Sailing to Australia by Peter Skrzynecki

1949

1
Tired, embittered,
wary of each other—
like men whose death sentences
have been commuted,
they turned their faces
from a shore
none of them could forget.

2
Leaving from
a Displaced Persons’ Camp
in Germany,
we travelled south
by train into Italy.

Coming through Austria
I remember
walking between carriages,
seeing aeroplanes
lying broken in a forest—
their yellow and black
camouflage
like a butterfly’s
torn wings.

3
Through grey mornings
and long afternoons of drizzle
we lay and talked
of graves that nobody
was prepared
to enter—
argued
about war, disguised nationalities
and the absence of sea birds
from who we always watched.
And all the time
someone, sooner or later,
remarking:
‘Nearly, nearly there.’

Though officially
tagged and photographed
to the satisfaction of braided uniforms
we had no names—
a tattooed number
or the gold fillings in a heart
to be disclosed only
to St Peter at The Gates.

For all it
mattered, where kinship
or affiliations
were concerned, each of us
could have been
an empty bullet shell
or prints left by a scavenger bird
around a piece of bone.
Each face became
a set of facts—
a situation
to be associated with
only while the voyage lasted.

4
Even the worst weather
became an ally
to whom confidences and sorrows
were readily confided—
disinherited, self-exiled,
homeless
as a river without banks,
people turned their backs and minds
upon the fallen godhead
of a country’s majesty,
quietly embracing comfort
in every drop of salt
that crystallised into manna
on their tongues and in their eyes;
often, waiting until
the moon appeared
like a promised sign—
and the ship might leave the water
to a Castle of Dreams
in the clouds—
before they went to sleep.

5
On arrival,
a great uneasiness
filled the ship—
unspoken, misunderstood,
as a Union Jack
was hung
across the landing dock.

While the solemnity
of a basking sea lion
a government interpreter
held a loudspeaker at arm’s length—
telling us, in
his own broken accents,
why we should feel proud
to have arrived,
without mishap, in Australia,
on Armistice Day.

From: http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/17860

Date: 1978

By: Peter Skrzynecki (1945- )

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