The Tantanoola Tiger
There in the bracken was the ominous spoor mark,
Huge, splayed, deadly, and quiet as breath,
And all around lay bloodied and dying,
Staring dumbly into their several eternities,
The rams that Mr Morphett loved as sons.
Not only Tantanoola, but at Mount Schanck
The claw welts patterned the saplings
With mysteries terrible as Egypt’s demons,
More evil than the blueness of the Lakes,
And less than a mile from the homestead, too.
Sheep died more rapidly than the years
Which the tiger ruled in tooth and talk,
And it padded from Beachport to the Border,
While blood streamed down the minds of the folk
Of Mount Gambier, Tantanoola, of Casterton.
Oh this tiger was seen all right, grinning,
Yellow and gleaming with satin stripes:
Its body arched and undulated through the tea-tree;
In this land of dead volcanoes it was a flame,
It was a brightness, it was the glory of death,
It was fine, this tiger, a sweet shudder
In the heath and everlastings of the Border,
A roc bird up the ghostly ring-barked gums
Of Mingbool Swamp, a roaring fate
Descending on the mindless backs of grazing things.
Childhoods burned with its burning eyes,
Tantanoola was a magic playground word,
It rushed through young dreams like a river
And it had lovers in Mr Morphett and Mr Marks
For the ten long hunting unbelieving years.
Troopers and blacks made safari, Africa-fashion,
Pastoral Quixotes swayed on their ambling mounts,
Lost in invisible trails. The red-faced
Young Lindsay Gordons of the Mount
Tormented their heartbeats in the rustling nights
While the tiger grew bigger and clear as an axe.
‘A circus once abandoned a tiger cub.’
This was the creed of the hunters and poets.
‘A dingo that’s got itself too far south’
The grey old cynics thundered in their beers,
And blows were swapped and friendships broken,
Beauty burst on a loveless and dreary people,
And their moneyed minds broke into singing
A myth; these soured and tasteless settlers
Were Greeks and Trojans, billabong troubadours,
Plucking their themes at the picnic races
Around the kegs in the flapping canvas booths.
On the waist-coats shark’s teeth swung in time,
And old eyes, sharply seamed and squinting,
Opened mysteriously in misty musical surprise,
Until the day Jack Heffernan made camp
By a mob of sheep on the far slope of Mount Schanck
And woke to find the tiger on its haunches,
Bigger than a mountain, love, or imagination,
Grinning lazily down on a dying ewe,
And he drew a bead and shot it through the head.
Look down, oh mourners of history, poets,
Look down on the black and breeding volcanic soil,
Lean on your fork in this potato country,
Regard the yellowed fangs and quivering claws
Of a mangy and dying Siberian wolf.
It came as a fable or a natural image
To pace the bars of these sunless minds,
A small and unimpressive common wolf
In desperately poor and cold condition.
It howled to the wattle when it swam ashore
From the wreck of the foundered Helena,
Smelt death and black snakes and tight lips
On every fence-post and slip-rail.
It was three foot six from head to tail.
Centuries will die like swatted blowflies
Before word or wolf will work a tremor
Of tenderness in the crusty knuckles
Around the glasses in the Tantanoola pub
Where its red bead eyes now stare towards the sun.