STEPHEN OLIVER

  

True North

I

Here, to say North demands an extensive round
    of travel, first in mind, toward the sweaty gusset
of the tropics, volcanic soils, clarty and awash,
    caked roads, flannelette leaves, tyres growing in
circumference with every mile until jauntily stuck
    fast; beyond the whole thermos flask of S.E.
Asia, India and the Himalayas, further on to the grey
    slate plateaus of Afghanistan and the quarried
reefs of lapis lazuli, before you can entertain
    the snoring sound North makes at the roof of the
mouth, North as they would from Italy onward;
    North, that is, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway,
Greenland; North, and finally the birch forests
    rugging off to an indefinite horizon over the tundra;
certainly not Larkin's North (O love blind as snow!)
    but someplace else, the indeterminate hyperborean,
beyond the north wind to the Arctic Circle where
    lights warble like organ music or taper piously,
the lights that lift the air into curtains and grottos and
    the narwhal slowly materializes on the photo plate
of ice, a ghost snapped in an extremely cold room,
    and the merest breath a bold statement of the living.

II

Here, to say North demands a dismissive outlook —
    beautiful one day, a developer's dream-text the next,
a mirage from Morocco, waves a curl of bank notes.
    The Gold Coast, The Sunshine Coast, the Great
South Coast Conurbation, surf club to surf club,
    running 2000 klm of coastal veranda from cane
fields to pineapple plantations, this land is your land,
    this land is my land, from Cape York Peninsula
to the Great Australian Bight under one law white
    as wave crests under a sky blue as a swimming pool.
(First destroy the sea-grass, then destroy the dugong.)
    North, traveler — to Bali or Jakarta, Bangkok or
Rangoon, Malaysia and Singapore, to catch the Asian
    Tiger by the tail does not require following in
the steps of Buddha or Mohammed, only the shining
    path of American Express and trade envoys in
Hilton foyers; North, past French Colonial Villas and
    trading posts from pre-second World War novels;
until your steps lead you to a first flurry of snowflakes
    whirling like helicopter blades out of the Kashmir
valley where avalanches and guns, not cow bells,
    are the most ancient sounds to reach the western ear.

III

Here, to say North still holds magnetically true as
    the needle dips vertically to lodestone or mountain;
the packet-boat three weeks overdue, bearers long
    gone, the company agent, oleaginous, first met on
the dockside (expansive now deferential) rarely
    seen outside the custom-house or seedy rum saloon;
North, but not to Nunavut, and word arrives from
    the interior that the roads are near impassable, the
telegraph wires are down, either through flood, or
    activity of bandits moving up to limestone country.
Yet our man from Mogadiscio was expected by
    the next full moon, catching dry winds off Oman;
we would recognize him by the yellow lateen sails
    of a felucca off the headland at this appointed hour.
Even the contrary winds that day fashioned an
    insignia in the sky — for a moment out of the North —
a drone of engines in close formation under cloud
    should have been headed elsewhere (the theatre of
war some leagues distant) for surely we would
    have known, our orders changed at the slightest hint?
As to the survey party, not so much as one word —
    getting lost up Dolorous Gorge was wholly absurd.

Previously published in Antipodes