Chemical blue gum

we tumble down Mount Ainslie
through the halls and galleries of the War Memorial
only able to catch a whiff of the history it’s soaked in
from the corner of our eyes
we notice the flanks forming with
the Hellenic and the Atatürk memorials who
do not react when we fall and scrape our knees on the red gravel
their silence is oppressive but at least the tumbling has stopped
the slope is gentle from here on and we have company
we collect the Army and the Navy memorials
as we march down Anzac Parade
again, they have little to say, but
what has not been said before

the blue gums lining Anzac Parade are listening in
there are conspicuous gaps between the trees now
with the memorials gone
we realise they are not closing ranks
are they waiting for new memorials?
the burgeoning size of the march is weighing on us
as the Korean War and the Service Nurses memorials sidle in
can we make it all the way to Parliament House?
nah, that’s too lofty an ideal
we might as well stop at the Vietnam Memorial
there is a tree just to the left of it
this is our tree

it’s a blue gum
at the very least, it’s a survivor
insects, weeds, unwelcome fungal visitors
are spurned by its phenols and cineole
bloody pigeons of trees
blue gums are everywhere but
not all are the same
they hear, learn, and whisper to others
passing on DIY survival tricks
this one has become more than a blue gum
still a survivor, it’s now also a rumour
the rumour that is chemical blue gum

it is formidable but not quite stately
having acquired an eavesdropper’s hunchback
its leaves are long green commas that give us pause
like eyes that glint too much or like icicles that
make us shudder on a clear Canberra day
it hides a recently lost limb with
waxy young leaves eagerly covering the wound
it does not lament but the wound is a tale
too measured for the wind, too clean for the rot
the wound is human—what if the rumours are true?
survival is a game in which humans are fair game
the chemical blue gum hisses at us
its gumnuts, in groups of three
open their valves and shroud us in a fog

the first gumnut vents phosgene
in a white cloud diffusing up the tree
two magpies, perched on the higher branches
tip over and fall—we think to ourselves that
this phosgene must really work
we soon get a good sniff too
it’s damp and reminds us of hay but
hey, we better stop sniffing, in
one, two, three, oops, we are done—
we start coughing and choking and
choking and choking
until our lungs are flooded
drowning us in our own pus

the second gumnut belches sulphur mustard
this nasty yellow shit that
smells like onions, or some say mustard but
we are sicking all over ourselves so
it smells like sick, burning our lungs
we will breathe-whistle for the rest of our lives
look some of it even trickles down our forehead
we wipe it, no wait, we should not
fuck, don’t get it in our eye
we will be blind by tomorrow
the doctor will cry
what’s the bomb craters in your eyes?
we will have blisters all over
one going up from our wrist, all the way to armpit
like one continuous sausage that is three-inch-thick
the blisters under our crotch will hurt the most and
if we can’t bear it, they will make us the nappy boy

the third gumnut oozes Agent Orange
oh don’t worry, this one won’t get us right away
in fact, it will first denude the chemical blue gum
its barren black shell will be sticky and shiny and
stinking and rotting
we will watch the ghastly orange sunset
through the husk of this spiteful tree
wondering why the tree would poison itself
whether this was its imitation of mutually assured destruction
whether that is survival, in any sense of the word
when the moon eventually rises, it will illuminate our lips
bringing out the blisters on them,
irradiating our red eyes, red rashes, and
a red bleeding nose
oh don’t worry, none of this will kill us
not even insomnia and the rage
maybe the wasting disease will get us
as more days pass, the tree will sprout a few stunted shoots
they will say, ‘see, the chemical blue gum is just a myth.’
but what will they say when our kids hold out their misshapen hands
to their mates in school toilets and
joke about how their fingers got flushed away
and lest they forget
we will show them the tree that will still be disfigured years later
below which, in large steel letters, it will be helpfully spelt out

© Shehzad Hathi, 2022

Some of the descriptions in the last three stanzas of this piece have been
adapted from first-hand accounts by Australians. These can be found in the
books Chemical Warfare in Australia by Geoff Plunkett and Waiting for an
Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange
 by Fred A. Wilcox.