(for Kath Walker)
Kathy my sister with the torn heart,
I don’t know how to thank you
for your dreamtime stories of joy and grief
written on paperbark.
You were one of the dark children
I wasn’t allowed to play with —
riverbank campers, the wrong colour,
(I couldn’t turn you white).
So it was late I met you,
late I began to know
they hadn’t told me the land I loved
was taken out of your hands.
Sitting all night at my kitchen table
with a cry and a song in your voice,
your eyes were full of the dying children,
the blank-eyed taken women,
the sullen looks of the men who sold them
for rum to forget the selling,
the hard rational white faces
with eyes that forget the past.
With a knifeblade flash in your black eyes
that always longed to be blacker,
your Spanish-Koori face
of a fighter and singer,
arms over your breast folding
your sorrow in to hold it,
you brought me to you some of the way
and came the rest to meet me,
over the desert of red sand
came from your lost country
to where I stand with all my fathers,
their guilt and righteousness.
Over the rum your voice sang
the tale of an old people,
their dreaming buried, the place forgotten…
We too have lost our dreaming.
We the robbers robbed in turn,
selling this land on a hire-purchase;
what’s stolen once is stolen again
even before we know it.
If we are sisters, it’s in this–
our grief for a lost country,
the place we dreamed in long ago,
poisoned now and crumbling.
Let us go back to that far time,
I riding the cleared hills,
plucking blue leaves for their eucalypt scent,
hearing the call of the plover,
in a land I thought was mine for life.
I mourn it as you mourn
the ripped length of the island beaches
the drained paperbark swamps.
The easy Eden-dreamtime then
in a country of birds and trees
made me you shadow-sister, child,
dark girl I couldn’t play with.
But we are grown to a changed world:
over the drinks at night
we can exchange our separate griefs,
but yours and mine are different.
A knife’s between us. My righteous kin
still have cruel faces.
Neither you nor I can win them,
though we meet in secret kindness.
I am born of the conquerors,
you of the persecuted.
Raped by rum and an alien law,
progress and economics,
are you and I and a once-loved land
peopled by tribes and trees;
doomed by traders and stock exchanges,
bought by faceless strangers.
And you and I are bought and sold,
our songs and stories too
though quoted low in a falling market
(publishers shake their heads at poets).
Time that we shared for a little while,
telling sad tales of women
(black or white at a different price)
meant much and little to us.
My shadow-sister, I sing to you
from my place with my righteous kin,
to where you stand with the Koori dead,
“Trust none – not even poets.”
The knife’s between us. I turn it round,
the handle to your side,
the weapon made from your country’s bones.
I have no right to take it.
But both of die as our dreamtime dies.
I don’t know what to give you
for your gay stories, your sad eyes,
but that, and a poem, sister.