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