Remembering Robert O’Hara Burke
Because we're leaving the city
next week, my wife bought
a GPS. As the till
rang up our purchase, I thought
of Robert O'Hara Burke dying at
dried-up Cooper's Creek, unable to return
to what passed for Western Civilisation
on Terra Australis in 1860.
Now we read Instructions to Begin
at our pinewood kitchen table
instead of his 'Sorry' note
stuck in a tree at a camp
recently deserted. Now our bitumised route
is spelt out in measured female tones:
Enter round-about. Take third exit.
It would have been handy for Burke
back then when there were
no highways, no roadside diners.
As I exit, I walk by my books in the uni
library. There is a shorter way but I
choose to hear my old words whispering
off the shelf 'in the swarm of human
speech', as Duncan said. On my way home,
in the safe bubble of my Japanese car,
I take the tunnel and in the humming
dark inexplicably think of
my White Russian friend naked on
his chopper, whooping loudly in his flight
across the desert, ejaculating in ecstasy
on his fuel tank. Those were the days,
my friend. Now, my tunnel breaks
into sunlight. The poet I visited today said,
Even the poems are chatty now, and he
was right: at the red traffic light
lyrical lines come to mind and I hurry to
write them down. The lights change
and my pen dries out. Diesel fumes invade
my thoughts as I drive so I turn the volume
up on ABC Jazz to drown out my
annoyance. That motel has been there
for decades. I remember the one-eyed
mother, with her baby in a cot, offering
me her love, or something masquerading
as that, in dusky afternoon light, a room
rented after fleeing her husband, the sound
of peak hour traffic slowing as it banked
for the suburbs. I'm off in a dream world
when the car behind me toots, and I'm
on the road again. Her name has gone
but her eye patch remains and the baby's
sweet snuffling. I change to a pop music
station. Get out of your own head, I
advise myself. It's not safe there, the
past is corrosive. At home I park
and leave the bubble of car and poem
with its own centrifugal force.
I saw a man looking
the dead spit of you
today, Ralph, only
he was black, a
Noongar in Midland,
healthy and clean.
As he passed my car
he stumbled a bit
and for a moment
I saw his palm on
my side window.
I don't know if I
read too much into
that quick glimpse,
Ralph, but it seemed
his lifeline was un-
usually short -- maybe
I saw what I expected
to see. We do delude
ourselves, don't we.
He prob'ly never sang
at The Raffles in
the Sixties, although he
may have played didg'
outside Perth Train Station
late Saturday night with
his footy cap upturned
in front of him. Muso rates?
Not bloody likely, hey, Ralph.
No panties with a phone number
either — just bits of shrapnel
and ciggy butts, the burnt out
ends of smoky days.