(i) Balonne Highway
Every couple of clicks dark patches inked the highway
As if the evidence of some historic war had been rubbed
Out, leaving only a blackened stain on the blood-fired
Bitumen, no one would ever claim. The good forensics
Didn’t need to be collected here; where the circular saws
Of semi-trailer wheels cut up kangaroo bodies, but never
Bothered to hide the pieces. Vertebrae lay twisted, like
The plastic rifling on cheap spumante corks leftover
From a twenty-first birthday, when bodies bloated, as
Though the sun’s juvenile breath inflated them; a party
Joke recycling the furry-clad wine bladders. These they
Swerved around, lest the residue at the bottom of the
Sacks leak out, the car zigzagging through its drunken
Obstacle course; its refusal to walk down the white line.
(ii) St George, 1981
His buttery-coloured raincoat jogged around the St George
Streets as though it were an oversized molecule of black
Wattle in bloom, or a cloak made from the tiny neck feathers
Of a million yellow-throated miners. He was shedding layers
Of winter fat, to make weight for the Under 40 kilo, junior
Rugby league carnival. Dressed in Stormtrooper white jerseys,
Bowl haircuts wedged onto their heads as if beer aficionados
Had capped their skulls with child-size bottle tops; the twelve
Year-old boys jogged onto the field, crimson Vs branded onto
Their chests for victory. At his billet, there was awkwardness
Over mealtime, bolognaise he could only stare at; his cheeks
Matched his uniform’s bloody witness. He didn’t remember
If they won more games than they lost; his raincoat sagged
In its sweaty corner like a conquered boxer after the bell.
The spotted bowerbirds hopped over the graves of Bollon’s
Heritage dead like unpaid funeral mourners who refused to go
Home. The pink spot on the back of the males’ heads, bobbed
Like faint laser sights, as the midday sun scoped them out from
Behind the Cameron clan’s final rest. The pitted headstones read
Like a pre-immunisation blues record, as too many children were
Laid down in their first decade along Wallam creek’s sandy bed.
What did the bowerbirds glean? What bright objects could they
Possibly pull from the cemetery’s pallid title. Time-washed,
All colour had drained from the tombs leaving them Tunguska
Bare. The graveyard’s skull boasted a buzz cut of winter grass.
Did the modern Cameron’s still bury there? In the river red
Gum shade; where a pair of ringneck parrots twisted upside
Down, regurgitating life into their crypt of deadwood.
They came on it at lioness speed pounding into Cunnamulla;
Wheels clawed at the bitumen’s offal-coloured spine as they
Cut a defensive curve around its pentient hulk. An adult emu,
Kneeling in the left lane of the Balonne highway & facing west
As though near death was no experience at all to the winter heat
Or mid-afternoon magnetism that attracted it to the road’s strong
Pole. Its hair-like feathers waterfalled to the bluestone surface in
Stringy curlicues, as if some incorporeal transformation loomed.
Such a human posture, but they were at a loss as to whether the
Primitive bird stooped in reverence or defeat. Whether some buff
Jackeroo had staggered it with a high tackle in their Bundy 4×4, or
If old age was delivering its final rites & it had dragged itself across
The red dirt on its scaly fish knees to the outback version of the
Elephant’s graveyard. The difference being death wore flannelette.
(v) Cunnamulla, Sandhills
The tourist brochures didn’t lie, they created a special prison
Camp on leased enemy land & changed Geneva semantics so
Their captured imaginations were outside of humanitarian law.
There were sandhills, mini-red Sahara dunes just 50 metres back
From the caravan park, where tourists flopped in camp chairs
Like tired English monarchs wilting under the Eastern sun.
Bits of ragged cardboard perched on the sand, as if they were
Lost pieces of a giant’s jigsaw puzzle, their edges baby-chewed.
The smell hit them first like a child’s unexpected blow; the wind
Lifted up something unmistakeably dead from the long grass at
The track’s crumbling edge. Something crossed between a bird
& a wild sheep, all mop-hair & rotting bones; some flood-soaked
Carpet rolled up & dumped. A second emu carcass finished them.
Sick of the undiscovered country; death scared off the little birds.
(vi) Cunnamulla, Allan Tannock Weir
As they skidded to a halt on the gravel, two half-mad, half-tamed
Domestic geese laboured up the Warrego’s gentle bank & barked;
Guards of the Allan Tannock Weir, the white capes of their wings
Opened & closed like great palace gates, sending light scattering
Towards their feet. Where the brown river water spilled over the
Weir’s straight razor edge, white necked herons perfected their
Medusa’s art, merging into the concrete spillway as though their
Toes were mafia-cemented to this damp industrial scene. Further
Up the river gangs of black cormorants surrendered enmasse in
Dead gums, spread out on separate limbs, their hands held up
In wet resignation. It was here that the throb of V8 found them;
A techno chaser beat at their backs, overpowering all birdsong.
It revved a different conscious state as the guardian executed a
Ritual donut; his territorial dance raising a red sail in the sunset.
(vii) Grey Falcon
Lived up to its birding nickname; ‘Smoke Hawk’ as it cut just above
The red-pebbled ground, crossing over Bowra’s main drag, a white
Blur missile launch from beneath the air’s wing, or some accelerating
Ghost. He only saw a fraction’s glimpse, just happened to turn about
Face, as if on a military whim, or if some line of thought jagged his
Eyes sharply to the rear like a hook drives a fish counter current;
The time it takes to aim a rifle, or a bullet sent on its killing streak.
What he witnessed was a classic ground strike, a low angling attack
Run at some feathered target, the compact ‘M’ design of its wings
F-111 folded, manoeuvred the raptor deftly through the thick camo
Net of mulga and casuarina, as though it were mist parting before
A mountain’s deadly peak. He dared not blink. It was over in seconds;
An orgasm’s death, the blinding retina burn of flash photography,
A shower’s steamy contrail when an opened door lets the breeze in.
(viii) Bowra, ferals
Cut open a feral tomcat’s stomach & you’ll find a miniature
Land shark at work; congealed masses of yellow centrepedes
Like thick twisted noodles stuck to the inside of a feline pot;
Or spotted nightjars that mirror stumps of grey deadwood,
So invisible that humans stub their eyes on these pseudo-logs.
Dunnarts & hopping mice that end their fast-forward lives
In a cat gut’s cavernous cinema. At first they thought it was
A feral pig, one of the hairy breed that churned earth near
The homestead digging for morsels, but through their bins
They watched it transmute as it sashayed along the dirt track;
Ocelot-sized, a tabby that stalked them behind the branches
Of a green-grey mulga bush as they pulled up. No bounty for
Pelts, no kangaroo skins & meat for some foreign gullet, only
A fierce territorial ambition & a driving range of appetite.
He woke before everybody else; a bushman who camped
Beside his old Landrover, beneath a body-bag-sized navy
Tarpaulin. The Robert Dessaix of bird watching. A thin,
Clean shaven ascetic face, skull-cropped white hair, an
Autodidact who contemplated the nature of existence in
The pre-dawn blue. Stumbling for kilometres over the mud
-dark land, his journey out was for the sole joy of his return.
The rising sun would glow at his back; morning’s spotlight
That illuminated the mulga bush clear as a plasma screen.
Cameras only encumbered him. Instead his mind snapped
Perfect shots of birds, his ear recorded songs never heard.
Like the time he stopped for a pee beside a dirt road near
Hungerford & his urine flushed a pair of night parrots;
Their low, erratic flight mimicking the panic of his heart.
The birds petered out like the puffballs of cotton that bordered
The highway; landing lights that guided them into Goondiwindi.
A boundary marker’s nightmare, the fine, wispy tufts crumbled
Into nothingness as though they were speech bubbles imploding
Or shoals of pale krill combed into the dead stalk baleen of winter
Grass. They were trancers coming out of the zone; their heightened
Focus receding from the crazy flocks that had clutched at ironbarks,
Their claws, a bumped needle scoring a record’s grooved, black skin.
He steered with his eyes; was warned to keep his mind on the road
As their car jerked with each radar-lock on feathers, or leered to
The bitumen’s can-opened edge, to better inspect the patrols
Of red-rumped parrots, that sat & dismantled seed heads with
The ease of troopers stripping down guns. At the caravan park,
The sun lowered its awning & dusk folded over them like a wing.
Bowra book review by Nicholas Powell 27th June 2013.
QT News article 11th April 2013.