Here(by) Freight

By | 1 February 2013

Scanning out across the shipping yards of Long Beach, California, my eyes barged into a crowd of ship-to-shore cranes, their booms twisting atop a copse of gantries. Busy operator cabins, tucked in at pivoting junctions, rendered the cranes a leisurely swarm of humungous bugs – android bugs – picking through carrion that resembled, from afar, a detonated Rubik’s Cube.

The view was arrestingly Blade Runner. It was night. I was freight. Freight I knew I’d later write about.

Servo mechanisms whirred, scraped, chirped then hoisted. Back, forth and returning again into position: I was mesmerised by an unending pattern of loading. Bulk. Efficient cycles of movement lowered, set and clamped another 5000 kilograms of shipping container into place somewhere inside the hold of the container ship I clung to.


Box after box, each old hat in this slick routine. Then, me – bound for Australia – just like a generation of Hungarians and Czechs had been, following unrest in their countries in 1956 and 1968, respectively. And Chileans in 1973 after Allende was toppled; Vietnamese families, starting from 1975; Poles in 1981 after martial law was slammed down upon them; the stratum of Irish during the 1840s; and between 1860 and 1880, the influx of Melanesian labourers indentured into servitude on Queensland plantations.

But, containers: they’re just stuff. Their contents, only things: tennis balls and whipper snippers.

Peanut butter. Jet skis. Sombreros. Diet pills.

Whether such transport is fuelled by forces of supply or vacuums of demand, I was mixed up in that vast operation too, engulfed by mechanisms of economics and its devices. Shore A to shore B. Commodities.

A human should never be a commodity.

The Australian Immigration Department states in its Fact Sheet 4 – More than 60 Years of Post-War Migration that, ‘Starting in 1788, some 160,000 convicts were shipped to the Australian colonies’. Humans shipped. That’s commodity. I shipped myself, but for incomparable purposes: to study literature at university vs. attending prison.

Okay. They’re distantly comparable. I opted to leave a terrific job in academic publishing at university of Chicago Press for no job in academic poetry.

There are umpteen reasons why people expatriate. Being a ‘good or service’ is not one of them – acting as or fulfilling one, is. Desperation is too. Neither was mine that night.

I was petrified. Never in my then twenty-nine years had I witnessed so clear a demarcation in my life such as those final hours in America. The great ‘Give us your poor, your tired’, that mantra which lured so many cultures to the Unites States, now tipped on its head and looking rather more like ‘Expunge the annoyed, the antsy, the malcontent’. Me.

Those cranes were relentless. Fluid. The sensation of my departure in their midst employed in me a pulpy essence of what we dub the sublime. So intense, so stupefying did it reverberate inside me that I lifted out of its juju – as if risen from a pond of freshly squeezed juice – and, via the pure physics of ‘change’, began water-skiing on its crest. I was up, going. Across the Pacific to Australia. It was the genesis to why I write.

Things got Tron as the night wore on. Lights of the intermodal terminal, mooning about in their pre-planned orbits, offered up a constellation that looked like animation of how computer chips are made by exacting black machines. No nonsense. No sentimentality.

Here’s your new processor, boy. The one that’ll drive your life in a new hemisphere.
Remember how it looks. Look carefully now. You chose it.

And here’s when it got Empire Strikes Back. In amongst the tyres supporting the cranes’ enormity, wee vehicular scamps scooted about the freight yard below, leaving forkfuls of container in position under the cranes’ clutches. One by one, half an ark’s procession, the containers came aboard. White-knuckling the gunwales, I felt their accumulation push the ship deeper into its docking slip. One centimetre per minute. Slowly, I felt the sink.

What. Am. I. DOING?

This was real, my science-ficiton. This was …

the ether in tendrils
or how camels appear
stuck in a headwind
on the very cuticle of vision

… as I would later write in my first few months exploring Melbourne in summer 2004. But these were the last hours of my American life before it transmogrified into a 14-day intermission at sea – a liminal space from which I spotted the first somersaulting moments of my Australian self gambol towards me from the distance. I remember the seconds, then, from the ship’s deck, how they compressed into minutes like spent espresso grounds and how all particulates of time tasted ferrous and raw. How zinc smells. The scent of lightning.

I’m now a permanent Australian resident – sweated, I did, through an obstacle course of visas, their sub-clauses and sub-classes (infuriating at the time, a cinch compared to many) and a procession of tuberculosis examinations. During this hopscotch, I met a woman who shook me to the core of intrigue. She is Australian. We had baklava as wedding cake, pavlova on our first anniversary. Our son was born here under the watchful eye of Australian midwifery. All of my publications have been written since arrival.

My university advisors, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Tony Birch, are quintessentially Australian. Their steady voices stabilised the wobbly, foal-like hooves of my own.

The inherent richness of an expatriation story like mine is rarely fettered to itineraries; it’s a blossom grown from having a snoop around this Earth.

Expatriation is concurrently wrenching and grandiose – built from stacked, tiny moments. Massifs of memory remain in you as those snippets of time happen, towering in their wake, creating a weather system all their own like Kilimanjaro does, like Wystan Hugh Auden did when he forsake old York for New. Weather drips from pens.

Scintillating detail populates each crease in expatriation’s brand of newness, hokey as that reads. And I recall, vividly, the precise moment I realised this. There was a morning on our honeymoon where my wife focused her attention far more on the complexity of micro flora thriving in braids of frigid water that trickle out from underneath New Zealand’s Fox Glacier than she did the visual KAPOW! the glacier typically arrests its guests with. She bothered to look closer at the whole environment – finding time for minutiae.

This recollection elides perfectly into the fundamental point of why I am interested in stories spanning a distance. My id remains unchanged: yet it craves a rocket salad now where it once demanded arugula.

It snows loudly in my skin. And I forget that it’s my accent which sounds funny – and cannot be shipped home in a crate. No sequel is planned for it. A minor detail.

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