The History of Europe

It’s heavy with lupin perfume, the rough
track. There’s a shine on the claggy clay,
a double tyre track down the middle.

The pine forest looms like a collapsing
building. You half expect to see
two lost children, a slavering wolf,

an old woman gathering sticks in her apron.
Nothing moves. This is untrue.
Nothing appears to move but, in fact,

the purpley brown toadstools do
but imperceptibly, levering their little
round gun turrets up through the needles.

This is what happens.

Two men step out, silent in the silence,
one from each side of the dark that wells
in the dark of the pines. They stand

there braced like a locked gate.
Each one has a rifle across his chest
like a sash. It’s the history of Europe.

Soon there will be dogs barking,
boots crashing through the matagouri.
Soon there will be shots and the rackety

clatter of a helicopter. Soon there will be
barked commands, bayonets and baying for blood,
someone in terror, trying to make a run for it.

Bernadette Hall’s fifth collection of poems, Settler Dreaming, was shortlisted for 2002 Spectrum Print Book Design Awards, 2002, and for the inaugural Tasmania Pacific Poetry Prize in 2003.

The Merino Princess: Selected Poems was published by Victoria University Press in 2002. In December 2004, she went to Antarctica on an Arts Fellowship, with her friend and collaborator, the Dunedin artist, Kathryn Madill. Several of her Antarctic poems have already been published in Sport and Landfall.

Recently she has edited Like Love Poems, a major selection of poems by her friend, the poet/painter, Joanna Margaret Paul. This will be published by Victoria University Press in March 2006. She has also completed a commission to write poems based on the Stations of the Cross sculpted by the Christchurch artist, Llew Summers, for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Christchurch. She judged the 2005 Bell Gully National Schools Poetry Award and the 2006 Aoraki Poetry Award. This year she is the Writer in Residence at Victoria University, Wellington.

Hall comments: ‘When I returned from Antarctica, everything seemed to have changed. It was as if I had brought Antarctica home with me to Amberley Beach. My eyes were drawn to patterns of ice and snow on the surface of the sea, in the clouds. As I walked along the track that runs through a pine plantation near our house, near a lagoon, I found myself thinking of the youthful explorers of the heroic age who had suffered in the “white warfare in the south”, as Shackleton put it, only to find themselves embroiled in bloody fighting in Normandy. The immensity of Antactica, its hazardous beauty, the way you are conscious of being “out of it” down there right at the end of the world, dependent on each other for survival, makes the thought of war, the tragedy and wastefulness of war, seem more terrible than ever.

Iraq and Afghanistan were in my mind, the civil war in Ireland, the 19th century land wars here at home. All wars merging into one. The Israelis, the Palestinians. There has only been one war in Antarctic territory, the Falklands war. Do you remember how belatedly we read of Argentinian boys, not much more than children, underequipped, underclothed, underfed, being stranded there? So much for the modern heroic.

Terror is the feeling of the victim, of the trapped animal. “A war on terror” is a term that just doesn’t make sense. There’s enough terror inside me, inside all of us, I suspect, without adding to it. So that’s perhaps where the poem is heading, into the dark plantation of our human fears.’

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