The artist was a farm labourer,
in what he called ‘jam tin country’
and himself a captive
when he painted the escapee.
Nineteen fifty-nine, Emu Plains –
there met on a prison farm
two young men, in for car theft,
Simmonds and Newcombe.
They broke out. One was caught
in days. The picture reminds
of how at fourteen I admired
that Houdini, Kevin Simmonds.
Each day for weeks, the biggest
manhunt in our history,
and yet the wireless told us
that again he’d slipped away,
despite 500 police,
with submachine guns and flares
and a helicopter, and despite
the 300 volunteers
(who were shameful, I thought –
more than any society,
we oughtn’t side with overdogs
nor demand servility).
Despite the legends, rebellion
is light in our inheritance.
What outraged the crowd I thought
was in fact a mischance –
Surprised, in making their escape,
one of them gave a smack
to a guard, with a baseball bat,
and caused his skull to crack.
Something they had often seen
in a Saturday picture show,
but the sort of weight to apply
was difficult to know.
There are, I realize now,
further victims in such a crime.
They made him ‘comfortable’
with a blanket – waste of time.
The police look to their own,
they moved like a bushfire;
brought back Ray Kelly, inspector,
who’d wanted to retire;
his style, an axe’s bite;
the professed killer of three men;
in trench coat, felt hat, iced
spectacles; temper worn thin.
The pair hid in Sydney showground –
tunneling piled sacks of wheat
to make a cave; stole milk bottles
from doorsteps, before daylight.
Then, Newcombe was caught. Later,
they found what Simmonds would do
was break into cars and listen
to the police radio.
He flickered through ragged suburbs,
eluding the blades of torches,
dissolved in misty streetlight;
food sometimes on back porches.
After school, with my bike, I had
the newspaper delivery
for a country town; and each day
paused, to follow this story
in different papers. Then pedalled
at twilight about the town
on gravel streets and grass verges;
the rolled newspapers thrown
into the yards I pretended
were sticks of dynamite
that could scare off the bloodhounds
and put the police to flight.
A rebel with cause – the suburbs;
ahead of the sixties; his hair
like Elvis, but more admirable,
to me, than any pop star.
His sister spoke up for him;
she said he’d just too much life
and was good to his mother.
There were offers to be his wife.
And here he is in this picture,
near Newcastle, New South Wales,
a hundred miles from Sydney,
in a culvert as light fails.
He’s small, in the bottom right,
beneath the landscape’s grandeur.
There is a solidarity
in that he’s by the signature.
Along the base, a dirt road,
with a see-saw’s tilt, and under
this is where he’s hidden;
above, two policemen linger.
To the left, the road recurs,
close, on a black, cairn-shaped hill;
from the right, a wedge of forest;
between is a skewed triangle,
the foremost paddock, burnt orange
the same as the road, which makes
the shaft on a striking form,
on a broad arrow or great axe,
that’s completed with wind-break trees.
On this clearing, minutely,
the police disperse, clothes-peg shapes;
like ants, you’d have to say.
No houses, but from the title
they must be somewhere near.
The hour of the chooks, rounded up,
of a redolent cow manure.
Then higher again, in this tall,
vertical painting, the sun
on other paddocks, their strewn shards.
And then, another dimension –
in long pleats, blue-black forest,
a cold slag, laid transversely;
light on undulant edges of
elided gullies. Poignantly,
a powdered thin straight line of smoke
is leaving, along a ridge –
contrasts with tree-forms’ splintered bone
among the stippled foliage
of the lower half. There’s a calm
that Lawrence called reptilian,
the ancient stillness of the bush.
A dog; a coughing policeman.
Then further up, dark headlands
and bleached straits of ocean appear,
out of the Northern Renaissance,
by Altdorfer or Patenier.
An electric sunset. Plum-blue
at one side, its stacked thunder;
a new world in the other half,
with rosy and golden moisture.
Coifs and crests of coral, their lit
engorgement; a confluence
of labile traceries;
a strawberry deliquescence;
some honied Apocalypse;
magnolias’ pleated ivory;
the bruised limbs of seraphim;
an orchidean Arcady –
as though in divine armada
Deity called on us at home
wanting to anoint the Earth,
our estrangement overcome.
This to balance Simmonds, taken
in a swamp, at 24;
now open-faced, brave, resourceful,
but he was to race no more.
Vengefully they would throw away
whatever he might have been.
Laying hands on him for photos,
Ray Kelly, brought to the scene.
Is that sunset meant to show
a heaven he’ll never win?
Not an angel with its trumpet
nor a scroll has been painted in.
Is it to show us ‘the lilies
. . . on the banks of Italy’;
that there is no distinction
between beauty and cruelty?
The painter, self-taught, bed-ridden;
the brushes tied to his wrists,
both legs had been amputated,
because he’d spondylitis.
Simmonds was put into Grafton,
the most notorious prison;
I saw the law was blood-stained
that well knew what would happen –
I’d heard of the Reception.
Within a few years, hanged himself;
grown tired of being beaten,
the only way to get relief.
I often used to imagine
there’d been a chance for him,
that a generous woman beckoned
as in a Hitchcock film –
Like Psyche, at the prow of time
I see that figure stand,
within a window’s bay, a wand
of candlelight in her hand.
Robert Gray is widely acknowledged as one of the nation's finest poets. He has published eight volumes of poetry. His memoir, The Land I Came Through Last, was published in 2008 by Giramondo.