Ron Wilkins: ‘Picnic at Balls Head’, ‘Australia’ and ‘The plight of pianos’


The plight of pianos

I worry about the millions of pianos
in China with only the unmatchable tones
of the guqin, pipa and erhu
and the incomprehensible wail of Beijing Opera sopranos
for company.

Late in the depression years
my father moved the great Paderewski’s Steinway grand
from steamship to concert hall. No colonial piano could match
the pianist’s flawless technique.
Lowered on ropes, I feel the shock as the first leg hit the uneven dock,
the moan of its taut strings after each pothole
in the rough track to the city.

And what of Professor Maurice Tattam’s piano
carried by native bearers through rainforests as he mapped
the geology of Nigeria?
The hush of spellbound animals when by the campfire
the liquid notes of popular songs drifted like a strange perfume
through the jungle darkness. And I worry about that piano
abandoned in the forest of his last survey as a plaything for monkeys,
beasts pissing on its elegant legs, rainwater dripping
like tears through the eerie stillness of the interior.

Ron Wilkins

Picnic at Balls Head, Sydney Harbour
The tint I cannot take—is best —Emily Dickinson

From the clifftop table
a sweeping glance reveals a world of grey.
Perhaps a hint of pink in heavy clouds; a tinge
of steely blue in near-black harbour waters down below.
Different tints define
the water and the land, its buildings, clumps of trees.
But everything is grey.
Above it all the bridge, in heavy battleship attire.
Few moving things.

A slant gesture, a conjuring trick
by an invisible hand instantly transforms
the water surface into satin folds, then moiré silk.
Time passes.
A sudden squall. As if on cue the shades revise.
The leaden grey of harbour surface turns to fallen ash.
A hanging veil of tulle fogs out the city, then lifts.
A passing boat, Franciscan grey, spreads fugitive
light upon the water in its wake, soon smothered by the dark.

Colour on the table is heightened by the drabness of the day.
Cream shades of cheese, the dusty browns of rolls, delight.
A bright green grub investigates the table fare.
A citrine spider, paused
on your black sleeve, becomes an instant jewel on this dull day—
but closely viewed, black armbands remind our common destination.
So difficult to comprehend the infinite range of tints
within the world, the other side of the sublime.
I check the time, observe
the inexorable glide across the bridge of the six-twenty-seven train
towards encroaching shadows.

Australia: a brief history of possession

Gondwanaland fragmented. Australia formed.
Broad-leaved plants forested the humid continent.
This is our land, they murmured.
The ancient cratons, their accreted sediments, weathered, eroded.

The continent drifted. The climate became drier.
Eucalypts emerged, with leaves like firebrands spreading wildfires.
This is our land, they thundered.
Plant matter buried deep in sediments sweated oil and gas.

Advantaged by the spread of flowering plants, song birds proliferated.
This is my land, they sang.
The earth heaved, rocks flowed, fractured, mountains formed.

Four-legged animals diversified, staked out territories over the terrain.
This is my land, they growled.
The earth spat volcanic tuff and scoria, gushed lava over plains.

From the north by land bridge, humans spread across the continent.
This is our land, they agreed.
Glaciers on the higher mountains ploughed and sculpted the land.

More men and women arrived in ships, invaded, colonized the country.
This is my land, they demanded.
Farming, mining, settlements, transformed the face of the continent.

The earth basked in the sun, bathed in the rain, and endured,
just as it did before its owners came, and will after all have gone.

Ron Wilkins

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