DOCTORS' JOBS ARE EASIER TO FILL OUT BUSH THAN IN TOWN. Report by KIERAN FINNANE.
Remote communities in The Centre are having more success than Alice Springs in attracting general practice doctors.
Joy Burch, Executive Officer for the federally-funded Remote Health Workforce Agency which works across the Territory outside Darwin, says she is surprised that recruitment of doctors for remote communities has been more successful than recruitment for Alice Springs.
Ms Burch says – "in broad brush terms" – Alice currently needs the equivalent of four more full-time doctors to cover day to day access to GP services.
This would bring the coverage to one doctor per 1200 to 1500 people.
Remote communities at present are covered for ratios of one doctor per 400 to 800 people. The lower ratio takes into account the absence of other health services, as well as the high burden of disease in many communities.
Ms Burch says remote communities offer experience that suits some doctors' interests.
To attract doctors with an interest in rural, rather than remote, practice, she says Alice Springs may have to be more aggressive in promoting itself as an interesting and enjoyable place in which to work and live.
Practice manager at Bath Street Family Medical Centre, Gay Watson, says locums often express surprise about the town and its lifestyle: "They expect it to be a dusty little town and they're pleasantly surprised when they find it isn't.
"But how do we get them to stay?"
Bath Street is currently "one and a half full-time doctors down", much better than earlier in the year when it was two and a half.
Not only did this mean that doctors were desperately busy during the day and patients were enduring long waits, but the practice's ability to provide 24 hour care through an after-hours roster was stretched to the limit.
Ms Watson says there were occasions when it was simply not possible and after-hours patients had to be referred to Accident and Emergency at the hospital.
A specific after-hours service for Alice was identified as a priority in a public meeting as far back as 1996.
It is now the subject of a project by the Central Australian Division of Primary Health Care, which is looking at different models for the service to determine which would best suit Alice Springs.
However, Ms Watson rates general access to GP services as a more pressing need.
"Generally, our patients can see a doctor within two days, although the waiting list for one of our doctors is four weeks," she says.
"If the matter is urgent, a patient can usually be seen on the same day, but it won't necessarily be by the doctor of their choice and most patients do like continuity.
"When we had enough doctors we ran emergency sessions every afternoon. "At the moment we can't do that, although we do try to keep a few appointment times free each day for emergencies.
"At present we are covered for the after-hours demand," says Ms Watson.
Gus Matarazzo, long-time doctor at Bath Street, says a factor influencing the availability of GPs is that many are now choosing to work part-time.
"Ten to 15 years ago, doctors worked from morning to dark, virtually to the exclusion of everything else," says Dr Matarazzo.
"Now many choose to preserve their quality of life and work part-time."This includes lady doctors, who are always in high demand, but who may be working around having children and raising them."
Ms Burch says the talk around town is that people can be waiting for a week to see a GP.
However, in her discussion with the three main practices, including Bath Street, she has been assured that, with the right advice to the front desk, patients with chronic illness will be able to see their doctor, while sick children, for example, will be able to see a doctor, even if it's not their doctor of choice.
"This may require ringing around," says Ms Burch, "but that can happen anywhere, not just in Alice Springs."
The four new doctors would not cover the after-hours need, says Ms Burch. That would require further recruitment. Just how many would depend on the model adopted.
Meanwhile, in collaboration with the NT Department of Health, the agency is launching a new recruitment drive focussing on Alice.
This includes placing stories about medical practice in town in medical journals and presenting papers at major medical conferences coming up in Adelaide and Melbourne this month and next.
Dr Matarazzo says one of the important points to get across is that general practice in Alice Springs does not necessarily involve Aboriginal health issues, which not all doctors feel they are equipped to deal with.
"It is possible for doctors to carry on mainstream, good quality general practice here, much as they do in suburbs around the country," says Dr Matarazzo.
The agency also advertises internationally and as a result is expecting a doctor from the UK to arrive in town in May.
It also manages for the NT Government a scheme that allows overseas-trained doctors to work in areas of need, which after five years will result in their Australian medical registration and permission to migrate.Ms Burch says the agency has to remain vigilant.
"The shortage of doctors in rural areas is a national problem. We are competing with every other state.
"Our problem is how to make practice in Alice Springs more appealing than practice in a rural area just outside Sydney or any of the other major cities."
BUSH BRAWL HURTS REGION: PITJANTJATJARA ORGANISATIONS IN VICIOUS FIGHT. Report by ERWIN CHLANDA.
Australia's last frontier of mining, the Pitjantjatjara tribal lands south of Alice Springs, has become the battle ground for two major Aboriginal organisations.
The row is serious enough for SA's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Terry Roberts to be talking about "a new form of governance and new criteria for funding in that region" – and about a plebiscite.
The area's oil, nickel and platinum deposits are estimated to be worth billions of dollars, yet there still isn't a single major mine, and even exploration has been sporadic.
Except for two minor cattle stations and art enterprises there are no significant commercial enterprises.
The 4000 Pitjantjatjara in the western top end of SA and adjoining regions of WA and the Territory – some 350,000 square kilometres – survive mainly on welfare.
Unemployment, poverty, petrol sniffing and alcoholism are rampant, with troubles spilling over into Alice Springs, the region's major centre.
Says Mr Roberts, whose Labor government was installed just six weeks ago: "What's occurring at the moment is absolutely disgusting.
"There are people in the lands, young people, who are dying from the effects of petrol sniffing.
"The communities are in a state of disarray.
"They need assistance from us and that's what they will be given ... a new way forward."
The current row focuses on the portion of "the lands" in SA, well over 100,000 square kilometres, under the control of Anangu Pitjantjatjara (AP), a statutory body set up by the SA Government.
At issue are the rights – enshrined in the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 – of the highly traditional Aboriginal population to control the use of its land.
While the older people are apprehensive about change, some of the young are looking to commercial development for a way out of their wretched existence.
AP is locking horns with the Pitjantjatjara Council (PC), based in Alice Springs.
PC is headed by chairman Gary Lewis, a former AP director, and Yami Lester, former chairman of AP.
Mr Lester is an Aboriginal activist with powerful connections, who achieved international prominence by seeking compensation for his blindness which he blames on the British nuclear tests at Maralinga.
AP chairman Owen Burton claims that Mr Lewis has no authority because there are "serious doubts" that there was a proper election for chairman at the AGM.
"The Pitjantjatjara Council does not hold proper meetings."
However, PC senior lawyer Mark Ascione says PC held four meetings in the last six months, including one in March this year.
Mr Ascione says PC has a contract with AP to exclusively provide legal and anthropological services. But consultant Chris Marshall, engaged by AP, claims that contract is "null and void".
Last week PC's three lawyers and two anthropologists, as well as support staff, who'd all been working without pay for weeks, were packing their bags and shutting down the service.
Putting the finishing touches on the "Pit" Council's 25th annual report was one of their final tasks, along with selling cars and computers to raise money for severance payments.
It was a tough finale for an organisation whose high points included successfully lobbying for land rights in SA, and the "hand back" of Ayers Rock.
Rumours of a last minute rescue bid for PC's troubled services seem to be wishful thinking. Mr Roberts says their demise is "tragic, but unfortunately the time frames by which organisations are operating [are different] from the time frames of governments [required] to act within the legislation.
"This is a frustration but it is a reality.
"No shortcuts are to be taken by government.
"If one group collapses I won't be talking to that group.
"My main responsibility then becomes a new governance program that incorporates representation for all people in that area, and that means [cooperation with] the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth and if need be, Western Australia."
While the PC still exists, its capacity to function without key staff is unclear.
Matters came to a head when after decades of failure, AP appointed Alice-based Mr Marshall, who's been assisting Aboriginal organisations in trouble for the past seven years, to straighten out the organisation.
His fees are paid from a special grant to AP from ATSIC and the SA Department of State Aboriginal Affairs.
He recommended AP to get its own lawyer and anthropologist, using PC's legal and anthropological services for excess work (while – at least for the time being – fully retaining the council's accounting and infrastructure services).
"However, the Pit Council adopted a scorched earth policy, demanding all or nothing.
"AP is now going it alone entirely."
He says AP "would prefer" its professional staff to be based at Umuwa – a bizarre mini Canberra in the middle of the desert, just south of Ernabella.
It's clearly not an idea that appeals to Mr Roberts: "My position has been from day one that the Pitjantjatjara Council has a political and service delivery role to play and you just can't isolate an organisation on the basis of a single agenda of separation of legal and anthropological services.
"That just doesn't make sense."
The dispute was further complicated by the change of government in SA. The defeated Liberals, who Mr Ascione claims wanted to promote a string of mining ventures, supported AP's pro-development agenda.
But Mr Marshall says it's not a development, but an "empowerment" agenda.
The SA Government funds AP to the tune of $1m a year. Of that, $700,000 comes from ATSIC which, through its Port Augusta office, has provided a further $1.6m direct to PC for constructing a solar farm at Umuwa.
PC says the farm is now mid-way through construction, which may stop before completion.
Mr Roberts has clearly inherited a can of worms.
He has tried – but so far failed – to get "to a point where the AP executive was totally representative of all interest groups within the three sides of the borders … with an efficient organisational structure that is then able to tap into state and Commonwealth funds."
However, Mr Burton says: "Sadly, Terry Roberts seems unable to clearly see what the issues are in the dispute between AP and the Pitjantjatjara Council.
"If he can't support us he should get out of the way."
As the conduit for a lot of public money Mr Roberts must make sure it is spent in accordance with the law, and much of the current heat is generated by the issues relating to mining.
Mr Ascione says there are strong suspicions that AP is seeking to bastardise the prescribed consultation processes, in favour of mining companies, to the extent even of breaking the law.
Mr Marshall says mining authorities of the SA government have been "stimulating" progress with mining on the lands, and resource exploitation will be one of the commercial activities on which an imminent review of commercial opportunities will focus.
Mr Ascione says in the past year 12 exploration licences have been approved by PC, more that in the last 20 years.
The Act, says AP, before authorising any activity by outsiders on Pitjantjatjara land, must ensure that traditional owners with an interest in land affected must
• understand the nature and purpose of the proposal;
• have had the opportunity to express their views to AP;
• and consent to the proposal.
In any case, the present process for approving mining activities seems tedious.
Only three exploration tenements are allowed on the lands by PC at any one time.
Mr Ascione says their approvals should take no more than 120 days, but "in practice the process has been delayed up to six months because of wet weather, unsealed roads and cultural death".
He says when it comes to allowing mining itself – a stage not yet reached for any major projects anywhere on the lands – "AP and mining companies have agreed … that any mining lease proposals will extend negotiations from between three and five years".
With ferocious claims to be the proper representative body coming from both AP and PC, how will Mr Roberts find out who's right?
And has AP, by cutting off PC's money and so sending it down the gurgler, acted legally and with the consent of the SA Government?
Says Mr Roberts: "I am setting up an inquiry, internally, into how the decisions were made [by the just defeated Liberal government in SA], first of all into the confrontationist methods of the negotiation, and why the time frame was set in a way that forced the closure of the Pitjantjatjara Council, if that's the case, and forced them from the negotiating table.
"And then I'm going to set up another enquiry of eminent people to put together recommendations for change that incorporates a new form of governance and new criteria for funding in that region."
That board of enquiry is rumoured to include activist lawyer Phillip Toyne, the key player in the Ayers Rock hand-back, Mick Dodson and Rick Farley.
Says Mr Roberts: "If the AP position is in conflict with the recommendations the government picks up, then we'll have to have a look at the legislation.
"Ultimately the question of governance will be in the hands of traditional owners and those people who represent them. The representation question is still open."
But Mr Burton says: "The Minister can have all the inquiries he likes, but the fact is that AP is going ahead with its plan to get better value for money for its professional services and to establish strong governance on the AP Lands."
How will Mr Roberts ascertain the views of some 4000 people, for many of whom English may be their third or fourth language, and who are spread over 350,000 square kilometres of semi-desert?
Says the Minister, who has clearly not given up hope for PC's ongoing viability: "There is already an executive of the Pitjantjatjara Council in place who represent traditional owners' interests.
"I'll be asking them to help me to conduct meetings in remote areas.
"We can't have the Pitjantjatjara Council or the AP making claims of representation if those claims can't be justified among traditional owners, bearing in mind that both bodies are answerable to the communities.
"They are the people who have to be canvassed in any plebiscite."
But Mr Marshall disagrees that PC has "any legitimate role in the process the Minister envisages.
"AP is the statutory body established by the SA Parliament to represent traditional owners."
Pitjantjatjara people in the NT and WA have set up their own organisations, making PC "largely irrelevant".
If PC was the "mother" of these new groups – including Anangu Pitjantjatjara – then she must now gracefully allow her kids to go their own ways.
BICYCLES VS US AIR FORCE GALAXY. By guest writer SCOTT CAMPBELL-SMITH.
The "Galaxy versus four bicycles" action won national and international coverage for the anti-bases movement. This is Part Five of SCOTT CAMPBELL-SMITH's series on the history of the Pine Gap protests.The "Galaxy versus four bicycles" action marks the high point of humour in this story, although opinion divides sharply on that point. One person I interviewed insisted that there was no humour in it: it was frightening and way too dangerous.
The action also dramatises beautifully the "David and Goliath" nature of this whole struggle.
In 1985 the Reagan administration had announced what became known as the "Star Wars program". At mind-boggling expense, a system of early warning devices and guided missiles was to be developed so that it could intercept any nuclear warheads before they reached the US. (Further development of this program is currently being undertaken by the George W. Bush administration).
In January 1985 it became public that Pine Gap was being upgraded as part of this plan. The Galaxy, a new and bigger aircraft than had previously made the run from the US to Alice Springs, came into service, moving parts for the construction work and goods for the employees.One day in July of 1985 at least five people broke into the airport grounds and hid in the scrub next to the tarmac. A decoy demonstration was planned for the same day and most security officers were focused on the unruly crowd gathered at the arrivals and departures fence, not far from the northern edge of the tarmac (one needs to recall or imagine a much older and smaller airport than our current version).
As the Galaxy approached and prepared to land, four people with bicycles on their shoulders raced across the bare ground towards the eastern end of the tarmac, where they mounted their bicycles and rode furiously west up the tarmac.
Back at the terminal there was consternation, not only because of the cyclists but also because the issue of jurisdiction was unclear. Local police felt they couldn't become involved, the airport being under federal jurisdiction. This delay probably helped the action succeed.
Although one cyclist was stopped very early, three others charged on as federal police gave chase then stopped their vehicles to grab them, only to see the cyclists swoop out of reach, and then the farce was repeated.
The Galaxy was forced to abort its landing and the crowd cheered. As the Galaxy circled, a second and then a third cyclist was apprehended but the fourth made it almost to the end of the runway before being stopped by police.The protest at the arrival and departure gates had continued. After the Galaxy landed and began to prepare to unload, one man ran onto the tarmac and sprayed the side of the aircraft with red paint, but was almost immediately, and roughly, arrested and charged with damage to property.
The four cyclists were also taken into custody and charged.
Photos of the demonstration made it into papers world wide: the base and the people who opposed it were, once again, for a moment, a national and international focus of attention for the anti-war movement.Bob Boughton, one of the cyclists, recalls: "We'd been there a couple of hours. Security then was nothing like it is today. We thought we'd only last a couple of minutes and assumed they'd try to ram us but they kept on trying to pull up next to us, it was a joke. And there was one officer who thought it was a hoot and wasn't really trying.
"Hal Alexander was about 50 at the time but he was still the fittest of us and he rode the longest – we were all smokers back then.
"We all paid our fines but Hal was a hard old communist who'd done plenty of time in jail and was curious about Alice Springs prison, so he did his time. He also wrote an article about that later."A significant effect of this action was that the security presence at both the airport and at the base was increased. This action marks the change to a new seriousness on both sides of the struggle.
The Peace Group becomes more dedicated in its research, its international networking and the frequency and intensity of its protest actions.
The response by base personnel was to increase security and to make it physically stronger.
Footage of members of the Peace Group trying to prevent trucks from entering the base by standing in front of them demonstrates this graphically: the peaceniks don't hardly move and the trucks don't hardly stop and the security guards don't hardly hold back when they throw the peaceniks around and out of the way.NEXT: The peace conference and gate protests of 1987.
Column by ANN CLOKE: Fares on Alice flights soaring high.
A first bite in The Australian "letters" section some weeks ago went something like: If there are extra Virgin flights around the country does that mean there'll be more virgin berths?
Which I thought was extremely witty. Everyone knows that Alice Springs is far superior than many other remote regional destinations. Current visitation numbers together with forward bookings show its viability. It was believed that Virgin Blue would recognise this, and with the backing of government and the lobbying by local tourism operators, the Centre would be serviced by Virgin and a bit more honesty would be brought to our skies.It was certainly a blow to learn that the prospect of Virgin Blue flying into the Centre is not as bright as it first seemed, although Maree Tetlow, newly appointed managing director of NTTC, (Alice News, April 10) says that negotiations are continuing. This is positive stuff, but we must hope it's not "all talk, no action". Along with thousands of other interested followers of the Virgin saga, I was excited, happy, then relatively depressed and am now, again hopeful …As David says, situation normal – up and down like a yoyo! Everyone's gearing up for a great tourist season – there's such positive energy out there. Most intrepid travellers have the Red Centre on their MUST SEE list.Certainly Qantas has the routes covered and sources have promised extra charter flights, if required, to ensure convention attendees arrive on time, which is good, but it will be better if existing in-flight services are overhauled and upgraded.Steve recently flew economy class, to Sydney, a three hour trip, to attend a photographic seminar. He was handed a cardboard box, similar to a takeaway food container which he duly opened and he found (it wasn't actually lost!) a chocolate, a container of water and one cheese sandwich protected by gladwrap. It's obviously not just ordinary everyday cheese – it's expensive, possibly imported, because, on that particular day, the cost of a full economy return fare to Sydney was $1357.45 (a business class fare was $1806.25)!David caught the late afternoon flight to Darwin – he was looking forward to a long gin and tonic to complement his reading material and sandwich, but he was advised that spirits weren't available in economy class.
"I realise I have to pay for it," he said. The hostess told him that spirits were offered in business class only – she could sell him a beer though.
David's daughter, Miriam, who has seen all seasons in the Centre over the years, and friends, Audrey and Carolyn, first time visitors, flew in from Sydney on Sunday. An early flight, so their little snack box held a packet of cereal, a muesli bar and an orange juice. They were happy to see clear blue skies so we introduced them to Alice with a walk around the mall markets and lunch al fresco. I rang Amanda at Aurora Resorts to see if Tony has received a reply to his unique communiqué, an Aboriginal deflecting shield with message, which was despatched to heads at Virgin Blue. Maybe it's the "no news is good news" syndrome?
Travellers know cut prices usually equate to "no frills", but Qantas isn't offering special deals. This is business as usual, and it's nowhere near frilly! Alice Springs needs that second airline and Qantas needs competition. It's healthy.Tim Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister, had a brief stopover on Saturday, en route home from Darwin. One of his many roles is acting as a consultant to Deloittes. David, Eugene and Bill joined him for a coffee at the airport. Tim is bullish about regional Australia, airlines and tourism prospects, and is looking forward to returning to the Alice for Year of the Outback celebrations in September. Is it time for Alice Springs to start lobbying (again) for that elusive international airport status which Broome has had for so many years? It would certainly bring our skies back into focus.
According to the latest BRW, the (new) federal Tourism Minister, Joe Hockey, wants an integrated policy for tourism and transport. Because not all visitors wish to fly into a metropolis, there is a need for regional gateways into Australia. Darwin and Cairns each boast an international airport, and are obvious northern options.
Alice Springs, therefore, the only regional centre for hundreds of kilometres should be the nucleus, strategically located, uncluttered, gateway to the Red Centre and the rest of Australia, and a town like Alice should be recognised as a suitable site for an international airport. That would certainly solve the issue of competitor airlines: we'd have options!
If there is going to be any success in lobbying Federal Government for funding or backing of major projects, a push for international airport status for example, then 2002, the Year of the Outback is the year to do it!
FOOTY: WHAT LIES AHEAD? Report by PAUL FITZSIMONS.
In a bygone era, on the Thursday night before season's start the local football team – be it in the suburbs or out at Bullamakanka – would huddle in the change rooms after training, waiting apprehensively for the announcement of the "teams" for Saturday.The blokes would stand around, some showered, others still pretty putrid after the training session, cooling down with a beer and building energy for the coming game by munching on a pie or two.Pie nights were an institution in footy clubs. They were extremely humble affairs, with the coach having command of the airwaves, and the litany of supporters each contributing their little bit.
The power brokers were the committee: control of everything from the purse strings downwards rested with them. They dressed and behaved accordingly.
The army of training staff, dressed up in overalls, were also extremely important people as they controlled the flow of liniment; the strapping of bandages; and the distribution of fortifying fluid which kept the cold away at three quarter time on a rain swept winter's afternoon.
Then there was the sprigger, who armed with a hammer would ensure that the leather stops were appropriately attached to boots and yet not piercing the inner sole.
And at the back of the change rooms stood the swag supporters, headed up by the local publican who no doubt had supplied the keg for the pie night, and was very keen to let all and sundry know that he was the club's major backer.In the adjacent kitchen were the women's auxiliary, heating the pies in primitive warmers, and tending to a stock pot full of soup.
In the corner lay a pile of guernseys, waiting for the keeper of the apparel to gather them up, as would be done after every game of the year, and take them home for a thorough washing.The footy club was for everyone, and everyone had a job and a level of importance. Everyone was valued.Last weekend thousands of footballers and their supporters gathered at Traeger Park to participate in the annual Lightning carnival. There was an air of expectation just as in the old days. Players were prepared to give their all for their club colours.
But, as in the case of the North Eastern Warriors, a newly named team from the Harts Range area, the myriad of bread and butter jobs at the footy fell to a very few. Joe Clark is the Warriors' coach.
He is also the trainer, waterboy, first aid officer, transport controller, accommodation officer, and responsible for every administrative matter from correctly filling out the team sheets to paying for carnival registration.For an onlooker at Traeger Park it was a feast of footy over the two days. But where did these droves of entertainers and supporters sleep?
Did they eat well, or simply continue the "pie night" ritual for the whole weekend? What did they do once the game was over?How did we as a community manage this weekend (and for that matter every weekend for the rest of the season)?These are just a few of the monumental challenges we face here in Alice Springs, at the footy in 2002While Joe Clark may be a one-man band with the Warriors, the CAFL itself is extremely light on for helpers, but the easy target for blame if and when things go wrong either on or off the ground.Unlike in the past 20 years however, it was not just a matter of rolling out the circus, collecting plenty on the gate and at the bar, then pushing on with the season proper this year.On Friday some 40 supporters of football gathered in Mona's Bar (with no beer) and for four hours looked at the big picture of football in Central Australia.
Ed Biggs from the AFL in Melbourne, Chris Natt, from AFLNT; Steve Menzies for the CAFL, Phillip Lesley of Sport and Rec, Peter Toyne and Warren Snowdon gave the forum some real punch.Rather than rambling through the issues at hand, Danny Morris as an independent facilitator gave the summit direction.While football was the focus, the bigger issues of community relationships, participation, image and management underpinned discussions.In presenting the CAFL Five Year Plan, Menzies and his executive wasted no time in declaring that the plan was a living document and designed to change according to need.The need for volunteers, as players and administrators; the suitable training of them; and the establishment of pathways, headed the agenda. To this end a working committee was formed to look at the structure of the Saturday and Sunday competitions. But bubbling away under all discussion was the problem of alcohol and its relationship to both finances and image in football.
The facilitator pushed on with the program, but eventually the point people really wanted discussed was tabled.
Most remote communities were represented as were the clubs from town and during the ensuing discussion a range of options were put forward.Again a working group was formed to report back to the summit three months down the track.The summit did not end with solutions in hand. This was never intended. However it was recognised clearly that the future of football is in our collective hands. We (the whole community) share responsibility and can no longer sweep problems under the carpet while firing bullets of blame at the CAFL or particular communities.
In four hours the summit established a communal pathway along which to travel in seeking to solve problems at hand and mould the structure of football to suit the needs of the community for whom it caters.
BARRY HILL: THE POET AND HIS BRIDE, INLAND BOUND. Review by KIERAN FINNANE.
The Inland SeaBy Barry Hill, Salt, 100 pp.Barry Hill's The Inland Sea is a love story "planting one desert in another".The poet and his bride travel from the coast to marry in the inland sea that once was and endures in the imagination, this land of "pre-historic undulations", the Central Desert. The poet articulates his love in images given him along the way – "One step, / on stone as pink / as your mouth," – but also through the inheritance of the Hebrew Songs of Songs, and through the culture that imposes itself in "this whole, central place", via Aranda songs as translated by T.G.H Strehlow.The poems are divided into four parts.
In Part One the poet addresses his beloved, very much in the tone of Song of Songs, directly quoted at the outset and then transposed to Central Australia, "in the haplessness of translation, in the hope of love". This line, together with an uncertainty in the woman's voice from the start, foreshadows the ultimate hopelessness of this marriage. The "translation" however is far from hapless.
In a trance of love the couple taste each other and the land they are in, the gorge of Yapalpa, "a place of genesis". (Later we learn that a child has been conceived, and her loss becomes the worm in the fruit – all those raisins, figs, apples and apricots – of their love.)
The fruits, milk and honey of Song of Songs find their Central Desert counterpart in the nectar of the honey ant – "A golden bubble / like a promise / swells behind your teeth." – and saturate the very rocks the lovers walk upon. This granite shows "lilac and date-coloured chips"; the river bed is "milk white"; "the baking range is a loaf of time"; "… a wallaby sits / alert as a vow" in this place "made/ for matrimony."Why matrimony and not just passion? Because "It is laid out / in trust in time."
All of this is in the man's voice; it is the "banner of love" the woman speaks of, that he raises over her. She never addresses him. Although "limp with love", she talks of him in the third person, as if standing off, a witness to what is happening: "With his left hand he cups my head / and with his right hand / he embraces me." Later she will address her father, while continuing to talk of her lover in the third person: this father appears to stand in the way of her being able to say "you".
"Let my love come into his garden / and eat his precious fruits," she says.He does, he feasts there, while she sits "in his shade desiring".
Part Two sees the poet return, on his own but still in the thrall of love (albeit stricken) and land. He rests his "harp" in the caravan, has a "good sit down", but soon he is plucking it again: "It is so quiet you can hear the breathing leaves. / A pale lemon, like the pink, / goes on with feathery firmness: / it's nothing, the way the heavy / earth brown is slowly patched / over with a lilac / …".
The pendulum swings to the misery of being "alone all over again": "Oh it matters / it matters as much as food, as air / that we stay together. / Holy is the bird soaring / on hot winds with hope."
This yearning is honed by the land, including the beautiful "young woman tree" that he watches from the caravan: "In the full sap of night she listens. / I lie beside her / owlish and adrift. / In her composure, / those full assemblies of leaves, / all our thoughts of the day / rustle quietly, brush stars."The marriage is revisited in memory. We learn how under the Milky Way "a night meant for union had soured". It was muggy. They could hear "cattle lowering" and "a donkey's heated braying". Their love-making fails, they alienate each other, and a dingo visits, "emboldened and coal-eyed". When they frighten her off, she slinks back "to her over-licked mate and litter".
By now Hill has introduced Songs of Central Australia. He hails translator Strehlow "as celebrant", with an understanding of "the Hebrew habit of couplets". This part of the poet's / translator's craft is beautifully explained: "The lines lie parallel with each other, one arm around the other, in skilful repetition." They make "a golden braid" as they "dance down a page".
A few pages later we are treated to one:
"The great sire, proud and handsome / Burns a fiery yellow."I am a married man, a truly married man / I am full of joy in my wife.
"I am full of love for my wife; / I am a married man, a truly married man."
The poet, for all the difference in times and culture, hears himself echoed in the voice of this Kwalba Chief. He yearns for the amplitude of the chief's state.There is a lot of circling before a kind of end is reached. Even as the poet is alone, at Babel Bore, observing camels, his wife is there – her hair, the scent of it, every curl. Finally in the heavy-hearted "Salts" it appears the bond has been severed. Her hair again, but this time "curling and tossed, glittering / in sea sprays of concept".
"You can have / too much of anything, from calcium / to psychotherapy," she says. Her abstractions do it: "she has gone. / Dissolved / in distance." He places her, elusive, where he knew her best – inland. "She has gone into / hard bright rainbow / silence of quartz country … ahead of the last vanishing /foot print …".
And the poet, where is he now?In Parts Three and Four he comes and goes between coast and inland, between the "wine of remembrance" and his new present, which is also a kind of return – to passion and poetry in which she had a role but was not indispensable.
Hill continues to weave Song of Songs and the Kwalba Chief couplets into the text. They unite with the poet's gifts to safeguard this love story as he imagines it (even if he can see that it was otherwise for the woman). "How is it that you feel like / A grub, and I like a butterfly / When we made the same thing?" asks the poet. " … Can we try / At least to imagine / the same stone?"
The Inland Sea is a deeply satisfying read, for its moving and complex human story and for its rich evocation of the land and cultures in which it was lived. Central Australian readers will find it particularly appealing for its abundance of beautifully wrought thoughts and images to carry with them out into country.
Return to Alice Springs News Webpage.