A History of Australian Silences

By | 1 February 2014


The first
was a cross-hatch
of bodily lightning –
a nerve-net
of increase-sites

The first silence
shook out its leg
and sang low in the drone.

There were no gaps
between it and story.

The first silence
could not conceive
of an absence or end.


when the firesticks arrived,
that’s the first thing they found:
who could not
see their faces in the water;
who could not hear their language in the scrub.

The stage set was there.

But the actors were somebody else.

Clumsily, shrewdly,
they misheard and improvised:
track names and creek names and food names;
tribe-bunting/race boundaries/prospects and vanishing points;
the Gregorian time-grid; the Governor’s space-grid;
the long names for misdeeds,
the Flash names – and all the look-dumb names;
the Secretary’s full-sentence edicts. . .
the jokes and elisions that rounded them, late, round the fire.

An emergency lashing, a raft of inventions and doubts –
but the new silence held.

And everything in it was God’s work.

And everything not in it yet.


Banging and whistling,
they worked to install it all over.
The Governor strode round and proclaimed it.
JP’s reinforced it with strokes.
Communions re-drank it –
and even the abject confirmed it by being left out:
a shape-shifting, feral, part-rational silence
of hard labour/Providence/Upper Case Principles/
costume/affection for Ma//
the self-songs of distance and dyings//
the God-song of weather/the sing-song of daily amens.

A flexible, muscular lattice with scope for emergencies.

Except there were those
who kept gnawing away
at an ur-silence, out beyond bounds.

Who would peer
into all those small lights.


I hold the Gorgon’s head, my own, my own;
it stares this lockjaw land to light and stone.

Hal Porter, Dry Final Scene

And this one was too big.

It stared at us blankly.

It howled from the ovens
and laughed at the lovers’ wet oaths.
It shimmied and bristled and clawed in a teeming biota.

It sent Frank Webb crazy: for whom
each next tick would be Morgan’s last breath.
It was Nolan’s one subject: a sluggish but permanent creek
into which all events e.g. murdered policemen, would soon disappear.
It black-holes from Tucker’s burnt faces:
the ironbark-and-blue of a stonewalling rage dried to distance.
Humphries hurled gladdies and home truths to make it take notice.
White tried the glare of close witness.
Silence asked, Who? Them or you?

And it won.

As it must. You can’t out-express silence.

This one was all absence.

Time to invite silence in.


Stand him up.

Brush out the sand from his hair.

Let him take as much time as he needs.

Who thinks
he has no other choice
but fight silence and lose:

that his role’s to raise it with triumphs –
with projects and lovers
that don’t quite add up to a win.

As if it succumbed to arrival.

As if it weren’t what we are made of, as well.

What can we do
except open the sides of our stories?

Dance with it?

Come on Ulysses.

One half-step. One. And now two …

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