Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Blasted Outback

((Returning on the Indian-Pacific train, heading back from Perth (this time to dip south for visits to Melbourne and Adelaide), we again had to cross the Nullarbor Plain, again much of it during the night. On the first trip, the train had stopped at a waterhole/non-town named Cook for 40 minutes, but the train cars had been locked tight, so I couldn't get out to view the stars and Halley's Comet. On the return, when we stopped in Cook the second time, I found a door unlocked, so I climbed down and headed away from the lights to look skyward.

I walked out a couple of hundred yards and stared up at the heavens... After several silent minutes I decided I wanted binoculars; I was about to go back for them when I heard... the train already pulling away! Panic-stricken I ran over to and along the moving train, pounding on locked doors and car sides, convinced I was about to be abandoned in the wasteland Outback, just another fool tourist caught short...

The rest of my bonehead experience and what I made of it can be read in the following poem. The Nullarbor piece I had started and put away suddenly had a reason to exist and a, sort of, resolution.))

Nullarbor Plain Song

All day we drive deeper, wheel-shafts
muscling the Outback’s Long Straight
of steel-rail track. Granite disappears,
and red-ochre dirt gives way,
till west of the road north to Alice,
the Indian-Pacific skims limestone
dust like ash: decayed salt-flats
of a Cretaceous seabed upraised.

The annihilated fastness grows
no trees—five hundred miles
of Nullarbor desolation. Yet life
holds hard here, living parched:
scrub grasses grip scorched ground;
salt-bush, myall, and mulga breed
hordes of insects, that lizards may feed
on this sun’s anvil; and predator hawks

hunt gallah and shrike, hammering
day down into night… Past midnight.
Roused by the train’s rude couplings,
I come awake at some battered
watering station—no town, a rough
cluster of tin roofs; most buildings
deserted, but a few housing mates,
Bruces and Sheilas coupled or un-.

The train cools down, waiting. I walk out,
restless, away from the work-lights,
to gaze up at myriad flickerings,
the patterned grid of translucent dark:
unknown creatures, strange constellations;
aboriginals Dreaming their ancestral trails
through nightmares of whitefella creation…
Kangaroos made radioactive. Goannas

that glow in the dark. Wombats mutated
by decades-old bomb-tests… No moon
and no sound. Yet night’s unseen motion.
And somewhere overhead, flashing
fire and ice, Halley’s veiled face. In this
cold, burning universe, where is the omen?
where the heaven-breaking response?
What sense can track the comet

through all its hard foretellings,
or prepare us for some radiant dawn,
past the terror wastes of Maralinga,
in a world of Nullarbor Plains?
Where lies the way out or back…?
No answer. Nothing. I am unused,
the still clapper in this silent,
arching bell of cosmic blackout…

Yet, almost imperceptibly, a faint form
stirs on the horizon of consciousness:
possible… immanent… shimmering…
Shattered by hissing, by the sudden
clack-clack of steel wheels slipping;
and I am panic-running, chasing
the stuttering sleepers, their doors
locked, train rolling faster and

faster, last car passing, going,
and I’m collapsing by the track,
but… a crewman’s hand grabs me—
boosted up and in, adrenalin
jumping, synapses overloaded,
rocketing with the car… as all
the lights go out: rail system
shutdown; braking, to, a… halt.

Perspiring here in starless black,
stalled in Australia’s blasted Outback
on a gone-dead train to nowhere,
now and for the rest of my journey
through these ashes, as terrified
as any ancestor who looked
to the heavens, transfixed
by mystery—and was answered.

No comments: