Incident at the Exercise Park

This is the fifth assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment is as follows:

In words and/or images, compose a piece in response to a memory of conflict, war, loss, or trauma that includes two or three central sensations: perhaps a sound that corresponds to or contrasts with a sight, perhaps the feel, noise, and smell of a place. 

I was walking one evening last week, through a nearby park used in the evenings for dog exercise. Out of apparently nowhere, a chicken appeared in the middle of the park. All hell broke loose. I’m pretty sure the chicken jumped the fence from a nearby house owned by an elderly Italian couple, who keep chickens in their back garden.

I’ve killed two birds with one stone here (pun intended) – I was meant to write about my trip to Mildura Writers’ Week last month, to share with fellow travellers Heather Taylor Johnson, Gay Lynch and Louise Nicholas. They all managed to write about Mildura, but I cheated and wrote about a chicken instead. Thanks to Heather, Gay and Louise for reviewing this poem. The version here is 2nd draft.


Incident at the Exercise Park

Blue Heelers, Poodles, Terriers, Retrievers,

all bustling eagerness, romping,

rolling, off leash on cold evening grass.

 

Drenched air, lemon scented gums,

a yellow glow from the old-folks home washes

over the iron fence. Cars sweep by, headlights

beaming, wipers swishing.

 

Above the smell of rain, of overcooked greens

and thickening gravy, of grass and gums:

the sudden presence of chicken.

Bemused, disoriented, strayed

from some backyard run into foreign territory.

 

A madness grips the animals,

a predatory reflex: chase, kill,

taste flesh. Everything is bark and bite,

hunter and hunted; a churning

of legs, ears, teeth, a helter-skelter

of fur and feather. The panicked bird

fleeing the snap of teeth.

 

In the cacophony, owners bark orders, call

hounds to heel. A man leaps into the whirl,

whips the stunned chicken from the chomp

of jaws, shields it under his jacket.

The clamour subsides in a fug of wet fur

and drooling maw. Charges are muzzled,

collars clipped to leads; a smear of blood

wiped from nose, a feather plucked from lip,

warnings delivered against ever again behaving

like animals.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

Absence

This is the fourth assignment for the MOOC, “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa.

This assignment is as follows:

Professor Folsom noted in our video discussion that Whitman encountered many soldiers who, even in the silence of a peaceful night, still heard the noises of Civil War Battlefields, sounds and sensations that never left them. These reverberations crept into the silence of each night, making those spaces unbearably loud. What are the unseen remnants of our modern conflicts and traumas? What losses or absences do you or do we continue to sense from things that are no longer present? In words or images, compose a piece that explores the “phantom limbs” of a trauma or traumas.

—————-

13 Ways of Looking at Absence

I

The child:

fatherless

before birth

II

the teenager:

role models

missing in action

III

the alcoholic:

memories

blanked by oblivion

IV

the drug-taker:

unhinged

unparented

V

the stray dog:

cowered

unleashed

VI

the wandered mind:

unwilling

to be present

VII

the lost keys:

determined

to be overlooked

VIII

the dementia ward:

short-term memories

extinguished

IX

the war veteran:

hope replaced

by horror

X

the aboriginal:

amputated from land

spirit adrift

XI

the abusive priest:

oaths broken

scruples dispensed

XII

the bully’s victim:

confidence lost

trust breached

XIII

the disgraced sportsman:

dreams shattered

image broken

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster – 1

tent of indigenous people

Image from National Library of Australia

I’ve just started an online course entitled “Whitman’s Civil War: Writing and Imaging Loss, Death, and Disaster“, through the University of Iowa. I haven’t read a lot of Walt Whitman – he wasn’t on the British school curriculum when I was a boy. And the course is not so much an in-depth study of Whitman, as an investigation into the ways in which we might create art, be it prose, poetry, photography, artwork around the subject of loss, death and disaster, using Whitman as an example. Whitman wrote extensively about the American Civil War and the earlier Mexican War.

Assignment one requires:

“In words or images, compose a response to a “rupture” in a particular history – an event that you think was a defining moment at a particular place, a moment when something seemed to break open or to be dramatically exposed, a moment of dramatic importance – and use a constraint to shape your response.”

I did some further research on massacres of the Australian indigenous population during white “settlement”, and came across descriptions of horrific events in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, near the town of Elliston. This was 1839 / 1849, around the same time as Whitman wrote about the Mexican War.  The assignment required use of a constraint, such as a poetic form. For this I chose to model Section 34 of Whitman’s “The Song of Myself”.

 

—————-

The Elliston Massacre

(after Walt Whitman)

Now I tell what I knew in Elliston in my early youth,

(I tell not the massacre of Appin,

Not one escaped to tell the deeds of Appin,

Fourteen and many more are dumb yet at Appin)

‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of a hundred or more of Aboriginal men, women and children.

Rounded up by local farmers, angered by the disappearance of but four sheep.

Four sheep and the death of a hanging judge, was the price they took in advance.

The alleged sheep killers already hanged, further retribution was served on the tribe.

They were the Nauo people, who had lived on those lands for tens of thousands of years, subsisting, deeply connected to the spirit of the land.

Matchless trackers, skilled hunters of native animals.

Peaceful, proud people.

Strong, dark, drest in possum and kangaroo skin.

The morning after the hanging judges death, the policemen roused the farmers. On horseback they rode to the Nauo camp, herded all the Aboriginal men, women and children like they would herd cattle, and drove them off the high cliffs of Elliston. From babies to old men and women.

Any who tried to escape were cut down by whip, stick and gun. It was beautiful early summer.

The work commenced about seven o’clock and was over by ten.

None obey’d the command to submit for they knew they would be killed anyway.

Some made a mad and helpless rush over the cliff to their doom, some stood stark and straight and were driven over.

A few fell, shot in the back.

The maim’d and mangled were lifted and thrown to the rocks below.

Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away. They too were despatched with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of rifles.

A teenage girl and two small boys survived, by hiding in the saltbush. After the horsemen left, the children peered over the cliff edge but saw only battered bodies on the rocks one hundred and fifty feet below. And some further bodies rolling in the surf.

They set off on foot for Streaky Bay, and with them the tale of the massacre spread. The Aboriginal people they met were terrified, and immediately left, lest they too be massacred. They walked as far as Talewan, the Bight, Yardea, the Gawler Ranges and Ooldea. No Aboriginal person has lived in Elliston ever since.

The cliff is now known as Blackfellas Cliff.

I was one of those small boys, hiding in the saltbush.

That is the tale of the massacre of the Nauo people.

====

The constraint I used was to adopt Section 34 as the model, and superimpose on it details of two massacres of aboriginal people that occurred in South Australia in 1839 and 1849. The two South Australian massacres were remarkably similar, both involving the rounding up of Nauo people and driving them over a cliff. The above is not meant to be a historical record, but conflates details from both massacres. It is therefore a work of fiction, written as a ‘version’ of Section 34 and acknowledging Whitman’s work.

There are several sites with information about the Elliston Massacres, including here

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016