SINGING THE SNAKE
(A poem of Ayers Rock)
Old Tjupurrula squeezes my arm
and puckers his lips, pointing -
Pintupi-style - toward the television set;
eyes fastened on the screen,
on dissolves of that sandstone monolith:
a montage of Uluru awash with rain;
water cascading, crashing down -
blackening the Rock...
Leaning close, he whispers:
"The rainbow -
the rainbow comes from the earth
and returns to the earth."
It is a snake, he says,
a giant snake
with a long beard and sharp teeth.
It lives in caves under the rockhole
at the top of Uluru.
"It has no need of men or women.
No Dreamings, no ceremonies,"
It was here before Creation Times,
and has never changed its form.
"Proper cheeky one, Snake,
when it is angry, the land is dry.
People drink sand."
No-one is happy for it;
no-one is sad for it.
It has no need of custodians
It is like that other one -
the serpent in the Garden.
It turns knowledge into fear,
and fear into knowledge.
But, with the right fear
you can protect yourself.
Be mindful of the Snake.
Take time to look, look again -
feel the land through your feet;
the Snake will not harm those
who show the proper respect.
Those who rush in must be strangers.
"It will attack strangers."
The bodies of the Ancestors -
the ones killed by the Snake -
cover the earth.
But who can find them?
Who can name them?
If you would know this country,
you must know its stories...
"In early days, yiriti,"
"bush people carried the Song.
They carried it in drought times
through dry country,
travelling at night.
Once, when I was wiyai,
a little boy, we came -
Mummy, Father, two sisters -
from our own country to the Rock,
to Uluru, following the track
of the Old Ones...
...silently, looking, looking,
coming to the Mother Place,
to the borning country of every ocean.
"People travelled here
when the land filled up
with children who had no memory of rain.
From Putardi, Triinya and Karli Karru;
from Muruntji, Atila and Wimparraku,
All the families:
some from the north,
some from the south,
some east, some west...
Tribes didn’t matter.
They said ‘hello’;
they talked quietly;
they shared meat, kuka.
they looked at the rainless sky.
"Tjila, dry; Ilpili, dry;
Pangkupirri, dry. Everywhere, dry!
Payback was forget about;
no argument, no eye.
Just men and women coming from forever.
Women must help, too!
Women and men, coming to Uluru...
"With one, special Song, they knew,
they had the power to sing the Snake.
They could make him remember them;
they could change his mind."
The spell of the Tongue:
a hundred hundred round the Rock,
crying out for water,
cracking the voice,
mimicking thunder, chanting:
"Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!"
Hands gesturing the air
night and day, circling,
until the voices became one voice
a Song-chant for water,
becoming sure of itself.
"Wind might be hot.
Sky might be blue. Country all about -
We didn’t look for cloud;
we didn’t listen for thunder -
we had the power to sing the Snake;
to wake it, to move it,
curled in the earth;
to make it sorry..."
And when the Snake stirred
("if the singing was strong and true"),
it would push the water out
from its rockhole on top -
from that danger place, the place where
every river in the world begins
"And like blood,
it would flow down, fall down,
alatji, everywhere, every side...
just like on TV:
Kapi! Kapi! Kapi!
for all the thirsty people
for all us perishin’ mob."
"No. Not rain," he says. "Water
from inside, where the Snake lives.
Inside the stone."
"You saw all this, I asked;
water bubbling up out of dry rock?"
"Course," he says;
"in early days, olden times;
before the whitefellas came,
when bush people had the power
to sing the Snake.
Water everywhere -
all the way, everyway
from the Rock, and
fall down, fall down
without clouds… without rain!"
Note: Uluru is the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock.
He dreams wind.
The coming storm or the news of death;
When someone dies
parting the fur on a black dog’s back,
through the camp
scattering the irnminynyi from old men’s hands.
twisting spirals of dust into snakes,
sweeping paper and tin cans in circles
round their tails.
The humpies resist and click against
so he can’t sleep
And the sand comes in
under the blankets,
under his clothes,
into the tea and damper,
leaving its trace of
"The kangaroo" –
this is the dreaming,
this is what the old men say –
"the kangaroo opens the wind
with his hands
and sings the wind to come.
The wind and the kangaroo are friends."
This is what the old teachers say;
and young Tjungurrayi is learning:
"if you hunt kangaroo into the wind
the wind won’t give you away."
SEASONS OF FIRE
There is Law for Fire,
singing for Fire,
dancing for Fire –
You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the names of Fire:
signal fires, hunting fires,
sleeping fires, fires for light,
fires for cooking, for ceremonies,
healing fires of eucalyptus leaves –
Fire is medicine, magic.
Fire gave Crow a voice,
flying away in pain.
Fire brings old quarrels to an end.
On top of Uluru, do not drink
at the rockhole of Warnampi
unless you take Fire
or the snake will bite your spirit
and drought will follow.
Fire can protect you from the dead ones.
You have been there, you have seen them.
You know all this Fire.
The penis is Fire.
The vagina is Fire.
Fire is inside the bodies of animals.
The woman hands a firestick to the boy
and he becomes a man.
There is a time for every fire.
The fires of January are different
from the fires of June.
In the cold time, a small nudge before sleep
will keep the flame alive all night.
The right ash, the right heat,
the right position of wind, dune and saltbush:
a technology of Fire. The knowledge.
You have been there, you have watched.
You know all the seasons of Fire.
Hawk stopped Bush Turkey
throwing Fire into the sea.
Fire cannot be stolen now; it lives
everywhere – inside the spinifex and dry wood.
All this is Law.
"The smoking days" – Buyuguyunya – come every year.
The air is full of smoke.
The smoke comes first, then the fire,
and then the smoke…
All this Law.
Hot is more than two sticks rubbed together; and
no chopping – take only what you can drag:
green wood for shelter;
dead pieces for waru.
The wind from the mouth works kindling.
Fire makes grass seed.
It finds the kangaroo and chases him
to the hunters.
All this is Law.
The burning off and the gathering together are one.
You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the seasons of Fire.
The guardians of the circumcision ceremony
live in the constellation of Scorpio, and
turn the sky over every night.
The sky is a shell.
The Milky Way, a creek
of gleaming stones.
The Southern Cross is
the footprint of the wedge-tailed eagle,
and mushrooms are fallen stars.
The sun is a woman,
moving by different paths
between winter and summer.
And Jupiter, the dog,
hunts with Saturn, who brings
bush tucker back to Venus.
There are two moon men -
an old man and his son - who once
lived in the mountains;
the father is so large,
if you saw him, there would be
no room for anything but fear.
The son persuades his father
to stay in camp. Some nights he stays
with him there.
If the father were allowed to rise
his light would blind the world.
And once, after the whitefellas came,
the people from wilarata side
saw Jesus in the clouds.
Yunakaltja, salt lake -
camp of the ice-men, underneath.
You can’t see them, but that means nothing.
When they open the door to their cave
they can touch you.
(Who says they have no life?)
Everybody feels the ice-men.
They come from the south, travelling everywhere.
They make the cold.
They make the winter wind.
They can freeze anyone.
Their bodies are covered with ice.
Eyebrows, beards, long hair
thick with frost.
They freeze the rockholes.
They crack the hunters’ feet,
lift mountains, and
turn the hills upside down.
They make small, big; and big, small.
Only strong chanting hunts them away -
you can’t fight ice with boomerang and spear.
But the songs can stop their roar;
the songs can chase them back to Yunakaltja,
to their home under the salt lake
where they live in ice
with no women.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR HONEY ANTS
Work with the end of your dress
tucked up between your legs.
Speak in whispers; laugh silently;
do not whistle. Whistling, especially,
brings bad luck. Do not be afraid
to feel where you cannot see.
Disappear into the earth
with crowbar and billy can;
go down, maybe ten feet.
If you find them, it is better
when children are waiting.
This is marangkatja: a gift.
Love what you are after.
The spirit child has light skin
and long black hair.
It waits in the shade
of the bloodwood tree,
feeding on gum, drinking
dew from the leaves.
It sleeps under loosened bark.
It lives in the hiding places
of secret/sacred objects,
and waits. It looks after itself.
It watches from rockholes -
a little pebble: no head,
no arms, no legs.
It keeps silent, avoiding strangers.
It holds its breath.
It searches to be born,
to find the woman
with the kind face & large breasts -
to find nakedness.
The child chooses
its own mother.
Monica and Victor come over to my place
to do their laundry
because there's nothing at their place.
They show up on Sunday
with faded dresses, frayed shirts
and dusty blankets,
placing them with great care
into the squat, barrel-chested wringer
(the whites unsorted from the coloreds).
I put a country’n’western record on
while the clothes and blankets squish -
S'fump S'fump S'fump -
turning the water a dull red.
In the lounge room
Monica and Victor sit in green cane chairs
sipping tea and reading comics.
We speak very little to each other.
I don’t want to scare them away -
We are trying very hard.
Our relationship has grown, so slowly
from nothing to laundry.
No meat no rifle no spear
can’t know em
can’t buy em no money
can’t steal em me
can’t grab em
can’t work em
can’t grip em my kids
can’t feed em
hungry got angry
not lucky me
can’t fight em