A discussion on rivers

In September 2016 I was invited to give music and song performances at the 1000 Voices Festival held at Bourke, in western NSW. Bourke is an isolated town in a shire the size of Denmark with a total population 0f somewhere about 3000 and on the boundary between the zones of (relatively) reliable rainfall where grazing and some cropping under irrigation are still viable (the latter in good seasons) and the arid zone. The iconic Darling River, part of the country’s largest river system and once the highway for a bustling riverboat trade, still pervades the character and life of this resilient and warm-hearted town. As one of the artists in residence on a poet’s trek that retraced the footsteps of Lawson and Ogilvie during the festival, I thought I’d better contribute something original, so I penned this simple tale during a dinner camp. For the non-Australian, Hughie is the bloke who brings the rain – especially violent downpours. In the latter years of the twentieth century he also assumed the mantle of a surfing god.

One man’s creek is another man’s Barwon

You see a lot of rivers as you wander here and there —
I reckon in my travels I’ve seen a decent share —
But one feller’s “mighty river”, is another codger’s creek;
Try to tell him different, and he’ll argue for a week.

The south-west’s Avon River would be sneered at in the east;
And the Torrens? Strike me purple, it’s a weird sort of beast.
More mud than flamin’ water, like a claypan upside down;
And there’s another one just like it, runs through Melbourne town.

I lived in Old Kentucky, of Stephen Foster fame —
Though the beggar never went there, he just liked to use its name —
And if I said “the river” when I spoke of Cedar Creek;
It kept the boys in Stamping Ground laughin’ for a week.

To get to little Stamping Ground, you have to go across,
The South Branch of the Elkhorn Creek, where the buff’lo used to cross;
More water than the Murray — though nowhere near as long,
And wider, too, in places, with a flow that’s awful strong.

A 46-inch annual rainfall, keeps her flowing well,
And it’ll up and drown you, easy, when the summer storms give hell;
For what them durned hillbillies call a “summer shower”,
Is the edge of a tornado, and a foot of rain an hour.

But still, it’s just “a crik” to them, though it seemed much more to me,
The blow-in from the Old Brown Land, a place they’ll never see.
But like us old-time Aussies, those hill-folk love a yarn;
They love to hear what life is like on someone else’s farm.

And so we’d pass the evenin’s, swopping tales—all mostly true,
Though sometimes lightly seasoned with a little lie or two;
They loved to hear my stories, of a country that, to them,
Seemed strange—well weird really— and far beyond their ken.

One night as I recall it, a memory slipped out,
Of the Darling down at Wentworth, in the middle of a drought.
I told ‘em how that mighty stream, was down to three foot wide;
How the carp were wriggling up the banks, to pull grass from off the side.

I tried to tell them how, the mighty river gums,
Seemed to hunch their shoulders, as drought he country numbs;
And push their roots down deeper, into the drying mud,
To wait the Darling’s blessing, as she brings another flood.

“And,” I began — here I paused as all good yarners should,
To ratchet up the tension, make the telling of it good—
Here I ask indulgence, I should have taken time,
To do a little extra and fix that bloody awful rhyme…

“And,” I said, and drew a breath, adding drama to my tale,
“When the mighty Darling River floods, she’d drown a bloody whale!”
“Thar h’aint be whales in rivers,” the local cynic scoffed;
“He’s a-paintin’ pitchers, cuz you cain’t read, hush your mouth, Clem Goff.”

Rescued for the moment, I went on to tell them how,
The rains would always come at last – “Like it’s doing here right now”.
And then that sluggish river that they might call a creek,
Spreads out to cover acres by the million in a week.

Down she comes majestic like, a relentless, sliding flow,
Ignoring bends and channels, spreading as she goes.
The TV news might tell us that the “country is in strife”;
In strife Aunt Fanny’s bed socks! The country’s come to life!

The livestock will get fat again, the wildflowers bloom;
There’s money for improvements and for an extra room.
The outback wife will smile again, her old man not so gruff;
For when that river’s banking, things never seem so tough.

It was Dorothea Mackellar said they “could not understand”,
Our love for what outsiders see as barren, sunburned land;
Perhaps because they never wait, they never stick it out,
To see that Aussie miracle, the breaking of a drought.

They never know the joy that’s felt along the Darling side,
When Hughie smiles upon us and sends the swift brown tide.
When life’s transformed and the world’s turned bright, all in a single week,
As the mighty Darling River proves, she isn’t just a creek.

To Ms L McC

Written following my attendance at two poets’ mic sessions and the compering of one of them, a tribute to Henry Lawson.

Feet of Clay

Well, at last I’ve plucked up courage,
My spine’s no longer slack;
No more prevarication,
Straight in – no holding back.

So here I go, chin tucked in,
Fingers curled and tense,
Poised above the keyboard,
And hang the consequence.

It was easier on Friday,
Before I knew your name;
I could stare and think more freely
The words more freely came.

I was taken by your outfit –
Your trilby and your top –
And the cheeky way you bagged us,
The men you gave the chop.

And your face was springtime raindrops,
Gleaming in the sun;
Your smile lit up the pub yard,
And spoke of endless fun.

But then, on Lawson Sunday,
It became a little hard,
Just as I was leaving,
I asked you for your card.

(That’s poetic licence,
It had to be I fear,
To repeat the “conversation”,
Wouldn’t fit in here.)

Actually, you offered it,
For which I’m very glad,
But just before the giving,
Things went well – or bad!

Depends which way you want to look,
And how you make it twist;
If the looker’s always hopeful,
Or a die-hard pessimist.

But I’m dodging round the subject,
I’m drifting right away;
The boots that once would jump right in,
Are now on feet of clay.

You walked right up to talk to me,
But didn’t slow your pace,
And gently bumped what I’d admired,
Into a touchy place.

A sort of ero-wotsit zone,
On my middle chest,
Just above my diaphragm,
And just below the rest.

And so comes the great big question,
The reason for this mail;
Strewth, the very thought of asking,
Is making me quite pale.

Was it, I just want to know,
An action of intent,
Or misjudging of the distance,
Completely innocent?

See, I really fancied you,
I really like your smile;
The way you looked and acted,
This muso to beguile.

But I’ve never been an expert,
At signals from the girls;
I’d never ask them face to face –
The thought my toenails curls.

So that’s the reason for this poem,
This bland, pathetic verse;
To get from you an answer –
For better or for worse.

An e-mail would be lovely,
In poesy or prose;
’specially if it didn’t read:
‘You’re getting up my nose’.

But if you dialled the number Oh
Then four eight-eight, five zero seven,
And followed up with four one four –
That would be seventh heaven.

More Doggelerish

Heatwaves

What’s that creature up ahead, is it crow or goat?
Did it trip across the road or on the heatwaves float?
Did it hop or did it skip, or lift its wings and fly?
On these sunburned western roads, mirage deceives the eye.

Long journeys are enlivened by trivia like this,
It beats by far the radio, or cans-full of warm piss;
And for those of you on safety bent, who roll your eyes and moan,
At least I’m immersed in wonder, not on the bloody phone!

Miscellaneous Doggerelish

(These were hastily written at the 2016-17 Gulgong Folk Festival following the performance of a jingoistic ‘patriotic Australian’ song by a couple of Irish immigrants in the Commercial Hotel. The performance concluded with the modified Nazi salute beloved of the flag-wearing ratbags who now infest every ‘patriotic’ occasion from Anzac Day to Australia Day; from Christmas to the cricket. Worse still, it was greeted with roars of approval from the miners (it’s ‘their pub’ these days) who, from what I saw, are anti-everything old Gulgong. I can remember standing with my old friend, ex shearer, union delegate – and later, farmer – the late Lennie Norris, handing out how-to-votes during an election. He turned to me and sadly said: “I never thought I’d live to see coalminers votin’ for the National Party.” Incidentally, the Commercial has a footpath sign that reads. “Workies Hour Thursday, 5.00 to 6.00 pm (it may be 5.30 to 6.30 but the rest is accurate). Presumably the rest of Gulgong’s residents are not workies. Does this mean that older residents on pensions are not welcome either?

The new immigrants

 To think in our Australia
(The thought has my head a-swimmin’)
There’s blokes thinks it’s patriotic
To spit on Muslim women.

 

‘What about the workers?’ indeed, sir.

The pub of which I’ve spoke before,
It boasts a “Workies Hour”;
Each Thursday between 5 and 6,
It turned my stomach sour.

Is that where they go on Thursdays,
To spend their pay like nobs;
And gripe about the Muslims,
Who’ve taken all their jobs?

Where’s your flamin’ mateship gone,
The battlers of this world;
The Saleems and the Flanagans,
With the workers’ flag unfurled?

But you know what gets me boilin’
What really gets my goat?
You let that snide prick Murdoch,
Tell you how to vote.