Coorong, a return
From the air, Australia is like
a snake, sloughing skin into the sea
felted hills, twisted rivers, fog
like milk webbed in the feet of the valleys
long slow lagoons, stain of sediment
the land porous.
I am seeing it as they could not,
the aircraft executing its approach
geometry above the imprecision
of clouds – so much we cannot fathom:
the depth of fog, faulted and fissured
striated country, cast in cloud shadow
uniform for a time, then morphing
into processional cumulus
ridges like waves of an ancient echo
audible now, as fire trails walk its flanks.
In 1853 they heaved around
Cape Horn in a ship cut down, hand built in
Nova Scotian cold, men sent ashore
clothed in the hopes of their clans, this coast
called South Australia, repellant –
desert they said; these children of granite
and peat, piteous winters in their eyes
could not till sand. The equal measures
of relief and dread in the women when
the sails filled again, the first ship of three
pushed on to Sydney by westerly gales
and bush destiny in a kauri swamp.
Was there then this flotilla of pelicans,
crabs cast, carapace-down in the mud
dessication of parrot-jawed fish,
flounder, puffer, hooded plovers to bob
and stitch over shell banks, between samphire
in hues of heliotrope and olive
colonising the brackish margin of scrub,
resting place for spent marram heads, bleached
seagrass caught in the hair of the drowned.
This is the meagre haunt of ground parrot
green as imagination, and mouseish wren.
What is water here?
Goolwa, meaning elbow, from the
Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong;
and kurangh, meaning neck, narrow or long.
Lagoon, the joining place, barrage and bridge
pin your limbs together, Younghusband
Ewe, Hindmarsh, Mundoo – a modern
taxonomy, their antecedents
At thirty thousand feet seahorse heads of
silt rear out from your skin; your limbs yellow
then black, stretch southeast like a painting on the
blue cave of the ocean. Now a marina
blooms like the crimson algae thickening
the current line offshore. From above,
things spread in the same fashion, the algae
a filigree on the sea, silt rearing up
the marina, veins bulging, a growth on
the hip of Hindmarsh Island, whose secret
splayed out by the bridge, stark as the absence
of women’s words and children.
Goolwa, your elbow, still curls. The town settled
like so many shells, sticks, bones; an eddy
undisturbed by flood, the great river port
strangled. Each afternoon, with digital precision
flocks form and rise above you,
the sky a monitor of black peaks and falls
apex formations fusing into drift lines,
prelude to migration. Had their first ship
rested here with only the ambition of birds,
how would I perceive you?
At Murray Mouth a pair of sand dredges
start up; their black diesel breath
drifts like a pelican’s glide into roost
the dredges move, alien, insatiable.
Nearer to shore, a Pacific gull is
caught in a slow dance with prey
too heavy to bear away, beats upwind only for
both to fall like line and sinker to the shoal,
the length of each carry
weighed with need; harried by common gulls,
muddy wings lifted clear of the chop, it
gathers itself. Coorong, where is your relief?
The weight of the river slackens, your
urgency is in the slow shift of sand,
your mouth at once open, closing over
your limbs pinned. Let the great basin heave
flush the barrages, dissolve shell and midden,
let marram and samphire swim in its issue.