Vision 2 (from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
I have no memory of waking. An awareness slowly formed in the dark — scratching acacia, the strum of powerlines in wind. There had been a voice.
I throw open the bedroom window, admit the calligraphic night. Saturn and Mars are spiders on the edge of black. The Milky Way, a curving string. Somewhere beyond sight, Cassini is dropping through Saturn’s rings like a jewel.
I surface outside, the way someone drowning strikes upward toward a lit line of air. My feet sink in lawn, breeze tugs at my pyjamas.
Something is wrong with the sky.
Behind the house, black cypress pines should lift the mountain’s shoulder, in starwort and bitter pea, until fire trails tumble the leeslope down to the airforce base below. But tonight’s sky does not disapear behind the mountain. Stars fall to a flat line, a plataeu, spinifex grasslands thinning to clay. Wind-thrashed salt lakes, opaline as cataracts on the desert’s eye. And horizon to horizon, low ridges snake out like lines in the Martian dust.
Along the skysill, mares’ tail clouds distort the constellations. Stars appear and vanish over sleeping creeks. A handspan in front of my face, the air is displaced. An owlet nightjar drops in blackness, open-beaked and quickened in the bones that hold her. She hisses and is gone — a flung shadow on the gulf of Magellan’s aerial lakes.
And I saw them then, low on the starfields — a night mirage. A noctilucent shape, dividing itself into figures. I count five, immense and dingo-headed, striding out in the direction of deserts. Purposeful as thunderheads, their bodies are wild and dark. Starry. They camouflage themselves against night’s shifting hollows. Constellations rise and set in their organs. Their arteries are zodiacal light. A satellite circles a thigh. And always their anatomy morphs and shifts — sparking cells become galaxies become electricity, branching out into the sky like lightning.
A caravan of star mongrels walk a horizon that can’t exist. They vanish in cloud, reappear against the brightest falls of stars. A dream. A vision so strong the world breaks beside it.
I want to call out — but the half-formed word catches in my throat like a burr. How can I speak to Country in a language it can’t understand? In the tongue of slave ships, in this murderous tongue. After all these years, the miracle arrives on my front lawn, all burning hair electric, and finds me voiceless.
The vision is fading. Dawn returns the mountain, this yard with its hills hoist and mimosa. The caravan passes west with the first fingers of sun. They’ll be gone in seconds. In the last breath before waking, I saw one turn back its canine head, like acknowledgement.
It is morning. The dog sleeps on his snowman and yeti print blanket. Pedalling his legs, he chases dream brumbies. On the water tank, pied butcherbirds lift up their voices, gifting this fledgling day their cascading brilliance. Soon the daily news cycle, the ordinary pressures of email and work. But something is different. I am different.
Because I know they are out there, somewhere in the north-west. They will trigger floodlights in the mines and joint military facilities. They will withdraw, following starlines until the vanishing of roads. Where shale gives rise to bloodwoods, the great sentinels of desert. Starswarm of leaves and torsos thrumming with owls.
They withdraw to older places — speargrass and comets. The cordon will not hold. Bombing ranges tattoo strange geometries on the heat-fused clay. In the empty communities, nightjars surrender their hymns– in a time of weapons and of wind, in the last age of dingoes.
Noctuary Entry 23, January 3, 2017
(from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
Language of the Birds
for Robert Adamson
Land breathes slowly here —
Insects in the mulga.
Termite mounds, antumbral
against the sun’s white centre.
In a dry river, a camel rots
with its face turned to the sky.
A willy willy takes a dancer’s form,
red dust spinning from its arms.
I watch hunting fires unfold
idle lightning. Smoke
lifts to orbits of firehawks,
their bodies sparking inside cloud
like cranial nerves.
Rain brings oracular birds.
Parabolas of thornbills
and zebra finches.
By the rockholes, bloodwoods
wear pardalotes on their sleeves.
In our history, there have always been those
who understood the language of birds —
St Francis, Olivier Messiaen, my poet friend Bob,
and others whose names you would not recognise,
who turned the mercurial eye of a bowerbird,
and became confidants
on matters of stones and wild figs,
the precise shade of shells or bones for bowers.
In a moonsoon dusk, you don’t notice the floodwater,
only stars arching above and below:
Ursa minor, the Pleiades.
Land conceals herself in mirrored lakes.
And maybe language is like that too —
For the one who speaks bird tongues, perhaps
a willy wagtail might drop its avian form —
become the mountain and its weight,
the force that crushes stone to ochre,
and the rain will carry its colours down
in currents strong enough to lift a rotting camel.
The wedgetail, balanced on its back, stoops
to pick out an eye — it doesn’t matter.
Country has many eyes.
And maybe learning to speak is as simple
as noticing the angle, when light,
refracted through a fairy-wren’s wings,
will turn its blue feathers black.
But I have seen the miracle of a lorikeet banking
into storm its plummage
the colour of saplings exploding in fire,
while beneath it, waterchannels glimmer and still.
If you could see this from space
it would resemble a nervous system.
What I have lived in dreams,
I told the lorikeet, is etched in me —
and she answered, Don’t you realise?
A bird is a shadow of what stands behind it.
Something, standing in the light,
casts a bird.
Vision 1 (from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
I wake in the heavy scent of mimosa, certain someone hissed my name from a corner of the room. Outside, a motion-activated light floods the bedroom window sulphur. Fern and seeded wattle vibrate stillness through glass — and the light switches off, imprinting my retina until the star until the star until the star.
Something clatters in the yard.
I unfold, snake strike along the corridor to a wild open door, black and diamond bulging in from outside — and beyond, the ice-gravel way. It is cool. Saturn and Mars spider-squat in the west. Centaurus drapes pointers in the treeline. Moonless.
Stars so bright they cast shadows — fence stripes, a woman’s legs impossibly elongated.
In the garden, the recycling bin has tipped over. Between tumbled bottles, a bush stone curlew stalks, python-throated, and dark against the lawn. She sprawls out her wings
and lifts yammering into the calligraphy of night. And I know what it means to hear that creaked call in the middle of the night — like a dead weight turning a leather belt, in a tree near Fitzroy Crossing.
September 23rd 2016, the night Cassini slipped, north to south, through Saturn’s rings, grazing a moon. In 18 months the boy will hang himself, but now he balances a cigarette between fingers, his gaze drifting with the smoke over Wolfe Creek Crater, kilometres of dust-cloaked mesas reshaping themselves in wind.
These are the liminal hours of milkweed and Sturts desert rose, of sandhills oyster in thunderhead light. The crater’s lip softened by gravel and extraterrestrial stones. First stars ease through the veil. The boy ashes his cigarette and turns. There are forces, he tells me,
moving under this landscape like snakes, and they are so lonely — they are so lonely you can hardly bear it.
Tonight his voice returns to me with the curlew. It shrieks again and sheers away. I want to reach back through all the months of paracetamol and grog, the Facebook rants no one knew how to answer, and tell him, Alfy — there is still light, there is still time.
They will burn his football shirts in Sorry Camp. Smoke will spiral dark-winged insects out into the Tanami — past burned cars, the uranium deposit at Browns Range, and south. Until the crater opens its eye onto Martian geometries of salt, and all that loneliness leeching up through the sand.