< Back to Contents


shelter and sustenance

Is the atmosphere desperate               no
Is it brutal in an almost leisurely way                         yes
Am I safe                     yes
Could accidents happen                      I said
                                                                              could accidents

Does the liquid fabric of the feeble tent catch in its
            own teeth          while her arms are occupied in
            blankets             yes       does the shelter serve                           yes

And if there is no mattress, there is foam
there is quilt
             and if there is only a few of the quilt,
             there is plastic
             there is wood

And if there is no wood           we will find wood

Repetition enters the bloodstream like a dangerous level of light     where English is
             no help
the body is a help        the gestures of the body

The part of the hair is luminous and uneven
                          an effect of the winter sun


The careless of our basic need to have at least one spoon for wheetbix dirt.

The swallowing everything it can get its little grains on dirt.

The sitting down and eating on it because for now it is our sofa, chair, and kitchen table

The don’t take clothes to the desert you want to wear again outside of the desert dirt.

The showing up the lines in my palms because of being now ingrained dirt.

The extremely photogenic background to discarded pieces of clothing sun-hardened into
            small weird continents dirt.        

The matter through which the serpent towards many mothers and their young children   
            silently is travelling dirt.         

The shaped into tall, thin, wedge-like structures oriented in a north-south direction and   
            containing extensive tunnels and conduits that ventilate the underground nests of            
            the termite dirt.          

The skin-protecting layer keeping Muturna’s fingers from contact with the wet lizard guts          
            as she threads them free through the perforation in its belly because this dirt is clean           

The red so like the layered rust objects containing story inscrutable to me dirt.          

The red so radiant at golden hour it seems the road itself is emitting light dirt.          

The reddening the label and the pillowy rest of the wake fresh gently firm mattress dirt.          

The some of it’s got into the ten kg tub of Jackaroo self-raising flour dirt.          

The rapidly swallowing all small and useful things with which you might perform
            fundamental camp jobs within the next half hour like putting the lid back on the
            jerrycan dirt.          

The foundation for humpies which you are expressly forbidden to photograph dirt.          

The ‘sometime we take everything bed clothes everything out of the house and sweep it’

The substance supporting the creation of a groove which became a short creek when       
            Yarripiri took the new and younger wife and the child and dragged them some   
            distance along the ground dirt.          

The far away from which the women strained their eyes to see the sky and the tears forming        
            in their eyes creating the rain dirt.          

The inadequate word dirt.         

The in-itself blind and containing blind creatures but also creatures with eyes dirt.          

The unaccountably softly ashy on bare feet after a regular burning dirt.         

The grains of it thick and square sometimes as un-pestled sea salt dirt.         

The why is this shell in it dirt.          

The fool men of books fantasising the inland sea dirt.

The underground shadow currents giving you fighting dreams if you don’t ask


My ears are a gobble kind of hole and I am sorry for the facts who lose their shapes there. In the beginning, you read the book upside down, and I think this must be a Jesus story. ‘The cross goes right up.’ To heaven? I say. No, No, it was a sniffer, falling off that pageant cross when we raised it up. It is okay. Bush onions being little hardly onions. A little bit of foot in it. The best joke is when we realise the track was a dingo dragging its trap, for furlongs. Rust, rust, and its toe. Shouldn’t be. I am saying Name! Name! and not watching your hand — tilt, tilt — which is a hand saying <nothing>. ‘She pass last week wiyarrpa.’ We don’t say those names. I’d know her acid greens anywhere, her weird pinks. They’ve faded in my parents’ sun. Hey, the bewildering track. Several things are happening. Only lightly wrongs. There is a can’t stop laughing, and then we take photographs.


Use a little water                      and the colour will go
further, I eat a little                 cat and it’s so like
chicken, this is how                 we count our family
in the sand, why bend             down when you can look
with your feet blade, lift         green, let fall, law is a
water song anytime                 singing over
Eric Clapton anytime              restless for that story but it’s
better in language                    two ninu been travelling
went into the ground              goanna might be good
but we never say                       beautiful, its tail kicking
round in the fire, like               a comma, for days

A Glossary:
wiyarrpa  – a term of affection or empathy, like ‘dear one’ or ‘poor thing’; also means something like ‘pitiful’ or ‘unfortunate’
Yarripiri ­– a Dreaming ancestor who took the form of a great taipan snake
ninu – the Warlpiri word for bilby

Joan Fleming is the author of two poetry collections published by Victoria University Press, Failed Love Poems (2015) and The Same as Yes (2011), and a chapbook, Two Dreams in Which Things are Taken (Duets, 2010). You can find more of her work on her website www.joanflemingpoet.com.

Joan says: ‘I have been fortunate lately to spend more time up in Warlpiri (Aboriginal) country, travelling round and living in camp with Warlpiri friends who’ve known my family their whole lives. Life out there in the Tanami desert of Australia is a world unto itself. So that is the context of these poems: camp life, hunting, living outside, assembling shelters, misunderstanding each other, and the joys and bewilderments of navigating a very different way of doing things. Building these relationships has been excellent for my humility, and also for the stretching of my mind.’

Next (Kate Tobin) >