An award-winning novelist and essayist, Gregory Day has written extensively on subjects as varied as the mighty owl and Australian poetry. Many of his non-fiction essays have appeared in notable literary publications over the years, each demonstrating Day’s attention to detail and ability to weave the metaphysical resonances of landscape into personal stories.
In words are eagles, Day’s various essays finally come together. As a collection, it offers a deeper sense of the author’s continuing interest in language. Day sees language everywhere – in the dominant “blood orange, or orange-red, or red ocher, or rose gold” pigment of the landscape where he lives, or in the untranslatable “splash on the surface of the bay”. .
The universe of his essays offers a sensory and rhythmic oscillation between the personal – memories, family and relational history – and vivid descriptions of the beauty of the natural world. This vital combination creates a necessary exploration of the country’s language – particularly the Wadawurrung and Gadubanud languages – as well as others transplanted to Australia through colonization and migration. For example, in his tender essay “The Ocean at Night,” Day traces his family’s migration to the coast, inspired by his grandfather’s visit to Lorne after his wife’s death, long before Day was born. Day asks the question: “Are we who live on and around the coast…suffering from our lexicon of borrowed names? The assumed names he repeats are familiar:gannet, beech myrtle, crayfish, bullant, bluegum, wattlebird, sheoak, bandicoot, leucopogon … Pull these words by their roots and see how little earth clings to them here.
Day’s exploration sometimes delves into etymology. It examines whether English is incapable of expressing the deeper resonances of the country, how unqualified the Roman alphabet is to represent the orality of Wadawurrung, and the connections and disconnections between place and language in the real world. colonialism of dispossession and white colonization. Even as Day recounts the arrival in Australia of his Irish and Sicilian ancestors in “The Watergaw”, he affirms the guardianship of the Wadawurrung: “So hollow English would not be enough for MacDiarmid, and so often also it will not be enough for me. Not when there is a language that comes from here, is from here, that sounds from here, in timbre and in name, in rhythm and in retroflex, and that we have never been taught.
Upswell, 320pp, $29.99
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 under the title “Words Are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Nature and Language of Place, Gregory Day”.
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