Tag Archives: Oz poetry

Friday poem #5 – from Thylazine – Michelle Cahill

Today we go back to Oz Poetry and forward to some newer voices, courtesy of Thylazine and their TWELVE AUSTRALIAN POETS SERIES 2. I have chosen something by Michelle Cahill, born in Kenya. “Her first collection of poetry The Accidental Cage was Best First Book with Interactive Press 2006 and was listed among the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Books for 2006.”


You tell me how it feels
to be inside the glass of a wave,
quiet as a womb
with the force to pitch
against the velvet rocks
what skims iridescent
from its dark mouth.
Sea-gulls angle off the point
where I watch the grommets,
black seals in wet-suits
with livid lips.
When the wind turns
the sea wears a mask of mercury,
begins to swirl and chop.
The sky is spitting rain,
the surfers paddle back.
I wonder when love turns.
You scramble down the cliff
sprint across the rocks.
Now the waves close out
a monologue wracked
by contradiction.

A “grommet” is a young or inexperienced surfer.

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Posted by on February 27, 2009 in Australia and Australian, OzLit, poets and poetry


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Australian poem 2008 series #23: George Essex Evans “The Women of the West”

Yes, one of my mother’s favourites, particularly for the middle stanzas. The 99th anniversary of the death of George Essex Evans was on 10 November. He was born in 1863. We can never return to the world he evokes, yet it is part of the streams that converge in us today and as such worth knowing, along with all those other streams some of which we now acknowledge rather better than we did.

Today Toowoomba is better known, perhaps, as the long-term home of another poet, Bruce Dawe.

Women of the West
By George Essex Evans

They left the vine-wreathed cottage and the mansion on the hill,
The houses in the busy streets where life is never still,
The pleasures of the city, and the friends they cherished best:
For love they faced the wilderness – the Women of the West.

The roar, and rush, and fever of the city died away,
And the old-time joys and faces – they were gone for many a day;
In their place the lurching coach-wheel, or the creaking bullock-chains,
O’er the everlasting sameness of the never-ending plains.

In the slab-built, zinc-roofed homestead of some lately taken run,
In the tent beside the bankment of a railway just begun,
In the huts on new selections, in the camps of man’s unrest,
On the frontiers of the Nation, live the Women of the West.

The red sun robs their beauty and, in weariness and pain,
The slow years steal the nameless grace that never comes again;
And there are hours men cannot soothe, and words men cannot say
The nearest woman’s face may be a hundred miles away.

The wide bush holds the secrets of their longing and desires,
When the white stars in reverence light their holy altar fires,
And silence, like the touch of God, sinks deep into the breast
Perchance He hears and understands the Women of the West.

For them no trumpet sounds the call, no poet plies his arts,
They only hear the beating of their gallant, loving hearts.
But they have sung with silent lives the song all songs above
The holiness of sacrifice, the dignity of love.

Well have we held our fathers’ creed. No call has passed us by.
We faced and fought the wilderness, we sent our sons to die.
And we have hearts to do and dare, and yet o’er all the rest,
The hearts that made the Nation were the Women of the West.

The Queensland Museum has an online exhibition inspired by this poem.

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Posted by on November 14, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, OzLit, poets and poetry


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Australian poem 2008 series #22: Kenneth Mackay OBE "The Song that Men Should Sing" (1899)

mackay Here we have a deservedly forgotten lyric from late 19th century Australia, which I read in the bog this morning — an appropriate place to read it. Mackay was, among other things, a member of the NSW Parliament and a military man. He has two major claims to fame, apart from rampant Jingoism: he founded the Army Reserve, and he penned a tome called The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895). A generation of school children encountered this poem in The New Australian School Series Fourth Reader, Sydney, 1899.

The Song That Men Should Sing

Kenneth Mackay


The cohorts who fought when the world was young
Have their blood-red legends told,
For a hundred poets have bravely sung
The deeds of the days of old.

The story is writ of the men who fell
In desert and sun-scorched track:
The legions who served their country well –
The heroes who marched ‘Out Back’ …

But they tell us now, in their lifeless lays,
These knights of the stool and pen,
We must boast no more of the stirring days
When they fought and fell like men …

But the tale is best that has oft been told,
If it love of birthland bring;
And the song they sang in days of old
Is the song that I will sing …

We won the land from a nerveless race,
Too mean for their land to fight;
If we mean to hold it we too must face
The adage that ‘might is right’.

It matters nothing what dreamers say,
When they prate that wars must cease,
For the lustful war-god holds his sway
In these piping days of peace …

So our lads must learn there’s a sterner task
Than playing a well-pitched ball;
That the land we love may some day ask
For a team when the trumpets call.

A team that is ready to take the field
To bowling with balls of lead,
In a test match grim, where if one appealed,
The umpire might answer ‘dead’!

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Posted by on October 21, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, awful warnings, OzLit, poets and poetry, racism


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Australian poem 2008 series #21: Adam Aitken

Here, for a change, is a poet I actually know. I first became aware of Adam Aitken when I was editing Neos back in the early 1980s; I subsequently met him on a number of occasions.  The poem which follows is from Adam’s excellent blog ADAM IN CAMBODIA. Adam is of Thai/Anglo-Australian parentage. He was born in 1960.

The fig tree is neither in Cambodia nor Thailand, but in the front courtyard here in Surry Hills.


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The Diary of Louis De Carné. Louis de Carné’s Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire describes the work of the Colonial French Mekong Exploration Commission (1886 -1888). It is a mix of travel diary and a trade report, and a guide French colonial policy in Indochina. De Carné predicted that India would one day fall into the hands of the Australians. He considered Indochina’s climate too enervating for whites, and describe Annam (Vietnam) as a “counting house”. In his introduction, De Carné wrote: “by a kind of natural law, which one can hardly admit without sadness, there is scarcely an alternative, for races outside European civilisation, between a melancholy transformation, or a remorseless extinction.” For the English translation, see Travels on the Mekong, Cambodia, Laos and Yunnan, White Lotus, Bangkok 2000. — Adam Aitken

Louis De Carne’s Diary

Stunned by the noise of the waters we reached Khemarat
where M. Delaporte awaited us.
Nothing could express the horror
of the petty mandarins, the imbecile governor,
and the yellow waters twisting through a narrow pass,
a child of seven smoking a cheroot,
or the site of a prisoner impaled by the tusks
of an elephant.
The light a deadly shade, the forest a blacker hue of green,
the boat shaped serpent-like, whirlpools we could not see.
The river all tributary – no one knew or cared
for the source or predominant
direction of its flow, a river unfit
for commercial intercourse.

Man had fled its banks, an abyss on both sides.
I was hot, too hot after my ramble
through an expanse of fetid mud.
I wondered what economic utility
Parisians might find in a lake full of fish
(how to get them to Paris?)

But I could write all night in my tent
cobwebbed in ennui and
sucking on the leg bone of an iguana,
or recline under the implacable serenity of the heavens,
the all powerful constraints
of influences so fatal to human personality,
that thought dies away by degrees
like a flame in a vacuum.
At least I knew there were guards
(of vagabond stock, with the timid air of the aborigine)
whom I barely trusted
posted around the perimeter.


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Australian poem 2008 series #20: Middleton’s Rouseabout — Henry Lawson (1896)

Here is a poem my father and mother both delighted in quoting on occasions. It is very much part of its time, isn’t it? You could say it rather contradicts the idea of the “clever country” we are wedded to these days. On the other hand, it does say something about an (alleged?) Australian preference for the pragmatic over the dogmatic. But this heritage can also be ambiguous, don’t you think? Does Lawson endorse this character, or despair of him? Both, perhaps?



by Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922)


Tall and freckled and sandy,
  Face of a country lout;
This was the picture of Andy,
  Middleton's Rouseabout.

Type of a coming nation, In the land of cattle and sheep, Worked on Middleton's station, "Pound a week and his keep".
On Middleton's wide dominions Plied the stockwhip an' shears; Hadn't any opinions, Hadn't any "idears".
Swiftly the years went over, Liquor and drought prevailed; Middleton went as a drover, After his station had failed.
Type of a careless nation, Men who are soon played out, Middleton was - and his station Was bought by the Rouseabout.
Flourishing beard and sandy, Tall and robust and stout; This is the picture of Andy, Middleton's Rouseabout.
Now on his own dominions Works with his overseers; Hasn't any opinions, Hasn't any "idears".

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Posted by on September 5, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, OzLit, poets and poetry


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Australian poem 2008 series #19: You Don’t Get Me — Lachlan Irvine

You won’t find Lachlan Irvine’s poems in the anthologies or in, so far as I know, the usual literary magazines. They are outside the stream; but they have an honesty to commend them, and an experience, particularly in the Vietnam series — and we are coming up again to the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan — denied most of the actual poets. Because Lachlan was actually there.


I know a man who looks at me
With eyes that see right through.

Like a dog whistle with a pitch
Beyond the reach of human ears,
His eyes are focussed on the middle distance,
Fixed on a point which others cannot see.

I know I may not share his world
Where tracer splits the midnight sky,
Where ambush waits along each track,
Where constant guard must be maintained,
And even sleep can bring no rest
When relaxation may mean instant death.

What has that world to do with me?
It seems so very far away.

Yet I cannot escape those eyes,
That ice-blue look that haunts me still;
That steady, thousand-yard stare…
There – in my mirror – every day.

Check Lachlan Irvine’s site. I especially commend the personal pages.


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Australian poem 2008 series #18: YouTube – Poetry Clip: Robert Gray

Robert Gray is one of my favourite contemporary Australian poets.

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