we clutched our fishing rods
and thought of sharks
a mile out the gaps
between the planks
This is part of a sequence of poems entitled "Early Recollections of
The South-West" that I wrote when I was nineteen and twenty. I probably
wrote earlier versions of these too. It was a teenager's take on
childhood, on the nature of memory, of loss and reconnection. The
south-west was the opposite of the wheat belt—less connected to the
seasonal wheel, the extremes of the seasons, it was a cooler place with
massive coastlines and great forests. The sequence began:
became my gateway
to the South
and crabs were found
in dozens under rocks
the reefs littered with opportunity
gripped to this wonder
with every ounce
Point Peron is just south of Fremantle. It's a cordon sanitaire—a
brief slice of semi-intact coastline and coastal habitat. Metro kids and
religious youth groups still go there on weekend camps to get in touch
with nature. It represents loss and points of contact. It becomes an
historical exercise. For me as a child, it represented a resistance to
the city, for me as a young poet it symbolized the transient power of
words. The organicism of language. Language meant freedom. But the
time-sequencing of the piece was intentionally confused, as if I
couldn't trust my own memory or reading of the feeling the natural word
invoked. How much innocence could I afford to instill. When did I start
being the person that I was.
slippery rocks and periwinkles,
from there on
mum and dad
were always apart
and then there was the confusion of good and bad, the religious strife
the stink of dead whales
reminded me of my grandfather's
I was fond of my grandfather. I hated whaling. My grandfather's best
friend owned Carnarvon whaling station. Whether or not I was conscious
of the connection as a child, it was the connection I drew as a young
man. The construction seemed reasonable, the language and form, simple.
The manipulation of the naive voice.
Uncomfortable with this, I'll reconstruct a visit to Busselton, to
the jetty. I am twelve or thirteen. I have been to Busselton before. The
overwhelming linking memory is the mile-long jetty; the fear and thrill
of being all the way out there, connected to the land by a thin thread
that might be swept away. There were and are planks missing in the
jetty. When I was a very small child, my father lifted me across them. I
travel out to the end—walking or riding, lifting the bike over the
gaps—armed with my fishing gear and squid jigs. The green sea darkens
with weed patches and gets deeper and fills with black ink from a squid
jagged in the spotlight. We stay out all night, getting close to the
immensity of the ocean by climbing onto the platforms under the jetty,
at the end. Shark and benito are out there. Shoals of herring and taylor.
Garfish and pick harry baits near the surface. Sea life is different out
here, no longer obeying shore rules. Total disconnection. What I will
try to connect with in my poetry is what I'm trying to escape here.
Words are eaten by the immensity of open space. A strike or a loss are
met with monosyllabic yelps. The cold drives you into your jacket. The
nights are long and dawn is electric. The rules of communication are
The Magic Circle. Christmas. K's sea chest. She came over with L by
ship. Her sea chest has been used to carry presents and clothes for the
Christmas holiday. We re-establish the tree, stake our claim to the
territory of a friend's house. He'll be down some time after Boxing Day.
A magic show on Christmas Eve. Mum sits in the lounge room telling us
the story of Grace Bussell's rescuing people from the ship wreck. Wild
coastline. I ask her to leave so I can prepare my tricks. I've worked
out a way of opening the sea chest from inside; I hide tied
handkerchiefs in the lining. I lock my brother inside without letting
him know the secret and disappear into another part of the house. When I
let him out he is crazy-eyed. He can't cope with closed spaces to this
day. The joke got out of hand. Later when I perform my trick he sits
quietly. When I close the lid I hear him tell my mother in a worried
voice that I'll suffocate and die in there. I open the chest and all are
amazed. Stephen rocks on his chair and grows agitated. The next morning
I open my present from him and it's a copy of War and Peace. I
know he gave me that, because my Mother and he recall it. The story
changes with each telling. I keep needing to rewrite the same thing. To
fix the co-ordinates. I know there was a chest. And the town council was
working on a fly eradication campaign. It would be easy enough to check
council records, the archives of the town newspaper. Anecdotal evidence.
The prevalence of flies in the town at this precise moment, seasonal
variations taken into consideration. The bluebottle jelly fish, the
stingers marking, mapping, encrypting your skin.
When the owner of the house returned he brought a friend and another
kid. The other kid was older than us. I preferred messing around with
older kids, so I thought it appropriate we explore the shed and back
garden together. I suggested walking out to the end of the jetty. But
the kid stuck to the bloke who'd brought him along—a young Catholic
priest. I orbited him, participated in the adults' conversations, drank
tea. I milled around, annoyed. The priest farted and said "froggies in
the room with bad breath". I didn't laugh. Cheap trick. I was wearing a
Chinese army cap one of my mother's uni friends had given her. I had put
it on because the boy was wearing a hat the priest had been wearing when
they'd come in. He'd placed it on his head when they all sat down. The
boy grabbed it from my head as I walked past and I yelled out "Give it
back you hat nicker." The priest wheeled around and said, "You don't
speak to Aboriginal kids like that!" Dumbstruck, I just stared at them.
My mother intervened "Why is that offensive?" Silence. The priest turned
to the owner of the house and said "Black nigger is a bit much coming
from a child of his age." I started to yell, "I didn't say that, I
didn't... I said "hat nicker" coz he nicked my hat... he took my hat off
me, I'd never say those other words..." My mother was furious. The
priest became righteous and wouldn't listen to protests. I apologized
out of embarrassment, despite it being untruthful. The kid—the
Aboriginal kid—said it was okay, and gave my hat back. I told him to
keep it and he said thanks. I wandered off into the garden and he
followed me and said "don't worry, all adults are bad".
Down below the dam
there is nothing but salt,
a slow encroachment.
Fighting back, my cousins
have surrounded it
with a ring of trees.
At its centre
lives a colony of finches,
buried in tamarisks.
Written around the same time as the Recollections poems was a small
sequence entitled "Finches". On the farm—Wheatlands—there were quite a
few hundred acres of salt ground. It stretched from the "bottom dam"
down to the crossroads. On the other side of the crossroads it continued
into Uncle Jack's property. We saw it as something alive that ate away
at the earth. Of course it was caused by extensive clearing; by removing
the trees and scrub the water table would rise and leach the salt out of
the soil. I found the salt pans addictive. The crystalline formations of
the salt were otherworldly, and I'd often retreat down into this
other-world as a child. It held the same attractions as the end of
Busselton jetty. Quite often unusual old bottles would surface through
the mud, encrusted with salt and algae. The salt wasn't entirely
dead—various salt-resistant weeds grew abundantly, filled with Christmas
spiders and insects; wading birds stalked the channels and gullies, the
pools in and flats. If you stepped into the frosted surfaces of clay it
would stick like platforms to your shoes. Thongs were a violent
experience. My cousins had been working for years to surround the salt
with trees, to reclaim the land. I planted trees with them, and my uncle
invented a special watering tank to quench them during the hot months
when the temperatures would climb well into the 40s. In the middle of
the salt there was an island of thorn bushes and tamarisks. The tamarisk
is hardy and was introduced into this territory. A colony of zebra
finches had set up here. There was ample food on the salt flats and
surrounding paddocks. And cats tended to keep off the salt. Foxes, not
much risk to the finches, were quick to work out the neutrality of the
salt and would often make dens in gullies where it was comparatively
safe. The colony of finches mocked us and we were glad of it. We never
took rifles down there. Sometimes we kept records of their comings and
goings. We'd often find them dead on the salt, for no apparent reason.
My uncle reckons a disease got into the colony and "thinned it out".
Back there recently from the Cambridge fens, I walked out into the salt
and found a few deserted nests and nothing but crowcall. The colony had
been abandoned. I recall their being there vividly. I still have the
poems. But are they a record?
The dead finch lies on salt,
tight winged and stretched.
The others shimmer
loosely in heat
the salt's white mystery
coveting tin cans, skull of sheep.
Slowly, death rides this hot glacier
further and further away.
Uncle Jack. Couldn't stand hobby farmers and "their fly-blown sheep".
"No idea," he'd say. Uncle Jack would shoot cockatoos from the top of
his television aerial which towered above his house. He hated cockatoos
and liked good reception. If you ever left a gate open, you'd have to
watch out for Uncle Jack. He was gnarled and gritty and worked well into
his seventies. He then sold up and moved into town. He was considered a
good farmer and much trusted. He didn't mind lending a hand, though he
expected a hand back. I learnt about shearing sheds and dogs at Uncle
Jack's place. And the smell of phenol and what to do with a cut or
flyblown sheep. Uncle Jack hated people going near his rubbish tip.
People from the city would come up and scour them for relics—old
bottles, pieces of farm machinery. My brother and I went up one
afternoon and systematically plundered his tip for old bottles—blue
bottles, marble torpedoes, pill and wine bottles, old sauce and lemonade
bottles. We were obsessed. We didn't tell him and he notified the cops,
thinking city scroungers had been at work. Someone told him the truth,
though his reaction has been lost under a general impression of his
being part of the place—like the storms, or lightning fires, or drought,
locusts, or a sheep down during lambing, or crows shot and strung from
fences as warnings. When years later Goths would stay with my partner,
our son, and me for a weekend, bringing anatomical pictures of animals,
they'd collect sheep skulls and bones in the halflight—marginalia to the
process of ownership and disinterment, eviction and laying claim.
Annotations to survey. An alternative mapping. My aunt says, I know how
the Aboriginals must have felt, as she digs the boxes of ashes of three
generations from their plot to move them to town. And do the dead and
their residue count as evidence? If my ashes are spread there will they
stain memory? The story? Is this a myth of the grave? Another white
trick, another claim to ownership?
A pair of painted quails
scurries across the quills of stubble
a flurry of rapid
they shadow my walk
lifting and dropping
into invisible alleyways
reaching the grave
I turn to catch them
curving back, stopped
by the windrows
the grave is a magnet
that switches polarity
when you reach it.