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motherless child (nanna emily’s poem)
Declan Furber Gillick

my father was four when he left his mother
my grandmother
Emily Furber
he was flown across country
in a government airplane
clutching at his little sister's hand
looking out the window
down at the red desert
connections to his centre
and his mother's breast
severed by a government airplane

they were taken to a tiny little island in the tropics
where the sand and the hands that held them there
were a different colour
to the mother in the sand
and the hands that they left behind

their border was the water that reminded them that island wasn't theirs

thick and heavy the air in their lungs
the humidity and sweat dampened their neat crisp clothes
where’s my mum now?
what am i doing here
what am i doing so far from home?

my father lived on that island for ten years
he learnt math
he learnt to read and write
forgot his tribal tongue \
forgot his mother's touch
learned to love the feeling of salt water on his face
learned to love the feeling of a saddle between his thighs
learned to find family where there wasn't any

learned to store the longing for his desert in a box
a tiny little box that he locked and tucked away
to be opened much later
when he could search for some answers

my father and all the other brown-skinned babies
grew up on that island surrounded by water
the sun rose and set
the tides came and went
brothers and sisters they made all eventually left
off into the world
the great wide world
somewhere on the other side of that endless sea

the mail plane came and went like the tide
when my father was twelve he got a letter from his sister
to tell him that their mother had died

fifty-one years later
I'm standing by his side
as he visits nanna’s grave
for the very first time
he is an ageing man
who has lived a proud life
and been father to many a child
some of them, like me, are his own
others are the children of absent men

now I'm standing barefoot by my grandmother's grave
speaking my rhythmic phrases
my voice starts to waver
i look at the tears on my father's face
and i've never seen him cry like this
he cradles his akubra
and his head hangs low
pointed down toward the land
i see for a moment he allows himself the space
to break open that box that he locked and tucked away

and now as i read my own words aloud
i look to my father whose head is bowed
what i see is a boy hold a handwritten letter
that tells him that his mother is dead

his mother who had each of her children stripped from her
shipped into the distance
one after the other
and each split apart from their sisters and their brother

his mother whose sickness and death were sudden
who was young and black and poor and forgotten
and who is buried where she worked
for whitefella stockmen
who is buried so very far from home
no i've never seen him cry like this

on this warm august day
in my twenty-fourth year
it is i who must now be a man
to keep my voice steady, I breathe deep and heavy
walk towards where he stands
i move to his side
raise a strong brown arm
over his shoulders
as he finally, silently shakes

in the stillness that trails off from my final word
he clears his own throat
he catches his breath
“mum, thanks for bringing me into this world
you did, you did your best”

© Declan Furber Gillick 2015


Declan Furber Gillick

Declan Furber Gillick is a poet, songwriter, activist and spoken-word artist originating from Alice Springs, Central Australia. He has lived…

Declan Furber Gillick is a poet, songwriter, activist and spoken-word artist originating from Alice Springs, Central Australia. He has lived in Canberra, Adelaide, the East Gippsland High Country, Latin America, and has been settled in Melbourne for the last eighteen months.

With an artistic base in hip-hop and improvisation, his performances are rhythmic and measured. At times funny, at other times mournful, his often deeply personal and political work tells stories about our sense of place, belonging, love for people and for land. Grappling with questions about god, culture, identity, sexuality and purpose, Declan carries on the dusty story-telling tradition of his Arrernte heritage.