In search of the same landfall

Most of us have come here from somewhere else, fleeing war, or just looking for a better life. But now we watch women and children, in search of the same landfall, drown within our reach. Like the Anzacs, our gods, they are war-addled and adrift, far from home. Unlike the Anzacs, they come in peace, for peace. But we don't know or own them, and so they perish. We pull their bodies from the water, and sail home.

This is “Beach Burial,” by Kenneth Slessor.  

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.
Between the sob and clubbing of gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;

And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin -
'Unknown seaman' - the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men's lips,

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

The monstrous continent

Another Australian poem today, though the ardour for our national day has slipped back into its place beneath quotidian quarrels over tax and the price of vegetables.

This is “South Country” by Kenneth Slessor, who's more famous for “Five Bells” or “Beach Burial,” which you might, if you were lucky, have studied at school. I like the mingled sense of menace and awe, the feeling of being exposed to immensities, walking on the sky's beach.

After the whey-faced anonymity
Of river-gums and scribbly-gums and bush,
After the rubbing and the hit of brush,
You come to the South Country

As if the argument of trees were done,
The doubts and quarrelling, the plots and pains,
All ended by these clear and gliding planes
Like an abrupt solution.

And over the flat earth of empty farms
The monstrous continent of air floats back
Coloured with rotting sunlight and the black,
Bruised flesh of thunderstorms:

Air arched, enormous, pounding the bony ridge,
Ditches and hutches, with a drench of light,
So huge, from such infinities of height,
You walk on the sky's beach

While even the dwindled hills are small and bare,
As if, rebellious, buried, pitiful,
Something below pushed up a knob of skull,
Feeling its way to air.