Today’s a day for black armbands – a war
to be remembered. Wars forgotten are
an evidence of shame. There is a law
that what a nation hides away, from darkness
will emerge. What we ignore will be
the thunder of a future age, when
stories of our lawless theft of country
not our own will shake the core of men
and women here, and blood upon the wattle
be our elemental history.
For rights to country and its wealth are not
the eulogies we sing – identity
is found in foreign lands and fallen lives.
But who recalls the black man’s sacrifice?
This land is ours by force of arms, let none
deny. The settlement of Europeans
was contested. From the rising sun
to where it sets, a people saw the ruin
coming soon to what was theirs, and so
they fought, true patriots, in wars extending
through the years, a violent ebb and flow.
The dying left a world that does not end
to those who’d follow them in treasuring
its wide uncertainties. Yes, land is more
than what we see, a spirit beyond measure.
Yet the dust and rock and tree are all
that holds its mystery – possession, then,
is what their long campaign sought to defend.
A country marked by monuments to war
has shown scant interest in its unmarked graves.
A silence has engulfed what was before.
Acceptable, to reverence those who gave
their life, mythology, a national game.
Amnesia, though, is what comes into play
when conflict at our origins is named.
An unknown soldier, lit by sunset’s rays,
remembered in each little country town –
it needs, perhaps, an altering of his face,
an evidence of suffering that abounds,
a monument to an unconquerable race.
Our refugees were first outside the towns.
A feature, common as the church or pub,
the campsites in a riverbed or down
the road beyond the cemetery. A subject
of disgust, their foreign ways and poverty.
A nation, humbled by defeat, the exiled,
now recipients of charity.
A country should remember and respect
its history. To say it as it is –
that’s what we all admire. Well, this story
is so close to home it terrifies.
The eyesores of our country towns, the lawless
men, the drunks, the children running wild –
the refuse of a nation sick inside.
The wind is bleak today beneath the moon.
The rolling waves, the unmarked tomb of men
and women, little boys and girls, too soon
departed from this world. Those left attend
to things, while wishing they could be beneath
the sea. These scenes are those of recent times,
the situation north of here, the grief
is real. And we, how does our heart incline
towards humanity, those daily seeking
shelter of these shores? We watch them drown,
the rest we hope to drive away. The weeks
go past, they turn to years, those country towns
have found their replica in refugees,
this day, abandoned on the heavy seas.
Their homelands, stretching far beyond horizons,
those of time as well as those of space,
a territory we entered with munitions
and the hubris of a cultured race.
Among us, voices of compassion, rarely
gratitude – although some mentioned God’s
indwelling in their reverence and care.
But rising high, the voice of reason – should
resistance bar our way? Their lands by destiny
are ours, their end, our right to hasten.
Over us, outstretched unto the western
sky, a litany of blood laid waste.
Who owns this continent? The valleys, hills
and plains, the rivers from their source unto
the sea? The arid centre, silent till
the thunder comes? The mountain ridge in blue?
Two centuries, and little is resolved.
Though most, however, have no cause to question
such a thing. Here truth is undersold.
A ceremony and a declaration,
insignificant, without the legal
power to transfer sovereignty. And where
were treaties? Conquered land is judged illegal
where custodianship is clear. The air
is common to all men, but land belongs
to those whose genealogy is long.
The year of Federation – still vast tracts
remained unconquered. Nations kept their dreaming
paths as old as man. Our country lacked
a centre. Westward soon we looked for meaning
in a war. The true frontier was where
Australian guns still sounded, part of one
enduring wound that marks our core. Unfair
to criticize – what other men have done
is their responsibility. But if
we benefit, and if injustice is
the root of our identity, a different
way to see must be required. A gift
from God, to come to terms with what has passed,
and hold more lightly what our hands have grasped.
About the time a referendum granted
them a place, the final groups emerged
from deserts. History is elegant,
it reconciles. A film shot then observes
their way of life. We see a people bending
by a pool. Their lips touch water with
such gentleness. They take enough and then
withdraw. A sacred thing – that it will give
them what they need. A thinker from our Western
world declared that men, once dispossessed,
retain a right to the possession of
their ancestors. For they the future bless.
Who ever said – of those who were its heirs –
that title to this land to us was granted?
Documents do not exist. It’s clear
that fiction is the soil in which we’re planted.
Terra Nullius, convenient
for dispossession – who could take what is
unable to be taken? From the Derwent
to the Lockhart, every right had this
in common – it completely disappeared.
In time we recognized prior ownership –
two centuries too late – but still the years
go by, and who will bravely come to grips
with this – a nation’s emptiness, the legal
void that leaves a sovereignty besieged?
Extinguishment of title – this our courts
allowed, the Crown had exercised this power
in times past. More recent rulings brought
adjustment – land that still retains its flowers
shows their right to flourish in that soil.
Across the sea the heirs are born to bear
the British crown. A sovereignty despoiled
by strokes upon a page, as thin as air
the substance of the claim – what law enabled
foreign powers to cede a continent
by raising flags or acts of parliament?
We live upon foundations so unstable,
land acquired with other people’s blood,
legalities that are not understood.
How did productive land so vast, and mineral
wealth within – how did it come to be
the place by right we call our own? A funeral
and a theft, and then complicity
of every generation thence. Each death
was multiplied beneath the blue Australian
sky. Each year the tally rose of theft,
practitioners increased, until invasion
was complete from coast to coast. The prize
before our eyes, the glasses raised and speeches
made – but no one thinks to be surprised
that righteousness remains beyond our reach.
We have the names of sixty thousand dead,
a number shocking in its size – a tiny
nation’s sacrifice, a balance in the red.
Such loss of life can bear no scrutiny,
a heavy weight upon our consciousness.
These numbers are much harder to discern:
Through years of careful scholarship, and sense
that comes from many patient minds, we’ve learnt
another roll of wasted life – ten thousands
are again its scale, by multiples
of three or more, these are the best at hand.
Their lives were lost on native soil, the wool
and wheat replaced their spear and skin, the crow
the bleak memorial, not overthrown.
Tongerlongerter and Pemulwuy,
Mannalargenna and Jandamarra –
patriots, whose country was their joy,
their brother, sister, father and their mother.
How many more, lost to our history, dance
within their bright eternal flame of war?
The long white lines across the fields of France
remind us of our dead. A silent awe –
to witness vastness you have not forgotten.
Over time another symbol grows
in power, resonant with every shot,
a monument to terror felt, a blow
to tyranny, a man upon a cross
who bears the features of the land they lost.
I have no other home than this – a son
of southern skies. My forebears came to stay.
Like ducks that in formation near a sunset
fly, apocalyptic things remain
a feature of our lives. Migration made,
we cannot turn. And those whose home we now
have come to share, a branch engrafted, swayed
by the same winds? We make a solemn vow
in memory of their many dead, to often
think about our origins, and try
to make amends. A sunset pours its softening
light around the birds. They westwards fly.
Two monuments to time beside the sea –
near as neighbours, seeing each other’s yard
across the fence. An island, full of shards
of rock lying littered everywhere, both treeless
and profound. The stones image complexity,
rock carvings, from the dawn of human time,
of beauty and enigma, spirits shining
in their pictographs of faces. Try
to count them – they are numberless like stars.
Across the water, towers of industry,
a petrochemical development.
Two monuments contesting that which lasts –
Today I stand and contemplate the sea
that contemplates our origin and end.
In February Eighteen Sixty Eight two mounted
parties went to Murujuga, homeland
of the Yaburrara. Near the stones
they slaughtered many. More than could be counted
died while trying, on logs, to cross the Flying Foam
Passage. These were those they decimated:
People of the Dampier, the makers
of the petroglyphs, their site the home
of art in concentrations unmatched in the
world, a culture straddling time, outliving
the last age of ice. For fifty years
our governments have planned, but could not sing,
they’ve dreamed of great industrial hubs to link
the hemispheres, while glory disappeared.
The frontiers of our world today are foremost
in our minds. This age accept no bounds
in its dark quests, desacralized, the ground
bends to its foreign will, no nation’s door
is shut, its citizens comply. The poor
increase wherever poverty is found,
and many who might rise and act are bound
in modern slavery, the love of more
that charms our hearts to sleep. Today the oil
and gas, the tar and coal, rare metals, prized
and profitable, these are the frontiers soiled
with lies that poison hope and mar our skies,
but those who look towards the sea remember
past nobility, and gather embers.