Swann

David Rowbotham

SWANN, Hon. James: Printer; born out of wedlock Glasgow 1810.
Father James Swann, Private Glasgow Highland Infantry, killed Peninsula War.
Mother, Janet McLaren, deaf-mute murdered at Bell o’ the Brae, Glasgow 1823.
Founded Moreton Bay Courier (now Brisbane Courier-Mail) in an hotel garret, June 1846.
Three times Mayor Brisbane.
Life Member Upper House Queensland Parliament 1878.
Married 1890.
Died Suez Canal aboard ship returning to Glasgow, June 1891.
Buried near Port Said.

Take 1

Bell o’ the Brae, which should reflect
heather and music on a hillside,
was as bleak as the streamlets desert day,
its poverty cold’s corrosion. That lost
barracks tenement of the town
in the brae where ruined Wallace fought
couldn’t be found for Glasgow’s mist
and a hundred and fifty years of Clyde.
Among the city blind with smoke
I walked the loneliness you walked
with the hammer in your mind, the one
wielded by a jealous kitchen whore,
the tart of your mother’s paramour.
Coming home from work too late,
you saw the hammer lifted, Swann.
There was the sound you tried to kill:
‘like the cracking of two stones together,’
a witness told the avid court.
But the first ‘lick’ missed; it hit the door,
reprieving her, spilling the clock.
In the interval (as split as the wood),
wondrously, because by urgent word
she couldn’t speak to you who watched
and couldn’t hear the scream you clutched,
in the soft language you taught each other
through signs unskilled but understood
with such incentive, she sent out
the whole of her affection; and you
in the imperishable moment, you,
rendered as dumb, deafened by din,
defeated by struggle, signalled back
your love. Judge, jury, none,
not even the murderess, was as damned
as you to the memory of blood.
It struck your father down in Spain;
it made her a doubling stranger’s moll,
she, whom you perfectly adored.
With a puny-bodied blue-eyed will,
to keep her close you stayed alone.
Because of her you took no wife
till the eightieth year towards Port Said.
You worked at coming home in time.
The fact was there; it matters still.
A deadline it was, an articulate life
in a long redemption of a damage done.
Somewhere l heard St Mungo’s chime
in a green Egypt over the Clyde.

Take 2

Nothing could be more matter-of-fact.
The building, massive and laminexed
but only a piece of pyramid,
thumped like the stone tail of a Sphinx
in Campbell Street. Dunmore Lang
cajoled a lot of canny Scots
into coming to holy Brisbane, Swann.
You brought Knox and printed his word
in the unrelenting black of inks.
‘I am in the place where I am
demanded of conscience to speak the truth.’
In our temple-tomb of tubular glare,
of wired air and the domino-slam
of typefaces on tables that rolled
to rows of chapel cylinders,
I sweltered among my colleagues, blots
of heads bent in a deadline wrath
of babel. Reporting and composing,
I dourly dropped the news that rang
the shockless rooms from mezzanine
to smart machinery. So, then,
let’s go, we all belong in the pub,
if not the bar, the garret, and the son
of a gun who left us this estate
of thirsty glory was, l said,
the son of a pole-axed Scotch deaf-mute.
Stop Press. Pause. Dodging the club
of rejoindering cobbers, I joined in:
‘Drop dead, we’re running late, wait
till we’ve put the bastard’s paper to bed.’
You know, there at the time and place,
it didn’t in truth sound half bad,
Giza growling a lion grace.

Take 3

Nothing could be more matter-of-fact.
The Sphinx itself had turned insect.
The Port Said heat poured down and drove
the horse of ghari dryly mad.
Staggering out from the streets of stone
we stopped in a grove. Drinking the sand
at the desert’s rim from a pan of shade,
l knew the search was hopeless, Swann.
Not even a grave could live in this.
God knows where you lie, where blown
away, where pulverised by the pitch
of time, wars, storms and the slow march
of Egypt in erosion. The hiss
of every old locust in the land
was heard in the buzz and bite of the fly
that made the beast of the ghari shy.
The fact was there and it mattered still.
Bones and a place don’t have to be found
when a man has entered and left like you.
It seems strange to me that I stood
for a perishable moment in your world.
In a serif of mirage, l heard
St Mungo’s chime the fonts of Clyde
and Brisbane’s hammering chapels forge
garrets of ink to groves of palm,
and, composed out of ruled pyramid,
muezzins from mosques of the sun and Nile
call prayer. My listening Arab lulled
his stung horse to uncanny calm
over a buried lick of lead.