Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

by John Dawes (psedonym - Kenrick Scully)

Fire on the Earth: A trilogy of verse on Australian Exploration,
Devonshire Press in conjunction with the Australian Commonwealth Literary Fund.

Hear the fifes and drums caught
In the call of the crow, the skirl,
Of pipes echoing in the winds whine
Where the sands whirl -- one word
Tells it all; the mind mirroring memory
Of Melbourne crowds, toasts and vacant smiles
Like tombstones on success. The lowered eye
Shuttering back the loss of dividend,
Let it mourn the moment, vision monument
Gold lettered to heroism - then let them die!

Stars have faded, and the sun throws
You into wastes unknown ... clumps of saltbush
And the stunted spinifex yield no course
To the astronomer, nor the policemen
Track the errant camels' pad that thieves
Them of their time. Starvation steals
The strength till light and dark.
Shadow and sun-strike pattern out despair.
The worn ridges of the rock weathered
Through a million years do not record
Who walked by three month ago. Nor does
The desert keep its dunes as markers,
Playmates of the wind they frisk, tired
Of ordered rows and desired discipline.
The stubborn plain exudes a dusty breath,
Horizons taunt explorers on to doom,
Heat hazes up the hearts to gloom…
And the silence is the hush of death.

Perhaps Wright, nudging north from Menindie,
Feels also this stifling noon, and Brahe
At Cooper's watches smutches too and longs
For shade. You and he, both are searchers
Through the day, and each the other's signs.
Seek the camp-fire glow at evening, by dawn
Smoke-spirals of his depot, or strain the ear
To catch a horse's neighing, a dog's bark.
Which is worse—moving down to hope
Or hoping for a movement while you wait?
Questing some familiar tree or loathing
The trees now too familiar on the station?
But what is one man's will, soon or late
All waiting ends—now ends must wait!

Salt of sweat, salt of sea—all's one
Now the Flinders' left behind ... its mark
Stained deep in the soul, your scheming
Bogged down in the pans, the mud;
The mangroves guard the Gulf; Carpentaria
Crushed all caring, tossed ambition back
Like a dead gull to rot and reek
In hard days afterwards. Four defeated
By a coast where tidal waters glint
Over slime, tempt to treacherous swamps.
Who or what's to blame? Kyte and his reward,
Thirst for praise? The wild plunge,
Un-needed haste? Will for fame, fortune?
Gray lies in his grave . . . somewhere the stars
Make sanctuary, the dingo mourns his passing
And the curlews cry. Trumpeted by shaken gums
In the mind's drive, disaster's born and thrives—
And what is one man's hopes, or three men's lives?
The earth is silent when a stranger comes.

Search your stars, astronomer. . . . Tell them Wills
Would wrest consolation from the waste, comfort
From the constellation—but is it death, finality
Of every striving that rears the Cross, luminous
Of the grander conquest chaliced in defeat?
Peer into the heavens, tell them there you know
Your way among the reaches never trod,
Between the myriad points of light—but here are lost
In tussock, crevice, creek and range the hills
That hold position in a smaller space, measured
In the terms of tortured miles. The telescope
Cannot pick the path from clump to clump,
Nor light tossed off ghost gums by a midnight moon.
Of all the blaze above you, all the fires
Splendouring the sands before, behind, left and right,
Stretching from immensity to immensity, not one
Can signal out a message like the flickering glow
Of a camp-fire that will tell you where to go!

Stalk the criminal, Burke ... the way that eludes
You in the day and dark. Plateaux and plains
Are pitiless, unwearying for they never move;
You the hunter are the hunted, the haunted
Pursued in pursuit. Mask your mind from Wills,
Hide your despondency in a firm order, tell
Him the track is near now. Say to King time
Alone escapes, not determination nor decision.
Show them both discipline has authority
Over hunger, thirst ... rations to half measure
Even despair. Policeman, steal in disguise
Weariness from them, let them believe
Only the nights, not the noons, deceive!

Wait no longer, Brahe, for the men in front
With their weary miles behind ... they can
Go no further and every step makes journey
Home. Four months are long enough. Remember
Wright weighted with the greater loads.
Dig, empty out the hard earth, the dead
Soil, fill the hole with provisions, -life—
As a furrow with seed—safe from wild-dog,
Crow, the scratching emu, from the ravages
Of fire, the vandal hand of wandering tribes.
Dig, give foundation to the bridge Burke made
Spanning a sea of scrub and sand from coast
To coast. Bury hope for him in the wilderness
Cache it safe…to be drawn in a desperate hour.
Knife the bark, let the tree bleed a message
On its trunk – that one word which is all
Of history. Since Adam's day survival came,
And harvest known, because of it. Dig to plant,
To sow against lean times, the scarcity
Of drought. Those who despise the spade
Must starve. Cram the hollow with meat.
Flour—trust Burke to see the sign and know
Though sun has scoured cracks in timber,
The runnels of rain its gutters, the flood
Of years strange channels in the sands,
Man left this scar…let him see the mound
And from the grave-like heap of rammed stone
And clay find resurrection for his desires.
Dig and carve—then douse your fires!

Rising, a pelican from timbered rivers,
The moon lifts above its bush of clouds
And still the camels plod protesting
To the goad ... suck the dew-damp air,
 Cool the blistered brow and cheek, wash
The tired eyes clean of tear and grit,
The nightmare from your mind. Forget
The anger and the shouting, fret and fear,
Argument of right and wrong ... file on,
By bleached bone and rock, onward, ever on
South-east by south; gusts snatch the words
Of bickering and dash them against the wall
Of air. The mountains keep their distance,
The barren earth hostility to invaders.
The rocks are mute. Sullen or with smiles
You greet eternity. Night will not mantle
Hate nor the ranges turn back the bitter word.
Call it stupidity, luck or fate—disaster came
To make its synonym from your name.

Wanderers in the mirage past; glistening
Streams where the wallaby stoops to drink,
The kingfisher sweeps like a rainbow down
Through the towering bank of green ... strain
Your eyes for an ember in the drifts. Ashes
And dust—both are stirred by the breeze
And scattered from where they lay
A week ago. Draw courage round your shoulders
To warm you from your fears, the morning's site
Before your traitor sun soak
Moisture from the air and sweat from you.
Whisper before the hoarse voice of the void
Shouts you into silence, before the parched
Throat rattles rancour from you like a curse.
Ride, Burke, follow Wills—for another week
Will tempt you south from Cooper's Creek.

Think of cities, of cramped horizons, slums
Where no sun shines ... of bleak mornings
When the fog rolls through the streets, on bays
Where grey waters creep to littered shores.
If this is failure where the eye is beaten
By the blue, the burn and lack of line—think
Of the conquest in a town, of the slag upon
Success, the grime that treads into offices,
That tires feet shuffling on the pavements.
Think of the aching back that arches
In a swivel chair ... then shift in the saddle
And ease your legs where they rub the camel.
Rugged contours, iron hills or soot-filled air,
The howling wind or the long and pointless talk,
The commerce haste or jolting camel's walk—
It is not circumstance that brings despair!

Let the crow call through the copper sky;
Maybe where it plunges, jet plummeted to earth,
A hole of water lies . . . leave the gun
Strapped to the saddle, the pistol holstered ...
Show reason holds. though reasons are unknown.
Who can fathom flight or fancy, famine-fear?
A bird's death will not bring revenge
For foolishness, nor will its scattered
Feathers, its corrupted flesh and rigid claw
Ease the smart of thwarted wishes, dead
Desires. Look at King—he watches you to see
Some sign of breaking. Let the strain
Be noted from the glare, the butt of noon
Against your back ... let light, excess of sun
Club you into wrinkled care. Wills holds
All you do in that impenetrable stare.
Shift on your camel, drowse till the haze
Rises from the land and heart. You were
The first to cross this continent. You
Led; your judgment took them one by one
From thirteen; your will held them even
In error, carried them into the vast waste
And desert ways—leave the gun unhanded
And the crow to flight.... Ride, push
On, bushman, ignorant of the bush!

"Dig" ... dig into dreams of past and future,
Let the sap oozing from the blue gum
Dry and harden over wounds, like the crust
Of dust about your beard. Does the Barcoo
Promise more than barrenness, more than
Thirst and weariness? Dream of shelter,
Shade, of rain by the Yarra and the drum
That throbbed you off as conqueror. Sleep
Till pity, pain pangs of hunger slumber
 Into centuries of praise ... let remorse
Be changed to children's cheers. Think
Of Wills, companion of your death. Of King
Stretching his legs and prattling in fever,
Saying "thus and thus it was." Weep before You doze.
Cry before you die. Brahe
Has gone before you to the South.
These Are his ashes, smouldering and warm
In the evening like a friendship broken.
Rest and eat. Then make your last mistake;
Rivers and dreams clog in the inland sea,
Dusk soon hides—and death is mystery
To those who master, those who break.

Muffle the drum—one word tells it all,
The plans and pains, the utter agony.
"Dig" . . . dig them a grave in the South
Where the salt tang rises over the sea,
With gums about them ... make them one
With Gray; from dust to dust, north
And south the line runs…Take Burke forth
With Wills through the sad, the silent street…
Call back the memory of the death, defeat;
of Gray who sleeps where the Gulf tides boom-
For a nation stretches from tomb to tomb!

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix