Notes on a Watercolour
(Miss Cleburne’s ‘View on the River Derwent’ c 1870)
Perhaps she wore a crinoand bonnet –
the landscape mostly as it is today,
late light striking the rocky shore
in much the same way.
You can see that she was fond of what she saw,
the way a she-oak’s grey will break apart
to gold and purple; brown rocks
cluttering the foreground.
She made no concession
to nostalgia’s green longing –
her native grass is bleached of colour,
bush and distant ranges’ varying mauves
mark out shade’s intensity; she understood
a landscape reticent about its beauty
and painted what her eye saw.
Of the scene beyond the parchment
we can only wonder what her scrupulous eye
saw or did not own to seeing – the gentle slope
at her back rising to empty kangaroo and emu ground,
the mother-of pearl middens at her feet
eroding, compacting to lime.
did it come in the bark of a dog
in the eucalypt air,
the marsupial faces tilted, listening,
or the ghostly skin and the foreign hair,
the savage laugh and the whisky breath,
a surveyor’s peg in the hunting ground,
in the ring of iron on stringy-bark,
weeping grass signalling the sound?
Or did its shadow advance like a breeze
in sailcloth, a speck on the broad Southern Ocean
observed from afar through a squint of unease
a hand shading the eye’s apprehension?
Margaret Sarah Cleburne ‘The mouth of the Iron Creek‘ Sorell, Tasmania
How do they sleep – the ghosts
in their wrought iron cots
beneath wild grass and pious inscriptions?
dry jaws clamped on history and dirt;
their chalk arms crossed through the dark tatters
of close-cut woollen tailcoats
and a resolute century,
the hooves of their horses echoing still
to a hankering hunger
for property, property, property;
and the wives in the rags of their funeral bonnets
cosseted in pantaloon and heavy petticoat –
all of them listening, beyond the post and rail
enclosure of the graveyard, to the lamentations
in the soughing she-oaks, the sorrows
in the gentle waters of the heedful channel.
Margaret Sarah Cleburne ‘The River Derwent from Old Beach‘
In this silvereye nest
scarcely bigger than a hen’s egg,
the landscape is synthesized.
Moss lines its bowl,
green as the slopes
on which Friesians loll
like jig-saw pieces;
there is pale human hair
and some strands
of dark horsetail,
plucked from barbed wire
woven among rye
and barley grass, strands
of carded turquoise, blue marine,
stolen from a washing –
a colonial history
cupped in the substance
of this little vessel.
And in its structure –
its deft warp and weft
and basketry of wallaby grass –
the domestic architecture
shouldered by the women
to whom this pasture
once was home.
Margaret Sarah Cleburne ‘The road to Mount Direction, on the Derwent‘ Tasmania
The rattle of wind in schlerophyl
is the murmur of cosmic dust
and particle shift. With each break
in the clouds the queue shuffles
a patient step forward.
Beyond the observatory’s dim glow
bush is black as antimatter tonight;
the distant river is negative space,
and the city on the other side
a scattered galaxy of power points.
Swathed in overcoats against the cold
we wait and wait to put an eye to the telescope.
Through a fish-eye lens
the universe gazes back
into the great eye of humanity
orbiting a mundane star on the outer margins
of the Milky Way, one stellar cluster
among the infinite.
Sarah Day was born in England and grew up in Tasmania. Grass Notes (Brandl & Schlesinger 2009) is her sixth and most recent collection of poems. Awards for her books include the Judith Wright Calanthe Queensland Premier’s, the Judith Wright ACT, the University of Melbourne Wesley Michelle Wright Prize and the Anne Elder Award. In 2002 her New and Selected Poems was published by Arc in UK. It was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards and received a UK Poetry Book Society Recommendation. She has been resident at the BR Whiting Library in Rome, has read at writers’ festivals around Australia and been a guest at the Festival de Poesie in Paris in 2001 and 2006, at King’s Lynn in England 2002 and University of Lisbon 2011. Her poems have been set to music by British composer Anthony Gilbert. She was poetry editor of Island Magazine for seven years, teaches English and Creative Writing and has been a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She lives with her husband and two children in Hobart.