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Personal Choice 65

The Dead Swagman

His rusted billy left beside the tree;

Under a root, most carefully tucked away,

His steel-rimmed glasses folded in their case

Of mildewed purple velvet; there he lies

In the sunny afternoon, and takes his ease,

Curled like a possum within the hollow trunk.

He came one winter evening when the tree

Hunched its broad back against the rain, and made

His camp, and slept, and did not wake again.

Now white ants make a home within his skull:

His old friend Fire has walked across the hill

And blackened the old tree and the old man

And buried him half in ashes, where he lay.

It might be called a lonely death: the tree

Led its own alien life beneath the sun,

Yet both belonged to the Bush, and now are one:

The roots and bones lie close among the soil,

And he ascends in leaves towards the sky.

Nancy Cato

Nancy Cato (1917 - 2000) was an Australian writer who published more than twenty historical novels, biographies and volumes of poetry. Cato is also known for her work campaigning on environmental and conservation issues. Cato was born in Glen Osmond in South Australia and was a fifth-generation Australian. She studied English Literature and Italian at the University of Adelaide, graduating in 1939, then completed a two-year course at the South Australian School of Arts. She was a cadet journalist on The News from 1935 to 1941, and as an art critic from 1957 to 1958.

When I am asked about my preferences, attitudes and valued responses to art in general I have had a cherished and stock answer in that I have a passion for ‘redemptive’ art. That is not to say religious art but books and films, music, painting and poetry that contains hope: assurance, trust, certainty etc. What I most admire about this poem is Cato’s poetic mastery of the exquisite redemptive quality of the last line:

And he ascends in leaves towards the sky.


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