Floating flock

I bet Agriculture Minister Warren Truss is not much given to poetry, but he struck an uncharacteristic note of gloomy lyricism the other day when he told the ABC that Australia’s 50 thousand refugee sheep would be leaving Kuwait that morning to begin ‘their long journey down the Gulf’.

The unfolding affair of the floating sheep would move most people, even someone named Truss, to poetry, because it is full of echoes, paradoxes and drama. For one thing, the ship itself is called the Cormo Express. This is obviously someone’s elaborate joke because it is anything but ‘express’. On the contrary, it’s pottering around the exotic landfalls of the strife-torn Middle East like a romantic tramp steamer. 

 It’s a bit hard on the sheep, because they are behaving, as far as I can see, with a good deal more dignity than the bureaucrats and governments responsible for their marine dilemma, but you can’t help thinking of Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Ship of Fools’. There, a particularly loathsome group of people are carousing, vomiting, fornicating and being generally futile while their ridiculous craft drifts aimlessly on, symbolic of a mad, debased world.

The sheep’s plight invites a comparable symbolism, but only Warren Truss, of all people, has come close to recognising the metaphoric possibilities in the strange voyage of the Cormo Express, though he rapidly resumed the argot of Canberra when under pressure. ‘We are still examining the options of unloading the sheep at an offshore island,’ he told a reporter. ‘We haven’t ruled an offshore island out of the equation,’ he added, nailing it down. No-one seems to have pointed out the extreme difficulty, if not the impossibility, of finding an onshore island but probably that dawned on him later.

Certainly the Prime Minister is in no position to give rein to any metaphoric insights he might be glimpsing as he tries to cope with the ramifying problems of the ‘sheep ship’ (as an extraordinarily courageous, sure-tongued ABC reporter referred to it). Mr Howard has had many trials associated with ships on strange, illicit, dangerous or otherwise noteworthy voyages and probably he does not wish to remind either himself or ‘the Australian people’ of past maritime adventures. One of the remedies traditionally available on ships at sea, for example, is to chuck the offending item/person/animal/rubbish overboard. But Mr Howard has good reasons for not wanting us to dwell on what might be called the ‘defenestration solution’. Nor can he go down the path of maligning and vilifying the sheep—a standard ploy of politicians seeking to demean opponents. ‘Do we want sheep like this to enter our country?’ Mr Howard might have asked, except that that’s a question he has already posed in another context and he won’t want to be reminded about it. As for just knocking them all off—that, says Mr Howard, ‘is just quite impractical and horrendously difficult’.

Well, one of the difficulties about shooting them, though probably not the one that was uppermost in Mr Howard’s mind, is that even though sheep, having ceased to be lambs, appear unattractive and dumb (and, speaking as one who has run a sheep property, I can guarantee they are both) they do nevertheless have a rather beautiful eye. In panic, or fear or pain their gaze can be affecting to anyone of

romantic or poetic inclination—like Mr Truss, say. So when you shoot them, it’s best not to look them in the eye; and don’t look at the others queuing up for the bullet either.

In their eyes there will be a knowingness you could do without.

Meanwhile, the ship sails on like a plague ship of old and the gentle-eyed sheep stare inscrutably at the fading ports and anonymous seas and wonder, as well they might, where their shepherd has gone.
The Lord doesn’t seem to be my shepherd/Recently I have endured much want/He has made me to lie down not in green pastures but on hot decks/Yea, he has led me beside still waters/But also by rough waters and choppy waters and broad waters and deep waters and endless bloody waters without ports/He does not restore my soul: I am a mere ruminant and therefore without soul/If these are the paths of righteousness that he is leading me in, then he can stick them: five weeks on a bloody sheep ship in the Middle East!/Yea, though I sail through the oceans of death in the world’s hot spots, do I fear evil? My bloody oath I fear evil. I’m scared shitless/(Though the state of the decks would suggest otherwise)/I suppose Thou art with me, but the only rod and staff I know are whacked across my backside and they do not comfort me/Thou preparest a Table, but I think it is for roast lamb/Thou anointest my head with oil but it is diesel from this unravelling tub/The ship’s bilges runneth over/The decks runneth over/Everything runneth over/Surely goodness and mercy will follow me to Kuwait/If not for all the days of what looks like being a short life/And I will dwell on this bloody ship forever.  

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.



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