Of the Moment

1. Blue Mountains, November 2012 

This garden’s fruits
(a continent, and decades
away) are not by any stretch
the fruits of his labour.

Yet under the balm
of afternoon herbs
and snapdragons,
lemon peel heating up,

I hang washing
and, with each breath,
fabricate memories.

 

2. Kenya, December 1941

Here’s the promised adventure, lads.

Against jungle backdrop,
red-fezzed vendors peddle fruit, sewing
machines, sweet grasshopper pancakes,
and (soldiers claim) their wives.

For a while, #5775477
is a boy from Edmonton.

Orchids take in the drunken spectacle
of white men dragging their own rickshaws

to USS Mount Vernon — ark of fresh goods:
papaya, tomato, eggs, sides of buffalo
like piano wire, live monkeys, dogs,
and finally a sailor leads
an elephant up the gangplank.

This elephant would not go on
to Singapore.

 

3. West Batu Parhat, January 1942

Camouflaged
as pantomime trees
and black-faced,
his first enemies pass by,

close enough to challenge.

You said (and you never said
much) you were more concerned
with self-preservation
than reporting them.

That day you realised
you’d been left talking
to the dead
beside you.

 

4. Changi, February 1942

“You are, of course, sole judge of the moment.” Churchill to General Wavell, 14 February 1942

How the quiet
must have struck them in the night,
all documents signed —

70,000 men surrendered.

Tin helmets in a silvery pile
and weapons stripped,
they march on Changi
to erect their own barbed wire
and bury masses of freshly butchered.

This part
Harold never talked about.

 

5.  Tha Khanun, June 1943

A rare scent: meat roasting.

Men who weigh like children
salivate into evening’s prison.

No dinner in sight;
cholera victims
burning.

 

6. Thailand, Christmas 1943

Breakfast: sweet
porridge, two sausages, corned beef,
pork and beans, buttered biscuit,
sweet milky coffee.

Tiffin: rice, curried fish
and veg, jam tart, buttered biscuit,
sweet and milky tea.

Dinner: roast beef, fried steak,
brown gravy, jam tart, pork pie,
fish on biscuit, four different veg, fried
potatoes, Xmas pudding, sweet sauce,
and sweet milky coffee.

 

7. Sydney, February 1946 / October 2012

In your pocket:
a notebook and a photo
of 100 Norfolk men dressed
in the last of their skin.

Decades apart,
our first look at the Harbour Bridge.

You once won
and kept
a cigarette card
with this view.

In ’32, the longest
single-arch bridge
in the world — a great
silver swell across water.

As a child, this seemed
such a miracle.

100 Norfolk Men
Harold Frost, my grandfather, is ninth from the right in the third row

 

Envoi

dredge the bones
from the river

shroud the bodies
in rice sacking

by boat or foot
the years go on


From Salt and Bone (Walleah Press)
Shortlisted for the Overland Judith Wright Prize 2013

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