Warning: poetry for next 1500 km
The Inland Sea
Look at the gulls,
shoals of them,
steering over the Barrier Ranges,
aiming for the tip
behind the Miners' Arms -
aren't they symptoms
of an inland sea?
Sturt thought so.
A water truck goes west,
over the range,
past a station where the camels throw tourists
for a fee.
The mulgas on the creekbed
are flowing south.
The boulder on the bank
is busy thinking.
What if Burke returned, filled with time and space?
Leichhardt went into the wilderness
the way Hegel went into his study.
The space builds rather than relieves
pressure. The air hugs you
too tightly, the way the water hugs
a deep sea diver. You look up at
the sun, which is tiny
and bright, the way it looked
from the sea-floor.
Sturt entered the wilderness
the way a vicar enters his wife.
Burke found the wattle cowering
in a creekbed. He swung the axe,
slew the shrub, flicked it roots first
into the fire.
The world was a little larger.
Sturt's horses pulled his skiff up Dolo Hill.
Stones scratched, dented the oak hull.
Two of Sturt's officers marched behind
leaning oars on their shoulders like rifles.
On the edges of clearings
Abos and roos stand on hind legs
and stare, holding their young against their torsos
so we won't fire.
We fire at their heads.
Becker and Wills fiddle
with instruments, scribble
calculations, trick insects
into bottles, disembowel toads,
pursue the sun and moon
across muddy paper -
fools, both of them.
The sores on my legs calculate distance
better than a chronometer.
My mouth and nostrils collect insects
My body is the laboratory
in which nature is known.
I, Robert Burke, am scientist, sample, and experiment.
They called it Dieri.
You call it the inland sea.
Leichhardt married a bluegum
west of Coopers Creek.
He clung to the tree, climbed it,
carved L L L on its voluptuous trunk.
The upper branches shook with pleasure.
Leichhardt groped at them,
grasping seeds he would bury
in the scrub, so that his wife
might bear a child.
In the rear view mirror
a vein of silver,
to Broken Hill.
In the bush behind Menindee
Burke met a blackfella called Karl Marx
and asked him where
they kept the water, up north.
Marx drew two circles in the dust
then traced a line across them.
Bull ants crawled
in the old man's beard.
This is the big snake, Marx said,
in Barkindji, the language
of political economy.
And these, he gestured, are the circuits
of capital, as money passes
from miner to publican to bank. Sometimes
when the creek has crawled up
into the ranges
and the cockatoos have flown away,
the snake gets hungry,
and curls up, and begins to chew his tail.
Burke wiped his brow, drew his pistol, fired
into the air.
The cockatoos flew away.
Sturt sat in his skiff
and waited for a creek
the way he had waited
for a horse and buggy.
The officers leaned on a gum stump and smoked.
On the road to Wilcannia
a galah flashes like a distress flare
out of the scrub.
It takes three days to sail
to Broken Hill, steering north,
across the red swell
of the Mallee, guided by
the great mullock heap,
the two rusty sails
of the miners' memorial.
Sand leaked into the skiff.
Burke's camel was nothing unusual
to Marx, just an overgrown emu
with four legs. He watched the beast bolt
as Burke emptied his pistol.
He watched a bull ant mount the sheer face
of Burke's left boot.
He watched capital circulate through the dust.
Sturt fell off his horse, which was already
becoming a statue, and began to swim over
the stones and dunes. He scooped up fish
ribs, otoliths, fossilised
oysters, as he worked his way north,
across the great Inland Sea.