Joel Deane – What we saw

Joel deane LE P&W February 2019

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What we saw, poems by Joel Deane.

Joel Deane is poet, novelist, journalist and speechwriter. He has published one non-fiction book, Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power (2015); two novels, The Norseman’s Song (2010) and Another (2004); and three collections of poetry, Year of the Wasp (2016), Magisterium (2008) and Subterranean Radio Songs (2005). In 2017, he won the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. Deane has also been a finalist for several other literary awards, including the 2018 John Bray Poetry Award, the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2016 Judith Wright Calanthe Award, the 2015 Walkley Award, the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature and the 2006 Anne Elder Award. Joel Deane lives in Melbourne and works as a freelance writer.

What we saw

‘A rushing, not a wind; different from a wind.
A white noise, you could call it, like a pressure;
if pressure could make a noise that is what it would sound like.
Flames so high; the height of the trees and that again.
Big, swirling vortexes, swirling masses of flames that burst
and exploded.’

What we saw.

‘Went outside again, could hear this almighty roar.
It was the fire. It sounded like a steam train getting louder by the second.
I saw my neighbour fly past, beeping her horn like crazy.’

What we saw.

‘Looked in the rear-view mirror; everything behind me was blacker than night.
Spot fires were burning around the pony club. Parked at the CFA
near the public toilets. Outside the police station a four-wheel drive
with a trailer full of motorbikes exploded. I could hear gas bottles
exploding all around.’

What we saw.

‘Everything went pitch black
and embers like barbecue coals were landing on the car.
The petrol station blew up. The vet clinic blew up. Trees exploded.
I could see a man standing on the roof of the hotel in shorts and thongs,
attempting to douse embers with buckets of water.’

What we saw.

‘An injured lady. Her feet burnt, her shoes burnt off. Her husband and dog dead.
Someone broke into the doctor’s surgery and took morphine and other painkillers for her. Later the surgery exploded.’

What we saw.

‘It went golden all around the house. Through every window in the house
it was golden.’

What we saw.

‘Out the window was a solid column of smoke. That column of smoke
was thousands of feet high. Had the sun directly behind it,
had white edges to it, but a lot of colour, a red-ochre smoke.’

What we saw.

‘The house filled with smoke. It got darker and darker.
We were starting to pass out. The smoke was easy, like an anaesthetic.
I was going under.’

What we saw.

‘If I didn’t get out I was going to die. Grabbed my mobile, grabbed my handbag,
tried to grab my files. Grabbed one dog—tried to get the others out—
they wouldn’t come. My car was untouched. I took a punt.’

What we saw.

‘We had a two-year-old. We had to come inside. We shut all the doors.
I got all the ice and stuff out of the fridge, put it on the floor,
put the baby there.’

What we saw.

‘They were dead. She was screaming so I had to try and distract her
to keep her calm.’

What we saw.

‘He was twelve. He was just wanting to get out and run, and so we had to try
and keep him from going hysterical and running outside.’

What we saw.

‘We had the kids in the bathroom, had all the windows sealed with wet towels
around the house. Filled the bath, because that’s where the children were going to stay,
in the bathroom, with the dogs.’

What we saw.

‘We went to two other houses down the road. As they burnt, we grabbed the kids
and that house’s occupants and moved on to the next one. The big brick one
on the left-hand side, that’s where we finally took refuge.
She had a room underneath the house, so we put all the kids in there
and all the animals. There were kids and dogs and cats everywhere.
And we went out to fight the fire.’

Commissioned by the Victorian Government to commemorate the 10th anniversary
of the Black Saturday fires that killed 173 people on February 9, 2009. The quotations
are edited transcripts of survivor interviews.

Note: CFA stands for the Country Fire Authority.

All that remains

And after the worst day?
What then?
What monument could possibly make amends?
What prayer forgive? What hymn forbid?
What silent moment forget?

There is no easy answer to these questions,
just the hard truth that the world that is
is borne out of the ashes of the world
that was.
And the rolling thunder fire—
that great uncreator—
still burns within us all
like dark matter aflame.

Unless contained, this fire can
hollow out a person;
burn skin from the inside out;
make ghost flames dance across
bedroom ceilings; spiral into darkness
towers of smoke that hold no signal,
only rage.

The only answer, then,
all that remains,
is our duty to live
this day we are given—
then live the next.

Commissioned by the Victorian Government to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Black Saturday bush fires that killed 173 people on February 9, 2009.

January, 2017

Lazy Melbourne days
of ice-cream & sunscreen.
The city rising from
its beach towel to bake
at the tennis, bask
in cool darkness
before a film.
It is January again.

Fishermen haul
yellow-peril bikes
from the latte Yarra.
Children cram late nights
before school starts.
Grownups strain to make
New Year bodies remember
December clothes.
It is January again.

Beneath a clear sky
paved to fit Hoddle’s grid,
the incoming crowd
maps with thong & shoe
the bluestone & sticky
bitumen of Bourke Street.
Concrete bollards stand guard.
It is January again.

And I see walking
with them six faces without
shadows. Hear six names
spoken without reply.
As pedestrian lights click-
clack green without stopping
to answer why.
It is January again.

Commissioned by the Victorian Government to commemorate the first anniversary of the car attack that killed six and injured 27 in Bourke Street, Melbourne, on January 20, 2017.

Australia Day

The child climbs
the ancestral sofa,

Runs a hand over
soft stolen leather,

Unfolds a virgin blade.

©Joel Deane