Ulamba [poem by Rex Ingamells]

[Editor: This poem by Rex Ingamells was published in Forgotten People (1936).]


The stars watch with their wide, unwinking eyes.
The winds are sharp. A-stalk with dew-wet feet,
The warriors, early on the plain, surprise
A kangaroo at drink for the day’s meat.

The star-tribes blink their tired eyes at last.
The dark is broken. Eastward hills grow grey.
Across their jagged backs are colours cast,
Which spark and spread and fuse in glaring day.

This is Ulamba’s day. The men will go
Up to his lonely cave in secrecy,
And there perform the rites the wisest know,
To keep him sacred in their memory.

They travel through miraging morning, till,
Beside Ulamba’s soak as noon-day nears,
Of half-cooked kangaroo they eat their fill,
Caching the rest with boomerangs and spears.

Where all day long the crow’s half-human cry
Broods harshly, heartlessly; where all the day
The sun’s heat blazes from the naked sky —
The sacred mountain stands, aloof and grey.

High up that mountain’s side — so long ago
That generations number not the time —
Ulamba blundered, double-bent and slow,
With gaping wounds on his last homeward climb.

He had strode forth in strength; but he returned
With death-dim eyes, and each step made him groan.
He reached his cave as the red sunset burned . . .
There lies his massive body turned to stone.

But in that silent rock his soul is rife;
Ulamba’s soul lives on just as of yore:
Some men breathe but because they breathe the life
Of him their great totemic ancestor.

In single file move the Aranda men,
The oldest white-beard of them out ahead.
No warrior speaks. They must be reverent when
Ulamba’s sacred cave is visited.

Heat-hazes shimmer round them as they climb
The seldom-trodden pathway to the place.
The wizened leader halts from time to time,
Eyes gleaming like night-fires from face to face.

He tells by signs the story of the rocks
That lie about Ulamba’s rugged hill,
And of the trees ere first their shaggy locks
Gave shade in vanished days as they do still.

The old man signs; the young men understand:
Those piled-up rocks were men Ulamba slew;
The old man signs again with swifter hand:
Those straight white gums were spears Ulamba threw.

As they mount higher yet, they stoop and take
Up sticks and gibbers, which they hurtle sheer
Towards the cave. The clatter that they make
Is warning to the god that men are near.

They sit at the cave’s base. The leader shifts
The stones that block its narrow jaws, and there
Inserts an ugly shrunken arm, and lifts
Out tjurungas whose fine dust fills the air.

While crows cry everywhere and bright flies buzz,
He chants in high-pitched tones; and those about,
Pressing their bodies with the tjurungas,
Join in the chant. The mountain seems to shout.

Ulamba seems to shout, as long ago
His loud voice echoed round sun-smitten land,
Before his strength was taken by the blow
That stained with his red blood the desert sand.

The afternoon draws on; the sun moves down
Close to the land; and gaudy evening comes.
The sun’s rays speed obliquely now to drown
With gold the foliage of the straight white gums.

The tjurungas are dusted and put back,
Amid awed silence, into the dim cave;
The stones replaced, the men go down the track,
Praying no thief may find Ulamba’s grave.

* * * * * *

Ulamba’s shadows lengthen on the plain;
The sun sets fierce behind the western peaks;
The party, down beside the soak again,
Take up their spears before a warrior speaks.

Among the darkening mulgas they prepare
Their campfire, and, cross-legged round this, they eat
The last remaining morsels of the fare
Of kangaroo they killed for the day’s meat.

Reddened by waves of firelight, they perform
Ulamba’s dance and shout Ulamba’s calls . . .
Then silence wraps the campfire red and warm.
Upon the desert dark no echo falls.

The stars alone, with wide, unwinking eyes,
Regard Ulamba’s hill of mysteries.
Stretched on the ground asleep each warrior lies . . .
The firelight dwindles in the mulga trees.

Rex Ingamells, Forgotten People, F. W. Preece & Sons, Adelaide, 1936, pages 15-18

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