Vandemonian (Arc, 2013)
Vandemonian (Arc, 2013) focuses on Van Diemen's Land and its inhabitants - human and animal, newcomer and Aborigine. - to piece together a fragmentary history of Tasmania, together with sequences about the life and death of Ned Kelly, and "The Shoal Bay Death Spirit Dreaming", an elegy after The Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming by the aboriginal artists Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and his brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri.
"a humanist vision of nightmare handled with great wit and linguistic exuberance, erudition brought to life with the full force of feeling. A remarkable and somewhat shaming read.” William Bedford in The Warwick Review
“a thrilling, fascinating collection of poems; read it in one sitting for the most intense experience of the voyage.” Kay Syrad in Envoi
“One of the striking dimensions of Forshaw’s book is that, whilst acknowledging his source material, he writes in a manner that seamlessly and organically presents themes, subject matter and historical detail in an original fusion that communicates a fascinating story of cultural collision […] a finely fettled piece of poetic art.” Michael Woods in Iota
on the Ned Kelly Hymnal section:
“The ‘Hymnal’ poem achieves real dignity out of its mix of filmic, modernist detail and grave statement.” Ken Bolton in Jacket
For further details of Vandemonian, together with fuller reviews, poems and a film of Cliff reading, please see the Arc website, where you can also order the book. http://www.arcpublications.co.uk/books/cliff-forshaw-vandemonian-490
For a recent Australian radio broadcast featuring Cliff's poems about the Tasmanian Tiger visit Shadows in the Scrub at ABC.
|Click here to see the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film|
Loop (62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film.)
Within the box, it growls, it twists,
scowls through its repertoire of tricks,
ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns
again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.
It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps
while hindquarters zither bars of sun;
claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched
as if to take the measure of itself.
You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot:
short clips, fragments caught and stitched
together in a loop of black and white.
Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out.
It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition
compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.
And here he is, ‘Old Hairy’,
red and skinny, tough as boots,
four thousand years old if he’s a day;
forever flat out and in pursuit
of . . . whatever. The chase goes on and on.
That endless prey’s his last: the one
that’s slipped its skeleton through a crack in stone,
a white shadow in the rock that’s worn him down
to skin and bone. That’s skin? That’s bone?
(To the south, earth shifts, Tassie breaks free:
distant cousins in cold high woods, cut off by sea.)
Dry as parchment, brittle as sticks:
Mummified mainland thylacine,
found base of shaft, Nullarbor Plain, ’66.
In inverted commas
Others are Disney-flat, out-run cartoons
who’ve failed to burrow into tarmac,
who’ve found it far too hard, too black.
At this one’s mouth, a speech-balloon
where asphalt’s slick and almost pink,
as if someone’s scrubbed long and hard at red
daubed words, the rumour’s near indelible ink.
Haunches, muddied pelts, dithered paws,
little fangs gnawing on the camber;
snouts punctuated by inverted commas of claws:
irony or speech marks, a question mark of tail,
rising like the intonation you get round here.
So politely put. But a question nonetheless.
Demands sometime, sometime quite soon, you answer, “Yes.”
Trucanini, the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines, was born on Bruny Island around 1812. After many of her family and tribe were killed or sold into slavery she joined builder-turned-evangelist George Augustus Robinson and his guide the Aboriginal chief Woorady on his journeys of exploration and “conciliation.” During the early 1830s Robinson made contact with every remaining group of Tasmanian natives and carried out rudimentary anthropological inquiries into their customs and rituals, as well as compiling basic vocabularies of their languages. After the failure of The Black Line (1829) to pen the Aborigines in the Tasman Peninsula, in 1834 Robinson led the remaining natives to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, where he attempted to Christianize them. The “National Picture” (at the top of the portfolio) showing Robinson and Trucanini “bringing in” the remaining Aborigines is Benjamin Duttereau’s The Conciliation (1840). By 1845 there were 150 Aborigines left. Robinson had left Flinders to return to the mainland in 1839; his successors treated the remaining aborigines in their concentration camp appallingly. In 1846 the survivors were settled at Oyster Cove on the d’Entrecasteaux Channel near Hobart where their keepers provided them with insanitary huts and rum. By 1855 there were only sixteen left, including Trucanini. The last man, William Lanne, died in 1869. Trucanini died in 1876. There is of course a big problem about the concept of “the last of the Aborigines”; many Tasmanians are mixedrace descendents of Aborigines and immigrants.
Last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine (1812? – 1876)
Trucanini, Truganner, I’m not sure what to call you,
your name has grown vague and lost as Trowenna.
Trucanini, Truganner, last full-blood born here,
raped by whitefella convicts, sterile with gonorrhoea.
Trucanini, Truganner, still hanging round their woodsmoke,
you sell yourself to sealers for a handful of tea or sugar.
Trucanini, Truganner, they murdered your mother;
come again, a little later, killed your new step-mother.
Trucanini, Truganner, whitemen murdered your intended,
convict mutineers stole your blood-sister Moorina.
Trucanini, Truganner, there’ll soon be no one left now,
so many sold to slavers just like your tribal sisters.
Comes another whiteman: comes George Augustus Robinson,
together with Wooraddy, loyal guide and his Good Friday.
This whitefella Robinson’s a missionary unlike any other:
cockney builder become explorer, The Great Conciliator.
Trucanini, Truganner, help-meet and translator:
interpret, make word-lists, catalogue their customs.
Trucanini, Truganner – tiny, tiny, tiny –
married Wooraddy, also full-blood out of Bruny.
Trucanini, Truganner, with Robinson you both wander,
so long since you left your home on Bruny Island.
You go gathering them in now, most-trusted Trucanini.
Orphan-mother to the whitefella’s blackface piccaninny.
Interpreter, translator, Truganner, Trucanini,
in your story I hear echoes of Pocahontas, La Malinche.
Traduttori sono traditori: I heard an Italian say in Sydney.
And, for a long time, I thought, Trucanini, Truganner,
how lives fork when we live in a stranger’s tongue.
My Lord’s a Cockney Shepherd
who’s bringing in His Flock
and we’re singing Ba Ba Black Sheep
as we huddle in His Fold.
Some say I’m rounding up the black sheep,
like the shepherd’s faithful dog,
but there’s nothing left but pasture,
and my forest’s turned to logs.
Now there’s a bounty on the Tiger,
there’s a fence across the land,
and they’re grazing fluffy white sheep
while the Shepherd sings the hymns.
He leads us to the Promised Land
where we will all be safe,
and our Pen is Flinders Island,
though there’s not many still alive.
But the Master’s gone and left us,
least what was left of that last Fold.
Shipped us back from Flinders Island
to slums and rum in Oyster Cove.
Trucanini, Truganner, now you’re dying on your own,
the doctors pick your bones like ghostly thylacines.
Trucanini, Truganner, your flesh and blood all gone,
your people dead as Dodos and they’ve stolen what remains,
You star in that National Picture high up on the Museum wall,
but though your bones are still raked in a big glass case,
you saved No One after all.
The Ballad of William Lanne Or, “The Blackfella’s Skeleton”
Now there’s a funny kind of Ballad,
Penned by your Boneyard Bards,
Of what happened down in Hobart
When the Surgeons came to Town.
The Coroner’s Paper’s white as Bone
And the Ink’s as black as Skin
And the Seal upon the Parchment’s
Red as Blood, but not so thin.
Trucanini’s final Husband,
A Bloke called Billy Lanne,
Died in 1869,
The last Full-Blood Tassie man.
If this was Terra Nullius,
Then William was No-One.
No Diggers could ever count or name
All the Species that are gone.
Old Darwin, when he studied
Where Nature had gone wrong,
Found Dead-Ends merely croaked
And sang no great Swan-Song.
But the Dinosaurs have left
Fossilized Rosetta Stones,
So the Doctors licked their Chops
At the thought of Billy’s Bones.
One night old Saw-Bones Crowther
Sneaked on Tip-Toes to the Morgue;
The Lamplight glints on his Case of Knives
Beside that laid-out Corpse.
Now the Surgeon’s filthy Cuffs
Are rolled back for Steel & Skill:
His Scalpel skims the Cadaver’s Scalp,
Peels back that sad black Skin.
Now William’s Face falls like a Mask
– Crestfallen, sloughed-off Skin –
As Crowther teases out the Skull
And slips a White Bloke’s in.
Now a new Head fills that Death Mask,
Sewn into the Blackfella’s Grin;
The Bastard wraps the Brain-Pain up
In a Piece of old Sealskin.
He’ll send it off to London
To the Royal bloody Surgeons there,
So he tip-toes from the Morgue,
Sniffs Reward in the dawn-fresh Air.
Skullduggery’s soon discovered
(reports our Hobart hack):
Examining Our Cadaver’s head,
“The Face turned round,” the M.O. said
and this new Saw-Bones “saw Bones
were sticking out the Back.”
So, to stop the Pommie Surgeons,
Getting their bloody filthy Hands
On the Rest of that last Tasmanian
they chopped off its Feet,
and they chopped off its Hands,
and they slung them in the Dunny.
The Cadaver was buried,
But secretly next Night
Royal Society Gentlemen
Dug it up by their Lamplight.
Time waits for no Tasmanian:
The Quick must be quick with the Dead.
They dissected William’s Skeleton
(sans Feet, sans Hands, sans Head).
Did grave Doctors cast their Lots
To perform their Funeral Rites?
They cut away Black Flesh that rots,
Redeemed the White Bone into Light.
Meanwhile, bobbing off to London,
Seal-Skin begins to stink.
Sailors got shot of it Overboard,
Flung Billy’s Skull in the Drink.
It’s a very sorry end,
To what became of William Lanne:
The butchers lost his feet and hands,
His head went bobbing far from land
– Do you think one day they’ll find those bones?
Will his skull wash up on Tassie’s sands?
Can he be buried whole again?
… Yeah, yeah,
but from Darwin down to Melbourne,
the learned doctors said:
“Let the weak fall by the wayside,
for the strong live off the dead.
To stay alive is to survive
against the bleakest odds.
Embrace your Fate. Know your Place.
Accept the Will of God.
His cards were always marked,
just like the thylacine’s:
written into defunct genes.”
Course, it’s a sad, sad end, this dead dead-end,
but, when all is said and done,
can’t stand in the way of Progress
– Thank Christ they’re bleedin’gawn.
We gave them a good shake,
but they just could not wake,
the Dreamtime had crusted their eyes.
So we left them for dead,
and strode on ahead,
and were blessed with this golden sunrise.
Our shadows are shortening behind us.
Our dead are all dead and all gone.
They couldn’t come with us, they couldn’t adapt,
their bones lie bleached by the sun.
It’s dawn in the Lucky Country
and it’s time, it’s time to move on.
Let the women and the crocs shed tears,
these fellas had been just hanging on
these last four thousand years.
Long time dreamed of falling,
Down through seaweed, silver shoal.
Up above the light was fading,
Waves tumbled, roiled and boiled.
Night presses down so heavy.
Down here’s just salty sea-bed.
Empty sockets see nothing, nothing.
I need eyes like I need holes in my head.
Teeth shiver-shiver my jaw.
No flesh left to pad them all in.
The world has ripped up all its Laws,
Left us dismembered,
dismembered and bearing white grins.
from A Ned Kelly Hymnal (after Sydney Nolan)
That’s him, that awkward shadow, that black, that’s Ned.
He’s painted out as if already dead.
Sometimes, it’s just a blank, that slit for eyes.
You look right through the man to clear blue skies.
Sometimes, that void’s red-tinged with fire or dawn:
the burbling billy-can, the day’s first yawn.
Sometimes, the clouds in that gash blush with dusk:
sky buries its burning cheek down in the dust.
Sometimes, there’s a flash of silver, say sardines:
that peeled-back strip you’ve keyed along the tin.
He has no eyes in the back of his head, of course.
Sometimes, he rides away (Black gun. Black horse.)
into another picture. What’s forged by smith
from black’s still fire-lit then, and riding into myth.
from A Ned Kelly Hymnal (title poem)
Helmet or bucket?
Kick it. Fuck it.
What’s it matter when
eight thousand pounds
press on four men’s heads?
Forget the Bible. Swords
beaten into ploughshares
are crook to what’s hammered
out of duff ploughboards.
The twist that scragged
earth’s arse got blunt;
now it’s cheeky, bent
to a new job.
as rock-snagged half-acre,
but ready enough.
Hard to work the thick
Proof to ten yards
with a Martini Henry round.
Not quite what you’d expect?
A quarter inch of iron;
lappet hanging heavy
from its leather strap.
Now constables come and go.
Down in Melbourne,
where the Yarra’s too brown
to drink, too thin to plough,
the rumours grow.
Memories of the Mollies:
our blacksmith’s turned
seamstress; learned to sew
a dress of wild colonial iron.
Vanity, vanity, stitching rivets
through the bodice, lacing
through neck and sleeve.
No greave-plates, chain-mail,
gorget or visor.
They move heavy as iron-clads,
augur the tank.
Helmet or a bucket?
A veil of ore, bride’s bonnet:
that’s married them to dark.
Inside it's loud and hot:
breath, beard rustling iron
against the blush
on each hidden cheek.
Four heavy morning suits
worn once only, at Glenrowan,
by Kelly, brother Dan,
Steve Hart and Joe Byrne.
And who will sing the ballad
of the Hotel Glenrowan?
Stopped at the Inn. Thin walls,
spinsters, Victorian wallpaper
pinned like a summer dress
to a mannequin.
Breastplate. Iron corset.
In the backroom,
a rifle’s barrel
rests against a spindle.
Remember, some time back,
a beard in a frock:
Steve, cross-dressed, saddling up,
spurs catching at his hem.
And now the clumsy
groin-piece has gouged
a blackgum furrow
along a lacquered table.
Each movement pondered,
in all its awful gravity.
Blinkered. Stare straight ahead.
That pull of earth.
Heaviness finding sweat
beneath the long oilskin coat.
It’s not that heavy Drizabone
that’s come unstitched,
but something closer worms
along your inner seams.
Some hidden thing unknits
the suit of bone, unskins,
turns inside out
the underthings of flesh.
Light through darkness,
could be Sunday coming in
like a bright silk sampler
on the walls of the Glenrowan.
No choirs yet, but organ stops,
rumble, clacker of heels in aisles;
knees hit boards; hymn books,
hard-backed; pews creak. Begin.
They’re banging in
great long nails of light,
might as well be outside,
see if those suits stand up.
Nowhere to run. No need to hide.
Shootout. Returning fire.
Shot and shot and shot, re-
load and shot and shot, re-
lentless trochees, spinning barrels,
heavy recoil and stink of cordite.
Slugs on flesh and ¡pang! on iron
as they take aim, go for legs.
Crossfire. Blug! is leg hit.
Joe Byrne killed.
Dan Kelly, Steve Hart dead
as hotel burns.
Flimsy underthings alight
and shining through its stays.
And Ned? And Ned?
Captured, they cut
the boot from his foot;
took it as a trophy
along with his Colt.
Hotel smoulders, locals
fossick for keepsakes:
spent cartridges, hooves
cut from their dead horses.
Filched from embers,
something to remember them fellas by.
Knot a square of wet linen
around your nose and mouth.
Smoke still stings your eyes,
as bandannas turn sightseers bandits.
Laid out in whitestuff, shifts.
Spooked by sheets. Too late
for wound-dressers now.
A photo of Kelly
the day before he’s hanged,
shows he’s casually arranged
a paralysed left arm:
hooked the dead meat
into his belt,
while his right’s
nonchalant on his hip.
He’s hip alright,
with a cool and oily quiff:
big-bearded prophet meets
an Elvis avant la lettre.
He stares the future out
— not going to fall
on his face or to his knees.
Glimpse some support
near the shackles
round Ned’s ankles,
but it’s still the eyes alright
that dead man upright,
to his feet,
free of all
Sidney Nolan’s “Death of a Poet”, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
Death of a Poet was what they called it:
head hung in a branch; roughed-up paint;
wristy little vortices where rag
scrubbed board, twisted bark
right through flat mid-blue.
Bush. Heat-struck head hung
against a cloudless dumb forever.
Not hard to see why
(a sniff of lemon leaves, a fierce Greek sky?)
the municipal Victorian neo-classical Walker
saw Orpheus. No lyre. Alternative ending:
his ripped silence after frenzied stalkers
had torn him limb from limb.
Forget downriver. There’s no water;
here’s what became of another him:
head tossed sky-high, caught in trees.
But what we’ve really got here’s dead Ned’s head.
So odd to find, in Liverpool,
his face for once — at last his naked skin.
Yet though he’s out his box, escaped his tin,
and all around the bush is blasted through
to ripolin blue enamel skies
the one thing you can’t see here is his eyes.
Tight shut. Not really him at all.
Death-mask or bust. Kicked the bucket.
Right now he’s just something in the trees,
round as a gourd, shiny on top,
bald as baked clay, a terracotta pot.
Or one that’s bloomed, blown, grown scratchy dry;
breeze-rustled beard ready to fall to scrub,
dead-headed by some passer-by.
A earlier version of the Ned Kelly sequence appeared as A Ned Kelly Hymnal ( A Paper Special Edition, 2008).
An earlier version of the Tasmanian Tiger sequence first appeared as Tiger (HappenStance, 2011).