Vonda Stanley's collection of early Australian bush poems



There’s a sudden, fierce clang of the knocker,
Then the sound of a voice in the shaft,
Shrieking the words that drum hard on the centres,
And the braceman goes suddenly daft:
‘ Set the whistles a-blowing like blazes! Billy, run, give old Mackie a call –
Run you fool! Number two’s gone to pieces,
And Fred Baker is caught in the fall!
Say, hullo! There below – any hope, boys, any chances of saving his life?
‘ Heave away!’ says the knocker. ‘They’ve started.
God be praised, he’s no youngster or wife!’

Screams the whistle in fearful entreaty,
And the wild echo raves on the spur,
And the night, that was still as a sleeper
In soft, charmed sleep, is astir
With the flutterings of wings in the wattles,
And the vague frightened murmer of birds,
With far cooees that carry the warning,
Running feet, inarticulate words.
From the black belt of bush come the miners,
And they gather by Mack on the brace,
Out of breath, barely clad, and half-wakened,
With a question in every face.

‘Who’s below?’ ‘Where’s the fall?’ ‘Didn’t I tell you –
Didn’t I say that them sets wasn’t sound?’
‘ Is it Fred? He was reckless with Baker;
Now he’s seen his last shift underground.’
‘ And his mate? Where is Sandy McFadyn?’
‘ Sandy’s snoring at home in his bunk.’
‘ Not at work! Name of God! A foreboding?’
“ A foreboding be hanged! He is drunk!’
‘ Take it steady there, lads!’ the boss orders.
He is white to the roots of his hair.
‘ We may get him alive before daybreak
Of he’s close to the face and has air.’

In the dim drive with ardour heroic
Two facemen are begging away.
Long and Coots in the rise heard the thunder,
And they fled without word or delay
Down the drive, and they rushed for the ladders,
And they went up the shaft with a run,
For they knew the weak spot in the workings,
And the guess was there was graft to be done.
Number Two was pitch dark, and they scrambled
To the plat and they made for the face,
But the roof had come down fifty yards in,
And the reef was all over the place . . .

By the faint yellow glow of the candles,
Where the dank drive is hot with their breath,
On the verge of the Land of the Shadow,
Waging war breast to bosom with Death,
How they struggle, these giants! And slowly,
As the trucks rattle into the gloom,
Inch by inch they advance to the conquest
Of a prison – or is it a tomb?
And the workings re-echo a volley
As the timbers are driven in place;
Then a whisper is borne to the toilers:
‘ Boys, his mother is there on the brace!’

Like veterans late into action,
Fierce with longing to hew and to hack,
Riordan’s shift rushes in to relieve them,
And the toil-stricken men stagger back.
‘ Stow the stuff, mates, wherever there’s stowage!
Run the man on the brace till he drops!
There’s no time to think on this billet!
Bark the heels of the trucker who stops!
Keep the props well in front, and be careful.
He’s in there, and alive, never fret.’
But the grey dawn is softening the ridges, and
Word has not come to us yet.

Still the knocker rings out, and the engive
Shrieks and strains like a creature in pain
As the cage rushes up to the surface
And drops back into darkness again.
By the capstan a woman is crouching.
In her eyes neither hope nor despair;
But a yearning that glowers like frenzy
Bids those who’d speak pity forbear.
Like a figure in stone she is seated
Till the labour of rescue be done.
For the father was killed in the Phoenix,
And the son – Lord of pity! The son?

Hullo! There on top!’ they are calling.
‘ They are through! He is seen in the drive!’
They have got him – thank Heaven! They’ve got him,
And oh, blessed be God, he’s alive!’
‘ Man on! Heave away!’ Step aside, lads,’
She was silent and strong in her anguish;
Now she babbles and weeps where she stands,
And the stern men, grown gentle, support her
At the mouth of the shaft, till at last
With a rush the cage springs to the landing.
And her son’s arms encircle her fast.

 Edward Dyson

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