As fires continue to burn vast swathes of Australia and the Federal Government continues to insist that it’s nothing much out of the ordinary, I was reminded of my poem Firefront which was originally published in The Inflectionist Review and then selected for The Best Australian Science Writing 2014. It also has been republished along with Questions of Impropriety in From The Ashes: A poetry collection in support of the 2019-2020 Australian Bushfire relief effort (ed CS Hughes, Maximum Felix Media, 2020). Of course, nothing can compare with the lived experience of those dealing with the fires.
The proposition: a firefront, climbing the hillface, approaching lines of grey box,
an edge, a vibration, ragged, the juxtaposition of above and what lies below.
You must decide upon a frame of reference, a coordinate system, within which
local events, diary entries, arrivals and departures can be securely placed.
Option one: (as usual) the sky. Some common descriptors: oppressive, leaden,
foreboding. Alternatively, overcast, cloud-streaked, ambivalent. And yet,
notwithstanding prior predictions, there is absolutely nothing to see: (as usual)
the air, through all its troughs and ridges, typical for the season, remains clear.
Option two: the earth. Once again, far too familiar. You already know what
it means: bedrock solid, unable to move without the application of heavy
machinery, set fast, interlocked to tectonic plates, a foundation stone, like
a mother’s mother, off-white, like salt, or milk, or thoroughly unexpected snow.
Option three: an ocean. How does it go? Roiling? Tumultuous? Surging with swell
and storm and eddy? Fathomless? Uncharted? The boundary we cannot extend?
A source of endless lies, stories that intrigue, inveigle, insist on continued disbelief.
Shallows tempting? Rising to cover your curling toes, your reef-scarred shins.
Option four: the fire itself. This you also know. The things that can burn: lava flows,
molten glass, cast iron, magnesium. Your throat, raw as it is. A blue-lined notebook,
school-yard friendship, fingertips, letters dreamt at midnight, music ringing from
plaster walls, a road you barely recognise. Objects singed and ashen and burst apart.
A final reminder To make a list. The items we must not forget. Ingredients we do not
grow here: cinnamon, clove, cardamon, Indian tea, black currant, berries, blueberries.
Materials we must find time to mine: cobalt, nickel, molybdenum, opal, fully
oxidised zinc, diamond, tourmaline, malachite, crystalline quartz, pure and simple.
The direction of the wind. A return address. The passwords we require. The encryption
keys that preserve our integrity, hold our neighbours to account, plot a pathway out.
To repeat: the direction of the wind. Disentangle arms from safety blankets, scarlet
across our backs. What else? Count the numbers that name exploding supernovae.