Lay of the gulf reclaimers

Port Augusta, 2110

Winter’s moon lays a cheek stained and cold
on clouds as wet as my woman’s pillows.
Our feet crush the prosperous white-wigged fungi,
like judges, their roots in corruption and mould.
We pilot our twelve metre bipods through willows,
descending a gorge which leads to the sea.
Tomorrow, surely. The bank offers places for
us to sleep, but the warden says walk with the water.

Summer was a flood, the most terrible yet.
Hunger turned us to crime. Law made us Reclaimers
of a land that grows less like land than coral:
gulf-riven, forked, infested and wet.
We’re lost, as often before, but too tired to curse
our weak erring eyes or the stars they crawl,
as we curl up to sleep in our cockpits. The warden
has brought us this far, he’ll find a way again.

We’re shat out from the gorge of night and the sun
casts our shadows down to the dunes. We plant
steel feet with careful levers, wincing at water glare.
The seashoving dozers are waiting there to run
at the edge of the half-swamped town. They can’t
start work on their levies till we’ve laid bare
some road in. But in swamp, a road is a tenuous thing.
We pilots mutter prayers, make ourselves sing

a brave ballad. On ten metre stilts, we approach
this mirror where mangroves stare, combing salt
into their snarled hair. They know we stalk behind,
but don’t fret, others before us have tried to poach
the sea from the fronds of their feet. Daunted, we halt
on a dune, insects before a mangrove sea. Each mind
in its cockpit recoils, aghast at the swamp’s magnitude,
finding no edge, flees for home: lost loves, proper food.

Remember, wader, what crime has cost you:
a family left to serve time, within the walls
that lock you out. Your remedy is to return
to homes these people the Gulf speared through,
adrift in life, depending on you. The warden calls
and we rank at the shore. In swamp we must unlearn,
the habits learned gorge-walking. He points to fallen
bipods, inside drowned pilots, women and men.

Eyeless, they lie under water, or half-buried in mud.
They watch as with lever thrusts, we dip our long
proboscises, suck water up like herons, and the steam
erupts from reactor vents. Beware the deadly flood
of tide whose ebb we hasten now, again, the strong
grip of mangrove roots that trip at every stream.
The inland sea is swamp; we are mere pathbreakers,
fodder for quickmud and krill. But we are the makers

of this frontier, us and the dozers waiting there
to build a dam to some distant shore, to cut this neck
of gulf off the sea’s ever-swelling body.
The mangroves will trip us one by one and our air
will be blocked by death’s salt kiss, as each wreck
below was kissed. The cold swamp extends illimitably;
we can only suck. But the faces mouth that home
is not reached by seasucking. Fall, they coax. Come.

First published in Southerly vol. 71, no. 3, 2011

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