Over a couple of weeks in 1993, Greg Reynolds and I toured the outback of Western Queensland in my little Honda civic. We camped, managed as best we can, talked and walked and prayed, and during this time these poems came to the surface.
You have placed in my heart such energy.
How express it? What work perform?
This has been the question all my wakened life: what act?
This is it – nothing else can satisfy – : to breathe forth God!
You permit it, O God, to breathe forth God.
All else pales into insignificance,
all leads to this: to breathe forth the One we all love.
O God, allow God to breathe forth God!
But for this we must withdraw into eternity.
And again, is it not the greatest mystery, God’s greatest ploy,
for his creature to produce God,
like she who mothered Him?
10 September 1993
far from the restless ocean, the pounding beaches,
this lake, complete to itself, unexpected,
as the water laps gently at the edge and weeds shimmer in the waves.
Still, central, quiet,
over its surface drives the restless wind.
The lake entrances me,
for at the heart of the Great South Land lies tranquility,
all that is needed.
Where are the vines in this desert,
where the olive trees, the orange groves;
here in this cracked earth baked in the soaring sun,
where is the fruitfulness of the Spirit land?
Ah, but the colour, the artistry,
where pink plays with blue and green tussles with the red of earth,
where iridescent birds sparkle among grey-green leaves
and white gums stand silently on the farther shore.
Here earth reverberates with sky,
and the sun changes colour every hour.
In this age-old landscape, speech turns to silence;
we think and we dream.
No such colours, south, in the evergreen forests.
Here all is ancient, ever new.
Where shall I find you,
standing at the end of time,
seeking the finest essence,
springing from my side?
Where shall I find you whom my heart loves
standing behind the lattice of my thoughts?
I have not seen you,
yet you draw me – beauty within beauty –
with the promise of your smile.
You are not easy prey,
my bride, my companion!
All flows from you, all gives rise to you,
and in touching you I touch all.
Look, my friends, at the prize given me,
not realms and possessions, information or control
but grace and smile and joy.
who are you, calling me softly?
I have never seen you, yet I know you.
– not imaginary, not here or there, not this or that –
for the scent of your hair fills the room.
I would not take you if you were not all,
wearing the mantle of the sky and displaying the jewels of earth.
I have searched for you in every place.
But why look anywhere since everywhere I look you are?
My act done becomes a person. Pygmalion.
Who I am – one act says it all –
is returned a hundred-fold, as a person, flesh from my flesh.
The love with which I act is reflected back,
becoming personal in thanks.
Here stands the Grey Range, barely noticed,
watershed between the Darling flowing to the sea
and the Cooper lost in the salt pans.
Here the rivers flow south,
to the dead heart,
wasted waters in a barren land, spent.
Yet the pelican rides on the water, majestic galleon.
Floods once were here
but all are gone.
Abundance and plenty once,
but now just a boat
rusting on the black mud of the plain.
Who will save the waters of the Cooper
on whose banks Burke and Wills starved unawares?
Who will save this nation’s sunburnt soul?
Yet here people love and live and find their place.
The flies: buzzing, itching, blinding, biting, swallowed.
Dust, wind, mosquitoes, mud, thorns, debris, glare, termites, isolation.
Never have I seen such light!
A cloud of galaxies, of every form and mass,
type upon type, in every combination.
All this so that opalescent Earth
should bear its dearest child
to view and count them,
plot their origin and tie them to his chariot.
The aborigines gather by the river,
radios blaring, mindless, busy, ashamed.
Their voices boom by the river, braying,
shouting out nonsense,
this beautiful, dusky people whom we have ruined.
The people of Windorah, who cares for them?
Yet they too love and labour in the flat of swamp and stone.
Yet out of unknown space, at times unknown,
you stretch down and touch them gently.
I can’t go back to parish life as it is. There is need for change. The aim, in a nutshell, is communion, achieved by a restructuring of parish and minds, an empowerment of the people.
The mighty birds: pelicans, herons, eagles;
birds in droves wheeling from bough to branch;
hidden birds bleating their cry:
space is filled with flight we never see and calls we never hear.
The wind and the fireball
summon birds of every kind,
giving us a glimpse of freedom.
The flies in droves, attacking the eyes, the mouth: the first of plagues.
Flies by day, mosquitoes by night.
The wind, constant, disruptive: we are cursed by the wind.
The mud: a trap when wet, unstable when dry.
Dust penetrating everywhere, into food, clothes, eyes, to make them itch.
The glare forces us back into the shade.
Thorns lie everywhere, shoots of an accursed soil.
Bottle tops, glass, paper, dung, old cars, stranded boats,
the rubbish of man and beast all around.
The hidden termites consume from within.
Distance numbs the brain and we fall into torpor: the tenth plague.
Why come here?
We are insignificant,
and the immensity laughs at our efforts.
We come here to be taken beyond ourselves.
This is a mystic land.
Here in this space, this wide red land,
within the overarching sky and endless horizon
another music plays
and I dance to its tune,
“Sing a new song.”
All systems shrivel in the desert air.
In this eternal landscape I come back to the origins,
once again the first man on the earth
to live in a communion of sun and sand and water.
“Play loudly, with all your skill”.
They came yesterday and the day before,
to catch the shrimp,
dragging the river with traps.
Who would have thought,
here in these muddy waters, to find the most delicate of morsels?
I had hoped to do great things for you,
but nothing is accomplished.
I am growing old now,
imprisoned in the years, wasted, unproductive, done.
Yet you are!
Shall I be like Francis, in love with Lady Poverty?
No! Give me this wide world and its culture.
Let me taste the wine, the foods,
for they are wonderful and I take them to myself,
inheriting the earth,
to sanctify and consecrate.
How gladly I walk in the sun
upon a barren landscape.
Your very dust is dear to me.
Here I place my foot and claim the earth.
This time, this place are mine and I am theirs.
How sweet it was,
where the Cooper enters Deadman’s Channel,
on the ridge of sand beneath the soaring eucalypt,
to breathe your breath, Father.
And I thought of Papa whose breath I refused to receive.
But now he images you, Father!
And from you, at Deadman’s Channel, I receive your breath of life,
solid, calm, earthy,
and I become real.
From Windorah to Birdsville
Halfway between Quilpie and Birdsville, at Windorah,
behind the petrol bowser
blind, a nobody in the middle of nowhere –
so it would seem.
Yet to our questions he replies with wit
and to our inane comments, with silence
so that we seem the less
before him massively existent.
The gibber plains between Betoota and Birdsville,
pink, purple in the heat, chestnut, barren.
What an accursed landscape, stone after stone,
where hills rise, weird, silently speaking,
a land of myths and deeds long dead!
Who would go to the Betoota races?
Betoota, population one!
Yet here they meet each year in their hundreds,
horses, beer, bets,
coming from all over, gathering from nowhere,
men and women,
because we must celebrate,
conjure chance, take on life and death.
Shall I return to the Parish,
to the system, the vestments, the jargon?
I can’t. My heart is not there.
But who will speak to them of the things of God?
Things must change, massively.
They seemed so straightforward
the young man from South Africa
and his wife who held the store at Birdsville,
so clear and honest.
Were they newly wed,
leaving home and its doubtful future
to make a fortune in the dust?
So true, so loving – oh, receive me into the circle of your love!
Long walk, got lost, two and a half hours in the blazing sun!
This is the point of no return.
I can scarcely further into the wilderness, for the Simpson Desert looms.
I have come to the end of the road, asking ‘Why?’ ‘Where to?’ ‘What?’
Answer me, God of our fathers!
The answer comes immediately, as always.
‘Do what is in your heart!’
But what is that?
‘Speak to the people!’
What shall I say?
The Simpson Desert
We had tea below the dunes,
with table, chairs, lantern:
a circle of light within the darkness,
challenging the immensity,
a comic reply to the sky bright with stars.
We ate and talked, at this climax of our trip,
of the times we had fallen in love.
Went to Big Red,
slept under the stars,
highlight of the trip,
How I loved that desert,
the gibber plains, the long red dunes,
space so hostile to human flesh:
the wind, the dust, the flies, the heat,
the desert untouched, innocent.
How can I possess you?
To you I say, ‘Yes!’
To you I say, ‘Come!
Are we not counterpart?’
What will speak to the heart of this people,
dried up by heat and wind,
aggressive to survive?
From Birdsville to Bedourie
The school-boys stopping at Bedourie with Caroline Ryan whom I had taught at Christ College ……..
The wind blows hot, relentless, driving all thought away.
The long road, the headache, the dust, the granite!
Will it never end, this road, this wasteland,
its dust traps and the rough, sharp stones,
endlessly heading north, featureless,
swamped with water or with sunlight –
and across its face the hot wind blows?
Where will it end?
She was exhausted by the heat,
yet ‘It is a mild day’ she says,
the shopkeeper at Boulia, deafened by the TV,
numbed by the passers-by,
reduced to ‘this and that’.
But, when the baby was carried in, how she gasped and cooed,
holding him up on the fridge, happy to make him stand.
They came with tents and chairs and mattresses into the caravan park,
with the whole paraphernalia,
domesticated still, even in the wild.
They clattered with pots and pans, at home away from home,
burdened like snails.
Why can’t they ditch it all, spread wings and fly?
Burke River, dead river!
For three years your waters have not flowed.
Your pools lie muddy for the birds to wallow.
But one day the skies will open
and then you will dwarf Nile and Ganges
and from your stones the conglomerate of the Olgas will rise.
My! she was pretty: part aboriginal, part Malay.
What bloods mingled to form her mystery, her flower,
just turning to womanhood – unlike her girl companions –
for her eyes seemed to dwell on love wherever she looked.
But what will become of her,
what drunken lout will have her, here in Burke,
dried up by the desert wind?
From Boulia to Longreach
The red stump, the Min Min light,
the last hitching post of the Royal Hotel (1882), the first stone building:
these are the attractions of the town;
the first cattle train, the Capital of the Channel Country.
They grasp at straws.
But who can talk of moments of grace,
of windows onto the divine found only in Boulia?
We cannot print these in a brochure!
The escarpments of red, yellow, every shade of ochre,
delicate beyond belief, here, at the Cawnpore Hills,
lavish against the blue, a startling surprise in the wasteland,
ancient beyond understanding.
Why is such beauty wrought only in desolation?
I knelt down for prayer and died.
All is finished. Nothing has been achieved.
Talents wasted. Opportunities thrown away.
My life mostly over. Rejected. Unregarded. Feared. A fool.
And I stared at my own death.
‘Yet I will not be beaten’:
the words came as I rose.
About the nuns, not a word,
nor about the priests: – all passed over in silence.
Yet the film in the tent at Barcaldine
was a celebration of the nation.
Or again, at Longreach, in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame,
hardly a word.
About horses, yes, rabbits, fire and flood,
blacksmiths and pastoralists, any amount.
Is it disbelief, indifference
or reticence before the One they dare not name?
The wind, unending, violent:
It burns the flesh, attacks the eyes, wrenches food out of the hand
– we think only of wind;
and of your Spirit who destroys
and makes live again.
There you stand, behind the lattice of the trees,
hidden in the cleft of the rock,
adorned with flowers, wearing sun and stars,
beauty within the beauty,
and to you I call, softly, beneath the sounds:
‘Come to me!
you from whom all come.
Come to me!
and from our meeting whole worlds will arise and dance,
rejoicing in our joy.’
To move as the Spirit moves: is this the clue?
to move as the wind dictates, with freedom and simplicity,
revolving in the sky, finding a desert in the city,
living in adventure.
No techniques, no programs,
rejecting systems and law.
There is no timetable.
Is this your device, your clever device that occurred to me as I walked between the stands of the race track at Barcaldine: to follow only – again that relentless, disturbing wind! – only as the Spirit dictates, that Energy who springs from the Silence and the Word, governing them in freedom.
Shall I follow you, Spirit,
where you lead in the dance,
you who come from me,
you who lead me on?
Gone are the programs, the plans cast aside.
Free at last, I listen to the whispering of the wind
and do as you say,
speak as you inspire
and love where you point.
Why do they come again and again,
to hear the same,
to sing hoarsely,
to repeat the ceremonies?
Yet they come. Still they come, in heat and wind,
because here, obscurely they know,
waters flow from heaven’s aquifer
more unfailing than artesian depths.
I asked, as I took the host, to share in the passion of the Lord,
in the bread of affliction,
and this you have given me: a terrible life.
Now, as I drink the chalice, I ask for a share in his risen joy
and this you are giving me, Father,
to be the Word, to be your statement.
And from me springs all manner of words and deeds:
to be as you, Father, living rightly, calmly,
with a faithful love, an inventive love,
a father to them;
to receive each moment from you,
in all its beauty, in all its horror,
and to consecrate each time and place,
till Spirit is there.
The shearers met under the tree
the graziers met in the pub,
here at Barcaldine;
each to fight for their rights
out here in the west, in this city of flowers,
and through all the land
to found Labour Party and National Party,
each riding on the sheep’s back.
How balanced the dawn!
Its colours blue and salmon;
the galahs screeching, grey and pink,
the trees rustling gently in the morning breeze.
What harmony of nature!
It is the splendour of the Australian dawn.
And here, in prayer, all is equilibrium and truth.
From Barcaldine to Blackall
Slightly trembling I touched the wool,
the bale spilled out on the road.
For this my father left home and land
going to the ends of the earth
By this I was educated
by this I traveled in my childhood,
by sea, by air.
Here is my origin:
wool grown from the land and
returning to the dust where my father lies.
Jackie Howe’s statue:
What hands, shaped like racquets,
to hold the sheep, to grasp the shears,
to cut the fleece!
Still he amazes!
Let me come close,
responding to your every gesture;
and let me touch, opening door after door.
Let me touch and open and touch and open
till heaven itself lies wide before me.
For over you the Dove broods
as you lie in your bower, the tent of meeting.
I will call on my friends
and they will hearten me, lending their strength to mine;
and your companions will say to you:
‘Do not be afraid’.
And you will enquire and ask what I bring
and demand no less than heaven itself
and a world remade for you:
for you are young and ever lovely,
loving in every time and everywhere.
Seven years and again for seven years I will work for you.
I hereby bless you all,
enemy and friend,
stranger and family
the long dead and the still to come
because You have blessed us,
Maker of heaven and earth.
I realise, now, it is the space I love:
the gaps between the colours of sunset,
the point where the blue ceases and the gold begins,
a clarity which no colour can describe,
the distance to the far rolling hills,
the border between bank and stream,
the act of parting,
the failed attempts:
for there stands the narrow door that leads to You.
To walk freely,
as the tāntrika,
searching for pearls of great price
moving as the Spirit dictates.
Lord of all I survey,
I swim in the depths of the sea,
wade in the murky waters,
and fish in the narrow river.
This is the puzzle, the sign:
The unpredictable, the perceptive,
the pearl fisher.