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Peter Coghill


We lived and farmed, my convict father and I, on the last
clear patch by the Cudgegong River, our hut right beneath
the enveloping hills. On each flat-top there crouched a beast

of stone, these animals glared like sphinxes through a wreath
of trees, guards for the far, black mountains, set to keep
us from their gates. And this land of the valley had a breath:

the tribe. They swam through the bush as an eel in the green deep
of the river, weaving through the dimness. Two peoples, one place
with water, and where the land was fat for game or sheep.

More settlers arrived, and after drink men threatened to chase
that mob of blacks away. From his old scars, so aware
was dad of persecution, behind whatever face,

that he warned me away from the boy. We'd met by the river last year
on the hunt for one quarry, and had fallen in together.
To see me, he'd lean on our gum out the back, standing there

till I'd slip away from my jobs, then we'd go fishing or slither
through the reeds to hunt. I even learnt a few words of their talk,
though never thought to teach him ours, and ignored my father,

happy to see the boy beneath our tree, and walk
after him through the bush. When agate faced, with no laugh
or sign as usual, he grabbed my wrists, then turned to stalk

between the wattles. One heart beat's halt and I headed off
to follow, sticking close behind, though he took a track
far from the valley, among steep hills where the going was tough.

My doubts were surrendered to his sure stride and his lack
of hesitation among the sandstone walls, till I
was lost beyond my own returning, no going back

before the dusk. The last of twilight had left the sky
when we stopped by a creek, merely a skim of water on sand,
here the boy mixed ochre, red and white, to apply

in streaks on our chests, and on our cheeks with prints of his hand.
We'd come to a secret place, a ground for ceremony:
one tree, and in a ring, thousands of prints in the sand

treading, re-treading round the white trunk like the many
long years spun on this axis. All ages seemed to twine
together, so that turning about and about in the honey

of thickened history, could concentrate, in this time,
some thing of the past to be touched. Ritual performed we sealed
the tree with our palms in blood-red ochre as a sign,

ending our dive through ages, and slept till dawn revealed,
among gullies scraped out by claws of darkness, our track
to home. Where at midday we washed and I hid behind a shield

of wattles to watch my father. He was sitting, his back
to the door, when I'd stepped out and said, trying to be bold,
“I got bushed the other side of the river.” “Not with that black,”

he retorted. “No, alone” I said. “That's what I told
the neighbours, that you were missing, taken away by him.”
I was led inside to eat. My old man didn't scold

or ask another question, but stared over the rim
of his cup at me as I worried the cold meat and damper.
That's when the shooting started, bangs that by the whim

of the wind echoed round the hut. A party of campers
perhaps, but the sound had built and built. I'd tried to shut
tight my ears to the rolling climax and, like a dog, scampered

by instinct to the door. My father held it closed, “stay put!”
was all he said. I curled on the mattress, each shot a pound
in the guts, though I'd no grip on the happenings a mile from the hut.

But I'd seen hunts: when startled by dogs a grey would bound
big-eyed through the trees, and then the shot and then the ‘roo
would collapse in a rolling tumble, to kick and thrash on the ground.

Then the dogs would pile in. If you wanted to keep the meat, they'd shoo
them away, but if it was near the end of the hunt, with enough
in the bag, to keep them keen, the pack would be let go.

And the men would stand and watch. There was firing on and off
into the night and later, with father asleep, I stared
at the moonlight splayed, shot on the dirt floor, silver and soft.

Of course some got away, to the pathless country, and speared
a sheep when they could. I was part of that people, by rite
and by guilt, and when in town with those men I never dared

to look up, knowing I was an excuse for that night,
and I chucked my guts when I saw blood on our gum at first light

Peter Coghill’s “Settlement” was first published in Cordite 31: Epic (2009). The guest poetry editor for this issue was Ali Alizadeh.

Peter Coghill

I grew up on a farm, an abstracted child who was never going to be a farmer. Instead I naturally gravitated to academic pursuits, with mathematics my first love. I completed a first class honours degree in physics and then a PhD at Sydney University. My thesis research was in the field of fibre optics, but having written the thesis I never wanted to touch another one, thus missing out on the tech boom of the mid-nineties. Instead I became a post-doc in the CSIRO Division of Minerals, which is a government research laboratory. While there I have worked mostly in acoustics for instrumentation and lately in copper ore sorting. Unlike most academic careers I've ended up spending a lot of time at various great holes in the ground, especially in Australia and South Africa.

A Typical Day At Work 

I have a straightforward 20-minute commute the opposite way to a packed stream of traffic to the government laboratory where I work. If at all possible I try to do any creative scientific work first thing in the morning, after an email check. It's all down hill for me after about 9:00am intellectually. The physics I do is related to instrumentation for the mineral's industry and verges on engineering. It still manages to produce interesting problems and sometimes mathematics--well back from the cutting edge, but still fascinating. The institution I work in, CSIRO, still has some quaint hangovers of gentler days, one of which is morning tea at 10:30. It is actually an efficient way to find out what's going on in the group. After that come the inevitable meetings, administration, catching up on the progress of projects, chasing collaborators in various external companies, and the unbelievably user-unfriendly dictates of bureaucracy. This is for an office day; howevr, there is a reasonable amount of travel to various company sites scattered throughout the year.