December 2021 – January 2022

Arts & Letters

Abbotsford I

By Nam Le

© Philip Game / Alamy Stock Photo

A poem

Time now for looseness in all things, spring sprung, the come good of darker days.

We are met by the river, from the meeting of major rivers to the red brick brewery

(sun full on the red brick wall – sunnies on!)

and you are gladly welcome: come ease yourself with all the good things of day.

It’s daylight saving and there’s hours left of light, for grub and for grog and for song, for kicking the footy,

for sunbathers with the whiter skin on their breasts and river bathers who come out of the water ablaze

with sheened mystery, with leachates and trace metals too, maybe, but not a single one of them regret.

For nothing, too. Sometimes it’s nice just to wooze around for a bit.



Give me the Birrarung’s boozy petrowhiff any day – that special gas smell of brown gleam.

Give me the tang of septic runoff, which doesn’t smell as bad as it sounds, or smells of good-bad,

crinkling the face into the joyful grimaces of childhood; chase it with strong stormwater runoff, which is clean.

Grey water drains from the factory outfeeds: it leaches hops inside and concentrates their strong smell,

drowsing us off on yeasty dreams:

Mallee dust, summer hols and summer heat, vast Ovens Valley hop fields harvested by great machines,

hops hanging from wires golden as pollen, circled by glint-mad grey currawongs, bronzewings, honeyeaters.

Here, come back – cheers with us over Vic Bitter.



Matter of fact, come with us now.

Cross those riparial stripes of purple loosestrife; back up the broad oxbow bank’s brash and marl;

saplings wrapped in teal plastic, spaced in the black Geofabric matting which controls erosion –

the willows, hairy-catkinned, have their own dense root mats – feel our way past floodwrack, and refuse boughs,

and shrubs of prickly gorse, and veldgrass, and mallow, and morning glory, purple too, and broom, boneseed,

three-cornered garlic with black seeds, and the warted wild turnip weeds.

This place! Its underfoot innominate profusion!

Aboveground too, above weedage and windfall, now it’s fined up nicely – the atmosphere teems.



For Melbourne’s giving out hay fever today for free: boundless, prodigious flurries of grass seed;

chaoses of fluff, pollen, dust, spore, the light overhead wilded as though threshed,

thrown up, like just after big weather, just like country light – always with things in it –

and smelling like cordite, and summer ozone, which is beached childhood, and petrichor.

Snifflers squint, sneeze, squirt things up their noses, blow out; children amaze themselves with their own sneezes;

children meet each other with glum, dumb faces even as their bodies jiggle with happiness;

one of them crumps like she needs to pee (ah – she needs to pee, and – her father now sees – to poo too).

Never mind! Whether one or two, we’re outside, and each free; we achoo and are blessed.



Come, let’s away from this wildly allergenic privet and pellitory, follow over black footbridge,

whose surface is elastomeric resin, meaning high-bouncing, making us helplessly to skip –

(follow the strawberry-dressed skipping girl!) –

back round the Salvos back lot, where good people have doled out piles and piles of unasked-for heave offerings.

Time, once more, for the big clean-out of winter fittings and workout gear and white goods:

to make new, make good, because (as the wall says) I love you my beans.

So, a real-life rainbow. And there – rainbow lorikeets! and someone’s yarned a rainbow sleeve around a power pole,

diverting us just as that pole’s transformer-mounted arrestors – those stacked rounds of zinc oxide – divert lightning.



Long grounded we have been. Currents have run through us, have washed through us; we have become them:

glowing and clear black and glassy, running strained to the sill then along long tension flowlines where we are stretched,

and go clear, and bend –

then whip over weir’s edge. Where we are shocked to ourselves, shatter into ourselves; our throes are electric.

(And are those jellyfish in dark suspension, and silted shapes of black bream, redfin, crumbling before our sight?)

We who have been water held down by water, fizzing in the strong turbid wash, bashed, thrashed,

now come up to October and its slowed down open air – the gold chloride light that makes all things new,

and greens the black water blue.



Up to sound, too: over the white blare of weir and auricular wind, the smooching birds and the squeaking,

the ovation of plastics along riverbank trees, shredded trophies of past spate, shaking themselves out

(light and dark, doggy-poo green, periwinkle blue, salmon pink) – their voices are colour and they are eternal –

over the equally eternal engine wind of the nearby M3: the sound of humans speaking face to face.

They are grouped together, they say Hey and I can’t even and No way and Did you hear about

Everyone trying too loud over bad FM, out of practice; everyone forgiving each other all over the place.

Children are shrieking What to their mothers; their mothers tell them Hang on, Mummy’s talking to her friend.

And they are friends. Talking about what’s next. About what the hell just happened.



And when, anyway, did hats on kids become a thing? Broad-brimmed hats, floppy hats, fishermen’s and yachting hats,

boaters and captains’ hats, sunbonnets, baseball caps, sombreros, golf visors (surely some sportive barb in that?) –

they are making statements I can no longer unpack.

Older boys in new beards, in best boardies; girls in bowl helmets on granny bikes – some even with ears free!

Winter has taken in some summer dresses, riding high on thighs; men find themselves in chinos of surprising snugness;

they sigh about carbs, wryly smiling, patting their bellies, saying Go to fat? – it came to me!

Out of shape and practice. Shagged and spiffed up: talking trades, tax, always real estate, maybe a change of sea or tree,

maybe Try before you buy, saying Best book early, it’s always summer before you realise.


And what’s that – what are those people stopped and squinting at? Holding their phones straight out at?

There’s a shadow beneath the riverbank’s blackberry shadows, beneath the overgrown groundsel and fennel spray;

the surface of the water is tensioned, the root structures tremble,

the algae and eelgrass sway,

and then it breaches – grey hump, too-long slickness – a seal! – (A seal? … A seal!) – biting a huge brown trout,

and never let anyone tell you brown trout aren’t also rainbowed because – look at that –

its scales now go many-coloured, million-glinting: they sparkle, in the trout’s fighting throes; the sun-hit water sparkles,

as if in consubstantiality, and the seal keeps slapping the trout, as if trying to slap out the sparkle, and it cannot.



It cannot. And we are all caught in an astonishment of silence.

All of us make it: it takes all of us, and every other sound-capable thing, to concert this silence,

and for the heart beat’s space it claims a way is made: for the right dream of the fish, in its final brain flare,

and the dream of the seal, which is crushing its spine in stiff-jawed bite, and braining it with total slaps.

A dream of sudden map:

of soaring over that steep cliff of weir, taking flight over the meanders of Deep Hole Rock and Studley Park Boathouse

to the bight of flying foxes – the legended source of nutrient-rich seep, where deep waters darkly teem with trout.

To one: cornucopia. To the other: there, there – it is there.



And what if I told you all of it was real? – sun done with its slow work, heat riverine in its flow,

Abbotsford in the blue nights.

Now people melt their forms into each other, they are drinking hard at each other, going for dissolution,

for they have held honour with each other through the slow thick days, through stayed days that were never meant.

Now mix their substance with landscapes, trees, power poles, skylines; see things float free from their outlines:

my breath catches a thermal up to bats and their pups on the wing and you’re right, I’m now all agape, I know,

I always did bring a throat to a heart fight. But let me tell you: the truth of real things is its own concealment.

And depth is only what’s seen through what can be seen through.



(But just for a sec imagine: the wrench, the pellicle rent, sudden teeth from above tearing into you in your best lie –

the one that’s always held you tight and kept you safe. Sense of stunned drain. Then – surged, spasming sensorium:

imagining what you might imagine if imagining through other senses, or senses differently trained:

dolphins spelling to the south; northern sweet of nitrous links; mad pink algae; fruit bat guano pandemonium –

blossom-spiked, nectar-roughed –

and long-lapsed orchards with their moiling informatics; electroreceptive platypi; abruptions of elver fry;

greenfield estates crying for want of change – up to first headwaters born of rock, increased by rain:

imagine, if you can, how alive it all is, how instressed, everything wanting, wanting, and (at the last, too late) enough.)



Where was I? Dights Falls, right, quick yet, and yet intact, austral spring, hot-brick night, shaking ourselves off,

shaking off the long-short winter – felt like forever, blinked away years – taking full in this new kind of blue.

(It’s only time. So much time. Only so much time.)

Watching, in the dim, our children’s bodies do the forgetful work of joy.

Come out. We are all coming out, or we’re already here, with beers: save your not-drinking day till tomorrow,

or, if no, somebody who hasn’t got kids’s brought ice, and coffees named Haro Sana and Agaro, and lots of Rosma,

made from wet milled beans.

Everyone’s missed you. Everyone’s asking about you, worried about you, wondering how you’ve been.

Nam Le

Nam Le is a writer based in Melbourne.

From the front page

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

What the James Webb Space Telescope reveals

Why NASA’s new telescope is a huge step forward for understanding the universe

Demonstrating for reproductive rights at Hyde Park, Sydney, June 9, 2019

The fight to choose

As Roe v Wade is overturned in the United States, what are the threats to accessing abortion in Australia?

In This Issue

Image of The Sea of Hands, representing support for reconciliation and the rights of Indigenous Australians

The truth about truth-telling

Revisiting trauma is not the road to justice for Aboriginal people

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Did Federation compromise our democracy?

How the advent of Australia’s national government separated power from people and place

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

More in Arts & Letters

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Frank recollections

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

The bureaucracy of evil: ‘The Conference’

The horror of Nazi officialdom is laid bare in Matti Geschonneck’s latest film

‘The Old Man’ and the CIA

Jeff Bridges faces his spycraft past in this Disney+ espionage thriller

Image of Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow (After Gauguin), 2020. Image courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand

The dream machine: The 59th Venice Biennale

Curator Cecilia Alemani’s long overdue Biennale overwhelmingly features female artists and champions indigenous voices and other minorities

More in Poem

Illustration by Jeff Fisher


A poem

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Melbourne I

A poem

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The Properties of Water

Poetry from the late Kate Jennings

Illustration by Jeff Fisher


A poem

Online exclusives

Image of Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the “Weeping Philosopher”.

Forecasting the future

What is humanity’s destiny in the Anthropocene era?

Image of Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen. Photograph © Olivier Vigerie / Neon

Daydream believer: Director Brett Morgen

Morgen’s freeform documentary about David Bowie, ‘Moonage Daydream’, explores the philosophy and creativity of one of popular music’s icons

Image of Chris Kenny appearing in Your ABC Exposed. Image via YouTube

Indecent exposure

Sky News’s ‘Your ABC Exposed’ reveals more about Chris Kenny and co than it does about the national broadcaster

Image of Loren O’Keeffe, the founder of Missing Persons Advocacy Network. Image © Paul Jeffers

The complicated grief when a family member goes missing

As National Missing Persons Week begins, the founder of an advocacy network for families reflects on the ambiguous loss experienced by those left behind