A Place of Meeting: Glimpses of a National Capital

I. The Name

What’s in a name? Much, if you think about it.
Give a dog a bad name and hang him,
Names to conjure with, names to love and hate,
Speaker: I name the Honourable Member,
a child’s first words the names of things and people,
and that mysterious launch of a human life
parents and friends stand mute, ‘I name this child
in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’

How name a capital city where kangaroos
stare between leaves, past dome, construction cranes,
lake, fountain, avenues, gleaming Parliament House,
flag, highway, bridges, office tower –then drop
to crop the native grass; where currawong
parrot and magpie claim due precedence, air comes Antarctic clear?
The name was here
before white faces came, or boot and hoof
disturbed the Limestone Plains: these valleys, hills
were home and life and spirit-land to a people
fifteen or fifty thousand years. While still
the English tribal tongue was unbegotten
they spoke this name: the timeless gift remains
Nganbra, Kemberry, Canbury, Canberra, a place of meeting.

II. War Memorial

Mount Ainslie haloes a green dome
a Sphinx with outstretched lion paws of stone
this temple looks across lake, buildings and hills
to an infinite sky and thither the tribes go up.
Who reads the Sphinx’s riddle?

From Cairns to Perth they gather, busloads and cars
schoolchildren clamber on juggernaut tanks and guns,
crane necks at flying-machines their space-age heroes
would shun with fear. Crowds drifting, drifting
new friends, old foes bare-headed lay their wreaths
a few Gallipoli veterans march, a few.

Shrine of a new-formed nation, fused in war,
diffident, defiant, standing up to be counted
on silent walls a hundred thousand names
equal in death, no rank nor race nor age.

To this lost valley at the end of the world
came, unawares, a woman of France
mother, grandmother, veteran of Resistance
scarred with Europe’s tortures, stood transfixed name upon name
‘They came so far, they came to help us’
tears of compassion, recognition.
A German officer, patriot, but no friend to
Nazi or Wagnerian myths, was mute then
wistfully, ‘We have nothing like this.’
A Finn, ‘We faced impossible odds,
We fought the invaders on our sacred soil:
these gave their lives for freedom in far lands.’
A place of meeting.

The broken years
courtyard and cloisters thronged with old and young voices of children
old letters, songs – sunlight on a distant headland –
agony, humour, heartbreak, courage, loss
the dream of those who died, of those who built,
no warlike race, but a people proud, embattled
till war shall be no more.

III. Parliament

Stand on the War Memorial steps; your eye
is marched peremptorily, without debate,
down Anzac Parade
a regimental red, but flanked
by eucalypts. Griffin called them ‘a poet’s tree’.
Thence his land axis leaps the lake, leads on
by softening lawns to the old Parliament House
temporary over sixty years, now yielding
sceptre and sway to a prodigal successor
leaning with wide embrace from Capital Hill,
designed corona, hub of a city’s wheel,
symbolic keystone for a commonwealth,
halls, chambers wait, a new house swept and garnished,
to know what spirit will enter and possess.
This focus and forum, modest in elevation, l
ifts on its silver tower a nation’s hopes
as the flag droops or swells, white clouds blow by,
and stars by night blaze the enormous sky.

Parliament, place of talk, cynics deride
dreamers deplore, supremos circumvent,
but people of a threatened planet give their thanks
for a place where conflicts flame or are resolved
in words not wars,
no power unquestioned and no question silenced
a place of meeting.

Opening of Parliament, Nineteen Twenty-seven.
A photograph survives
winter sun on the dusty Limestone Plains
the stark white block of Parliament House
a lone Aborigine watching.
One who was there recalls
he rose, approached, and bowed with dignity to the Royal Duke
then passed, with dillybag and dogs, a gesture made, gratuitous courtesy,
a place where, through millennia uncounted,
his tribe and wandering tribes of east, west, south
met for exchange of goods, corroboree,
feast of the Bogong moth
secret initiation of young men
the timeless Dreaming.

IV. St John’s Church

Modestly apart from the statement of Anzac Parade
from shielding trees a slender spire ascends
a parish church and churchyard
lych-gate, Gothic doorway, cypress walk
ideal for picturesque wedding photographs
bells chiming an English shire
replicate lands the colonists once called home –
Is this the sum?
These stones build up an ampler story
from the day when Merchant Campbell brought his sheep –
seven hundred and ten – to pasture on the Limestone Plains.
Named for the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness,
in the old sketch it stands, church, schoolhouse, trees
in the empty plain, not Jordan but Molonglo.
Here faithful shepherds laboured unsparingly
faced flood and fire, bushrangers, sickness, death
riding to lonely homestead, farm and hut.
From the first day these walls
quarried and cut from neighbouring native sandstone
nurtured a lamp of care for a wider world,
sent alms to Irish famine, suffering Highlands
succoured the lonely, needy, near at hand.
Here lie no bones of saints, but symbols speak:
the stones set firm in earth
the skyward pointing spire
a window looks to the east
a bamboo cross
brought by Yashiro
first visitor from our five-year enemy,
the gift inscribed
‘Reconciliation and Repentance’
in Japanese characters.
A place of meeting.

V. Psalm for an Artificial City

When enemies cry against you
with vipers’ tongues shooting malicious darts
sneering ‘unreal, alien, artificial’,
rejoice, be glad
grapple their empty slanders to your soul
and glory, glory in being artificial
as are those Aboriginal artefacts
strewn in your valleys, shaped by human hands
aeons before such things as cities were.
Rejoice, yours is a noble sisterhood
as artificial as the brick and marble
on Tiber ’s seven hills, the Acropolis
wearing its Attic crown, Hangchou, the lake
man-made, the scholars’ garden, Xanadu,
or Arnold’s dreaming spires
where oxen found a place to ford the Thames.
Rejoice in man’s and nature’s partnership.
Be glad that from contending tongues of Babel
at length clear voices and wise choice prevailed,
that some, where others wavered, held their hope,
prophets of a wilderness that yet should flower.
Be glad that Burley Griffin,
before surveyor’s pegs, huts, buildings, highways,
long before fountain, lake that bears his name,
stood on this ground
lifted his eyes to the hills, sun, mist, and cloud,
the singing light, the beckoning Brindabellas
and willed his plan the servant not the master
of a chosen place.

VI. To Our Grandchildren

What city, people, planet will you see
when we are dust, or hearing
with Herbert church bells beyond the stars?
We peer through lightning-laced volcanic cloud
to an undecoded future
measureless menace, boundless promise,
hurtling headlong.

But you came purposeful, the human mark,
eager to breathe and feed and find the light.
Yours be the level eye that recognises
millennial Eden notable for its serpents,
Mammon’s demesne contesting holy ground,
fatal infections not imported here
by foreign agents, but Cain’s parting gift
to the human species.
Yours be the generous hand outstretched to strangers
and neighbours over the fence, or nearer still;
yours be the listening ear, the gift of silence
tuned to the unseen wind, the still small voice.
Yours be the lifted head, the outward gaze
like the great sunflower dish at Tidbinbilla
tracking through space a cosmic conversation.
Yours be the marvellous light
that moved across these mountains and these valleys
long before brown men came or white men came,
that touches now the rocks, remotest tree-tops,
things made with hands,
light, lethal to lies and hate
love’s only dwelling-place
and place of meeting.

Poems of Australia