Beneath The Southern Cross

The Australian ten dollar note features images of the poets: A. B. “Banjo” Patterson (1864-1941) and Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Mary Gilmore (born Cameron) led an interesting life and her adventures provide the background for my poem Beneath The Southern Cross which was published in the most recent issue of the literary journal, Westerly.

In 1895, at the age of 30, Mary journeyed from Sydney to the rural interior of Paraguay to join a group of several hundred Australians intent on establishing a communal, socialist utopia. While in Paraguay, Mary married the Australian shearer, William Gilmore, and together they had a son, also named William.

By late 1899, the colony was failing and Mary and her family were making plans to leave. A number of the Australians were able to find work shearing on the large Argentine estanicas which were mostly in British hands. In this way, the family managed to save the money needed to pay for their return to Australia.

Interestingly, Mary’s experience of two seemingly different lands would have highlighted for her a number of parallels regarding geography, agriculture and colonial society plus, of course, the treatment of Indigenous people and their culture.

Below is the first half of my poem:

Beneath The Southern Cross
(Australian poet, Mary Gilmore, and her husband, the shearer William Gilmore, spent 1901 living and working in Patagonia, Argentina.)

Unfolding in two dimensions, the windswept steppes of Santa Cruz
resembled a tattered map spread on dusty ground. Offering no
interruption to it boundless vista, this vast nullarbor country
was home to a nondescript owl who had no need for a tree.

An owl content to nest in a burrow, where each clutch of eggs
would be threatened by the scratching of a passing armadillo,
though rarely endangered by rain, as the bitter westerlies harassed,
provoked and propelled all in their path toward the Atlantic coast.

The newly endowed of this world soon discovered justice and law
were flexible commodities. Like truth, and honour. All of which
were hitched to the wagon, and harnessed to the plough, while they
slowly tightened their grip on a grotesque and loveless land.

Their workers’ backs angled over sheep. Angled over for maté
and mutton, and perhaps for a beating if they stepped out of line.
Collapsing each night into a shed of ill-fitting planks where,
now and then, the chill in the draught would carry one away.