Darling degraded

My RFDS plane discharges me onto the edge of the strip at Wilcannia on its way to Ivanoe. At 9.00am the heat rises to greet me.

A ute sits on the verge. A not-young man says, get in.

I do that.

The man starts the motor and accelerates along a too-narrow, not too smooth dirt track that runs parallel to the field. Grasses grow long between the wheel tracks. We take a right-angle bend at speed, then hurtle along a second margin. In this way we follow a grass and dirt track along all eight sides (yes, eight; don’t ask, it’s complicated) of the airfield.

I ask why?

Checking for ‘roos.

I realise the aircraft has not taken off.

They wait until I give them the all-clear: no ‘roos.

One kangaroo can destroy an aircraft either taking off or landing.

I ask: does your drive-by scare the ‘roos away. (It certainly scared me at first. Presently I realised the man and the vehicle know that track well. Both handle it well.)

Yep. When I arrive the ‘roos leave.

We stop where we started, and the man commences the rural ritual of unlock the gate, drive through the gateway, stop, lock the gate behind you.

The man who drives me from the airfield in Wilcannia looks about sixty-five. He’s happy to talknow.

We introduce ourselves – Howard, Mick.

I ask: Have you lived in Wilcannia all your life?

No, just since 1994. Before that we moved around a bit – Biloela, Deniliquin, Narrandera…

Narrandera! I grew up just near there, in Leeton.

Really? We sent our boys to school in Yanco.

The Ag?


My oldest friend went to school at the Ag.

Big smiles, a slow silence as we contemplate the Ag, as Yanco Agricultural College is known.

We exchange pleasurable recollections of the area.

What do you do in Wilcannia?

We farmed here. We ran sheep and cattle. Sold most of the property and shifted into town. 

Did you do any cropping?

Opportunistic cropping, yeah.

You mean when there’s rain?

When the river flooded. Doesn’t flood any more…

The Darling?

Yeah. It’s flowing, just trickling really.

Can you catch fish in the water you’ve got?

Yeah! Yellow Perch, Murray Cod!

Those wonderful eating fish of my pre-carp childhood. An enthusiasm shared.

The man has pleasing features. His face creases readily into smiles that engage his eyes, his forehead, every suntanned wrinkle.

When he speaks of the river he looks sad. When he speaks of his Darling you want to throw your arms around him to comfort him.

What’s the cause of the Darling’s problems?

Overuse of water. Cotton farmers over-using water. It’s cheap. Some of them steal water. It’stragic.

What is it from a farmer’s perspective that’s tragic?

All that water brings up the salt in the soil. It ruins the soil. Everywhere, everywhere in the world where they’ve farmed cotton they’ve turned farmland into wasteland.

The Mississippi Delta is ruined. Former cotton country in Russia, ruined. Here it’s just greed. There’s so much money in cotton, soooo much…

You know, we are the food bowl of the world. We’re destroying it….the Murray Darling.

I ponder the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. When I returned to there after decades of absence I was shocked to see the miserable river flow, orchards at Wamoon that flourished when my parents’ friends farmed them, turned to salt.

The farmer resumes, shaking his head: It’s just greed.

What about rice? That uses lots of water, doesn’t it?

Yeah, but rice is a staple!

He sees no moral equivalence. Rice is food, cotton is greed: There’s so much money, so much…

The farmer’s voice breathes ‘greed’ and ‘soooomuch’ in tones of baffled wonder. The former lies outside his moral universe, the latter beyond the scope of his reality.

We arrive at the hospital whose livery he wears. His shirt reads Security but he’s also the hospital rouseabout.

He takes me to the Staff Tea Room. From its verandah you could reach out and touch the great gums. We regard them quietly.

The face smiles again. He glows. We glow together.

A Poem for People who don’t enjoy Poems*

Seventy years had passed before the Prussian-American Charles Bukowski entered my life. (It happened by the beach, at the southernmost tip of our continent: Wamoon was the place’s ancient name.) It was my birthday and an author friend drove three hundred kilometres to present me with the book. I asked him to stay the night. He limped down to the ocean, immersed himself to the waist, then drove back home where he was writing five books at once.

I learned Bukowski belonged to the Dirty Realist movement in Los Angeles. I wasn’t surprised. He had authored over sixty books (five at a time?), one of which was titled, Notes of a Dirty Old Man. On account of that title, the FBI kept an eye on him.

Here’s the first poem to take my eye, ‘Are You Drinking?’

washed up, on shore, the old yellow notebook

out again

I write from the bed

as I did last 


will see the doctor,


“yes, doctor, weak legs, vertigo, head-

aches and my back


“are you drinking?” he will ask.

“are you getting your

exercise, your


I think that I am just ill

with life, the same stale yet



My doctor mind interrupts, interprets.

‘Washed up’ – is he depressed?

‘I write from the bed’ – probably depressed.

‘will see the doctor’ – THE doctor, one known to the speaker, one who knows the speaker: is this patient a regular?  a recalcitrant? An incurable? 

‘weak legs’ – alcohol and nutritional neglect will lead to muscle wasting, thin weak legs below the large belly groaning with ascitic fluid;

‘vertigo’ – alcohol again, damaging the back end of the brain;


aches’ – the hyphen, why the line change? Who 


‘and my back

hurts’ – who, in this human herd, has a back that doesn’t hurt? Or a head that doesn’t ache?

‘vitamins’ – often critical and urgent when an alcoholic comes to medical care; nutritional neglect can lead to vitamin B deficiency, with brain damage resulting.

All these items, concrete and specific: Charles writes from personal knowledge. Nothing abstract here.

I read on:

even at the track

I watch the horses run by

and it seems 


I leave early after buying tickets on the

remaining races.

“taking off?” asks the mutuel


My wordlover’s mind wonders – mutuel – is this a typographical error?

The dictionary assures me it’s not: this office bearer at the race track checks bets, sells tickets, pays out cash where due. In Australia he’d be a turf accountant, a bookie’s clerk

‘‘… if you think it’s boring

out there”, he tells me, “you oughta be

back here.”

And now, in this moment in the story, in a poem that doesn’t bother to rhyme, that refuses all song, that wastes nought by way of capital letters and punctuation, reserving them for the speech of the doctor and the clerk, now the engine of strong feeling fires:

so here I am

propped against my pillows


just an old guy

just an old writer

with a yellow


Listen as the engine roars in to high fear: I’m intruding here with bold print:

something is

walking across the floor



Feel Bukowski’s fear. Something which has the power of motion. Some thing, some beast, some force, some terror.

Feel the poet alert, listening, paralysed in his fear. Feel his tension rising, rising, as the something comes nearer and nearer. What does he fear?

What fear is this that drives the poet to drink, that send him again and again to the doctor, what fear is it  that dulls even the power and the thrill of ‘the horses that run by’? 

oh, it’s just

my cat




A space, a breath, a moment grabbed from the fearful something that surely will come –


The fearful something came for Charles Bukowski on March 9, 1994. He was 73 years and seven months old.