July 2022

Arts & Letters

Altona

By Nam Le
A poem

Is a single night, and the smell spanning nights:

Knee-deep in neap tide in seagrass meadow,

Pants rolled up thigh-high: night-crabbing.

I can’t remember how I got here. I did things

Then without paying heed or asking why.

 

But the smell: I remember the sickening

Sewage leak from the treatment plants

South of Skeleton Creek; egg-rot sulphur

Flaring from the oil refinery; naphtha,

Diesel, asphalt, all the petro-fractions;

Rain-leach from the chemical plants, overspill

Over even the natural putrefactions

Of algae, alluvium, seaweed, tidal scum

Slobbed all around that indented mouth.

 

Altona! Here’s what you did then: wade, barefoot,

In the rank dark (or, really, in that strange

Far-off light from the Mobil chimney stacks —

That second skyline of distillation towers,

Boilers, cokers and catalytic crackers)

Through sludge and silt, deep into seaweed patches,

Sunken kelp beds on sea mud, sliming your soles,

Sucking you down, in — fizzing your underskin.

And what you felt for, with each blind foot,

Each tentative, tender gripe, was crabs —

The hard chitin of a carapace

(And they were big — big as a child’s face)

And if you felt one — shell, spasm — you

Must bear down on it fast and hard and full

With all your leg’s weight to hold it there.

Now you’re committed. Now — avoiding the

Six speared legs, the pad-popping teeth ridge

And the lateral spikes and, of course, the two

Huge mad claws that slice to bone — grab it.

 

I dropped it. Hopped back, fingers smarting, spurting,

Fell. And when I looked back up I saw, gliding

Across the bay, a colossal black angel — big as

A city block. My fingers tasted ferric.

The sucked blood shone. I have never got

Back up, I think. Still prostrate in fish-slime,

Wracked in waterweed, in septic stink, feet

Still scrounging mud for the lacerating rebuke.

Alone, hurting in the intertidal zone.

 

And the great Distributor grinds by.

And its blood, crude and thick, congeals mine.

It watches me with red, dripping plimsoll eye.

Nam Le

Nam Le is a writer based in Melbourne.

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