‘Don’t Mention the War’ 2003
North Head, Sydney, Sept 2002
Living in a wide landscape are the flowers –
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying –
the shell and the hawk every hour
are slaying men and jerboas . . . Keith Douglas d 1944
Behind Ned Kelly’s rectangular visor
fronting a World War II bunker
I sweep a dilated Pacific.
No migrating whales but a loose pod
of 50 dolphins surf stampeding waves
shearwaters ride beneath radar range.
The enemy comes out of the east
sunrise is accurate, bearings regenerated
by the natural rhythm of a vernal equinox.
The sun hits hot, not yet seven,
bush flies baptise a first day of summer
by scavenging nose and ears.
Two ravens fiddle with a rough-twigged nest,
ritual affection is perched right on the edge
of sandstone’s papier collé, a lacerated
gestalt of colour and texture, precarious face
in the hands of rock falls and wind fray.
We retreat and watch the city
sprinkled down to the water’s edge.
A peregrine falcon cruises overhead,
all relaxed power and beautiful aggression.
A brown quail, elegant in grey, blends
back into the scrub. Honeyeaters climb the masts
of flowering grass trees, boldly feed and display.
When was word the ‘war’ freshly minted?
On a morning like this, flush with song?
Or inside the elusive speech of a rhyming moon?
Or dusk, plugged by a blood-red sky
which stains. A rub of smog tools my horizon.
There’s no substitute for committing peace.
Yesterday in Parliament our foreign minister said
‘Don’t mention the war.’ I just kept waiting, waiting
for the comic goosestep (‘I think I got away with it’).
(War from werra – confusion, discord, strife).
From mid -March to April 2003, I wrote a poem a day (instead of watching or listening to any media about the war).
March 18 Coogee Beach
. . . this is the staring unsleeping
Eye of the earth; and what it watches is not our wars. Robinson Jeffers
After swimming in fertile waters beyond the tilting waves
B wanders away to finish the roll, (I want to load
the peace readings onto the Net).
I dozed, she’s not back – blue becomes a memory
emptier than black, a sublime and polished emptiness,
phosphenes or mitochrondria graze my field of vision.
If governments want war bring back swords and
make it personal, blanched flesh of school history
turning the pages but finding no apology for the massacres.
or claims of shootings Anangu in the swinging 60s.
Fight barefoot along this wrack of shell weed and plastic
hopping over bluebottles, small inflated wontons trailing poison.
I mould my back into the sand and listen – like a whale for pressure waves
travelling the Diamantina Fracture Zone, into Crozet Basin
lapping the Mascarone Plateau and falling into the Indus Fan.
On the turn, the tide gains sudden momentum,
sloppy top-heavy waves dump a girl, lost to sight;
ragged spray trips on the cliffs further south,
repeatedly the sea flops onto land,
a stubborn mechanics is circulating the globe
sloping from the horizon’s glinting wire
I hear my physical pulse, my own meat
that on average will beat 3 billion times
consider that I contain enough iron to make
a 3-inch nail, enough sulphur to kill all the fleas
on an average dog, enough carbon to make 900 pencils,
enough fat to make 7 bars of soap easily,
The sun’s now hot, stinging, almost the weight
of a bird’s skull, or mouthful of breast feathers.
You listen or float, squeezed in the sea’s muscle.
There’ll be too much TV, talking heads, Pentagon
video games, ruins in the supplements but death wiped clean
with a strong scouring agent. War perfects the instruments
of death, and seeks originality. War is an artist, a writer
a concatenation of stories – dramatic, pitiful, exciting,
dedicated to death. So I listen to the sea’s wash.
Beethoven’s visitors found his pianos ruined, out of tune
strings broken by his pounding as he tried to hear the music,
air his body weight, slabs of frustration.
He sawed the legs off one machine to feel the sounds,
still improvised for hours, hearing through his fingers
I hear the sounds of tanks mobilising in the desert,
an old fruit and veg exhausted climbs the hill.
Just listening to words, not the crack of anti-aircraft fire
explosions, the intimate distance of whispers in the aftermath.
March 19 Whiting Beach
The harbour’s clarified, not one white note
of excited energy, no one else on the beach.
Is this tenuous moment peace on earth?
I bit my tongue on the ferry – American tourists snapping
the Opera House, talking among themselves. What’s the big deal?’
said one ‘Australia’s contributing sweet FA.’
The yachts are now travelling in the opposite direction
in long drawn out bunting of identical sails.
Wednesday’s race day. If nothing’s equal, what’s fair?
A yacht at anchor noses round, the sail
launches a swaying reflection onto wet sand
a concrete blessing Plato would not have received.
A man appears from below, leans over and works
a rhythm, hand over hand, pulling Amadeus
free of the harbour’s deep blue gravity.
The concert of pile drivers pounding behind
the skittish scrub-wrens, building a new interactive
of the Australian bush, backyard to farmyard with ‘wildness.’
The lawns of Kirribilli House are gracile, unused,
perfect. There’s no sign of life, or of our leader
or the increased security.
The Opera House sails are streaked bloody
men hang from the top trying to wash away
the smear - NO WAR.
I read Nestor’s speech on Troy, ‘There all the best of us
then were slain; there lies warlike Ajax, there Achilles,
there Patroclus, god-like in counsel, and there lies my dear son . . ‘
The heroes, well loved by the gods, fall into that darkest night headfirst.
Death takes no prisoners, neither does Homer. The gods enjoy
the spectacular gladiators and tracer bullets ripping the night sky.
From the verandah, watch with Christine, our neighbour, a massive
cloud quarrel and then stars emerging from under the magician’s coat.
Time to turn away inside, faithful to the hum of electricity.
B’s back from collating squares for a quilt, the ‘Wild Susans’ gift
for Luce’s baby, the craft Victorian, its techne extraordinary
even as Iraqi women are being discounted again.
I’ve voted early, the polling station’s quiet
the pencils’ still sharp, my mark so underwhelming
yet women died for it and men died for it.
I still don’t know how the war is going, work at the garden,
prune out-of-control ivy. It’s just another war,
the world’s had 300 odd since No2.
People will be dying quickly like Webern who stepped out for a smoke
and was shot by a US soldier three times in the stomach
or slowly, like Iraqi kids starved in their hundreds of thousands.
Or Pope, his spine and rib cage spongiform, caved in,
his kidneys failed, memory abandoned, like friends over the years.
His love still strong for Martha Blount (after mum died),
unconsummated. He wrote his last letter, ‘I love you
upon unalterable Principles, which make me feel my heart
the same to you as if I saw you every hour – adieu.’
Happiness in love is nothing to write about, not like
the wind blowing a ‘d’ across my beer bottle, not surprised
by such easy happiness, though I’ve no job, little money,
life is holding together like a unified theory of everything,
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, elementary particles and
the expansion of the universe – just leaving out love and death,
or Wilson’s notion of Consilience – that the diverse disciplines
can all be integrated if one can screw scientific Discovery
into humanistic wisdom, still leaving this war inexplicable.