Arts & Letters
Briefly they’d united, these workers of the world,
Against speed-up & unsafety, employers &
Union honchos both; marshalled themselves. And struck.
From out Europe’s faults they’d come: badlands, bloodlands,
Applying theories fled, lists of names read, the luck
Of reprieve life, then migrancy — now four thousand strong
And free (to work): Turks, Greeks, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Slovaks —
All the Slavs — joined in one solid stopped line to Geelong
And out to the You Yangs, granite proving ground.
In Broady they’d used bricks & bottles, glass on
The factory floors, fire hoses turned on offices: down
Tools, down fence, down walls; unified they held the line,
Held their nerve, these old country expatriates, laughed down
The local velvet fist: rigged votes, bought reps, bought headlines,
Pretend talks, pleas for coolings-off, threats of mass lay-offs,
Public bluffs & ultimatums, stand-over deadlines —
We’ll move both plants to Asia — ten weeks of riotous stand-off —
And then they won. They won! Was this, then, the redemption
Of what they’d heard called ‘multiculturalism’? Seasons of
Blood, name, tribe, nation, creed, tongue, cause, old resentments
And ressentiments, en masse melting-potted, or, rather,
Pressure-cooked down for clarity & concentration:
Migrants, rank-&-filers … all become Aussie brothers-
In-arms? For they’d won: more pay, more work, more women;
Less fume & spill & leak & speed; safety signs in other
Languages; more toilet breaks (and more often!);
And less overtime, which is when accidents happen.
1980: Enter, into this, my father. St Vincent’s
Bin-dressed, hair home-cut with cock’s tail, smiling too much, then
Wrongly; come on the crest of Asiatic sea-throng, come
From weird war without real end, from unreal continent
Of dim practices, unregisterable blood quantums,
Repeating sly, lidless, lineless faces — surely not
All cultures? Surely limits. Surely if all were welcome
Welcome meant nothing. So no. So close ranks. So he got
Wise fast, my dad: whatever they were — he was less.
The chassis-body problem
The assembly line is a metaphor, and what
It makes is metaphor, and all its processes
And parts are metaphorical. Four thousand men
To make a car, and four thousand parts, more or less,
From parts far & wide, to assemble a Ford Falcon:
Stand-in for whatever you want. They understood,
These men, it was themselves they made, the means & end —
Autogenesis — mythos of shaft & head & hood,
Rod & pump, pipe & pan; bodies making bodies
Moved by money in dinning violence, the carbon blood
To feed the heart-caged fire: the trunks holding holy
Combustion, converting deep time to dead exhaust:
We all have one. Australia’s favourite car. And not only
The body — the Spirit of Freedom too, the force
To climb with ease (per the TV ads), stretch your wings,
Because: You’re on the move, Australia. This the source
Of hope, ultimately: that all that welding, wrenching,
Vertical integration, standardising of parts,
Might yet impel them — to marriage (or, at least, mating):
The bit where body’s lowered onto engine heart,
And the heart shoved up till it’s beating in your throat
And what’s manifold becomes one. And Everyman can start
In kings’ sport, and any man with cash can own the road,
Can catch up, sleek as slogans, through stoop-fall speed &
Flexed suspension, to the same shrill of engine-note:
The falcon — fastest animal on earth — commands
The sky. And scopes all: the Anglos as well as us.
Except not. Not us. Skip some years. Help me understand,
Dad, the differential; you fled the devices
Of star, hammer & sickle, just like them. Was it
That Asia was never a bluff — but a slipped promise?
Was it some scabbery in you invited Vincent
Chin jokes? When the body-in-white Greeks & Turks called
You ‘gook’ or ‘chink’ or ‘nip’, was that straight-bat cricket?
Were you in on it? Impact-wrench words; ratchet pawled;
Each pneumatic syllable bolted into place —
Or was it just white noise to you, suction in your skull,
Because not personal? ( Just who you were, your face,
Where you came from, why.) Speaking for myself, I feel
Personal about this. My mind takes dark turns; I trace
The moving line in Broadmeadows, where what was built,
For me, is a wholly different order of metaphor:
Meadows, for me, calls up now not asthmatic fields
Of Melbourne ryegrass but asphodel, asphalt poured
Over dell, open road freedom over white flowers,
Flowers untaintably white — Elysian white. Say Ford
And now I see the blood-soaked Chicago abattoirs
That inspired Henry’s hanging-chassis assembly line
That inspired, yes, Hitler, whose eternal Treblinka
Was as rationally organised, was its own kind
Of work to set you free. (Too much? Then let it be
Too much.) Those carcasses processed via Lebensraum
Call out, to me, to automotive Manifest Destiny,
While you, dad, on your own move, come West, come south — where
No one’s nullius next to his honest Falcon XE —
You’ll only ever be Vincent Chin, gasping, It’s not fair.
Now say Fairmont. Say Fairlane. Can you see Hoher Göll —
Not the falcon but above it — look! — the eagle’s lair —
From which thousand-year height you trust the full circle
Of creation is clear? Still up for grabs, this great south land.
Nam Le is the author of The Boat.
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Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’
Shirley Hazzard’s wider world
Citizen plain: ‘Mank’
Ready steady gone
Deep cuts: ‘Small Axe’
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