City of steel and jaded bricks


Enduring things
After Jack Gilbert

The small animal in my head at night
hesitates, then picks up
the scent of an ancient route
and another place in me:
the city of steel and jaded bricks,

of mills, foundries and furnaces,
its locomotives grunting, whining
on tracks that sliced through the hearts
of the sweat-shiny, blackened men
whose households were regulated by the whistle
they woke or slept by.
The BHP, like a bulker tethered
amidst chimney stacks and luffing cranes
to a bollard on the Hunter,
rising out of the river mist, silhouetted against a broad sky,
is now a thing of air, 
a transitory room across the birds' flight-path.
The coke ovens and furnaces are now quenched, levelled.
Platt's Channel reclaimed by water-hens, plovers,
the mangroves in the tide's ceaseless swell.
The last workers? Retrained,
shunted into retirement,
or an early grave.
And what about the housewives
whose lives hinged on too much work,
or too little,
on soot and the wind's direction? 
They hold fast
to family heirlooms lest they break or are lost
in the bumpy transition.
Their weekend children rubbing the sticks
of themselves together, igniting the flame
that generates new life, at the Town Hall,
or the Palais. Their children's children
have grown, moved away:
on the web trafficking the atmosphere,
on the back of coal, Hospitality or Tourism,
in service, or drifting into the harbour on luxury liners
that look like sleek white albatrosses.

Perhaps this land wants its ancient self back:
the alluvial soil, the rocks (their art intact),
and the beach where I'm now strolling.
I think I understand how the elephant felt,
the one photographed for the National Geographic
as it tracked through the lobby
of the Luangwa Valley Lodge in Zambia,
on its way to its favourite mango tree.
My ancient routes have been criss-crossed and disturbed.
Nevertheless, I'm listening for the tribal sounds,
the South Pacific's breeze through the bush,
the soft brush of percussion
and indiscriminately above that, the wind
free as the Whistling Kite
above the foliage, and then above the valley.
The animal in me thrives among the natives
and the sound of sunshine
in this pleasant place my solemn heart has made.

Me and a stranger clutch
prawner's poles that hammock
a net. Dark's spangled hair
is tressed on the Watagans.
Streetlights fasten long hinges
on the lake where, stride after stride,
we scissor its black satin;
the cool fusion is riding my ribs
to a halter,
my mind's parched country.

We circle back moon-walking,
buoyed in the body's liquidity,
my feet kneading the celestial silt;
alien crabs in their flying saucers
propel from my touch 
and dumb stars orbit
in gentle collision
with my bare legs.

A restless curlew is calling,
it's voice floats
eastward across
the braid of tide-swept land between
the lake and the ocean. Since when
have summer nights been so alive?

Our campfire spits sparks
from its earthen cradle
under stars scattered loose
as lost ancestors.
It casts a heavy axis, like an iron rod
to take hold of.
But the alabaster stones in my pockets
whisper another way home.
The catch is a burden
I think I cannot carry in the air.


Cassandra O'LoughlinCassandra O'Loughlin is an Arts graduate from the University of Newcastle. Her poems have appeared in the Newcastle University Creative Writing anthologies, Southerly, Overland, Mascara Literary Review, Eureka Street, Poetrix and Catchfire Press publications. She won the Catchfire Press regional poetry prize in 2004.

Topic tags: new australian poems, cassandra o'loughlin, EnduringThings, After Jack Gilbert, unhinged



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Existing comments

What the hell is a BHP?

George McCauley | 02 February 2010  

Cassandra, I loved both poems -- but especially "Enduring Things". I watched last week 'Chifley and the Miners' Strike' and remeber these people and others in latter years whose lifeblood disappears through no decisions they themselves make, but because of the relentless drive to make more money. Fruitgrowers and dairy farmers in the Gouburrn-Murray system face the same things now for different reasons. Thanks and blesings in your writing.

Barbara Brown-Graham fcJ | 02 February 2010  

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