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Manoa 18.2 (2006) 21-22

Two Poems
John Mateer


Down at the site of the battle which was more like a slaughter
some Nyoongar blokes showed him the crossing
where, there low over the blackened water,
they'd seen that fireball hovering white as a blind eye,
and he'd asked them if they'd tried to call out to those spirits
and they'd laughed:
No way, mate, we were off like a shot!

The Voice

They murdered my father. Like they murdered
those who stole flour from the windmill across
the Swan River.

                                      I was vengeful. Could say
my face hardened like a black cockatoo's. Inland
and far north my fellows, chained neck-to-neck
like the bones of a snake, were led
by the horseman.

                                          I was ready to murder. Here
and there I appeared. My dog, nipping along
at my ankles, an eye in the back of my head.
I murdered.

                                 You don't know how troubled I was.
That's when they captured me, when
they exiled me to a small barren island with two
guards. We stole their boat.

                                                           I am a patriot.
This isn't my voice.

                                           I returned angry. Don't
know if I was murdering, then I hid up
around Lake Joondalup.

                                                    This language is fake. [End Page 21]

Maybe the two teenagers who raised
their shotgun, blew a sudden wet hole in me,
are like today's.

                                     And when the farmer had wriggled
his knife through my throat's flesh and wedged
and levered the blade against vertebrae,
his hands absolutely black with blood, he
was desiring my decorated skin.

                                                                  He cured me like meat
inside a hollow smoking-tree.

                                                     They sold me
to exhibitions of freaks, art, and science. They
wrote poems in my voice when they were silence.
Then, when they were dying,
they returned to country places like York, not seeing
those women whose husbands' severed heads
were hung around necks. To them the vistas
fenced-in were ruined wheatfields,
wasteland only.

                                        Whenever a spirit returns to the Whites
I am distance. I am incomprehensible.

                                                                               Throw flour
over a black fellow: it fails.

                                                    Think of me as the Reconciliation.
My people aren't that failure, laughing and hugging
the New South Wales soldier in the early Perth street.
Believing him to be me and you to be you.

John Mateer was born in South Africa, lived in Perth for many years, and is now living in Europe. In 2001 he won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Poetry and in 2002 an Asialink Literature Residency in Japan; he is also a recipient of the Centenary Medal for his contribution to Australian literature and society. His publications of poetry and prose, all from Fremantle Arts Centre Press, include Burning Swans (1994), Anachronism (1997), Barefoot Speech (2002), Loanwords (2002), Semar's Cave (2004), and The Ancient Capital of Images (2005).