘Mother Tongue is our first language, first heard as infants from the mouths of our mothers.’ But what if ‘Mother Tongue’ was not to be attributed to the individual mother but more ambiently to what the Greeks called Gaia, or ‘Mother Earth’? In this way, through the membrane of the womb, the words and sounds spoken by the human mother are recognised as part of a wider array of environmental sounds. Thus we can understand the womb as our first auditory learning space, and the sounds coming to us from the as yet unseen realm outside the womb as our first metaphysics.

If, as otolaryngologist Dr Alfred Tomatis maintains, the human ear is fully grown and functioning after only sixteen weeks’ gestation and ‘the ear’s first function in utero is to govern the growth of the rest of the physical organism’, then it follows that from such beginnings we learn to connect the close rhythms of our own blood with the mirror rhythms of a vast world. We begin, too, to decipher the repeating sonic agreements by which the first humans around us chose to communicate information within that vast biophonic sphere.

Always underneath though, before and surrounding these agreed upon phonemes and words, is the music we are made of, the first symphony of sound, or language, of our first place.

Perhaps Berger’s sentence could therefore be recomposed:

Mother Tongue Earth is our first language, first heard as infants from the mouths of our mothers conceived afresh into this new environment or life-world.


NOAM CHOMSKY QUALIFIES his notion that ‘a human being or any complex organism has a system of cognitive structures that develop much in the way the physical organs of the body develop’ by agreeing that ‘they grow under particular environmental conditions, assuming a specific form that admits of some variation’. To what extent the variations determined by environment can be embodied in written language is a key concern of mine here. David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage, 1997), a foundational text for the still-emerging discipline of ecolinguistics, describes how in the ancient Semitic cultures in which the first alphabets were developed, vowels were left out of written texts in order to avoid desacralising the world they described. The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth, for instance, were all consonants. This was some kind of early negotiated compromise between oral and written culture, whereby the air, or breath of life, intrinsic to the production of vowel sounds (as opposed to the sculptural physicality of consonants relying on the palate, lips, teeth, tongue, etc) was excluded from texts to avoid the dangers of abstraction from the very life-world they were attempting to transpose into script. The reader of these ancient texts was forced then to creatively engage with the content by choosing which vowel sound went where in each word. In this way, Abram believes,

a Hebrew text could not be experienced as a double – a stand-in or substitute – for the sensuous corporeal world. The Hebrew letters and texts were not sufficient unto themselves; in order to be read, they had to be added to, enspirited by the reader’s breath. The invisible air, the same mystery that animates the visible terrain, was also needed to animate the visible letters, to make them come alive and to speak.

By the reader having to insert the vowel sounds into the exclusively consonantal architecture of each written word, the text required an active, even performative participation for it to attain complete cogency, thereby admitting, and in part circumventing, the increased distancing from the psychoacoustic life-world that can be built in to written texts as compared to oral speech. The refusal to print the vowel sounds, which rely for their manufacture on the wider ubiquity of a more-than-human environment, ensured not only that the reader was, in Jed Rasula’s ecopoetic formulation, ‘enlisted as an agent of the writing’ but also that written texts did not atomise or ‘cool’ into mere annotations of creation. Rather, they were always coming-into-being, in the mind and on the tongue of the reader, or ‘wreader’. In this way, to transpose Robert Lowell’s classic definition of poetry to the wider question of language itself, the text maintained its status as an ‘event, not the record of an event’.

There is a telling scene in the English writer Alan Garner’s uncanny novel Strandloper (Harvill, 1996) that relates to this point. Garner’s books are very much driven by his topophilia, or powerful attachment to place. His work is famously saturated with a mythic swirl of endemic rocks, meres, trees and meteorological phenomena, and also with the vernacular palimpsest of the historical and pre-historical cultural landscape of his native Cheshire. The novel reimagines the story of Cheshire-born William Buckley, who famously escaped the putative Australian colonial settlement at present-day Sorrento in Port Phillip Bay in 1803 and lived for thirty-two years with the Wadawurrung before rejoining the Anglosphere not long after the first settlement of Melbourne. In this particular scene, Buckley is on the beach at Beangala, a place on the Bellarine peninsula in south-west Victoria these days known as Indented Head. He is terribly homesick. To assuage his longing, he writes the name of his childhood sweetheart back in England in the sand. Het, he writes, short for Esther. A Wadawurrung elder of Garner’s imagining, who he calls Nullamboin, asks Buckley: ‘“Why do you cut sand?”’ Buckley explains that this writing or ‘cutting sand’ is a form of naming, a type of dreaming that can also be an expression of knowledge. Nullamboin is sceptical but wants to know more. He gets Buckley to write other words, the words of Wadawurrung deities, including Bundjil the eagle, in the sand. Verifying that these words can also be cut into rock or wood, Nullamboin reacts dramatically as the future ramifications of this new and superficial way of transmitting culture dawns on him.

Nullamboin rubs the sand and strides off: ‘“Then all will see without knowledge”, he cries, “without teaching, without dying into life! Weak men will sing! Boys will have eagles! All shall be mad!”’

After reading Strandloper, and also some of the history around the desacralising enclosure of land in England that was ongoing in Buckley’s time, it seems logical that in many ways the pre-invasion Wadawurrung customs and beliefs would have been more familiar to this Cheshire bricklayer, who had grown up with many of the traditional and pantheistic customs of his region still extant, than they would be to us citizens of the Anthropocene today. The issue of the written word, however, and the idea that its utility could completely destroy the timely pathways of knowledge and land-lore, was perhaps at least one gulf that remained between Buckley and his Aboriginal lifesavers. If knowledge was something to be attained through certain careful techniques, like honey from a comb, if it was to be ritually developed like the shapeliness of maturing skin or the muscle of a growing arm, then time and experience, events in the landscape, were the true etymology of the language-creature that served as the carrier of this knowledge.

There is a consistency here between Nullamboin’s fear and Abram’s idea that the air, breath, or wind-mind – the medium through which our consciousness, and therefore our cognitive functioning, operates – is being obscured by the written word. As such, it might be said that the truncation that inevitably takes place between the world-in-itself and the language that describes it is less pronounced in fully embodied oral cultures whose language has evolved biophonically within its specifically contoured region. It follows therefore that the onomatopeia often evident in Wadawurrung descriptors – Parrwang (magpie), go-im (kangaroo), even yern (moon) – is evidence of that lessening of truncation. It also follows that a writer attempting to write, or sing, a home landscape in grammatical units of agreed meaning would be drawn towards words that reduce the truncation effect of language by actually sounding the world around them. In this way, the very atmosphere we breathe becomes the singing ingredients of our cultural expression. Story is given birth to, as if it is flesh itself. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty maintains in his Phenomenology of Perception – first published in 1962, the same year in which the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to provide that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could choose to vote in federal elections if they wanted to – a word is not the ‘mere sign of objects and meanings’ but ‘inhabits things and is the vehicle of meanings’. It is in fact ‘the essence of the thing it describes’ and ‘resides in it on the same footing as its colour or form’.

In other words, the descriptor and the object of description in any given phrase, lyric or sentence enact a two-way exchange, as in the umbilical bond between mother and child, or the sensory communion between landscape and the dweller within it.

WHEN CHARLES TAYLOR cites Wilhelm von Humboldt’s expression of ‘a feeling that there is something which the language does not directly contain, but which the (mind/soul), spurred on by language, must supply and the (drive), in turn, to couple everything felt by the soul with a sound’, he seems to point us in the direction of the inherent mystery of the source of language. Taylor also contends that ‘it is not only poets, novelists and artists who feel this, although it is the very stuff of their existence, but also just about everyone at some point in their lives’. Chomsky too, in regard to what he terms ‘creative use’ of language, maintains that it remains ‘as much of a mystery now as it did centuries ago, and may turn out to be one of those ultimate secrets that ever will remain in obscurity, impenetrable to human intelligence’.

The idea of an impenetrable or mysterious source of language has an affinity with many ancient-ongoing indigenous cultures that privilege the unseen over the seen. When we hear David Prosser, a Yaegl man from the lower reaches of the Clarence River on the north coast of New South Wales, citing Gamilaroi Elder Aunty Rose Fernando’s declaration that ‘language is our soul’, we begin to enter again the realm of the unseen. Prosser says that when he first heard that phrase of Aunty Rose Fernando’s – language is our soul – ‘it instantly entered the deepest part of my heart. And as I continued to think about what she had said I realised that that part of my heart was my soul.’

Of course, Prosser’s words are not meant to be understood physiologically but nevertheless speak anatomically of unseen sources, thereby implying the embodied nature of our linguistic acquisition in lived environments. As such, they also ask us to think in different ways about our 133 written misnomers. It is as if the colonial and postcolonial language collectors of Victoria, who in this context we might ironically call stenographers of country, were attempting to perform a task with the wrong instruments. Instead of listening within the context of unseen sources, or the ‘deepest part of the heart’, they were attempting to capture merely linguistic material. Instead of understanding the words in their full bio-etymological context they were reducing them from a pollen-like existence amidst the living air to a hamfisted afterlife on the static page. Whatever their many and various cultural, religious and economic motivations, they were indeed attempting to pen indigenous culture, in both senses of that word. This penning impulse led in turn to the inscription of inadequate imitations, to the writing down of brittle dictations with tragic limitations.

Even allowing for the fluid, situation-dependent semantics of languages such as Wadawurrung, where the sound or meaning of a word can change depending on time, place and other culturally significant factors or events, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘essence of the thing’, when applied to our 133 transcribed misnomers, becomes an essence of attenuation and misunderstanding rather than of the object, action, feeling, place or language it is intending to signify. We are left with a new series of meanings, a lexicon of glitches that desynchronises human culture with place. It is literally a tragic collision of the vehicles of meaning.

For instance, the list of 133 spellings of Wadawurrung is full of unintentional puns. Such as Wadawio. As in, ‘What do we owe?’ Or the constant repetition of the suffix ‘wrong’, in words like Waterwrong, Woolowrong or Witswrong.

Another way of looking at the list is as a great, ironic sounding-out of the difficulties of writing from, and about, a particular place within ‘Anglo-Indigenous country’. As I do.

AIREYS INLET, OR Mangowak (meaning ‘good place to hunt swans’), is the south-western border of the Turaltja clan of the Wadawurrung, also the south-western border of Wadawurrung country itself, also the south-western border of the wider Kulin nation. It is within the boundaries of the Surf Coast Shire, also the cadastral county of Grant, the state electorate of Polwarth, the federal electorate of Corangamite, the state of Victoria and the federated nation of Australia. It was when I was a teenager, growing up on the banks of the Painkalac Creek in Aireys Inlet, that reception of the ocean landscape and the flash of inspiration the American critic Elaine Scarry has called ‘radiant ignition’, began to feel indivisible for me.

Benganak goopmala-ilk talk-getyaweel Nganyakee ba deerdabeel laa-getyaweel
Benganak beetyarra-ik waeema woorr-woorr werreeyt-ik

The sky split open, showing the beauty of the first sunrise. They were so overjoyed to see the light and feel the warmth of the sun’s heat, they burst into song.
(From ‘Magpie’ – told and translated by Uncle David Tournier)

Looking along the sepiatone of the Painkalac and down the line of the coast into the south-west, past Grassy Creek and Lorne to the towering headlands, or Taenarea, of the Otways, I felt both a freedom and an agitation, a filling up and an emptying out, a thrilling impetus and a terrible lack. This was different from an experience of the sublime in the Burkean sense, yet as the landscape entered me I was simultaneously filled with a desire to respond, to somehow match it, or, in a quasi-Pindaric mood I was unconscious of at the time, to pay tribute to it.

Just a few years later, when I was in my early twenties, I wrote a poem that could be construed as an attempt to begin to tackle a crucial aspect of the difficulty of writing about this place in a language forcibly imposed upon it. By doing so, I was beginning to attend to my feelings of confusion and unreadiness for the task.

‘Those are not Tuscan hills…’
The land takes away the g
Adds the b
Leaves you wanting to show
By the way you say
That you’re in it, with its
Soil in your ears & shoes
In your hair & tears
It takes away the uni, the g,
The colonisation so you’re saying
I’m lovin’ you, I’m headin’ there
It’ll be ok and such is life
And the bird’s real name is not
That compliant import you’ve given it
This is sound this is sense
Those are not Tuscan hills.

It is unremarkable that, in reaching for a mode of expression to match both the historical context of dispossession, the continuing land grab, and the grand sonic atmosphere of the coastline, I ended up having to turn to Europe, and specifically the Mediterranean, as a negative catalyst. I knew already that the particular numinosity I was experiencing in the landscape could not simply be matched with received ideas, borrowed melody, or Tuscan terza rima. At that time, the late 1980s, there was a fashion for all things Tuscan not only among suburban property developers but also among the literary circles of Australia. David Malouf was living in Tuscany, Germaine Greer had a house in Tuscany, Kate Grenville had just set a novel, Dreamhouse (Viking, 1987), in Tuscany. I was already beginning to draw on the Mediterranean as part of my genetic and cultural inheritance. (My ancestor Antonio Denerio arrived in Geelong in the 1840s from Riposto in Sicily at around the same time that my other ancestors James and Mary Day arrived in Geelong from Ireland.) But on a trip to France, Italy, Sicily, Greece and Crete in 1987, I also felt how worn the paths had become over there, how exhausted and even trivialised the Mediterranean landscape had become through an economic reliance on the tropes of Romanticism hyped to industrial levels. I had an inkling of an equivalent but fresher dream here at home, albeit with its own mythological antiquity, if only I could begin to listen and to comprehend. It may have seemed right for the older generations of Australian writers and artists to head to England, Europe and America, but I felt that for my own generation, or at least for myself, the time had come to stay put. To stay meant to grapple not only with the possibilities of new melodic dreams but with a dramatic inheritance of expropriation and absence, and a largely unframed contemporary response to the metaphysical landscape. It meant also a technical wrestling with an often atonal and caustic vernacular, and an attempt to find an accurate language for a post-volcanic yet atavistic environment of sulphur-crested screeching, bull-ant bites and tempestuous Bass Strait winters. All this had to be conjoined with the loyalty and affinity I felt for my family’s own linguistic inheritance, from Ireland, from Sicily and, since 1841, from colonial Australia.

The silence in the landscape could be eerie, but the ocean was a radio, transmitting along the river flat and into the heath and bush. It spoke to me of unseen things, of wondrous feasts, of battles fought in the past – feasts and battles we weren’t taught about at school. On the ridgelines of wattle, messmate and xanthorrhoea above the cursive shoreline, or down among the enveloping frequencies of the tide on the beach, I cupped a hand to my ear and asked the question: What actually happened? How did we get here and where the hell are those who were here before? Where, for instance, were the creation myths, the songs, the arias of word and image that must exist as a response to this very particular atmosphere?

Due to the absence at the time of Indigenous voices in the landscape, what I heard back in response was the sound of the place. It was a wonderful sound, awesome, but it was also disorienting, for it spoke of violence and dishonour.

IN HIS ‘SELF Portrait’ John Berger warns that ‘words, terms, phrases can be separated from the creature of their language and used as mere labels. They can become inert and empty.’ He says that the ‘repetitive use of acronyms is a simple example of this’.

By recomposing Berger’s words – Mother Tongue Earth is our first language, first heard as infants from the mouths of our mothers conceived afresh into this new environment or life-world – I am implying that ‘words, terms, phrases’ ‘become inert and empty’ if their speakers cease listening to the language-creature of Gaia, place, or Mother Earth. This has particular implications for someone like me, who writes in English from the once exclusively oral language-place that is the Wadawurrung landscape.

Continuing along the thread of Berger’s thought, the following sentence from his ‘Self Portrait’ becomes a deadly one indeed: ‘Such dead “word-mongering” wipes out memory and breeds a ruthless complacency.’ This is the ‘ruthless complacency’ that is at the heart of the European colonial project in Australia. It is important that we don’t speak of that project as existing only in the past. It is this very complacency that is still the first aesthetic challenge for the contemporary writer trying to be faithful or to correspond to the complex language-creature, or topos, he or she is born into.

LARGELY DUE TO my studies in the Wadawurrung language, which with the permission of Wadawurrung Elder and language teacher Uncle David Tournier I began teaching at my children’s primary school here in Mangowak in 2016, I have come to believe not only that fish can sing, as Halldór Laxness did, but that words come not only from our mother but like rain from the sky. Time and again the Wadawurrung words the children are learning are explicitly onomatopoeic. They sound like the things, and the environments of the things, they describe. Parrwang (magpie), go-im (kangaroo), yern (moon). So when nearly all our social contracts and agreements in Australia take place in imported English, do we have a problem? The more we fall in love with our country, the more we yearn to understand it, the more we experience the disorientation of the perpetual misnomer in our senses. Ours is a psychogeography of anxiety. A place of weakened literacy. We try 133 different remedies but remain uncertain about them all. And if in the end we revert to ironic forms of shorthand such as bullet lists (Village Well’s 5 Ps of Placemaking) or spoonerish acronyms (GORCC – Great Ocean Road Coast Committee), we do so not only as efficiency measures and time-saving devices but as expressions of a future in which our Mother Earth may have to shout to be heard. And no matter what word you use for it, we all know what that means.

After many years of generous teaching, translating and storytelling in Wadawurrung tabayl, Tandop David Tournier passed away on New Year’s Eve 2016.


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