Australia Day

Australia Day, 2011, near Mannum

Canoeing at Purnong the lagoon's a skin

of light stitched through with weeds, the husks at bow

and stern bend down, spring back with every stroke

easier than fight; while weightless in our

glass canoes we dip and pause and dip and

glide through paddled sky now wet with trees;

first morning, high unhurried sun, a palette

trimmed to oil a hundred greens and blues.

Red gums, water to the waist recede

regroup and glide away. From harder

times, a fencepost stands and measures -

what? Never counted water yet, a post as worn

and grooved as land, cropped then

nibbled down to dust, a smoker's skin and

trembling hand, as raddled as this mirror's met,

the paddock drowned where sheep forget.

Over there the Murray lolls, higher

than it’s been for years, a river filled out, hands

on hips, all its elbows full of flesh. Four years

of drought left only bones, but water on a holy course,

crept in through the picnic place. Now trees

meet sky, that hard blue bowl has cradled

clouds so fingerlings of Murray cod thread

wet and plenty, bread and water, calm: lagoon.

When water pushed through weeks ago, first

staining dirt then choppy rivulet, the

mosaic of freshwater mussel shells,

paving scaly beds once dry as feasts

were filled up, dormant cusps, then making

sauce; frogs regrouped to chanting all night

long, a randy pulse for Lazarus, all together

now slip back, legs agrip, forever pushing slack.

The north is flooded under mud, cars and babies

swept away; sandbagged to our east, small towns

face tears each night the news, now gone to soldiers,

every one. Purnong's one lucky country: heaven.

But Paul remembers twenty swans, there’s only one

back, honking slow, no tortoises or cormorants; we now

begin to listen, learn, recall the seeds, and note

the signs, the mustard of this stony ground.

Margaret Barbalet

Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2012