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Poem: "Like a Cocky on a Biscuit Tin" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Poem: "Like a Cocky on a Biscuit Tin"

This poem was written outside the fishbowl sessions in response to comments by siliconshaman and rix_scaedu under "Winged Destiny" by kestrels_nest.  It has been sponsored by Shirley Barrette.  You can find the other poems in the Fledgling Grace series via the Serial Poetry page.

Browse the birds: blue-winged kookaburra, glossy black cockatoo, green rosella, purple crowned lorikeet, and sulphur crested cockatoo.  Browse the cultural aspects: Aboriginal Australian language map, Aboriginal Tasmanian (Parlevar), Australian musical instruments, bimli music sticks, Bundjalung tribe, Kurrama tribelike a cocky on a biscuit tin, Pindjarup tribe, and Yolngu tribe.  Browse the geography: Ballina, Devonport, Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory Map, Perth, and Port Hedland.


Like a Cocky on a Biscuit Tin


I grew up here in Nhulunbuy,
where the whitefellas built
a bauxite mine and a deep water port
just twelve kilometers from Yirrkala.

You wouldn't have known it to look at me,
back then, but I'm not a whitefella.
I'm a blackfella in a whitefella's body.
It happens.  Brown clay washes out fast
in a sea of milk.  Nobody notices much.
It's not supposed to matter these days,
but I always felt like a cocky on a biscuit tin.

Everyone noticed when my wings came in, though.
When I saw all that white, I thought --
dove wings, that figures --
but no, the undersides of my wings and tail
were yellow as the hot Australian sun,
the markings of a sulphur crested cockatoo.

The Yolngu in Yirrkala came out the same way,
brilliant white wings against black skin.
I walked all the way there, and this time
they looked at my wings and not my skin,
and one of the old men waved for me
to come join their circle.

I learned about the Maḏayin,
the law of the people,
and Magaya, the state of peace
that comes from true justice for all.

There was something restless in my wings, though,
pulling me away from the home I'd just found.
It left me whistling, humming, tapping my fingers.
Finally the old men got tired of it
and told me to go follow my feet.

So I went walkabout,
wherever the wind took me,
tugging at the white feathers
that tied me to the long red land.

There had been songs for this, once,
every tribe with its own tune
for every rock and hill and billabong
in their territory, and beyond that,
the great travel routes, the songlines
that bound the land and people together
and anchored the world of flesh and stone
so that it would not melt back into spirit.

Most of the songs had been lost
long ago, scattered by the whitefellas
until the forests dwindled and
the rain forgot to fall and the world
threatened to blow away in red dust.

Yet the paths remained,
just waiting for feet and voices
to wake them once more.
They muttered at me as I walked,
and I hummed along as best I could.

I walked along the north coast
and down the westward way.
In Port Hedland I met a young woman
with brown wings edged in vivid aquamarine
and a brown tail with black bars, the markings
of a blue-winged kookaburra.

She was not Kurrama,
the tribe known for those feathers.
Her parents were pure Japanese --
but they had gone camping on their honeymoon
in the picturesque wilderness of Kurrama territory,
stopping beside one of the waterholes
where spirits came to be born into bodies.

I told her about my walkabout
and she played her flute for me,
snatches of melody never meant
for that instrument, but somehow
pulling the threads of the world
tight again as they should be.

I asked what she thought of my blond hair
and should I dye it a proper black.
She said no, it suited me.
Then she laughed and confided
that she meant to dye her brown hair blue
to match the bright caps of her wings.

Farther south, I came to Perth.
There I saw a man with skin the color of caffe latte
and wings in light shades of blue, green, and yellow on top
with large crimson patches on the underwings;
his long green tail had tufts of orange-red
at the base of the laterals and a yellow underside like mine.

I didn't recognize the type of bird, and he told me
it was a purple crowned lorikeet.
His people were the Pindjarup, he said,
and his ancestors had survived
the Battle of Pinjarra.
In return I told him how the Yolngu
had fought and lost a court battle
against the construction of Nhulunbuy.

He had a pair of bimli, the music sticks
used to keep time with a yidaki,
better known as a didgeridoo.
I'd asked the old men in Yirrkala
if I could learn, but they'd said
that I was not ready yet.
So I hummed and whistled
and muttered along with the music,
pulling the stitches of the world snug again.

I walked along the south coast, going east,
and caught a boat to Devonport.
I met a woman there with fair skin and blue eyes,
her black wing feathers narrowly edged with blue-green,
the underwings blue and green,
her tail green with blue outer feathers.

I recognized the green rosella of the Parlevar
because they had been all over the news,
Tasmania's extinct people rediscovered
through the fine print of their plumage.
I had been hoping to find one.

We did not play music, or sing,
or even speak very much.
Instead we sat on the beach
and held conch shells to our ears,
listening to the endless whisper of the sea.

I traveled northward then,
up the east coast of Australia.
In Ballina I saw men of solid black
except for vivid crimson panels on their tails,
and their women had dark brown wings
speckled here and there with yellow.

With them too were people as pale as myself,
their sooty wings and tails standing out
in bold relief against fair skin,
the glossy black cockatoo of the Bundjalung.
Seeing them together like that made me homesick
for Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala and all my kin.

They swung a bullroarer through the air,
a sound of dark thunder, of gathering wings,
the Rainbow Serpent sliding down
and around and through the world again.
I could feel it all along the edges of my feathers,
spirit breath tickling its way into me,
telling me to go home.

So I followed my feet north
along the coast, up and over
and west once more,
back toward the Northern Territory.

Nhulunbuy was the same,
deep harbor and quiet waves;
Yirrkala was the same,
soft red sand and sharp rocks;
only I was different, a stranger
in a familiar land, foreign words
burning in my lungs like smoke.

The old men put a yidaki 
in my hands
and told me to blow.

I kissed my lips closed
around its wooden mouth
and blew out all the sounds
that I had found on walkabout --

the flute-cry of the Japanese girl
with her blue-capped wings,
the Battle of Pinjarra as told
by the purple crowned Pindjarup man,
the wave-whisper of lost Tasmania
with the Parlevar rosella,
the thrum of the bullroarer as bright
as red panels on tailfeathers --

and it wasn't an old song,
it was a new song
with old bones

tying the last knot
like a necklace closing,
Rainbow Serpent
coiled around the world's throat,
holding it all safe and close as it should be.

I couldn't bear
to sleep in a house after that.
I spread a tarp on the ground outside

and pulled the night sky over myself like a blanket.

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4 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: November 23rd, 2012 09:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've just read through all of these, and, wow. I especially liked "The Fledging," but they're all exceptional.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 23rd, 2012 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

*happydance*

I'm posting the whole batch today; they all got sponsored. The Jewish one just went up a couple minutes ago, and I'm about to do the genderqueer one.
From: Dell Jacko Date: December 6th, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you for doing one centered around Australia - I've been wondering how this world would treat the hundreds of different groups in the country, and this answers that very nicely. The bit about the Japanese girl was also very interesting. I love the last line.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 7th, 2012 01:02 am (UTC) (Link)

You're welcome!

>>Thank you for doing one centered around Australia - I've been wondering how this world would treat the hundreds of different groups in the country, and this answers that very nicely.<<

I'm glad you liked this. A bunch of the poems in this series have come from people asking about a specific nationality or smaller group, or certain birds, etc. So the diversity is very high. Another example of a place with very many groups is New Zealand, mentioned in "Like the Vapor-Ghosts of Hiroshima."

If you want more about Australia, feel free to raise specific issues or questions relating to how the Fledging would work there, especially during one of my Poetry Fishbowl sessions.

>> The bit about the Japanese girl was also very interesting. I love the last line. <<

Yay! That's good to hear.

The part about baby spirits going to certain places to look for parents is an actual part of Australian tradition. People say in a mixed population, it can lead to some odd results, so I figured that would show in this series.
4 comments or Leave a comment