Cassandra O’Loughlin is an Arts graduate from the University of Newcastle. Her poems have appeared in the Newcastle University Creative Writing anthologies, Southerly, Poetrix, Eureka Street and Catchfire Press publications. She won the Catchfire Press regional poetry prize in 2004
South of Birubi on Newcastle Bight
An evening breeze cools the hot sand
down by the shacks in Tin City
where a woman squats, scaling fish.
The iridescent scales are adding lustre
to her freckled, weathered skin.
The air smells of summer, salt,
the sea-spray is seasoning my tan,
and everything is tinged with fish-oil yellow
from the kerosene lamp and the crackling campfire.
Her grandfather built this shack
in the Depression.
It’s mullet-coloured, makeshift,
with a low-hipped lean-to
that drains rainwater into a fluted tank.
Potted gardens and pumpkins
stand as if in a dole-queue,
bleached and sun-hardened.
Beachwear pegged to a rope, is wind-filled
and ghost-dancing in the dunes’ creeping shadows.
All around are the vast and shifting sands,
arrested in the west by the Old Man
Banksia trees, bracken fern, mat rush and burrawang.
Small shrubs on the occasional knolls
look like old men dancing.
I tell the woman my grandfather is dead,
and I’m looking for his mate.
He’s dead too, she says. All the old ones are dead.
A mug of tea, offered at arm’s length, draws
a line in the sand between us.
She wipes the beautiful sequins from the worn blade,
as the ocean spills its long syllable
between the land and silence.
Then she scoops the prawns
from a bucket of brine
and drops them into the boiling pot.
They turn from slime green to salmon pink,
and I think:
nothing ever is as it seems.
The sun is shining
through the warp and weft of black velvet,
and a lifetime
is creeping up behind me
as if on stilts.
In the shadow of my hat
I watch the waves
rising as if behind glass,
suspending shoals of fish—
silver, catching the light.
I stride over the low-tide rooms,
periwinkle bathtubs, basins
and slap-stuck seaweed curtains.
My name is uttered
amid the litterinids: conniwinks and noddiwinks,
as if I existed in the gaps of memory
with the ghosts of the wind and the water.
There’s an ancient, liquid language
over the dunes, the middens,
and a sudden, eerie chill lifts me up,
and like a great wave in the throes of being itself,
tosses me as if I were weed.
Women, squatting on spinifex,
weave green reed baskets for the tourists.
Their skirts are a brilliant blaze
against the red earth.
Their eyes and teeth a shock of whiteness.
Their talk on and on
is as old as the sand.
Now one of them, a wizened Elder,
tells stories about the water-holes, the rocks,
the stars in their flight across the seasons.
About the Dreamtime,
Uluru and the Snake-people,
how terrible things happen
if ancient laws are violated.
Her voice is eerie,
as if from deep in the earth,
it resonates like the long vowels
of a didgeridoo.
Then one woman, feeling movement
in the spinifex beneath her,
springs to her feet.
Cheeky blighter, she says,
and with sleight of hand
flings a snake into the air,
a Brown, writhing—its flat head
flaring against the cobalt sky.
Now their laughter
swims through the coolabah trees,
fingers the reeds
like a cool breeze.
A hawk is hovering high up,
too far away,
like me to feel that kind of belonging
to this curious land.
After Judith Wright
A storm roiled in an icy blue-green front
and set the early light back an hour.
The willie wagtail, in his surplice and cassock,
retraced his steps to stillness, and the giddy wrens,
Blues with their Jennies, vanished.
After the bucketing, the earth squeezed
it’s citrus everywhere, the trees scintillated
a trillion suns. The dam receded under the sheen,
and the scent of pollens punctuated the silence.
I rested easy in my age. The wrens returned,
thirty or so, like wind-blown flowers on the lawn
and along the long, low sills, their rivals danced
in the glass, the pane thin between us.
Then, I vowed never to worry again
about this vertiginous life.
But, the dazzle dissolved too soon,
and things were as they had been before,
except the dam had filled, darker. From the stony rim
old-age stepped, with her palms extended,
and yesterday now blooms with a new flourish.