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Three pieces from ‘Black Convicts’ (a poetic exploration of the poet’s two African American ancestors, John Martin and John Randall, who, along with nine other ex-slaves, were convicts on the First Fleet).

John Martin in Newgate Prison

Newgate is poisoned with the effluvia of the sick, the stench of faeces. My readers may judge the malignity of the place when I assure them…that the leaves of my memorandum book were so tainted I could not use it before spreading it an hour or two in front of the fire.
                        – John Howard, pamphleteer and social reformer, 1786

If you are flush       you can bribe the warder to conjure
the luxurious stench of the very top floor:       a
        bare five-hundred unwashed funnelled into a prison
designed for one fifth of that number.   If you are flush

        you purchase pegs for the nose.   You will not often swoon
from the smell in the yard.   You will have coal for heating
        brooms    for sweeping out shit.   And a candle for light.   If
you are flush you can gamble.   Drive down busy pox street

by way of cock alley.          Woman or man.        No one is
immune to the any-old-hole-will-do-at-a-pinch
      -and-a-poke.         The spirits flow         if you can manage to
ante an asset or two.   A gold tooth or the plain

battered sin of your body.       The least grubby lobe       from
        the pitiful lungs of your soul.         If you are somewhat
less plumply attired with cash         you still may acquire
a patch         on the oaked middle-floor. Then splash out         on some

        fallings of sun under which         you may open your mouth
to receive the Lord’s vinegar         tumbled from a locked
and barred Heaven above.          If you are without means       and
have nothing to sell          then you lie in the hell of stone-

hold underground.   With no daylight         the cold freezes raw
        flesh     to the hardness of floor.     You are not even swine
as swine     generally speaking      have straw.      The weight of your
crimes          in the cut of your irons     will not be reduced or

ever removed.     Your pathetic lot is a three ha’-
penny loaf       and a smidgen of maggoty meat.     No
doctors attend.     Yet you may find a friend     in the treat-
ment Mr John Howard doles out         to this evil place.

         He has found what we’ve known all along. That above and
beyond         the clean beautiful cure         of the lowest
scribe’s pen         defeating the savage’s sword         the brute force
        of Newgate’s more mighty than all.   Paying no more real

         attention         to his words on the page         than it does to
our blood         scribbled onto its miserable walls.

The Night Watch

Governor Philip at length determined to select from the convicts, a certain number of persons who were meant to be of the fairest character for the purpose of forming a nightly watch for the preservation of public and private property.
                        –Watkin Tench, Sept 1789

        I       John Martin       dark skin       deemed fair character       do most
solemnly swear to take the poisoned chalice of my
good behaviour and drink.    I resolve to       all night long
instead of sink      into a well-earned dream       visit such
        places as deemed       necessary to apprehend those
I discover on the brink of a felony or
        trespass       or other misdemeanor.
      When I catch said
culprits or glean a       modicum of suspicious-like
        habits at labour       I resolve to turn inside-out

the pockets of that behaviour.       I’ll give attention
to entering private dwellings       patting down the prone
length of those lawless intentions       by way of any
        lawful and equitable       measures aformentioned.

        I shall fulfill these duties       despite detestation
and being reviled by my fellow convicts.   Indeed
the degree to which       I am spat on or sworn at       as
a traitor and kiss mine arse sycophant.       The greater
        extent to which I am hated      resented      exiled
by my own kind      the more assiduous the Powers
That Be       will see me attending the chore.   So      therefore

I relinquish all large and small convenience       which
        the camaraderie of my fellow convicts        was once
so apt to provide. I shall expect (and receive) no
reward       financial or otherwise.       No privileges

extra rations       minor comforts       compensations for
        my social checkmate.   Just the sense of serving the state
of New South Wales       within the province of the Greater

Good       to tide me over when the frosty poker of
loathing’s       jammed up my back side.        My award may or may
        not reside       in Heaven. Meantime I am stuck with my

lot       knowing due diligence won’t mean I may slot in-
        to the ranks       of respectable men of the Corp.   Just
that negligence        whilst employed in this duty shall find
        me swiftly punished       to the utmost rigour        of the law.

Fifty Acres

On 29th November 1792, John Martin, finally pronounced free three years after his sentence had technically expired, received a land grant of 50 acres at Northern Boundary Farm, near Parramatta.

This is the measure of what an emancipated
convict is given.   Fifty acres of spine-snapping

bush.   Eucalypts that scratch the throat of the sky and are
apt to ignite leafy tongues in the heat. Spear grass which

shallow-scythes bare legs to shreds. The fast fangs of venomed
snakes in the closed-up injection of each hollow log.

Those who take up land grants are awarded one single
tomahawk     two pigs     ;one hatchet     two spades     one shovel.

Expectations of being off all stores in eighteen
months.     That first dry summer rain fell in the shape of birds

arrested by death in mid-flight.     It was that hot.     One
hundred and fifteen degrees in the shadows.     The ground

like the base of a pot suspended over a fire.
The west wind simmered and smoked with its lid halfway on.

And then flames came across the parched Sydney Town basin
and knocked the top of hell off.     Flares galloped through trees with

a million dirty hooves     gorged on the leaves     then shit black
ash on our heads     burped up flares that reached halfway to the

sun     its knotted-vein belly hung over us     twitching.
We beat fire’s hot breath back from the door and covered all

of the windows with damp canvas.     Somehow it leapt right
over us.     Unbridled      unsaddled      unreined.      Ann and

I stared at each other      pulled back from the furnace      by
luck     and I knew that I was enslaved again.      It owned

me.     I did not own it.      Fifty acres of this harsh

wild-eyed      ravenous      mane-burnt-to-a-crisp country     hard
champing at the bit.

Judy Johnson has published four full length collections, a verse novel and two chapbooks. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Award and the Wesley Michel Wright prize, twice and was shortlisted for this year’s WA Premier’s Award. Her new project centres around her African American First Fleeter convict ancestors, John Martin and John Randall.