They Westwards Fly


Black Armbands


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.


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