Friday 9 December 2011

Entebbe Drainhole

My brother lives in Uganda.
Every morning he leaves Entebbe, where he lives,
and drives to some place between Kyamulibwa and Masaka,
which is the place where he works.
Every evening, he returns.
On the way to work and on the way back,
my brother crosses the equator.
There are two little boys there.
They spend their days on an imaginary line
made up in the head of a Nicaean
more than two thousand years ago.
They squat on the imaginary line with a plastic bucket
of dirty water and a rusted enamel kitchen basin
at the ready. The basin has a drainhole in the bottom.
For a Ugandan shilling, the two small boys will pull
the perished rubber plug from underneath the slurry in the sink
in order to demonstrate the clockwise emptying
of the bowl on one side of the imaginary line
and the anticlockwise swirling on the other.
They have never seen an American’s or a German’s bathroom,
but the two small boys know that it is important to nearly all of them -
the way the dirty water circles before it empties out of a drainhole,
at a particular place in the dust.
Perhaps there are other such places
for the Germans and the Finns and the Americans to visit.
Perhaps they travel far, to some scorched and windcrazed maizefleld,
to witness the imaginary line between the starving and the fed.
Perhaps they wander further, to some filthy and slime-spattered abattoir,
to see the imaginary line between the surviving and the nearly-dead.
Further yet, there may be those who travel nowhere,
but stay at home in their lounge rooms,
watching, every night, on their terrible screens
the imaginary line between those who deserve compassion
and those who don’t. Who knows?
Certainly not those two little boys,
mirthfully swilling their mirk, now one way, now the other.

Chickenwire Gully

The hippies of ’78 wanted Tambourine Valley,
imagining something more be-ribboned, be-jingled;
silk-nomadic, spice-romantic; before the wire had entered
their consciousness and rooted them to the weeds.
One of the early escapees came back after twenty years and said:
We never envisaged fences. But this place has changed since they first came
with their fingered scraps of eighteenth century imaginings:

where the sun used to hit the moss on the back of our house in the afternoons,
there’s a bare willow, possum-ravaged and winter-ugly;
puzzling areas of vacant grass are portioned off, like exercise yards for lost hopes,
with exhausted chickenwire fencing, rusted star-pickets, collapsing garden splints.
The old-timers could have told us the stakes were too high.

This is chickenwire land: every struggling patch and desperate scratch
tangled in messy manacles of the stuff, and every grey corner and upright post
buttressed with filigree collars like the token neck-irons of a long-extinct chain-gang.

Even those secret little plots of sweet death sitting up in the bush
have a heavy ration of wire, left behind after every desperate harvest
for children in a hundred years to wonder at the quaintness,
like the old still they talk about found amongst the snaky tussocks.

Sometimes it’s all the old hippies move for: to tend their ganja plots,
their paranoias cycling like mould spores, with the seasons;
while they wait indoors, painting eyes,
their heavy-boned dogs heckling at neighbours, their grown children watching
from the dark wedges behind windows, like Boo Radleys with dreadlocks.

A survivor who lived here as a child has gone to the city to be a sculptor in wire.
She makes genuflecting forms to hang in the corners of bright airy flats,
where they hover toward the light; and angels climbing up the corners
of vacant rooms with ever such transparent wings.

Virgin Time

None of them knows about my secret life; how I wake at night
and become the girl again.
It only works if there has been no untimely death in the family,
if all the children are well, and if there is not another big baby
swinging and jalloping in the saddle of my hips.

I discovered it this way:
the wind came up after a putrid-hot day and a close night,
and the chimes in the cherry tree went troppo, jangling and clanging,
like a devil-bell on a reef. It sent me seasick.
I finally went out to muzzle it with an old school tie,
whispering to our dog, Styx, who thought it a mild joke.
It was such a relief to still those chimes that I stayed out there in the yard,
my thin and faded nightdress, ghostly and blue-lit.
I hung out the beach towels in the soft scudding of the wind.
Styx whimpered at my weird behaviour, while that trespassing beach-sand
made a dry shuffle on the ground.

The moon was just waning: it sailed up there on an unswimmable,
unsalted sea, transparent shoals of bright foam making it list and tack westward
to the ghostly shores of those unpeopled, unfurnished isles.

That was the night I learned the secret-
that I live the wrong half of the circadian cycle.
For when you wake at night, the dear soft world is yours.

While your bedmate snores the Blowhole of Morpheus;
while your children sing to the three-headed monster of dreams,
you can be awake in a sweet dark world that is your own.

A sweet dark world where the rooms of the house are empty and silent;
a whole hunk of hours, untimetabled;
a whole hank of weather, unpredicted;
a world uncommented on by the wise or the foolish;
a stretch of hours uninterrupted by badly-timed
eating, washing, dressing, undressing.
No traffic on the dirt road;
no crazy or strange blue dogs;
no ferreting or dust-bathing fowls;
no hostile passers-by to wave at
as they grimace from their cars.

A treasure! A treasure of virgin time,
when you can sit on the dried-out grass in the backyard
and listen to the chumbling and thumping of wallabies,
the chawing and chiacking of possums;
when you think you can hear rain pattering on grass and corrugated iron
but it is the popping and dropping of shiny black wattle seeds from their red pods;
red pods abandoned in drifts along the edge of the road,
staining the tank water, and making it bitter and scarlet
as a brew spilt for the old god Hymen.

You can be the girl, at last, put to sleep so long ago
she has grown into a new body but not another soul.
That girl-of-the-soul used to sit on a window sill in that blessed abode
watching the night taking its slow course, and half-waiting for the laggard sun to rise.
She would sit with the window opened wide for the breeze, in the dark,
writing letters without a light, using her damp girl-fingers to space the lines,
the writing inevitably climbing upwards on the page,
like promises written in blood.

And finally she would crawl into bed, inside a circle of forgetfulness-
a cave of sleep; hip-shuffle down under cool heavy sheets,
and the wind would come up as she slept, hidden from the harpies
that might snatch a girl to her death.
The cool change would come, whipping her hair at a white white pillow,
and in the morning her bed would be full of wind-debris:
grey wattle feathers and crisp and empty pods;
and the grass outside confetti’d with hard black seeds with tiny curled tails;
the sweet tiny white tails that one day might be wattle trees.

THE GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST (in memory of Gene Stratton Porter)

I wait for the solemn neighbours of my imaginings to rouse
when I confess that I sometimes lock myself inside the old pick-up
on holiday-weekends, but they are used to cranky folk who shut themselves up.
Anyway, that is how I came to see my daughter in the bird-speckled rear-vision
mirror of my husband’s work-weary truck last Sunday.

The hue of her hair has no name for the speaking, let’s just say paddock-grass blue,
with all the tarnishes of marsh-grains gone past ripeness, gone to ergot.
I caught her reflection jigging like a lap-dolly in a long flounced skirt,
like some sweet Floridian hillbilly, and how my heart tapped its foot a reel
remembering the bowing of air against bare armpit skin,
loose fabric ballooning around shadows, twirling on an envelope of secret afternoon.
My tender feet bare, like hers, toes uncurling bracken fiddles, I would run,
like a Seminole, without touching the ground, and my hair would fly
quick as a blind granny’s shuttle.

I remember playing under a blue-green palmetto, in a hammock of swamp
in a way-off corner of the grove. That tarnished oblong of truck-mirror could even be
a window on that other backyard of stunted citrus trees where the oranges grew
paper-skinned and ropey, but you would suck them, anyway,
burning the smile around your mouth with lonesomeness.

Will she ever remember an afternoon as though looking down a narrowing tunnel,
a spy-glass filled with verdigris? or the hundreds of wooden pegs moldering on the line?
or the five black hens playing doggo? Will she remember squatting on the grass to pee?
her body not being a burden? but a purple butterfly? not something she owes
to someone silent somehow? And will the memory bide her through all the long afternoons
of weekends to come? when there are no neighbours at all, near or far;
and no cheerful fiddles whining their lonely wails?

Antipodean Eve

Those yearned-for hills in the west could be sky-woman’s first cooking-place,
scuffed to smuts and flattened into the distance with burn-off smoke.
A giant abalone overhead is calcified inside and dribbled with sea-insect borings;
the heavy sun a whorl of shell-fish meat, black-lipped and attached with sinews.
That fleshy eye of sun is weeping scorched wisps above grass so eden-green
you could sprawl on your back for it, like some wanton of the south:
so juicy-sour, if it grew inside a round skin, it would poison you with bitter-sluttishness.

There is something so wayward about foreign trees gone to autumn,
like plump white women run to butter with too-sweet sex:
as though they are only themselves when they have lost their green sappiness.
And isn’t it strange how every tree you see,
not just the ones dropping their forbidden windfalls,
goes through a whole lifetime never knowing its given name?

More gentle seasons come and go, but always it is the tobacco aftertaste
of applewood pyres, the bossy flipflap and bully glide of seagulls
on a broad-hipped and generous afternoon that you remember,
like some careless mother who got herself up and ran away from home,
before you could even say her name.

Time of Cold Blood

It could be easy to think you were being watched in this too-beautiful
Godforsaken place where you can mark time for days, a whole damn autumn,
without seeing anyone, only sometimes hearing a strange car
grating gravel on the top road, or meaningful footsteps in the house
across the creek at midnight. Or the ugly dog up the gully crying like a bunyip.

It might be easy to think you were being watched, if you went out
in the mossy dark, and just before finding Tchingal and Bunya,
two green eyes appeared in the shapeless black under the big peppermint gum;
not jittering or sliding, just waiting.

There is a man up the end of the gully who has hung
threadbare blankets over his windows, and rarely goes out
now the days are so short. One night he fired a shot into the bush,
he told us. He couldn’t stand it any more, he said. Being watched.

Today I took the key out of the back door, and when the dog barked,
I stopped and wondered, and looked down toward the creek,
toward the willows bare and pink-brushed like skeletons,
and the tussocks of sedges crowding in the slumps of the old orchard furrows
like mourners, and the mustard-apple lancewoods reaching up in surprise,
and the low-slung blackwoods burgeoning downward in suspense.

Anything could be out there, biding its time, silently drawing a bead on you.
Perhaps it’s down there now, watching.
Waiting for its chance.

Indian Summer

It’s the kind of day the family calls a Geronimo Day,
since the fourth child was born in an Indian Summer just like this.
We sprawled on bone-white decking in the unexpected warmth
that morning, under a vacant-blue sky, and the sun turned the paddocks
into a hanging lake of steaming tussocks, so that it could have been a raft
that we were on, lost amongst towheads of bulrush and cottonwood.

But seasons play tricks with their painted Apache faces,
and today I’m alone, in the dark, with a violin fiddle-faddling
a bow of horsehair oh so sadly! for company.
I’m watching a tall stiff-backed man in blue overalls, and a biggish
lolloping black dog, playing fetch on the opposite slope of the gully,
and they look like square-made figures on a tapestry that have come to life,
naively placed by the weaver above a frost-fed creek.
In winter, that water is bluish, and so are the mute smoke signals
that lounge in an unravelling spiral amongst the peppermint gums,
and an absent neighbour’s mildewed tipi.

Sometimes I pace and bend in the stillness;
in the slanted rays of this place, my toes curl;
in this stifling four-walled aloneness I count five windows
over and over, as if giving birth once again,
but in hollering solitude.

I drink too many cups of mate tea, and hunker in front of the wattle fire,
chaffing my hands; and riffle through the pages of the telephone book:
as if it is some foreign testament to not being here forever,
in this wide continent of pain; craving for a voice,
for the relief of a word, a sip of cold between the pangs.
But no-one seems to be at home on lonely days.

Then, when I wrap myself in the square of sunlight that comes
undaunted through a crooked window,
and let the dark clawed bear-thing take me over,
I know I will manage this, one more time:
giving birth to myself from between my twin-sister-selves.

A brave-hearted bird comes in through the open kitchen window,
and flits and shits in fright amongst the red saucepans hanging over my head.
I almost smile into the crook of my winter-white arm.
And wonder why it is so hard for a wild bird to work out that it can leave
by the same way it came in:
by following that small rush matting of light.