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Poetry

Sighting Rottnest

Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) 32°S 115°31'E – 18 km off shore Western Australia

 

AUTUMN

 

rough serious blue sea

pale sky, pale spire

green grey island

 

All that year I caught the train to and from work, swaying silently, waiting for the stretch between North Fremantle and Cottesloe. Or Cottesloe and North Fremantle. A glimpse of the Indian Ocean and sometimes of Rottnest.

 

the sea and the sky too shiny

there should be an island

Rottnest, I came to believe, is a drifting island, not attached to the ocean floor. In some weathers it floats close to the mainland. In some it disappears altogether.

There is a lot of weather on this far western shore. It is a place of sand and wind.

I kept a log.

sunset sky

black silhouette island

 

For tens of thousands of years the island was part of the mainland, a place where people lived. Then the sea level rose and the island was formed. An exile, doomed to float empty on the horizon.

silver sea

grey clouds

dark horizontal line

 

I dream that I am standing on the beach. The sea has completely receded, revealing an ancient forest of fossilised trees.

 

Will the wet sand hold my weight?

 

dark train window

reflected carriage

lighthouse flashing in my knee

 

WINTER

strip of brown smog

island lurking beyond

 

In 1838 the European newcomers made Rottnest a prison, a racially segregated prison. By 1931, when it closed, thousands of Aboriginal men and boys had been incarcerated there. Concentrated.

 

Did the mainland see?

 

the island drifts behind distant rain

 

Many of the men came from the north-west, imprisoned for minor theft or for spearing cattle. Or for resistance. Nothing could have prepared them for the southern cold, the howling westerlies. Nothing in the prison protected them. One grey blanket was not enough.

 

Hundreds died.

 

ragged dark clouds

angry water with a turquoise edge

the island has gone

SPRING

strip of orange sun

deep aqua night

pale sickle moon

 

Once there was a man who swam every morning at Cottesloe. He swam straight out to sea, a long way. The lifesavers were concerned for his safety and he was spoken to. He continued to swim towards Rottnest every morning. Letters were written to the West Australian.

 

We were sixteen. Romance and ethics were our lifeblood. We argued passionately. It was his right. Who did the authorities think they were?

 

celestial rays of pale gold

no island

 

Eventually he disappeared.

 

His bones sank down to join the others in Gage Roads. The sailors who didn't come back. A whole family once, sailing home from a holiday.

 

mirage island floating in six transparent sections

 

SUMMER

 

white caps

bunchy clouds

brilliant white spire

green wedding cake island

 

The old prison became a guesthouse. Holidaymakers dropped salty towels on the floor.

 

I had a job as a housemaid, making beds, washing sheets. I was told to iron the boss's underpants. Excessive, I thought.

 

At night I prowled the old gun emplacements that threaten an empty Indian Ocean. I crossed the island and stared at the lights of the mainland. I wondered what my friends were doing.

 

I told the boss my grandmother had died. I caught the ferry back to Fremantle.

 

blue sky

blue sea

white lighthouse

 

white yachts

red spinnakers

red freighter

 

When we were young Rottnest nights meant sex in the sand.

 

Later, for a clan of middle-aged dykes, nights were not so serious. We pedalled up the hill to the lighthouse and lay with our heads against the tower, forming a ring of spokes. The light above swooped round, a collective and individual benediction. One blessing for each of us every 7.5 seconds.

 

five lines of light:

four ships

one island

 

I see now that the light stops the island from drifting away into the ocean, the beams of light a loose mooring.

 

Sea-rising times have come again. Rottnest will shrink. The mainland will shrink. There will be many more islands.

 

We will be needing lights.

 

an island floats on the horizon

sometimes close enough to jump

sometimes distant as a dream.


From Griffith Review Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review