• CJ Bowerbird

Keeping Our Heads Down

The sun peeks over the parapet. Yellow-green shreds of fog crease heavy the pigeon chest of the land. A muted cough from a bird disturbed by the metal shufflings of men with cold feet rooting into the soil.


You never quite shake off all the dirt. We

carry it home, entrenched in our

palms, under our nails, sanding our hair. With our

hands moulded to rifle stocks or

spades, we have no choice but to


When we landed in this plot, we

folded to a sprinter’s crouch,

sieved the soil through the

ploughshare-bayonets of our hands,

sifting time in the earth,

weighing the interim between

signing up and passing on.

We fought for this land, hand-to-

hand with mallee and barbs of scrub,

grappling with stumps, claiming it row by

row with little advance, keeping our

heads down, dodging the Turks of summer.

We cajoled the ground with songs and

curses, making the best we could,

scraping for survival. We will never be


Now survey the gains: channels

pulse hesitantly from the heart,

cut through by barrel-straight

borders, arbitrary lines dividing the

vital from dying.

We spend our days waiting for

water to course across this skin, to

curse the moment it arrives


The rains break at the wrong times: when we’re

out in the open or the trench isn’t

clear or over the dinner table. The

clouds split last night and none of us slept.

You never quite cough up all the

grime, the sharp intake of morning

breath. Digging stirs up the dust on

dry days, the golden clouds, the

dirt we carry home in our lungs.

You don’t perceive the weakness

beneath the crust until you dig,

expose the hidden flaws, the layered

grit, a permanent incapacity to

bear fruit.

There is the taste of metal in the

soil, the sediments of blood and

bone, the noble rust on the fruit and

our hands.

This land holds the hope and

the disease.

We ignore the common report of a rifle

rolling over the blocks, getting rid of

vermin like rabbits or foxes or

memories: an honourable discharge, the

last post of the land letting go.

The suns smoothes a blanket across

remembering ground and turns the

wick down low. Our skin carries

warmth, our backs tight with industry.

You never quite shake off all the dirt. We

sleep with it. We do what we

can. We have no choice but to


The Post War Project

"Keeping Our Heads Down" is part of work inspired by the soldier settlers of Red Cliffs and the work of Katy Mutton’s Post War Project.

The Post War Project is an evolving body of creative works by artist Katy Mutton responding to her research into the Australian Soldier Settlement scheme post WWI. The project commenced in 2014 in line with the beginning of Anzac Centenary commemorations. It was born from a desire to find out more about the survivors of war and the impact this conflict has had on Australian communities.

Project research has focused on the community of Red Cliffs, a rural township in north-west Victoria, 15 km south of Mildura. Red Cliffs was the site of Australia’s largest post-WWI soldier settlement, with more than 700 blocks allocated to returned soldiers between 1921 and 1924.

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