It’s a delight and an honour to have heard that my poem ‘Emu Girl, on the day before flying’ has won the Open Poetry section of this year’s Banjo Paterson Writing Awards, which are run annually by Central West Libraries and Orange City Council. My gratitude goes to them, and to the judges of the award.
I first entered ‘the Banjo’ in 2008, and won it with ‘Walyunga’, followed by a second win in 2010 with ‘Orpheus, in the desert’, and several poems which placed for third prize in intervening years; ‘Ledge Beach’ in 2009, ‘Crown of Stars’ in 2012, and ‘Circle of Stones’ in 2013. This Award has become particularly close to my heart, and I’ve used it as a focus-point for inspiration to write poems that have a specific Australian element to them. This has often been a response to the presence and atmosphere of this ancient land that I love deeply, sometimes with a social or cultural aspect, and the interweaving of mythology.
‘Emu Girl, on the day before flying’ is a speculative (science fiction/fantasy) poem which takes a prominent group of stars visible in the night sky from Australia – the Southern Cross and the ‘Pointer’s, Alpha and Beta Centauri – and blends word etymology and the ancient Arabic names of the stars with the Aboriginal myth of Tchingal, the mighty Emu in the sky whose head rests in the Southern Cross and whose body stretches through the Centaurus constellation. The poem is ‘told’ from the point of view of an Alpha Centaurian ‘descendant’ on Earth, the Emu girl of the title, who recalls fragments of the invasion of her star system by smoke birds, and the battle of the two brave brothers, recounted in the Aboriginal stories as the Pointers, who fought to ward them off….until gradually the fragments weave together in the Emu girl’s awareness.
With thanks again to the judge(s), and congratulations to this year’s prize winners in all categories of the Banjo Paterson Writing Awards, of which a full list can be found here. Here is the poem:
Emu Girl, on the day before flying
Remember that night
last summer under the Milky Way?
‘Why’s it called milky?’ you asked.
‘Could have been snowy, sugar,
baking powder.’ It was hot enough
night after a scorcher, sky sun-bleached
parrot calls staccato’d into SOS.
The night a diamond fell
east of the moon
The brother twins fought bravely
when sky-birds came and broke the light
splattered like Pollock’s Lavender Mist
sparks dipped in suns dragged through coal-black
emu feathers, where Tchingal spread his
flightless wings and laid his beak to rest upon
the Southern Cross. Swallowed, the brothers
hunkered down, red and blue their thundering hearts
Hadar’s weight bore him to his knees
while Toliman sprouted fantastical scales, atonal
shadows toning the Pointers’ siren call until
their gate must open ultraviolet waveforms deep
subtonic scores, vestral lanterns strung across
Milky galactic sector four
The fleet’s burnished arcs shine red and pulse a single note
‘Did you know a tiny gland inside your brain
secretes rhodopsin, catches flashes of invisible light?
Pineal pea cradled in its grail, vestigial holy camera
spooling angel feathers through the Eye of Ra?’
A hawk’s shadow rolls over silvered grass, its call
runs down the hill, I touch your face
stars berth softly in your eyes
4.2 light years from Earth, Proxima Centauri
floats, veiled to human eyes, though Hubble reveals
her pure diminished gold, while her Alpha-Beta brothers
hold Nan Men, the Southward Gate, their hoofs
fresh-shod await a tonal shift, celestial smithy
ablaze, sounds of snow, or milk, cascading
through the belly of the bird. Confederate ships
mass in horseshoe clusters, winking lights –
amber, golden, red – speak a language of the mind
and heated heart, their stare the orange iris
of emu’s eye, watching starlit interface
You notice clouds shift subtly into birds
wingtip pointers north to south
your mind’s eye rotates the globe, while I
consult old world stellaria, Deneb, glittering
blue-white giant, Swantail’s polar rudder
I trace the Northern Cross. Biosphere emissions
echo through hollow bones. ‘Are they coming?’
Your fingers brush strands of down
between my hair. Your smile is kind
Centaurus. ‘Cen’, Classical Greek, conflation of kainos
(new) and koinos (common) – ‘taurus’, Latin bull –
Avian genomes quickened, new bulls multiplied
legs grew long and swift, tails streamed
on interstellar winds, scales hardened skin
vambraces wrapped their forearms, polished
reflecting light of brother suns, gaze turned upward
smoky feathers in their hair, hoofs pressed deep
they raced for young blue planets, thirsty
aeons they rode until swansongs
blossomed in their breasts. Do you
remember that night?
‘Hold them like this.’ You cup my hands in yours
grail-like, or a horseshoe. I squint at the sun too bright
between the mounds of Kata Tjuta. Look up, love, higher.
Lights pulse red, long crescents, burnished
interstitial stars pierce Earth’s magnetic quilt
diving to this southern land.
I spread my arms
to steer them
Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, from the Hubble telescope. Image courtesy NASA.