John Kinsella had an essay a couple of years ago in Australian Book Review called “Parrotology: On the Necessity of Parrots in Poetry.” I had not even realized that parrots were considered a tired trope of Australian poetry, but Kinsella explains both that and the necessity (as he sees it) of retaining the parrot as “an addictively necessary part of a poetics.” It’s an enjoyable read:
Despising nation and patriotism and jingoism as I do, I baulk when I hear that ‘parrots’ are clichés or overused symbols of Australia, particularly the outback. I have a personal history of parrotology, a deep respect for all their varieties, and a fascination for their manifestations in literature, particularly poetry. For me, a parrot isn’t simply a parrot. In the thrust forward to make of Australian poetry some-thing more cosmopolitan, internationalist and sophisticated, there’s been some throwing of the baby out with the bathwater. Arguments of literary maturity are the old cultural cringe stuff reformed as residue, a bit like the cherishing of remnant bushland when all else is reduced to salinity. The parrot becomes a transitional object in this child-nation’s shift from linguistic acquisition to linguistic confidence and exploration.
Arguably, this exploration of linguistic possibilities in poetry — searching for new ways of expressing confidence in identity — is parallel to, or maybe even an extension of, the narratives of exploration that ‘opened up’ land for ‘settler’ use, and sought to reset the co-ordinates (namings, markings, topography and explication) of place, with the aim of creating ‘guilt-free’ occupation. It might well be, disturbingly, a new form of colonisation…
For example, how many anthologised Australian poems are about parrots, or even include parrots? How and when did they become figurative currency? Why the joy at not encountering them? First, we’d have to consider the demographics and cultural values of the judges. Are they urban people, for whom the parrot is a bland representation of the rural other — an expected trope that denies variety in all its guises? Is the parrot the Anglo-Celtic displacement of indigeneity, a kind of legitimising or reterritorialising of the sign? The rendering of the Derridean monster into something acceptable? The event defanged, or debeaked? By way of distraction, let’s think of Australian parrots as our version of the hippogriff.
We might ask of the cultural density and liberality of the city — real or desired — is everything therein not parrot? Interestingly, ‘pissed as a parrot’ applies as much to parrots in the north of Queensland consuming fermented fruit as to rainbow lorikeets dining on the fermented nectar of schotia brachypetala in the Sydney Botanical Gardens, so drunk they featured in the Sydney Morning Herald (2004) and wire pick-ups in newspapers around the world. In the gardens, beneath the drunken parrots, families of diverse spiritual beliefs, politics, social attitudes, ethnicities and cultural practices look up and take note. Some might be embarrassed, some make jokes at the expense of the parrots, some feel pity, even empathy. The parrot as symbol of nation falls off its perch.
Incidentally, the next line contained a word that confused me: “Chris Mansell’s ‘Definition Poem: Pissed as a Parrot’ is a poem of word slippage: ‘If the sheep’s fly-blown it’s a rosella.'” So far so good, but later he says “The parrot (oh, a rosella is a type of parrot)…” Well, which is it? A quick trip to the OED revealed that a rosella is both a parrot (or, to be exact, “A brightly coloured seed-eating Australian parakeet belonging to the genus Platycercus“) and “A sheep whose wool is beginning to fall off naturally, and which is therefore easy to shear.” And the word does not, as you might expect, come from Latin; it’s “App. for Rose-hiller, f. Rose-hill, Paramatta near Sydney.” Australia is full of surprises.