“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (Eternal rest grant them, O Lord)
On the extinction of the Australian Gondwana remnants, witnessed through the compound eyes of Petalura gigantea, the Giant Dragonfly, or South-eastern Petaltail.
It happened one night in the middle of the fires, around midnight. The air was thick with smoke but a very light and graceful breeze made things bearable, finally, a little easier to breathe. At last I could open up the doors to let in some air from outside. It wasn’t fresh, but it was cooler. Night trees hung absorbed in a mucilaginous haze, the luminous milky caul of smoke infused by moonlight percolating down from the pristine abyss way above the wasted atmosphere. The sky and the horizon to the north radiated orange. A great war had come and gone today, a million wild acres had been laid to waste. But the breeze had begun to fool some smoke away, the helicopters had fallen silent, and for the first time in many days the air was free of the endless pall of grey ash and twirling black flakes of leaves. It was in the middle of the fires, in the eye of the storm, around midnight. I had about me sheets of white paper on my desks and the floor. I had a shoebox filled with dead embers that had fallen from the sky, short black sticks, the charred, skeletal ghosts of leaves, perhaps the charcoal bones of birds who’d flown too late, too close. A box of black bones and shells I took out one by one and crushed across the paper with my thumbs and fingers. Thumb prints, hand prints, lines of charcoal drawn and smudged by my fingers into blurry streaks, billowing plumes, contours of grey and black furrows diffusely emanating at my arms reach as if my fingertips were scattering a negative fire. A rill of lank warm air from outside flittered in through the papers. Charcoal lines turned to wrinkles, scars, a woven script that spoke of burned webs, burned spiders, burned moths, the burned frames of insects, burned millipedes, the tongue of a burned skink, burned crow’s feet, the burned tail of a lyrebird. Then came the dragonfly, also burning. First its compound eyes emerged from the paper when I pushed down in equal measure with the heels of my palms. We were face-on, as if the page were a burrow from which it looked out into the real, the hole I’d burned with the cold black embers as I crushed them, around midnight, in the middle of the fires. Then, bit by bit, it slowly crawled from the charcoal shadow, Petalura gigantea, first the face and the thorax, a giant dragonfly, legs and wings, one by one segments of abdomen ending in a flower, a South-eastern Petaltail. It sprang into the leaden air, flew about and rested lengthwise along the top edge of my screen, an ebony synecdoche gasping, vibrating for life. At my feet all the papers began to burn along my charcoal lines. They made a kind of map that started at the hole in the paper and met with a network of burrows in the black mud of a nearby dried out swamp, hundreds of giant dragonfly larvae pushed out writhing in the flames. The furnace obliterated time. I walked down through the flames onto the surface of Gondwana, ridgelines and contours shaped like a dragonfly, shoals of proteaceae, banksia and grevillea, Wollemi Pines, all exploding into the holocaust of the human present, a family of Blue Mountains Water Skinks x-rayed into boulders and stones by the heat. Then there was nothing left, the map itself was burned to ash, there was no way back. Gondwana was gone forever. It was then I looked up, and all the world around me had crumbled into bleak figures of twisted black branches and cairns of ash, dry and brittle as exuvia. The dragonfly was gone.
This piece was imagined and developed on Darug and Gundungurra Country in the upper Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I acknowledge the traditional owners of Darug and Gundungurra Country, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
Peter Minter is a poet, poetry editor and writer on poetry and poetics. His books include Rhythm in a Dorsal Fin, Empty Texas, blue grass and In the Serious Light of Nothing. He was a founding editor of Cordite poetry magazine, poetry editor for leading Australian journals Meanjin and Overland, and has co-edited anthologies such as Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets and the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature. He teaches at the University of Sydney in Indigenous Studies and Creative Writing.