When My Father Was A Fisherman

In the lean years,
there wasn’t much work to be got on land,
so my father took work on one of the trawlers
that fished up and down the mouth
of the Tasman Bay.

When he came ashore,
he was like something out of a
romantic sea tale,
tattered woolen hat and gumboots,

the reek of fish scales,
sleeves rolled up,
sunburnt tattoos of skulls and flames,
salt in the creases of his smile.

I thought of his fierce arms
hauling up schools of mackerel and orange roughy,
and the angry sea spittle
lashing at his leathery face.

My mother wore her fear
in the strained, tired lines of her eyes,
this is the last time, she said,
after this, you’ll get a job in
the tobacco season,

promise me.
But she was a fisherman’s wife,
and he was proud of the living
he snatched from the teeth of a
capricious sea.

The captain was a real sea dog,
a missing tooth, a glass eye,
an anchor tattoo on his fist.
He was rolling drunk most of the time
and there was a sharpening in my mother’s voice
when he came round to drink with dad.

On good days he led his boat to
Eldorado,
but on bad ones he floundered
in used up hunting grounds,
where the big boats had greedily fed.

On good days
we were down the fish and chip shop,
dad hanging his tattoos out the car window,
on display,
thumping the door to ZZ Tops,
like local bogan royalty.
But too many bad days

and mum was at the neighbour’s
begging bread and sugar,
my sister and I would go off to the school bus
in mended crutches and mended knees,
skipping the cracks in our world.

And then the day came
when the Salvation Army people
pulled up at our house.
They handed mum and dad
brown paper bags,

a bounteous and bitter charity
of cans, bread, sugar and biscuits.
My little brother snatched up the ice cream,
bare-bum, ran out back with his catch,
my sister emptied a box of raisins in her mouth,
and whistled through it like a flute.

Mum was crying and wouldn’t look
the delivery man in the face
as she pushed a choked thank you from her lips.
Dad just stood there, fists clenched,
lips tight as wires,
and I shrank back inside,
cause I knew what he was thinking.

These were the lean years,
the nineties,
when the safety net was hauled up for good,
when my family got fed
if we could catch a break from the sea.

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What We Give

From head to toe, I ache.
All day, I stood between the trees,
the rain running down my neck,
my back, till my skin was sodden.

This work, deftly, swiftly pulling
away the unripened fruit,
the smooth sensuality of sustenance,
is not just a passing of time,

while pockets fill with quick hopes.
No, the trees demand from me
nothing less than precious life hours.

Hungrily, they slake themselves on
my fast decreasing song,
while each day, I give a little of myself over to
the grass.
Before long, what will be left to me?

Like beads of dew licked by the morning sun,
I am becoming a sky of blue wind.
I lose myself here in rhythms
dictated by the branches.
And yet there is no loss.

What I burn in myself to hot exhaustion,
and what leaves me alone like a husk
at the end of the sun,
takes the shape of a thousand fresh years,

and is like a pip of incandescent seasons
that travels along the infinite tendrils of the
lithe, red earth,
to reach far into the mouths of others.

Apple Picking

By mid-morning my hand ached
from the repetitive rhythm
of the cutting and pulling,
and the sun beat its way into my head,
and expanded like a seed of heat.
The work still hadn’t broken me in,
and I was greener than the baby shoots.

But everywhere, the others,
more seasoned than I,
worked to the rhythm of the grass
and the pollen,
and a music of wind sometimes swelled
and cooled their broad necks.
Everyone was tawny there,

and even the young women of the orchard,
loved more by the sun than the men,
looked like the reddened, beautiful girls
I have seen in pictures of the
people of the wild steppes.

At lunch time, I talked with the
old guy who works the tractor.
His voice was full of salt and dust,
and he spoke of last season’s work,
and of tea trees and pears
and his 44 years under
this corner of the sun.

If you are here long enough,
the orchard will shape your speech,
so that it rises just loud enough
above the breeze,
and there’s not much to say
beyond the hedges and the slow road,
and the hills that are already
a foreign land.

In the morning,
as I picked among the too close branches,
I thought of things beyond me,
debts, women, cities, ships and
also death.
But come afternoon, in the heat
that quells all words,
I thought of nothing,
and was simply a rustling through the trees.

The Orchard Worker

Everyday, he brings his dog
to the orchard,
and keeps to himself,
doesn’t talk to anyone else
but his best friend.
They both have a low growl
when they do talk,
like a tractor engine sputtering.
It sounds like two guard dogs
warning the rest of us
not to come too close.
They go about their day,
and I go about mine
on our opposing sides,
I with my quiet apples,
they with each other,
a conspiracy of dog and man.
And they walk about,
silently stacking hay bales,
digging fire breaks,
barriers that keep out
frost and flame,
and the burden of human speech.