Margins

There was, even in the earliest arrivals,
that element in their souls
which shrunk from the purely urban,
the pinched living,
the tripping over each other
in the dark courtyards
of old Europe,
from which they had fled.

No, here in this land,
that knew nothing
of cesspools running deep
in the nostrils and the mind,

they pushed the new cities out
to arms length or more,
and kept gardens, rolling lawns,
undies flying like flags of independence
from the line.

This wild land soon enough
de-civilized the new comers,
in the call of the mist,
and the folds of endless ranges
to the vast, un-hedged isolation.

And they grew more reticent,
lost the eloquence of the mother tongue,
steeped in its crushing epochs of speech,
lost in the thick silence,
pierced only by the tui,
a rush of wings from the bush,
untutored voices.

The forests dispossessed them,
those so-called colonizers,
but they gained in return.
On that margin between
the bach and the sea,
the mountain hut and the infinite south,
they pushed out from the pale,
the left behind, walled up centuries.

The threads tore
in the purer, turbulent skies,
while they kept the essentials,
wooley jersey, gumboots,
and tin of beef,
things to take with them
when they went off
to learn from the cataracts of the bush.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Diggers

The rush had brought the worst kinds,
drifters, crooks, half-breeds,
men without nations or loyalties.
They’d followed the migrating gold,
the elusive, fast burning phoenix,
crisscrossing the Pacific,
not giving two hoots where they landed,
whose backyard they tore up.

These men, flung together
from a dozen sinking kingdoms,
burned and froze
in the brutal streambeds of the south,
clung to their earth, their rocks,
damned all efforts
to build an orderly colony,

poured their precious stones,
once they had them,
down the gullet of the grog shop,
the whorehouse,
spoke dangerously of rough democracy,
passed their gold
to the resentful patricians
along with their dysentery,
their syphilis,
their infectious social leveling.

And the powers that be,
fearing the civil breakdown
of this happy-go-lucky frontier
of diggers, whores and Chinamen,
imported shiploads of respectable girls,
wives and helpmates,
to entice them back to the farms,
to the serious business
of building a Victorian empire.

But they stayed away
and rode the river steamers
deeper, deeper into the interior,
where they made or lost their fortunes
in the thick silt,
in the muddy streets of the ghost towns.

For they had to take pains,
to be with their loneliness
in the lonely throat of the new country,
had to tear down
the moldered shafts of the old world,
seeking new seams,
cursing, spitting, brawling
with themselves and the earth,
so that something strong,
enduring, infinite,
could be theirs.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Invaders

I

 

They left that old land

hoping the sea spray

would wash away its gray memory

and its hatreds.

 

But the worst was to come,

deep in the dripping caverns

of those ships full of England’s castaways,

who coughed up cholera

and dead infants,

offal for the

green wastes of the sea.

 

And those interminable months

in the thick, wet air of that womb

waiting to be born,

what could they do?

Learn to read, learn to write,

a name, a catechism,

learn how to build cities?

 

Dreams could expand like lice

in those holes,

honey from the new land

would ooze in their ears.

While the dying poured into buckets,

their dreams grew hard and dark

in the stomach,

fanatics multiplied, intoned,

it is an empty land,

a promised land.

 

II

 

When at last

the choked exiles arrived,

disappointment fell like an anchor,

the ship was a gangway

aimed at a land

as untaught as the sea,

a slow lizard

dripping its own grayness,

 

and the settlers could only

huddle and dig sodden gardens

and starve through wet years

while the forests constantly leaked

and the rivers fell from their beds,

drowning their delusions.

 

But they had their hard dreams,

their grim books

that afflicted them like dropsy,

and with blunt tools

they built new Shropshires,

poorer ones that often caved in,

they grafted familiar

sounds and scents

onto the alien soil.

 

And at night they cowered

in their wattle kingdom,

clutching useless muskets,

as the native land closed in

brandishing its own weapons,

carrying its own unbreakable treaty.

 

III

 

By the time the first children

grew up, they were already strangers,

arrogant, rough, more certain,

 

the new land plundered everything

the parents poured into it

and returned nothing familiar.

Some dreamed of reverse journeys,

of second exiles.

 

And when it came time

for the vigorous, young colony

to celebrate its aged pioneers

it was hard to know

who these foreigners were,

the relics of a defeated, grey country,

who seemed, to the youngsters,

like strange invaders.

 

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Coming Home

The mountains won’t break their silence,

the coast and the sea

are neither an invitation nor a threat.

No fortress frowns on this land

of pale skies.

The land tells me nothing.

Ships with white sails

come to harangue the shores

and leave defeated.

If they stay, they huddle in the coves

of a land without myth.

The land tells me nothing.

Why has it strayed so far from the others,

to this grey and churning sea?

Why should it be an outpost,

hunched with its secrets?

The clouds that wander this far off course

are like exiles, heavy,

laden with the broken spoils

of their abandoned homeland.

Copyright 2014 Ricky Barrow