Editorial Introduction by Dr Jonathan W. Marshall:
Reproduced below is a transcript of the performance component of a presentation given by Greg Burley at the 2009 ADSA conference. 1 The text borrows much of its form from Australian bush ballads of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Banjo Paterson, Tom Collins, C.J. Dennis, etcetera), paying particular attention to the folkloric nature of the genre and the mythologising of masculinity such ballads often promoted. The poem revolves around the doomed romance of an otherwise heterosexual stockman and “Herc”: a character inspired in part by the deathbed memoirs of Herculine Barbin, a nineteenth century intersexed individual (“pseudo-hermaphrodite”), who possessed both a vaginal groove and a penis. Barbin’s complete confessional diary was first published in 1978 by Michel Foucault. 2
Also interspersed through Burley’s poem below are snatches of text whose performance and percussive rhythms are intended to echo cotemporary US rap music, which is also known for its penchant for mythologising masculinity.
In this manner, the presence of intersexuality, coupled with images, references and linguistic tropes from late twentieth century culture embedded within the bush ballad form, serve to “queer” the text and the performative utterances which are both embodied and placed in quotation marks through a vocal performance of it. The poem and the issues it raises remains an ongoing focus of Burley’s research.
“The Ballad of Hercule Barbin” by Greg Burley
The sun had barely risen; I was on sheep number forty-two
when our new boy arrived in a battered, old HQ.
With a glint in his eye and an expression carved in stone,
our new boy told Toby he was a two-bit, bloody drone.
“Afternoon is denoted by the hands upon the clock.
“Mate you must be blind or you’re speaking a load of crock.
“Hercule’s the name,” he said as he sat on Old Blue’s perch.
“But seeing as this is Australia, folks just call me Herc.”
Now Herc he was of a race I’d never seen before.
The closest was Chinese or an American Indian Squaw.
And not a wrinkle on his face, he was as pretty as I ever saw.
Prettier than Bardot, Turner and Gabor.
And when Herc he got working, he was strong and full of grace.
Not a bead of sweat appeared, on that lovely, lovely face.
At noon the trouble started when Mack woke from his lunchtime kip
and said that word, the word that was, on all our sun-parched lips.
He turned to Herc and sneered, Mack was never one to infer,
“What a screaming bloody poof. You’re no he you’re a her.
“Blokes like you are queer; you make me bloody sick.
“I reckon I saw you dreamin’ of sucking on my dick.”
Herc jumped to his feet and started bobbing, bobbing to and fro.
“Come on you big fat cunt, have a fuckin’ go.”
Yeah Mack he was a big bugger alright, six foot-four across
and I know that if he killed young Herc, he wouldn’t give a toss.
And I’m sure he was part werewolf, with hair so thick, so long, so black.
Too bad it only covered his broad and muscled back.
There wasn’t a whisker on his head; he was as bald as a bushman’s sack.
And he sported this ludicrous comb-over, culled from his hairy back.
Sure enough there was a fight, what a bloody farce.
It only took one punch and Mack was on his arse.
“Now any other motherfucker wanna get hurt,
“I could bury you all under six foot of dirt.
“I’m insane, crazy, mean as can be,
“I’m like a mad, rabid dog from the KGB.”
At five we’d finished working when it’d cooled to forty-two.
I saw Herc at the basin and said, “I’d like a word with you.”
“I don’t want to sound rude and certainly don’t mean to pry.
“You’re not from around these parts,” I said, swishing at a fly.
Herc looked into the distance and gave an embarrassed cough,
then told me of his origins as we drank from the concrete trough.
“I come from a place up north where there’s nary a blade of grass,
a land of midnight sun and men with balls of brass.
“Where whale is a staple and our homes are made of ice
and if the temperature gets to minus two, we think it rather nice.
“So Jack let’s be honest; don’t think lesser of me,
“I come from no sunburnt country crowned with eucalypt trees.
“No kangaroos, no wallabies, no cows going moo moo moo.
“This strange, cold place I come from is a place called Igaloo.”
“I got smuggled to Australia in an old rusted boat,
but tell anyone and I’ll fuckin’ slit your throat.
“Three long years I been on the run,
hidin’ in crackhouses, whorehouses, slums.
“My history, my story, is scribed in sand,
“I’m a bad, bad person I got blood on my hands.”
Herc put a hand upon my shoulder his touch was soft and light.
It made my heart go flutter and my shorts got rather tight.
He gave a little smile that was both innocent and coy
and I knew I was in love with this dark, mysterious boy.
Herc winked a goodbye then slowly sauntered away,
I couldn’t help but admire the way his hips did sway.
Guilty and ashamed I thought God was playing a joke.
I’m a man. No, more than a man, I’m a fuckin’ bloke.
How can I feel like this? No way I’m bloody queer.
My hands trembled violently which I recognised as fear.
I had to quell this guilt, drink a possible resort,
or prove my manhood with Julie, the town’s one and only escort.
I was starting to sound like Dad, a man of dubious ways.
He stumbled into a harvester, in an alcohol-fuelled daze.
No my solution to this problem was to build an emotional fort
but unfortunately despite my efforts I came up rather short.
Every day and every hour I battled with my plight,
whenever my eyes met Herc’s I fought the urge to flight
Paranoia it gripped me, surely everyone knew my darkest thoughts.
I felt like a real stranger amongst my shearing floor cohorts.
My fears were confirmed one day while I was counting my weekly money,
when Stevo slided up to me and said, “Jack I think you’re funny.”
I knew keeping this secret of mine was never gonna be easy,
my face it glowed the brightest red and my stomach went soft and queasy.
“Funny as in hmmm,” I said, “or funny as in hee hee hee?”
“Actually,” Stevo wryly smiled, “I mean funny as in he he he.”
Stevo stared at his boots looking like a dog without a bone,
and it was then that I realised that I was not alone.
Stevo stepped closer still and gave a knowing wink.
“Thanks but no thanks Stevo, I’m going for a drink.”
I bought a carton of stubbies from the local pub,
then went to the river and laid amongst the shrub.
I was thinking about what Stevo said, thinking about this and that,
when suddenly Herc appeared, silent like a cat.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said and sat down rather close.
“How about we celebrate and drink a merry toast?
“To friends and lovers we once had
and to those we’ve yet to have.”
After downing our stubbies, in one almighty slug,
Herc laid next to me on my flattened, dried grass rug.
He leaned up real close and put a hand on my hairy thigh,
eliciting from me a long and lustful sigh.
His hand headed north and crept beneath my shorts
and for one short moment I was having second thoughts.
Go for it I told myself and I reciprocated his move.
I groped his hot hard flesh and of that he did approve.
Our lips then touched, into his mouth my willing tongue slid in,
There wasn’t a hint of grainy stubble on that long and noble chin.
Little Herc was well endowed, not what you’d call pint-size,
but feeling around beneath his shorts I got one hell of a surprise.
“What in earth is that?” I said, pulling away my hand.
Herc rolled over on his back and said “I hope you understand.
“I never know if it’s best to mention this before or either after.
“I’m not like Stevo, nor like Julie I’m not like Arthur or Martha.
“I’ve got the genitals of both sexes, my DNA it did err,
so Jack in effect, I’m am both him and her.
“When I was young, up to ten, I was my mother’s cute little baby bubber.
“I was dressed in pink and played with dolls, fashioned from whale blubber.
“But as I grew older my penis got bigger and one-day Mum confiscated my toys.
“She said son, I gotta tell you, if it dangles, then girl, you’re a boy.
“So a boy I became and I was as happy as when I was a girl.
“I soon started wrestling and hunting, and ceased wearing earrings of pearl.
“But then one day, a friend of my mums, started to sexually abuse me
“The photographs she took, went up on the net for all the perverts to see.”
“On my sixteenth birthday enough was enough.
“I got a motherfuckin’ knife and I cut her up.
“Thrusting and stabbing over every inch of her body,
till the ground went black and the sky turned bloody.
“There was 237 stab wounds in all,
then I ran and ran I wasn’t gonna take the fall.”
Herc’s face contorted with anguish, his head slowly, softly nodding.
He curled into my bosom real tight, and then he started sobbing.
There’s an unwritten law for those in the bush that grown men never cry,
but with Herc being Herc, I’m not sure, if this law would apply.
We then made love under a coolabah tree.
And for one of the few times in my life I felt free.
After a long while Herc got up and went on his own good way,
leaving me mighty confused, wondering if I was straight or gay.
Next I saw Herc was at O’Cleary’s and he was obviously very drunk.
He was dressed in a skin tight t-shirt looking every bit the hunk.
He came up to me and kissed me, he was obviously very keen.
“Jesus Herc, not in here,” I was scared we may have been seen.
Herc looked peeved, said, “Fuck you Jack,” then returned to the bar.
At this point I should’ve left the pub and disappeared in my car.
At nine o’clock young Bonny Dylan walked in and gave Herc a friendly nudge.
No one liked to say no to her as she was the daughter of the local judge.
Now little Bonny liked to drink, almost as much as she liked to snog,
the only one she couldn’t outdrink was Daisy, her alcoholic dog.
Daisy was a blue heeler, mangy and full of fleas
and if she didn’t get a breakfast drink she’d suffer the DTs.
Bonny ordered four beers with a gesture both fluid and lazy.
One for Herc, one for herself and two for the rheumy-eyed Daisy.
Bonny and Herc were going to share a bed that night, that it was easy to gauge.
I skolled my beer, stormed out the pub, seething with jealous rage.
At ten o’clock the following morning Detective Garret gave me a call,
Herc was in trouble and wanted to see me, said Garret in his nasally drawl.
I rushed down to the cop station and heard that Bonny had died from choking. Herc sat in the corner chewing his nails while continually smoking.
Garret said that Bonny was dead after being forced into an act that was taboo,
Herc countered that when Bonny died he was sitting on the loo.
She was already dead when he found her, and her throat was filled with vomit.
“We didn’t have sex, just drank a lot and watched videos of Wallace and Gromit.”
“You’re lying Herc,” Garret said and, “For this crime you’re going under.
“We checked her mouth and her throat and found not a single trace of chunder.”
Herc said, “Well where it went I wish I only knew.
“But if I was to have a bet I reckon it was her dog that ate the spew.”
Bonny’s mum, the hanging judge, reviewed the case with scorn.
She thought that girl was like a boy to me, my heart feels like it has been torn.
“That Herc is real weird, the image of his sex organs makes me sick.
“No good sending him to jail, blokes like him just love the nick.
“All my Christmases would come at once if I could get him for wilful murder,
but at this point, as it stands, it looks like it’ll be manslaughter.”
Then looking on her computer, she had a bit of luck.
She saw Herc was wanted for murder, “It’s the end of that dirty fuck.
“I won’t send him back to that place with a name that’s real funny,
“I’ll hang him here and save everyone quite a bit of money.”
The trial was a fix-up Herc never stood a chance,
Judge Dylan told Herc he’d danced his very last dance.
“I find you guilty of murder and guilty of being biologically weird.
“We’re gonna hang you till you’re dead,” and the whole courtroom all cheered
The hanging tree was situated in the grounds of the local church,
built over the graves of the Indigenous, revealed by archaeological research.
Now to borrow from old Banjo, word had got around,
there was going to be a hanging on this sacred, sacred ground.
I attended this aberration of justice and was the only one whose eyes weren’t dry.
There we’re all these embarrassed looks around, as they saw me openly cry.
As the noose went around his neck Herc gave me a loving smile.
As a joke, knowing it wouldn’t be granted, he said, “Any chance of a re-trial?
“I could easily say I hope you motherfuckers rot in hell,
but on the contrary I wish you well.
“The corruption of your ethics and morals are rife,
“I’ll hang here today but such is life.”3
Then the rope went tight and he kicked and kicked and kicked and he kicked and he died. I cut him down and I carried him down to the river. Down, down, down to the river. Nearby three magpies watched as I laid him on the bank. As I laid her on the bank. Him her him her him her. Then I waded into the water. It flowed fast around my hips. And into this water I began to dig his grave. His grave. Her grave. The watery grave. And then I picked up Herc and placed him, place her, in the coffin of water. And I started to bury him with water with water and tears and words. Words like forgive those who trespass against us and as I walk through the valley of death. Forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive us those who trespass against us. I shall fear no evil. I shall fear no evil. I shall fear no evil. And I buried Herc with water and tears and words and love and sorrow and sorrow and love and love and sorrow. And I looked down on his partially covered body and I thought. I thought. Is this how ends? Is this how it ends? Is this how it ends? And then I slid into the watery grave and I hugged Herc tight and I cried and the water tumbled over us and the last thing I heard were the magpies, the magpies, the magpies, as they howled their mournful goodbyes.
(1.) Burley is a West Australian artist perhaps best known for the media frenzy which arose around a cooking event, Blood Sausage, performed at the Artrage Space in Northbridge, Perth, in which he extracted a portion of his blood to use in sausages he grilled and served to audience members. See Jonathan W. Marshall (2006). “Everyone an Artist Everyday”, in RealTime Australia Issue.74, Aug-Sept 2006 (Sydney: Open City), http://www.realtimearts.net/article.php?id=8191 [access 13 May 2011].
(2.)Barbin, Herculine (1980). Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century Hermaphrodite, intro. & ed. Michel Foucault, trans. Richard McDougall (NY: Pantheon). Barbin’s memoires were found in his apartment following his suicide in 1868, and were first published as a narrative medical case history by Ambroise Tardieu, in the physician’s Question médico-légale de l’identité dans ses rapport avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels, contenant les souvenirs et impressions d’un individu dont le sexe avait été méconnu [The Medico-Legal Question of Identity In Relation to Physical Deformations of the Sexual Organs, Containing the Memoirs of an Individual Whose Sex Was Misidentified] (Paris: Ballière, 1872). See also Judith Butler (1990), Gender Trouble (London: Routledge).
(3.)This is a reference to another of the great bush balladeers, this time not Banjo Paterson, but “Joseph Furphy” (real name Tom Collins)—namely his 1903 book, and its famous Shakespearean adage, Such Is Life (Adelaide: Golden Press, 1975).