Robert Gray is one of those Australian poets bastardised year after year by high school teachers and secondary school curricula.
His poetry is beautiful and always reflects the quietude of having grown up in the country (on the Northern NSW Coast). He recently published his memoirs, ‘The Land I Came Through Last’ (Giramondo). The following poem is from ‘New Selected Poems’ –
Flames and Dangling Wire
On a highway over the marshland.
Off to one side, the smoke of different fires in a row,
like fingers spread and dragged to smudge.
It is the always-burning dump.
Behind us, the city
driven like stakes into the earth.
A waterbird lifts above this swamp
as a turtle moves on the Galapagos shore.
We turn off down a gravel road,
approaching the dump. All the air wobbles
in some cheap mirror.
There is a fog over the hot sun.
Now the distant buildings are stencilled in the smoke.
And we come to a landscape of tin cans,
of cars like skulls,
that is rolling in its sand dune shapes.
Amongst these vast grey plastic sheets of heat,
who seem engaged in identifying the dead –
they are the attendants, in overalls and goggles,
forking over rubbish on the dampened fires.
A sour smoke
is hauled out everywhere,
thin, like rope. And there are others moving – scavengers.
As in hell the devils
might poke about through our souls, after scraps
with which to stimulate themselves,
so these figures
seem to be wandering despondently, with an eternity
where they could find
some peculiar sensation.
We get out and move about also.
The smell is huge,
blasting the mouth dry:
the tons of rotten newspaper, and great cuds or cloth….
And standing where I see the mirage of the city
I realize I am in the future.
This is how it shall be after men have gone.
It will be made of things that worked.
A labourer hoists an unidentifiable mulch
on his fork, throws it in the flame:
like the rag held up in ‘The Raft of the Medusa’.
We approach another, through the smoke
and for a moment he seems that demon with the long barge pole.
It is a man, wiping his eyes.
Someone who worked here would have to weep,
and so we speak. The rims beneath his eyes are wet
as an oyster, and red.
Knowing all that he does about us,
how can he avoid a hatred of men?
Going on, I notice an old radio, that spills
its dangling wire –
and I realize that somewhere the voices it received
are still travelling,
skidding away, riddled, around the arc of the universe;
and with them, the horse-laughs, and the Chopin
which was the sound or the curtains lifting,
one time, to a coast of light.