June 2018

Arts & Letters

Collingwood

By Nam Le
A song cycle in 5 parts

I

 

You’d think the fell they monged would be
day’s cut, mountain ash & red gum, hard
lumber sluiced down the river named
Falls, over the falls named Dight, to the
shallows       or failing that, fell as in
hill as in    that fell up the Slope from
the Flat (foul, miasmatic no-man’s
land) as in    whence the good wood
comes as in    where you meet, make terms,
name the wood so as to claim & then
consider it.

       But no. Fell is hide. Is hold
your breath the carcase-butcher’s skin-
cart comes, is drain the blood to paste
the lime to gape the pores & rip
the hair out, fuller’s earth the pelt &
pickle it in acid salt       is all it’s
ever been down here – blood in soil,
blood and soil, beasts most fell and
us besides, by, here at run-off’s
end, these ample offal fields (heads we feed
to the pigs) for the boiling-down &
boning, the slicing & scouring, watch
us flush the fell-poak, watch us watch the
brown river going so so gorgeous with
effluence.

       Can’t see it in your hands but. It’s
there and then it’s not. Not the same
river (nor the same then), the stone with
standing but on amended grounds and
who, in any case (I hear you ask) (and
fair enough), is “we”?       God, how bored with
clemency this land must have been – to
dream up European man & method, his
last names riving the first, the old
names, telling of dead set industry, of
long damage, all the dark work to be
done in the sun.

 

II

 

Comes the Oriental with his blue
teeth, because of gold. Turning white men
white as they’ve ever been. Larrikin means
you can spit on him. Local means we stick
together and they stick together (scum
on sap), side by side, sessile, squat in
nightsoil.

                                                     Slope’s
best so beneath it we lived, sweating
$40 fleece-lined trackies for $1.40 copping
cops & cap-questers galore getting
the knack – did I mind? my boy, what’s
because. Newly alived we were – beleaved,
uplooted, and this beautiful nation, this
no-joke land of the flee       it lift us
up give us cow juice & clothes it make
loom for us in the high-lies flats.

                                            (Did I mind!)

 

III

 

Sydney auction. Surgeon, coroner &
special constable for flood duty John
Dight sits, saturnine, waits. Happens to
be rain’s on his mind, the iterative
nature of its speciation and a
minore ad maius
its divine
ontology (the land pre-gridded into
pasturable lots, says the auctioneer (“A”))
       vide that rain that deliquesced the
mortar at many-roomed Durham Bowes,
eased up the stone groundsel with soft
fingertips (fronting five miles of handy
river, says A) and tender bore the
edifice entire – post & beam, frame &
fixture – and Hannah & the children trapped
in the loft! – down Hawkesbury deep unto
the drownèd valley – and who’s to say the
Great Flood that drowned the world wasn’t
accreted by this same gentle, noiseless
rain, falling from high, light skies – the kind
of rain that makes you want to step outside?

       Flood, yes, distance too. And the blacks
hostile (and no blacks at all, says A); the
stableman at Stafford, spear depending
from gut to skim the ground (or else they’ve
been treatied with, says A, and anyway
the Melbourne blacks are famously meek
as cabbages). Time to move, thinks Dight. To
stop moving. He lifts his hand, our man of
many grants, amicus commissariat, at
£18.10 – the day’s highest price – and
procures Portion 88.

       Best not think about it. Value’s
value. But think about it: that base
mechanic Batman makes a killing
(coinage from across the Pacific viz
the future – true court of value) scoring
600,000 acres for a grab-bag of
trinkets – scissors & flannel jackets (and
even annulled, first claims, all know, cut
deepest)       while I, a “free settler”, only
four years hence, am out a hundredfold
for a twenty-thousandth part! Enough
to make a man. But the river. The
future, think about –
                                        15 falling feet of
water to put to the wheel. The shallowest
crossing to tax the stock, to toll the
drays & days. Even, in time, who knows (I
know!) a weir, a mill, a candleworks, and
(play your cards right) packed all round the
proximising bend a full, hardy deck
of woolwashers & scourers, gutcleaners,
fatboilers, tanners, gluemakers,
fellmongers.

 

IV

 

(Mouth’s my own but your tongue twisted
all through. I don’t speak for no-one. If
you were spirits why steal our women cannot
disobey day’s end’s summonses, maybe
you knew this. The sealing places, the
eeling places. Why kill our dogs were all
you’d left us by then. Sickness is staying
in one place and we saw you move so
we let you come so why come sly       it’s true
your god, dying again every seven
days, was strong – this we understand. We
were like you. They broke our mouth into a
thousand tongues too. We pitied you, futile
& pale, but you were not spirits, but your
spirits kept ours dulled & dreamy and who
knew they would stop our songs stop the
babies in our daughters they were so strong.

       “You” is heaps easier. Your slow, dim
animals with destroying feet. Your
animal skins, sorry business all round, with
all the animal soaked, sprained out of
them. Fell is sly and sour too. You felled
our land became ours the moment you
came. Denatured the mist river for (your)
shame. Where there’s shade do you walk in
the sun tells us when it’s time to move
on       but you came, stayed, the sickness took.

       Nothing now grows. Would that the
Great Water had stayed shut up in the
mountain – the looking glass a basin, the
tomahawk a bluff – nothing itself with
you. Would that we had listened to the
stories you told about yourself. Would that
you had not transported your fault all
this way – athwart borders of blood &
ice, the salt tide tracks, the vast sea country,
to protect us.)

 

V

 

River remains. City taken its
name. Though the East is gone, the
keepers of the names. Inspectorate of
Nuisances. Headwaters dammed, high
catchment for white irony. Welcome
to country, whispers the mirror. Thirst &
spate telemetrised. Now is the Age of
Treatment.

       District, Borough, Town: stacked
we are, & sprawled, set in our stories but
there’s scum yet hues our hands. We
their issue       you ours       sited unstable
on chemical & carnal swill, every
motherloving part of the animal
and so be it (& what) – show me pure
terra, show me a bloodless plot, your
immaculate consents (where we come,
my boy, shit’s just meaning you not
starving!)

       All that maul & moil. Tongues
& toil. Those ruined meadows, newly
enstranged (nothing native remains – how
we mocked your weird, weakly beasts &
trees you brung how here they are, settled
past taking back and where are we and
anyway what’s back). Wrong. In dream
questions force their own answers. Time is
swim-through. Future liquidity. The
volcanic plain dreams of life, that loves
itself, and kills to grow, quickens to
corruption: soil turns to sump, breeds
tent city dreaming of rookeries
in the upmost stratas where sleep my
mother & little brother still, where
roost the favoured wogs & muslims, the
mong-faced slants & africans, where
once I saw a junkie come into the
lift, slouched with story, carrying a head
of lettuce so green it burst my heart.

 

Originally published in Reading Victoria, a project of Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office. With special thanks to Sophie Cunningham.

Nam Le

Nam Le is the author of The Boat. His poetry has been published in Conjunctions, Boston Review and Harvard Review.

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