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Synposium: The Ends of Worlds









We grieve for the past but we demand the future

Remember the beast is never far from the door


This text and its performance are dedicated to the memory of Peter Ucko and Les Hiatt who, together, over a period of nearly a decade, presided over what in retrospect – but also as a lived experience – was an unprecedented period of intellectual and political engagement at the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. It is doubtful that it will ever be replicated.

At some future date someone will no doubt attempt to chronicle this period and its significance, both at the time and thereafter.

It is doubtful that any effort, no matter how conscientious, no matter how inspired, will capture even the merest hint of the energy and endeavour of those times.

Properly it should be accorded its proper status - as a major moment in Australian moral and intellectual history.




Don’t ask my name

You know my name already

I am the missionary


We are well aware of your condemnations

Yet you come, your presence here is because we are here

We provide the conditions of your possibility

You do not

Let us say this again

You do not provide the conditions of your own possibility

You are implausible therefore


We built this place piece by piece

Not from the virgin bush for there is no virgin anything

But out of the accumulated ideas of our past

The steady accretion of things we have learnt

From a profound sense of a need to act

Out of necessity even


Our pride is our guide

It is the greatest surety of our goodness

Our pride in ourselves and the pride of the people

It is this that guides us


We do not herd people into a little pen

We are wolves

We are wolves that bare our fangs in guardianship of our own

Blood drips from our jaws

Our Eden is adorned with thorns and thistles

Our order stands for here

Our order stands for here and against the disorder of elsewhere


Explain your dormitories to us, explain your system of rationing?


We will explain nothing

We offer a choice, of stone and stone, a ruthless and necessary conviction

We are obdurate

We shield

We wield our axe

We savage those who cast a shadow on us

We take our stockwhip to those who offend us

We do not bow to offense

We do not anoint with oil, we do not bless

We burn with a constant flame


Greed deafens the world

It renders it mute, incapable of mouthed utterance

Do not steal, I said to them in my sermon

I fired my revolver

Do not steal

Ask and it shall be given

Do not steal


The other certainties I shall offer up

No, not offer

I shall provide





I came to save them, that’s the line

I came as their father-protector

I opened the verandah of my soul to them

They knelt at my feet

They knelt at the base of the mission house steps


(Whoever says this is a liar!)


I operated in good humour

I was pleasing to them

I absolved myself of all sin

I calculated the consequences of all action

I got it right


Yes, my house has many rooms

I made a room for them, each one

I decided their fate

I married them each to each

I called them by their proper names

I was their father, piip

I amused them, I kept myself aloof

I knew their movements, I recorded them

I recorded them in scrupulous entries, made daily

I held myself apart


My companions, there were none

I was the Solitary of the Lord

I brooked no disagreement

I did what was proper, I left things alone

Language (for I never spoke it)

Ceremony (for I never participated in it)

The business of grief

The business of fighting

These were their business and theirs alone


I rewarded their follies with shame and cruelty

They were my sons, my daughters

I was their manifest


There is one rule, the rule of action and defiance

There is one rule: the rule of action



As men have a song I have a song

My song is the song of …


No one has said, no one has identified my song



Manthayan, they said

Manthayan, big man, proper big man




They chased me from the village, I fled into the river

I swam where you would not, to Long Island

I swam for my life

They pursued me with spears

They chased my thick crocodile hide into the river

They chased my thick lascivious hide

Yes, into the river




One of the old men came to me

He sat cross-legged and wordless before me

I too said nothing


I returned, it was a galling moment

No doubt it was that but the reason forgot

Forgot almost instantly

Forgot because it had to be forgotten


Simple, simple as that


We survive by forgetting


This is not forgiveness




How handsome our people are, how handsome

I will not diminish them therefore

I will contain them but only as people are to be contained

Sheep and goats, that is your affair

I am not here to tame

(Ku’a nhekanam, ku’a ma’a pamam)

The bushfire can burn, the bushfire can rage

The grasses can surge in fiery tongues

The feeding falcon hover and dart on the uprush of air


Angels, celestial bodies, these lure us not for this is the world of the non-pareil





Difference is always on the side of the other

Do not reduce us to difference, we are elsewhere, we are apart

Our paths are narrow, precise, wavering

We walk with great delicacy, step after step

Each footfall delicately delayed

Each planting of the foot poised and considered

We stand, we walk with our arms loose falling and never swinging to the gait

Wet or dry the path receives us precisely

Lightly we step over fallen logs

Lightly we step round the trees that have fallen

Lightly we avoid the things that bite or itch or seek to cling

We never stand as agents of correction

We progress precisely

We proceed with exactitude through the nature of things


And if I, and if I am not as that, yet I know it

In my heaviness yet I stand in recognition of it


And if I am not oblique, if, as you say, I am too forward

They know that is my manner

And they judge it not


I leave the resolution of things to them

It is their affair

History and hatred speak through them

And if, as it happens, I appear as the final resort, the supreme arbiter

It is merely, it is by way of demonstration:

I am shown, I am party to a revelation

I am brought into the field of a general knowing


From the height of the verandah, from the height of the steps that lead down to that great central axis and the whole way down to the Landing, to the point of arrivals and to the place of departures, I look down

From that height where I acknowledge every name


I know





Spare us your Beatitudes

The evil of the hour

Spare us your meekness, your ‘weak in spirit’, your ‘inherit the earth’

Yes, you will inherit it completely

The Beatitudes are dead

There is never more that is not more of the same


I came I saw I conquered

I am the Caesar of my little hour

My time is short yet I claim eternity

As if my little hour is eternity itself


The boat stuck in the river

The boat stuck on a sand bank, a bank of mud

There we stuck as if I would never leave

The boat stuck as if we would remain as curses to all those who remained

A great death beetle

Minh wongbe, they call him, yuku wongbe

A stinking rotting thing, they say

Somewhere between death and fertility, this hornèd thing

Desire and offspring casually strewn across the careless landscape


For death always has a name

An avid careless creature full of fixed ideas


Anxiety constructs itself thus

Determined to remain in the certainty of the known


We are overrun by the most trivial things

The invention of toothpaste, for example

Some innocuous message heard on the radio

The poet heard on the radio, the blood of the poet

Dermit speaking to us from an invisible New York, from the front seat of a yellow taxi

One two three four

Speaking of infinity

Speaking to us from afar

Speaking from the tall towers of the elsewhere

Reciting syllables, a recitation of numbers

As if meaning resides in certainty, the certainty of sure numbers

As if reality is a matter of counting

As if reality is a matter of steady counting, a matter of steady recitation


As if!




I see the full flare of your face 

Cheekbones ablaze with the sheen of heavy brass


Walu walu


You knock him down with the fierceness of your breath

I see the force of your sudden spirit

Ngangk thayan

I see you turn from him

I see you speak indifferently, in tones of extreme deference and condescension


You turn your shoulder

You look away from him

You say with great deliberation and contempt:

‘That is all very well but we all have that, we’ve all had that from the start, agu mu’ama

Someone, someone with new idea must think something

Some new idea, perhaps

Some great and glorious song of praise

The chant of the great flapping crow, hungry for the sugar from the packet now overturned and spilled

Apey! My mistake, my mistake

How could I forget, how could anyone apart from someone afflicted with an extreme and unprecedented silliness, forget

Excuse, excuse my dreadful carelessness

What can I have been thinking of:

There are people who do not sing

They sing

They sing not at all!

Dear me, dear me, the song has eluded them!’


And now the man from the east, the man sitting beneath the bloodwoods sets to singing

Cross-legged and secure in his posture of self-imposed constraint

And still he sings:

Pidhal, pidhalam

Amusement hinting at the corners of the mouth

He sings sotto voce, his head dipped in mock deference

His eyes glancing upward:

‘Oh they dance so fine, those man of the sand beach

Yi’i minim

I see them singing from here, I see them darting this way and that like demons against the setting sun

So flash, so fine

They dance like the very devil

And I, here I am, reclining on the ground

Beneath the thin-leaved bloodwoods …’



Such things are said:


Statement: He chained a woman to the frangipani tree outside the church. All day she was chained there, to the sweet-smelling frangipani. There was a pineapple hanging round her neck and a sign: Thou shalt not steal


I should have been buried there. They should have witnessed our final decline, the death of the big man, the death of the saint!


No, saintliness was not my bag. Saintliness is feeble!


Statement: This is no place for saints, as Father Saanz said of Brother O’Donovan. Yes, Daniel is a saint – but this is no place for saints. That’s what he said. We don’t need saints.


The ship sailed away. The whole community stood on the shore, waving. There it goes, the old “Reliance”. Off to TI, off to Thursday Island, stage one of the departure. But the tide was out, the boat was stuck, stuck on a sand bank. So much for the glorious departure. There is the “Reliance” stuck, stuck on the sand bank. And everyone waving. Hour after hour. They stand on the shore, waving. The ship is stuck fast.


I should not have left. It was an error.


Statement: You had to leave. How would the new missionary have ever coped? How would he ever have coped in the shadow of the patriarch? You had to leave. No one can operate in the shadow of the past, no one.


No, you are wrong. We all operate in the shadow of the past. There is nothing new in that, nothing unusual, nothing strange. We are bound to the past, we are shored up by it. Do not dismiss the past too readily. Are you certain that what you will create in its place will be to the good? Do you have any knowledge of what you are creating, what the consequences will be? You exist in the myth of endless improvability. You call that progress. Your progress is merely disruption, a careless unmotivated revolution.


Statement: ‘Must be big war down south’. That’s what the old man said on hearing of the changes: ‘Must be they fight with each other. Must be big war la Brisbane.’


He’s right, it’s a simple view but it’s right. All change is revolutionary and all change comes out of conflict. They understand this well.


Statement: All change is revolution. Do not disrupt, therefore, more than is necessary. Caution, exercise it.  Adaptation will come in its own good time.



It is true, I fired my revolver in the church


I fired


You are not to sleep on my watch

Wuty waa wun, you’re dead and buried

Sleep and laziness


No one sleeps on my watch


The Taipan can bite at any time


No one sleeps on my watch


No one



Word came

Women arrived, their bodies mutilated

News trickled down the river like blood


I went, I rode, I rode without halting once

I rode alone

I carried my stockwhip

I lashed that man

(You call him man!)

I lashed that man


And then

And then I rode back!


(Hard man but fair, proper big man, proper hard man)


We went to the Holroyd, thampenty

I carved my initials in the tree



The Holroyd mob


They came to me bearing fish

They came to me bearing fish on sheets of ti-tree bark


Cooked fish

The skin blackened


They spoke to me

They called out something in my name

They gave me water, they presented me with water in a little container my hands were not to touch

They blew in my hair

They rubbed me with underarm smell

They said things in their languages

They sang


We understood little


They carried bodies

They carried bodies in bark bundles

They called our clothing ‘The clothes of the dead, mimpa pam uthuma’


Yes, he was there then, a little boy

He looked at me with large eyes, eyes that never deviated

He knew me, I knew him

He was already


I asked his name

No one said anything

I wrote his name in a book

I recorded his birth: 1 July


I preached a sermon, there near thupidyi

The wide belly of the lagoon


They showed me barbed wire, wire in rolls

I hacked it to pieces with an axe

I smashed it

In my fury


My fury knew no bounds


(Pama kulindya, pama kulindja)


They saw my fury, they witnessed my fury

They said nothing, they knew well that I was a man of fury


I was young then

I travelled the lengths of these lands

I preached my sermons

I made my undertakings

To the Holroyd people: I will build your mission here

To the Kendall people: I shall build your mission here


I was still a young man

Where I trod my imprint remained


(We did not ask you to come, you can leave any time)

(We never asked you to come, you can leave, any time!)




You may hear things, you may not

Things fall into silence

Even the most salacious, even the most garbled account


We step into the snow of our final act


See, someone has lit a fire

See, the smoke drifts through the trees

Drifting through the middle branches of the bloodwoods and the stringy barks


It comforts us

It comforts us curiously

We ease to the east

We ease to the north-east

We ease in a most unusual direction


We know the meaning of this fire

We know this one meaning anyway

And not a song of regret, not at this moment


Apow apow apow

The vehicle fast on the track

The vehicle that is yet to appear

And then the rain

And then the new berries on the branch

May mipa may mipa

Plants that pretend to a status they will never achieve

Sour wild grapes

Things with coiled ligatures

Things that climb


Apow apow apow


The wallabies may come, they may

The plum on the ground, yuk po’al

The smell of slow-burning timbers

The taste of smoke-tainted tea

The predacious emu on cautious foot


Apow apow apow


The trip to Yaaneng was not a success

Maybe not

They spoke of crocodiles sent to do their master’s bidding

The eager mouthing of desire


(The jaws have it, the jaws have it)


We caught a rock cod there once

Spotted stingray and angkerratan, rock cod

It is not a word you forget


Not so big but there we caught it and the water edging  the slithering curve of white fine sand




My, the mosquitoes were in abundance, even then in the middle of the day

And the well ruined by the tide


Even with the mud on their hides the pigs suffered

The clouds of mosquitoes shooting skyward at every step out of the disturbed grass


And the salt water in our mouths


By now you might think we had learnt something

The sag of flesh

The failingness of our animal passions

(See how they have grown, see how they have grown enormous)


As we approach knowingness

The squatter’s chair taken to the Landing

The squatter’s chair taken on an excursion to the place where the coconuts grow

Where we planted them, and the rancid waters of that well where you pump for water

Water full of rust and the sour taste of stagnancy


They will say things later, the girls

The girls who were with us

Clasped to our bosom

Each assigned a part of our body corporate


They will say things and they will laugh, without rancour


Apow apow apow


And the sounds of laughter silent among the straggling palms


Yuk ngutya yuk ngutya


We speak in monosyllables, we speak without speaking

We tuck the pipe in our mouth

I look to my ancient partner

I look at the awkwardness of her shoulders

Her spare necessity


It is better to be judged than forgotten

It is better to be spared than to be judged


The moon is silent

The tide is more or less risen

The tide is more or less risen or fallen, it makes no difference

If you walk to the point you can look north and south

It makes no difference


The water slides along the curve of the sand


The crocodile is dead, the rock cod has slipped away

The foolish wallaby attempts to cross from island to shore

It succeeds

A sudden sadness in those of us who witness it

Swimming from the island that bears its name


There are two islands that bear that name

They make a final home to no one!