© Max Merckenschlager

Winner, The Betty Olle Poetry Award 2016, Kyabram, Victoria.

The Outback of Australia is our unofficial state
yet her boundaries are vague and ill-defined,
and every Outback visitor’s regarded as her mate;
she’s a shiralee, an outback state of mind:
her emblem is a ghost gum by a parched and patient stream
her vision is a distant purple range
her theme is sung by cockatoos and pitched in joyous scream
her soul is dusk, when moods and colours change.

Out beyond the back of Bourke and farthest blackened stump
where blowies smother waterbags and sand goannas jump
where once the deadly hunting spears and boomerangs were hurled
there is an Outback dreaming place – the centre of our world.

By day the Outback spirits rinse our stars in Reckitt’s Blue
then whisk each dripping phantom off to dry.
They’re showcased ev’ry evening when they sparkle bright and new
around The Cross, within our southern sky.
The tourist drone of didjeri’s and rhythmic snap of feet
re-live for us those pantomimes of old
when keepers of the Outback weaved their magic from the beat
and changed in form, as tales of life were told.

Edging sheer escarpments bearing Mimi Art displays
where frilled-necks bluff their stalkers and our flying foxes laze
beyond the horns and whistles and the bands with batons twirled
a soul can find its great escape, in respite from the world.

Our land of poor and plenty in the never-ending show
has boom or bust dependence on the rains,
with skull and carcass tragedies picked clean by drought and crow
or floral carpets smothering her plains.
A million breeding waterbirds may fish her ancient shores
when salt lakes drown in sudden seas of flood.
But silence stalks her beaches as the summer cakes and soars
and Thorny Devils track her dunes of blood.

Drifting down the Overflow, a long day from The Rock
where dingoes croon in harmony and pea-green budgies flock
where once the deadly hunting spears and boomerangs were hurled
we know an Outback dreaming place, the heartland of our world.

There’s romance in our Outback and the droving days gone by
when cattlemen threw dices with their queen,
an eye upon the bullocks and another on the sky
as poets penned us fancies of the scene.
We’ve traded broken brumbies for a mob of four-wheel-drives
and saddles for their lumbar-bracing seats.
We dream up Outback odysseys through workday nine-till-fives
then act them out on weekend bush retreats.

Near the Never-Never land, above the treeless plain
where courting brolgas two-step and our boxing kangas train
away from pompous pageantry and flags of fuss unfurled
you’ll find an Outback dreaming place – a richly simple world.

She represents the freedom to be whom and what we please
to come and go and worship as we will;
to cut through social barriers with nonchalance and ease
to take a man on face and judge on skill.
But freedom carts a heavy load along each Outback lane
that wanders off to destinies beyond
and they shall pay the penalty who treat her with disdain
or place too much dependence on her bond.

Skirting buttes and mesas of a metal-bearing range
where wedgies surf on thermals while the cloud formations change
where darkness brings nocturnals with their sleeping tails uncurled
there is an Outback dreaming place, a wild and wondrous world.

She’s Albert Namatjira’s brush, a royally-raw domain
a schooner ‘sunk’ where bushies’ shoulders rub,
a singlet-wearing rouseabout whose language is profane
and ‘shouts’ around the Ettamogah Pub.
The Outback’s in our psyche – she’s our universal bride
a part of us we need to love and share
and though we dwell in cities, still we boast of her with pride
it’s somehow reassuring that she’s there.

Around a smoking campfire while the evening yarns are told,
and blackened billy chuckles as our blueys are unrolled,
where once the deadly hunting spears and boomerangs were hurled,
we love our Outback dreaming place – the centre of our world.

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