the recorded opera rising like schnitzelling nostalgia
all conversation sweats across de mousse, ibis squat
on backpacks in the postcard riddled park
archbishops sip cool beers on subliminal rooftops
police parade in six pack spraying cracks in the
paving: show us your passport kiddo you don’t smell
australian; the hospital seemed like a palace until
you’re forced to buy back your own blood served
in ice cubes; elbows need translating this january afternoon
Joanne Burns, “fridge magnet”, Brush. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishers, 2014.
@Joanne Burns. Reproduced with the author’s permission.
I like this poem because it encapsulates Australia’s colonial history and tears it open like a ripe fig. It sucks me smack into its messy middle.
The ‘recorded opera rising like schnitzelling nostalgia’ sends me immediately to the granite steps in front of the Sydney Opera House, among the crowd watching a free screening of opera. The tone is mordant, aligning schnitzel hammers and opera nostalgia. But the poem does not tear fully open until ‘january afternoon’.
Australia Day - or Invasion Day, as the Australian Aboriginal people call it - is on 26 of January. On that day in 1788 a fleet of British ships entered Sydney harbour, where the opera house stands. The police who patrol the poem’s middle stanza are not only checking passports, they are checking uprisings (already suggested in the ‘opera rising’ of the first line).
The opera house stands on Bennelong Point, named after an Aborigine who in 1789 was kidnapped by the colony’s first governor who needed an interpreter. The governor was under orders of the king of England, and to this day a figure titled Governor General of Australia represents the British monarch. Bennelong evaded capture (as he would evade the killings and the smallpox that decimated his people). He later became an interpreter of his own free will, and the governor allowed him to live where the opera house rises today.
The poem’s revolt bubbles like the beers the archbishops sip in their lofty indifference. Burns means archbishops like Peter Hollingworth, who protected paedophile priests, and who later became Governor General.
Yet another Governor General appears in another Burns’ poem (‘seed’). He sat near her at a cinema and ‘she was too / gutless to change seats and yell / traitor’. That particular Governor General had dismissed the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
Before Whitlam was dismissed in 1975, he had put an end to the White Australia policy that limited immigration into Australia to white people. In the 1990s, in the days I worked at the opera house, Whitlam was still a formidable figure. I once observed him as he stood alone in the north foyer during a function celebrating a new dance company. Most guests were speaking among themselves, or were too young to know who Whitlam was. He had turned his back on them and stood looking at the vast mural that occupies the wall opposite the glass panes facing Sydney harbour. The mural is by Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, an Aboriginal artist who painted stylised landscapes seen from above.
The year before this poem was published Australia begun sending illegal refugees to camps in remote Pacific islands for ‘processing’. The lament ‘[Y]ou’re forced to buy your own blood served in / ice cubes’ speaks of the punishing logic of offering asylum as long as it is not in national territory.
Tjakamarra’s painting is - as Whitlam well knew, standing in front of it sipping his drink slowly - far more than a landscape. It is a territory map.
Isabel D'Avila Winter
Isabel D'Avila Winter, a Portuguese-australian writer, reads poems one at a time, and likes the ones that make her say wow! or even eheheh. She hates poems that make her say What?? or what about the maid?, like in one of those French films you don’t know what the hell is going on.