the birds do not come here

I can see
as far as the distant horizon
and there are none

only the stark angularities
of a char-blackened
fallen army
in the disarray of aftermath

there are hundreds
of these wooden soldiers
stripped bare
hollowed out
and half fallen

the lingering stench of defeat
remains heavy in the air

a sense of futility

an occasional instant of colour
green or blue
halfway up a trunk
suggests that time
and nature
may again prevail
but there is not enough green
in this despoiled theatre
to fill an upturned bole
with one liquid ounce
of hope

nor enough to entice
a single bird
to sing

© Frank Prem, 2003


Top 5 from the Bushfire set

Continuing the  retrospective posts, I’ve gone through the Surviving the Devil bushfire poem set to select five poems that are worth another airing. This series dates back to 2009 and languished in my archives because I didn’t know what I might best do with it, or for it. This blog gave me an answer, and I am most grateful for that.

The five  poems that I’ve picked out (with a note about my reason beside each) are by no means the ‘Top 5’, but I think they have merit for this purpose. They are as follows:

surviving the devil – a song of fire – What first caught my imagination – and not particularly in a good way – was the voices of people affected by the ferocity of devastation that came with these fires. More fierce, more devastating, more unstoppable, more helpless. All these things.

I tried to catch some of that and the piece opened up the rest of the series.

first bus to Marysville – Marysville is a pretty little hill town that was wiped out, with many dead and massive destruction. The photographs show ash mounds in rectangular patterns that were houses and house blocks. Graves, in some cases.

all in the ark for awhile – A story of joyous wonder in a small way. The tone of amazement the witness to the Inquiry had in his voice was what stayed with me.

Don decides – This chap lived across the road from Leanne and myself in 2009. I watched his preparations over a day or two and I could see and feel his indecision as to what he should do. What was right. What was best.

Also, the sense of relief when he returned to find all intact.

rebuilding for ferals – This poem relates to the great question – the reason why. Why do we fight? What is our place? What does home mean? Is the least of us worthy of a place to call home?

Clearly, the answer is yes. Even our ferals need to have a place they can identify as their own.

Hope you don’t mind looking again at these few fire poems, and if you’d like to look at more of my Top 5’s (or thereabouts), there should be a link in the categories listed on this page.



Top 5 (or 6) – end of year review

Top 5 for 2016 – from the archives (daily prompt)

Top 10 for 2016 – from the Poem-a-day Collection (Part A)

Top 10 for 2016 – from the Poem-a-day Collection (Part B)

Top 5 from the Bushfire set

Top 5 – Mythologically inspired poems

Surviving the Devil – A Bushfire Collection – Introduction

Surviving the Devil is my take on the terrible and disastrous bushfires that ravaged Victoria in 2009 and that became referred to as the  Black Saturday bushfires.

Many lives were lost, and whole townships burned to the ground. Heroics and bewilderment went hand in hand. Animal and human at times had to cling together to survive.

For me, this story was a kind of agony that went on and on. When I thought it had finished, there was a Commission of Enquiry held that started the whole saga over again.

This is a gut-wrenching set of tales, in places, and there are still tears to be shed over what took place.

It is my belief that the stories had to be told, and I am glad of the opportunity to share them with you, here.

Poem #1: surviving the devil – a song of fire

don’t think about

and in the end

when the last naked flame is doused
and the fires are done
when the roots and peat
have stopped burning
beneath the ground
and the rise of smoke
is no longer a threat
but the sign of a man
with charcoal and soot
spread across hands and face
at his rest with a cigarette

when finally
we have shot the last beast
burned or starving
and rebuilt the fences
around the long paddock
settled the insurance
to replace the houses
turned back from volunteer
to farmer or townie
worker or unemployed
wife or husband

as we stare at the unfamiliar
draw our collective breaths
and brace ourselves
to endure once more
to go on
we can try then
not to think
of fire

or the sound in the night
of static on the radio receiver
throat-clearing a call-out
for assistance at lightning strikes
or outbreaks of grass

not think about
the sparseness of pasture
tinder-dry scrub
or the fires last year
and the one before

and the one before

for gods sake don’t contemplate the drought
that may never end
that might break us like nothing
has ever broken us

and don’t think about
next year

© Frank Prem, 2008

reflections on the never ending

Back to: Surviving the Devil: A Song of Fire
Poem #37 from the ‘Surviving the Devil’ collection (unpublished). This is the final poem in the series.

and I wonder
when will this thing end

each time I put down my pen
I think it’s done
I’ve heard enough of these hard stories

there’s only so much
that anyone can tell
and I
am just like anybody else
I want bad things to fade away
to nothing
and then I might move on

but each day
there’s news from the enquiry

somebody’s story
takes my breath
and I am moved
by the poetry of pain and fear
and honesty
released in the cadence of their voices

I don’t need to read the papers
to know that winter is here
there’s been six days in a row of frost
and a blanket of snow
up around the burnt out hills

where whole town remnants are shivering
in tents and caravans
and the ash of burnt out hopes and dreams
of ordinary lives
hasn’t yet been cleared

I wrote another story of survival
that I heard just yesterday
when I read it to my wife
she wept

I guess it hasn’t ended yet

perhaps it will go on
so long as somebody remembers
so long as the survivors can still tell their tales

and someone is still listening
to stories forged in hell

© Frank Prem, 2010

evidence to the commission of enquiry #7 next time

Back to: Surviving the Devil: A Song of Fire
Poem #35 from the ‘Surviving the Devil’ collection (unpublished)

we prepared meticulously for months
ahead of the hot season
cleared away any fuel and cut the grass

made sure there were no trees
too close to the house

we were ready

when the fire-rating came across
on the warning system
I knew it was going to be bad
but figured the rating had to be wrong
because back in the Ash Wednesday fires
which was a shocking set of fires
the rating only hit in the sixties
and on this day
it was hitting a hundred and sixty-five

we were ready
but my wife was so worried about it
that she rang everyone around us
all the young families
to tell them they should go

I think a few lives were saved because of that

we first saw a bit of smoke off in the distance
and then black embers started to drop

my wife went to put out a spot fire
but the soles on her shoes melted
when she jumped on the flames

we retreated to the house
but around then the power failed

I shot out to the shed
to start the pump
but the petrol was all gone


the wind changed and I got burned

we ran from the house
and it went up right behind us

we thought we were pretty right
to fight the fire that day
but every time I look down
at the bandages on my arms
and the distorted face I see in the mirror
I tell myself
we need to do it better
next time

© Frank Prem, 2010

To Poem #36: evidence to the commission of enquiry
#8 all in the ark for awhile

evidence to the commission of enquiry #6 communication difficulties

Back to: Surviving the Devil: A Song of Fire
Poem #34 from the ‘Surviving the Devil’ collection (unpublished)

our fire station doesn’t have the internet on
the captain had to race back home
to get his laptop

it runs wireless
so we could keep checking out the web-site that way
for updates
and for the warnings

out in the fire
we had a moment when the mobile phone worked
and we tried to call in an ambulance
but nobody came
so we picked up this body
that was mostly cooked flesh and blisters and pain
put him on one of our ladders

and I drove the truck
as slow as I could
but with trees falling down around us
in a dance of sparks and mustard-yellow smoke
I could hardly see through
it was a rough enough ride
I guess

the ambulance finally arrived
after we got back to the station
but they were too late
or I’d taken too long
or he never had much chance anyway
with so much of his body burned

but there are times
even in a hopeless case like that
and times you wake
in the middle of the night
with the smell in your nose from remembering
when you wish
there was someone you could talk to

© Frank Prem, 2010

To Poem #35: evidence to the commission of enquiry
#7 next time

evidence to the commission of enquiry #5 left Flowerdale

Back to: Surviving the Devil: A Song of Fire
Poem #33 from the ‘Surviving the Devil’ collection (unpublished)

I was going to stay and fight
it’s always been my plan
that if a fire came I’d be ready

I put sprinklers in the roof
had a ten thousand litre water tank
with a pump primed and right to go

I thought about what I would do
and all-in-all I have to say
I was satisfied

but I changed my mind that afternoon
when I saw what the fire was doing
to the trees
you see I noticed they were twisting around
just about being un-screwed
right out of the ground

I drove away with my lights on full
and my hand stuck down on the horn
as a way of warning

I was petrified


in Flowerdale
we gathered around the pub
and kept an eye on the school

there were spot fires here
and small blazes there
right though the afternoon

at some point they brought in an old man
who’d been burned

they carried him in on a plastic chair
and we laid him down on the floor
used wet towels
to try to take the heat away

while some did that
the rest fought on
and somehow we battled right through
that dark red night


in the morning it was a chainsaw job
to get back up the road
to my home

it was burned down of course
there was bugger-all survived the blaze

walking down the road in front of my block
I saw two bodies beside a burnt-out car
I’ve since found out they were a mother
and her son

another car had crashed into a tree
with another soul lost
and in that moment
it looked to me as if
God had just abandoned Flowerdale
to die

© Frank Prem, 2010

To Poem #34: evidence to the commission of enquiry
#6 communication difficulties

evidence to the commission of enquiry #4 the warning

Back to: Surviving the Devil: A Song of Fire
Poem #32 from the ‘Surviving the Devil’ collection (unpublished)

I work as a spotter in the towers
over the summer months

my place is up on the ridge
about three k’s out of Marysville
from there on a clear day
I can see for miles

when the first plume rises
it’s my job to note coordinates
then get onto the airwaves
so the brigades can put it down

on that Saturday I saw the first smoke
over by Murrindindi Mill
then it was over the top
around the black range
traveling west

I was on the line
as fast as I could
because I could see
this thing would be big

but the radio did nothing
and the mobile phone wasn’t answered
by the third failed call I knew
some people were going to die

Marysville is down in a hollow
and I didn’t think it stood a chance
the smoke hit a thousand feet
and all the reply I got
was busy

I rang a friend
and told her to get out
because the fire bearing down
was a beastly size

I saw a spot-fire light up
while I was on the phone
fourteen kilometers ahead of the front
I saw it start to run
and then I felt terrified

the clouds went up another thousand feet
and ash and embers started falling
in a sort of hot black rain

the thing was alive
and I just shouted
good luck
down the phone

and ran

they’re saying that Marysville
had no warning
but it’s as true as I’m standing here
it wasn’t because I didn’t try

© Frank Prem, 2010

To Poem #33: evidence to the commission of enquiry: #5: left Flowerdale