I always have mixed feelings on Australia Day. My love for this country was learned late, after England cured my anglophilia, but it also involves a violent distate for what usually passes here as patriotic. I love the concatenations of air, water and rock that make this continent. I love the variety and strangeness of it, utterly unique on this planet, adrift in this southern sea. I love the layers and sediments of human life here: the toughness of it, the sweetness. What I hate is the back-patting chest-slapping fair dinkum Aussie blokey bushy true blue outbackery that seems to me contrived, blinkered, and ersatz; so outdoors it’s almost camp. When on Australia Day our leaders and icons trot out the tired old cliches about mateship or the fair go (and many would be angered if they didn’t), we expose not our strengths but our greatest weakness as a nation, which is a poverty of imagination, a failure of poetry. For a nation girt by sea, we seem curiously shy of depth. We have ceased from exploration. We think we know the place. This is only the official line, however, the line declared safe for politicians, the line marketed in t-shirts and souvenirs. Beneath it, there is poetry. There is subtlety. There is, as Bernard O’Dowd’s “Australia” hints, enduring mystery.
Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,
Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?
Or Delos of a coming Sun-God’s race?
Are you for Light, and trimmed, with oil in place,
Or but a Will o’ Wisp on marshy quest?
A new demesne for Mammon to infest?
Or lurks millennial Eden ’neath your face?
The cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere
That in your limits leap and swim and fly,
Or trail uncanny harp-strings from your trees,
Mix omens with the auguries that dare
To plant the Cross upon your forehead sky,
A virgin helpmate Ocean at your knees.