Freeway Towns (After Kenneth Slessor)

Freeway towns
with your dusty browns

and shady grass
all moving past,

with parks astride
the freeway's side

and hearts that know
and streets that glow

in summer sun
at half past one,

that tolerate
our hasty gait

while moving on
to where we're from:

you watch it all,
while freeway's call

denies the chance
to meet your glance.

The moment gone,
we part unknown.

I wish I knew
the half of you.

Topography

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…rediscovering, room by room, what it was that I first learned there about how high, how wide the world is, how one space opens into another…

(David Malouf, 12 Edmondstone Street)

How many of my dreams go to this place?
Always the same Queenslander balconies
where I wander over those drooping eaves
in search of silent, sleeping days of grace.
What do I find there? Memory’s faint trace,
nestled somewhere in the comfort of leaves,
world always higher than my gaze believes.
I must look up always to see Your face,
so dreams look up: to canopy, to farm
atop a hill, a volcanic red dome…
When I return here with my wife, we find
the colours that I know, the trilling sound
of butcherbird above our heads, yet mind
always says, “Climb up. This is still not the ground.”

Redfern When

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As a child, I only knew this as the place
where my grandfather was born, the name full
of bright, fiery growth like I saw near home,
our forests full of ferns both red and green.
In history class I learnt this was the scene
of old but living wars, fought, neither won
nor lost. The push of present crime, the pull
of family heritage, rendered this space
neutral. I neither sought it nor fled. Now
in morning light it is still. History stays
where we like it, asleep. Waking, it stings.
Can we find, beneath these sleeping things,
the Redfern when the speech was made? Those days
are passed. The past echoes anyhow.

Sonnet for the Armchair Geographers

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You may be right, Eratosthenes…but you are not right when you take away from [Homer] his great learning, and declare that his creativity is the mythology of an old woman…Homer tells myths more accurately than later mythological authors, not totally recounting marvels, but for the sake of knowledge.
(Strabo, Geography)

Our first aim was accuracy: who could chart
The Aegean Sea, and knew the ways
Of the currents and the waves. The start
Was simple: debating who’d seen which place,
Who was a liar. The most fanciful tales
Could be dismissed. Yet the further we strayed
From well-known channels, the shakier the scales.
Maps must be confirmed, voyages replayed.
See: the more we check, the less the appeal.
The less too that we understand. We can scan
The waves now with a satellite, can steal
The dazzling truth of northern lights first-hand.
True place evades, like every dream we’ve had
Of Beirut, Aleppo, Paris and Baghdad.

Damascus Road: No location

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No flights to Damascus
and if there were
Safety would fly in the face of Intention.
Where knowledge is danger, is ignorance bliss?
I cannot walk Straight Street and know the vision
that blinded Saul, or see the home
where scales fell from well-meaning eyes.
That much is past; no flights can take me
where not even the locals go.
And would I even know, if by
some sudden wind, I found myself
on cobbled stones of Sunni blood,
and if I saw where churches fell
and watched the flight of history –
what could I know? What Qantas knows
is where the terminals make way,
not who lost home or who lost hope
or where the life is found.

Blackbirding

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Did you come here for pearls,
having heard of the Bay
where the oyster-shell waters
open up wide to share?

Have you brought your investors
to see what’s for sale
in the town by the jetty
at old Roebuck Bay?

Have your brought your own tender
to hold as you dive,
or some eager companions
who’ll plunge for your dime?

Have you captured the knowledge
from ancient salt shores?
Will you watch from the shoreline
or dive down yourself?

Dive deep for the oysters;
save grit for the pearl.
The luggers are humming
as they promise the world.

Now the waters are swaying
and the history’s deep.
You should have let birds fly
and left pearls in the sea.

* Blackbirding was the term used for the capturing Aboriginal divers to work on pearl luggers in Broome.

Ritual

Why do I walk on tiptoes when I first step into icy blue?
                                 As if my waist
must stay above the lapping line,
                                                  as though
caution will keep me safe in this task
which infants undertake with glee?
The slow preparation,
the gasps as underneath we plunge:
all this is ritual, and we are drawn to it
as ducks to streams –
salt or chlorine always say
Summer, whatever the temperature of air,
however pervasive the shade.
And here bamboo lines the pool, and palm
fronds droop like willows thirsty for drink:
the scene is stamped, Paradise
in shades we are trained to recognise.
Not all is familiar or belongs:
pindan dust falls to blue floor
and outside smudges the bitumen.
My coast is not this coast;
the sun sets for me the other way.
Though strange the air and stranger the days,
all water says, I am home.

The Snake that Wasn’t

First, it prompts barking, then slithers,
Its brown face poking, scaled, from the trees.
Bamboo and rock can’t expose its camouflage,
yet the dog is wiser.
Trapped by barking and pool, the reptile skulks
while, in Sunday daze, we search out “Kimberley snake control”
and keep the dog at bay.
In a flash between leaves, two feet and blue tongue emerge;
foe turns to friend, perhaps,
but dog barks still, unsure if friends
can have blue tongues and scaly feet.
Anti-climax wags its tail in Broome September heat.
Cautious, slowed, the lizard backs
a hesitant retreat.

Boab

IMAG0657Upside-down-like, you bulb from earth –

your beauty breaks in root-like branches.

Spindly fingers reach to sky,

gaunt and stretching, delicate,

your certain trunk a monument,

a stout and stolid testament

to passing years, millennia.

Shedding pods to paint; a home,

yet prison; sacred; den for slaves –

drawing, standing, reaching out –

a sign for us of hands which hold

in spite of everything.

Disembarking: A Terminal Sonnet

Bad coffee drunk at airport terminal's
 Faint consolation for delays in flight,
 When failing air-con gives pilots a fright,
And back we go to slow departure halls,
Disembarking and delayed. It's small -
 A First World problem, as they say; tonight
 I should still be in Queensland: when all's right
With aircraft safety, we'll still soar, our tall
Tales told of men with wings made strangely true.
 Yet now it seems the worst fate for today
 For all things should always go our own way;
What apps can't fix, the human mind must rue.
 (I'll take for granted when the plane takes off
 And rail inside at my companion's cough.)