At some point
he must have lifted his head,
looked back at the axe
in his hand,
felt the edge
turned to the horizon where trees dipped to the sea
and he must have said,
it is useless
it is over.
The heart is just a dumb muscle
electricity in the nerve says pump
and it pumps
reliable as a Rollinson and Tippett
steady, dumb, resolute.
We say it feels because we’re looking
for the centre
something that is not the mind
or the hand.
Not the hand holding the axe head
forgotten in the groove
not the eye registering
the declension of land to sea
not the mind
with its need to explain
to deny, to resist,
but the centre that brims
with the blood of hope
or can deflate, collapse
at certain knowledge,
knowledge the brain with its sophistry
At some point that poisonous vapour
of thought must have breathed on his brain
stung it, cringing in the skull
withering the vibrant essence of a man
the pulsing brain, soured, corrupt and green
recoiling from the hot breath of gas
like the retracting horns of crushed snails,
a gas that collapses the balloon
we call the heart
and, that man, drawing his hand away from the stone
would have pressed it to his chest
because the pain there was exquisite
it is over, it is gone.
Not one life, not one thought,
not the groove in the rock,
because it’s still there today,
but a whole world,
the complete map of the known world;
why stars shine
why darkness exists between them
why a baby is born
how to turn those babies into men and women
how to fathom existence
how to revere its perpetuity,
the obligation to ensure its protection.
That’s the gas
that stole into his brain
poisoned the balloon’s air.
I have not protected,
I have not ensured perpetuity,
I have failed,
after all the methodical success
of galaxies of generation
stretching across time so vast
rock slabs are laid down as stone
mountains appear where none were before
deserts invade oceans
animals become opals,
across that time, all were successful,
it is me, just me, it is I who have failed.
One tiny phial of that gas
and the city is dead
the city of the mind
of the spirit
of the soul
the essence of life that springs
a curled head of tight green from the soil,
that directs fish to follow the glass wall of waves
that is there behind the mild gaze of kangaroos,
all that and the gas steals upon it
The yam pasture is forgotten
the wicker gate to the fish trap
drifting back and forth with each tide
mindless in its obedience to the moon
no hand to slip the peg
that secures the gate
to hold the fish
so neatly, so economically
so necessarily, just a useless woven mat
drifting back and forth
like the thoughts of a man
who has lost his mind,
no-one to slip the peg of reason.
The forest creeps and we are not there
to wring our hands at the waste,
no-one to till the garden
keep the forest at bay with flame since the time when Towerer
gave us fire from his tail.
This is just scrub now, no garden,
no copse of trees on the plain
just for their artifice, for their glory,
a tangle of scrub, we now call bush
and lay in front of bulldozers to protect.
Even the memory of fire
has been lost,
the memory of the garden, where trees five hundred years old
are allowed to grow
for the birds,
for the animals, for the fruit,
for the simple grace of their beauty.
Gas, creeping gas,
you think we just laid down and died?
It was the gas of doubt,
the gas of certainty,
it is gone, it is over.
Alright, alright, you say,
are you done now,
have you said it all,
have you told us of our guilt,
are you done,
is it over?
So we are guilty
are you happy?
Does our guilt bring back
the stone to the hand
the fire to the land
the peg to the gate?
No, but does your regret
recall the gas from the chamber,
restore the hope,
draw the fish along the glass wall of the wave?
And what have you done with the fish?
But here we are on the rocks
above the falls
and our reeboks
assemble by the grooves,
our caps dip their peaks
like sad birds
to inspect the handiwork of great grandfathers
It is so close, you see,
only several generations
since the hands that may have
slipped the peg,
lit the brands,
tilled the land
fell useless by their sides.
The feet here,
shod in latex and nylon,
the caps stitched with the names
of American baseball teams
are removed only a hundred years
from the hands and feet of the grinders,
the peg slippers,
the firers whose bodies must
still be here, close enough for us
to feel the yearning of their spirits.
Is it all gone,
is it over,
if these feet
are back beside the groove
fingers sliding on grandma’s polished stone?
Is it over?
Who said never?
Who said no way?
Who said we will overcome some day?
Will we do it with nicotine addiction,
a delusion of grog,
chuckling at the buffoonery
of TV champions?
Will we do it
by begging money
from those whose guilt we prime with a wicked pump?
Will we do it by painting up
and dancing for the governor,
the mayor who is wondering
if we’re really human at all?
How will we do it,
Shall we paint a flag,
raise a tent,
write a song,
kick a ball?
How do you recall gas from the air?
My heart is with the man
holding the stone
stilled in the groove
a second before his heart
because I’ll never know what he knew
never even know the profundity
of pain in his stupid muscle
we call the heart
even though I’ve spent my life imagining that moment.
All that is left is the groove
in the stone
and the people’s feet
three generations later
and a hope
a breath of will
not yet extinguished by nicotine,
not yet harnessed to the begging wheel,
not yet satisfied with laughter behind a screen.
Is that enough, my brothers,
You’ve touched the stone groove
of your ancestor
you’ve glimpsed one second’s worth
of his heart’s desire
what is it you’ll settle for now?
And you the alchemist of lobotomy
what shall you say of the gas released?
Did you invent Darwin
for this very moment?
Our latex shoes and our science
cannot hide us from the rock we forgot.
This poem appears alongside 60 other poems by 36 First Nations poets in Guwayu – For All Times. Edited by Jeanine Leane, this anthology is launching in August 2020.