1 Heading out
Autumn clouds are scouting the mountains
heading for high points on the range
at Weeping Rock and Eagle’s Nest they settle
the divide between sky and forest
the way lovers thread themselves through each other
weaving possumwood and rain
times like this people stay inside, head for shelter
when it fogs in, he goes out
laces up his solitude and walks off track:
camera, cooker, curiosity,
a pack of reasons strapped to his back
walking through snow grass
he picks up observations, has cliff edges in mind,
crosses three rivers before they are named.
2 The first river —Styx River
The Styx River feeds down to a big logging area
of hardwoods from the Point Lookout Road
to Kunderang Brook. He tells me this is where you’ll find
tall-country timbers: stringys like messmate,
brown barrel, silvertop stringys
the big white ones: Shining Gums, Ribbon Gums.
He tells me how his pop used to eat,
his right hand like a pistol,
just a pointer finger and thumb.
Pop gripped the knife like this—
pointer finger stuck out,
thumb tucked around the handle
like he was ready to shoot the kids.
Pop was an old sawmiller
lost five digits to the blade,
two left, three right, which reminds me
my old farrier had three fingers on each hand.
He once told me about the old mill he worked
on the Red Hill Road near our farm;
it was vacant land when I was a kid,
all sawdust, eighty years deep.
My farrier told me the sawdust was on fire
in its heart, smouldering
it could never be put out
burning deep underground,
it would burn for another sixty years.
Now they’ve put houses on top so maybe
he was pulling my leg or someone’s pulling theirs.
3 The second river —Bellinger River
The old man’s beard drips, drips —
turns clouds into rivers where he is
bush bashing, stepping over
nests of light fallen through the canopy
laying broken on the forest floor.
This stretch from Berarngutta to Darkie Point
is the watershed for the Bellinger River
and at this point blood will be the flow.
He is shadowed by views of the valley below
and one particular tree. Despite faint remains of bark
he feels unsheathed in this fatal glen
where cliff meets crown and foliage meets feet
for once upon a time, in this enchanted forest, were those
driven to take a fragile chance, to leap,
to grasp in treacherous aid, the quivering
the yielding branches where a lyrebird perches
mimicking the white tree creeper,
a peregrine falcon, the pied butcherbird,
singing as if telling a selected history of each story
picking out sweet highlights but never giving full account
never true to itself amongst the ferns. What is
a lyrebird’s first song? Is his call hidden among the retelling?
Of course superb these thoughts and the lyrebird
with his polygamous dance scraped amongst leaf litter
displaying a tail of stammering quills like a historian.
The second lyrebird he encounters is the kookaburra
and yellow-tailed black cockatoo in the weeping forest
near an old path that leads to the edge of sorrow
across the broken line of escarpment that hides
the bones of rock fallen from Ngoolungeer
and his third lyrebird, startled out of foraging by these questions,
splits a single note half beautiful, half terror
and something of truth, as if only here
at Darkie Point can the honest alarm call be sung.
4 Writing this out
It is by no means my intention to dwell
upon the subsequent details
of this miserable catastrophe. But,
I must write this out of myself
the way he walks out his cares.
I, too, am sick of the horrid carnage
of repetition, am aching from revisiting
intent and guilt, worn down by truth.
5 The third river —Guy Fawkes River
On his last day of walking, the pack is lighter.
He emerges into one of those empty places up high
a rocky lookout where cool temperate echoes
buffet the rainforest canopy and he walks what remains
of wilderness. He stops to drink at the end
where a rivulet of water decants itself
through swathes of saw-sedge, fallen beech leaves
orange pasted to green moss. The topo shows what this is:
the rise of a river that conjures memories of a walk he took
downstream among brumbies grazing easy flats
wild dogs along the stock route, tall oaks whispering
deserted stockman’s huts, fencing wire strewn,
a peach tree where it shouldn’t be
farmers’ friends poking through his socks
and above all this, the mighty Ebor Falls frozen one winter
like a miracle so you could walk on water beneath icicles.
6 The back wash
These stories break
from the cascade of his thoughts
as shards to cool the comfort
of a Cointreau in camp where the smooth night
conjures the past, and settles on fact
that the Major who named this river
made up his title and laid his pistol inside the Aboriginal’s mouth,
blew the unfortunate’s brains out,
and shrugged off the truth that it was a midsummer
morning manhunt and as leader of a doubtful posse
they failed to catch their real culprits.
On his last day
the Major died
of bronchitis and gentle decay,
took a final breath and then
rode a wagon to town
in a coffin. A bitter life,
and lonely, disinherited from worth,
married late, once and not for long,
loved his station manager’s wife instead
so his adopted and reputed daughter, inherited
three thousand two hundred acres of freehold—
the Guy Fawkes River Run—
with two thousand head of cattle owed to the bank.
So it seems, poets are not the only ones
who live in debt but at least some of mine
will be paid down in words, for I am working here
in the backwash of all that wisdom
and he is walking in it.
NOTES: “The watershed” is a response to a number of massacres, murders and killings in the New England and Dorrigo Plateaus during white settlement in the mid to late 19th Century, including one documented massacre where an estimated 200 Aboriginal peoples were driven off the cliffs of the New England Escarpment at a place called Darkie Point in what is now New England National Park. That same massacre is the subject of Judith Wright’s poem “Niggers Leap”. Several lines in the Bellinger River section borrow words and phrasings from a first hand account given by a local graizer, F Eldershaw, in an 1851 publication Australia as it really was: An Adventure with the Blacks which I subsequently read in Bruce Elder’s Blood on the Wattle, (New Holland Press 2003 p 115) but which was originally published in Baal Belbora: the end of dancing by Geoffrey Blomfield who re-discovered and published Eldershaw’s writing. The historic details of “the Major” in the final section come from Dardo Arevalo’s Dorrigo and the Carlist Wars Connection. The line “I am working here in the backwash of all of that wisdom” is from a Mark Tredinnick interview, ABC Radio National, Poetica, interview 12 April 2014.
Chris Armstrong is a writer whose poetry has been published in Griffith Review, Overland, Eureka Street and Cordite, as well as regional anthologies. She won second prize in the 2015 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and in 2014 was awarded an ASA Emerging Writers Mentorship for her first poetry manuscript.