The Anabranch

Winner of the 2022 Newcastle Poetry Prize. First published in The Anabranch, Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology, Hunter Writers’ Centre, 2022.

I dream about the Anabranch again. Luminous tubes at high speed. Like F Zero X on the Nintendo 64. But it’s nothing like that. You wouldn’t even know it was there, but for the blue hydrants along the highway. Popping up like buds in the spring to greet the baby emus. Fluff meets iron. When I first hear about the Anabranch it is already a poem, a magic word in my mind. I will dream about it every night for three weeks.

The Anabranch begins, really, where everything begins: the sky. But for now let’s call it the Severn. And in the belly of the Severn, right now, is the idea of a Golden Perch. Glinting. Conceiving of itself as the Billy Bass in your bathroom sings and wiggles. This idea catches the sun and moves downstream, flowing into the Darling, catching on floodwater, skidding along as the banks are taken over.

If you think of water administrators as gods, you’ll begin to get the idea. Today my psychologist asked me to identify what the words ‘restrict’ and ‘allow’ have in common. My answer should have been the Anabranch, but it wasn’t on his list. These thoughts follow different river beds.

The colours here are bonkers. Out of reckoning. I want to wear a dress of the desert but I can’t even take a photograph. Tufts of golden emu doing their thing against purple saltbush, bluebush, silvertail, red dirt, blue sky. A different palette of water colour. I pull the scenes in with my eyelids, hungry.

The Anabranch is named for its refusal to diverge. An un-splitting. The anastomosis opens. The blood stream opens. A surgeon makes a connection. On Lake Cawndilla, the anastomosis opens and closes at the outlet on a whim. Five years ago, it shut. There is no real antonym, only words like disconnection. The Anabranch hadn’t paid the bills.

Remember that idea? The glimmering, golden one? It’s in the Barka, that Darling, and is merging with the reality of a golden perch. A yellowbelly. A slimy little egg. The big brown waters flush it through, spiralling down and down over the old riverbeds drinking up all the good stuff and spitting our golden guy out into the lakes. With old memories of trees sticking up like a stork dance arrested.

The Anabranch is a big deal here and nowhere else. The best roads go along the Anabranch. The cormorants all know the Anabranch, the grebes and white herons. Between Mungo National Park and the Lakes, it’s all Anabranch. Usually all dust. The ants all know the Anabranch too. Knowing the Anabranch is like knowing life and death, the postal system, the poker table. The precise Revlon red of your grandmother’s daily lipstick.

I nearly ran out of petrol the first time I went to find the Anabranch. Coasting down towards Wentworth with a flavour for risk, I bet it all on the Coombah Truckstop and lost. Doors locked, pumps dry. Mr Henderson in hospital, a blue Hilux told me. I coasted my way back the Silver City snakeway like a golden perch in a river smoking cigarettes. Glistening with sweat and slippery on the seat.

Our little egg is becoming a little fish, wriggling about and bursting into golden lakeform. The shingleback lizard steps into the middle of the road and tastes the air. The goanna climbs from its perch and tastes the air. The bearded dragon makes a pattern in the sand and tastes the air. Our golden fish tastes water for the first time, and its eyes bulge.

When I finally find the Anabranch, I have had to come at it from a different angle. Winding along windows down through Kinchega National Park I am unphased by the dry white skeletons along the roadside. They are from a before that doesn’t live here anymore. The grasses have grown up and through them, water pooling around the past. I stop my car on a small bridge, birds take flight, I turn off the music and walk on water. I am above, I am in, I belong to the Anabranch.

How could I have known that when I passed the Cawndilla outlet, where the Paakantji fellas are fishing at the gush, that my path had begun to cross with our perch. This little fish, miraculous in itself, has made it to a river that doesn’t always exist. Some other year, the idea of this fish might have dried up just like the rest. Bird food in the lake bed. But its yellow belly is growing fat and flourishing. We are in our element.

In a little cottage on Sunset Strip I drink and dance the solitude, watching the colours crease across the water, summoned up above tree roots and parchwork and abandoned jetskis. A man tries his reel at the shuffling shoreline. At night the waves crashing against branches replace the white noise I play on my phone. The anonymity of being alone is a turn-on. My own golden belly moves in the eventual darkness.

Our perch plans a long and glistening life. She doesn’t know it, but she could survive until her mid twenties, learning every movement of the Barka. As she flies past the sleeping Coombah Truckstop, past the emu-ruffled pastures, she is unaware of her own miracle. The very scales are articles of history already. They protest again closure, against restraint, against ownership. A promise of life rumbles inside her, profound and inevitable.

Where the Barka both splits and unifies, a small lane runs off the highway. I had stopped my car to capture the junction, to light a smoke and muddy my boots at the original couplet. The Murray and Darling balcony scene. The boardwalk was closed from the flooding. I wiped my boots, held in a river of piss, and started up the car. The river has no time for photographs.

Our golden perch is absolutely loving herself. She dances into Mildura, flashing sequins under the lights of houseboats and hanging willow. A celebrity chef is serving lamb in the restaurant under the casino, and the Italian server is telling me that they would never bother with lamb where she’s from. She is pouring me a stream of wine; she thinks I am a restaurant critic. I am fish-drunk and playing my role. Later, stumbling riverside, I consider submerging entirely. Two perch eyes, small and stunned in the dark, bear witness.

In reports on golden perch and the impact of water regulation on their breeding patterns, the aim is clear: produce conditions for more fish, so that there may be more fishing. The purpose of the noun is the verb. A self-sustaining prophecy. The Anabranch is a temporary blood vessel. The supply can be cut off at any time. Surgical intervention hovers like a net. This fish lives, the others will die. Most will not be born. The fisheries will fail. Perch will be raised in hatcheries and farmed out to dams to die. What the fuck are they doing out there?

There is something Anabranchy about a poem. The way it comes and goes, being so clear for a moment (like: of course, how else?) then retreating back to bed. Once unleashed, it knows the path it will follow, and takes the dust along with it. It doesn’t care about the years of drought before, just finds gaps in meaning to fill. There will always be more gaps. There will always be the Anabranch, and it will mostly be empty, and as I drive away to the east my mouth is dry, my skin is burning.

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