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Books & Poetry

Poem: Half Past Eleven Four Weeks

Books & Poetry

Phil Saunders’ contribution for this week’s Poet’s Corner pays homage to stockman turned outback mailman Henry Ventlia Peckham, AKA ‘The Fizzer’.

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Half Past Eleven Four Weeks

Henry Ventlia Peckham,
Adelaide, South Australia, 1872,
Victoria River Downs, Northern Territory, 1911.
Mailman of ‘We of the Never-Never’ fame,
known as the Fizzer who on his deliveries would say:
‘See you again, half past eleven, four weeks.’

Sinewy, dauntless, enduring, hard,
the Fizzer rides eight times a year, not always alone.
Due at sundown in puff of packhorse dust,
delivering the outside world’s
feast of letters for the yearning,
papers, magazines, books, gossip.

Morning light reveals post breakfast readiness
to stake his life against death’s loaded dice.
Usual four mile an hour on good roads a delusion on these tracks.
A ‘kid’s game’ first two hundred begins his throw.
Newcastle Waters’ brief spell,
water never a surety at Powell’s Creek,
for Renner Springs’ well-earned breather.

Preparing body and spirit for the Open Downs
‘dice in death’s hand’ one hundred and thirty,
Fizzer’s luck experience and instinct’s discretion,
judgement for discarding, choosing, one’s own courage.
Five of eight crossings mailman and team mere speck
against desolate, sunbaked, crab-holed, canyon-cracked immensity,
bereft of tracks, habitation, wood for billies.
Guided by familiarity’s instinct across late afternoon, night,
Twenty-three of twenty-seven hours in saddle,
time precious for thirsty, jaded horses that delay would finish.
Day’s going into Eva Downs’ chance to quench unceasing thirst,
mailman’s ingenuity against death’s dice,
repairing for life’s water, ancient, rickety, ninety-foot well.

Deep face lines not reflected in the heart,
every letter costing just two pence for this game
Drinks book-ending night’s spell for midday movement
into ‘tightest pinch’ where another lost their throw.
Rough hard blistering fifty to Anthony’s Lagoon for worn beasts,
lateness beyond eleven of the morning means loss.

Three-day spell to greet mate from similar crossings
across Queensland border charted by men in cities
far from throws of these dice.
Brave in body and spirit, unchanged mailman and team
return across those five hundred with words of the Inside,
keeping roads open, not dicing again,
till half past eleven four weeks.

Editor’s Note: Henry Ventlia Peckham, the Fizzer, died trying to cross the flooded Campbell’s Creek on Victoria River Downs cattle station in the Northern Territory, with mail that included a letter seeking medical help for a sick woman. He was buried on the banks there, but exhumed and reinterred in 1944 at the small memorial cemetery on Elsey Station between Katherine and Daly Waters, the station where Jeannie Gunn lived and wrote her classic ‘We of the Never Never’. Her book was first published in London in 1908 by Hutchinson after being rejected by six other publishers. Within a year, 320,000 copies had been sold, and by 1990 more than a million.

Phil Saunders lives in Adelaide after times in Melbourne, Sydney and Christchurch. Currently a consultant in governance and operations quality control across disability and aged-care portfolios, he has been a script and copywriter, policy officer, magazine and report editor. His poetry has appeared in UK and Australian journals, on ABC Radio and previously in Poet’s Corner.

Readers’ original and unpublished poems of up to 40 lines can be emailed, with postal address, to Submissions should be in the body of the email, not as attachments. A poetry book will be awarded to each accepted contributor.
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