States of Poetry 2016 - Victoria | 'Australian awe: white guys on life and art before 1788' by A. Frances Johnson

for Marcia Langton


The rock-art guide, combusting
in 43 degrees, back to image.
His sloppy dreamtime
a melted ice-cream,
far from refrigerated sublime.

Gwion rock art from the 'Tassel era' is happy art,
though contentiously attributed and dated, he says,
authoritative white sweater in white sweater.
Pompoms, plumes and tassels signal the fertile time before the great aridity.
Your stone heart, Wandjina, listening.

Without an age and a date, Native Title
becomes rockfall. Outsider art.
At night, fears of extinguishment come,
clamped in the soft-chalked
mouths of dogs. History is that quiet.

Some whites reckon pre-contact was one big
happy black camp-out, lasting millennia.
That's so's they can conveniently
keep Aboriginal people in some
pre-modern place.

It's a quote, I say, overly nonchalant.
People lower their cameras
heartwards, like Jesus snapping a selfie.
We all want the fridge.
Country is no caravan park.

The guide wipes his brow
with a neckerchief of
ochre-tinted dots, the rest
pixellating behind him.
My pale cheeks burn up like documents.

He turns, livid archaeology
in terry towelling, a man
impossible to carbon date:
What's wrong with you? he says.
What did art ever do to you?


A. Frances Johnson

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.