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Spotted Opossum | by Giles Watson's poetry and prose
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Spotted Opossum

Spotted Opossum


I learned milit’ry discipline for this:

mucking out the Gov’nor’s fowls –

but I ain’t complaining: ‘tis better

than wielding the cat, stringing up

the noose, standing by while lines

of felons flog their guts out breaking

stones. There’ll be a right blow-up

when I tells ‘im two of his finest

‘ave been taken, though – I kid not –

that big white pullet as allus lays

eggs wi’ double yolks, an’ ‘is proudest

struttin’ capon. I caught them

long spotted weasels at it, diggin’

in with their bare noses, flashin’

grim little rows of gnashers, an’

rammin’ their heads in giblets

well past th’ whiskers. One was

dark as chocolate, t’other tanned,

both white-blotched an’ patched

an’ verminous. I got a long stare

at ‘em on account o’their pluck:

they jes’ ferreted back at me wi’

eyes like buttons o’ Whitby jet,

stringin’ out intestines, snickin’

at ‘em wi’ their toothy gobs,

slobberin’. I went pell-mell

for a rifle, an’ t’dark one took

advantage, whipped round

fast as John White’s scissors,

snipped another’s throat – then

both bolted. Aye, it’s no joke –

th’ gov’nor will be wantin’ blood.


Thar’s nowt for it but to scrape

me pencil an’ set to sketchin’,

make ‘em convincin’ enough

fer t’ gov’nor’s book – else,

I swear, ‘e’ll cut me rum-ration,

or summat even worse. An’

‘ere’s me thinkin’ all these

kanguroos an’ ‘possums was

grass-eaters. ‘Ope ‘e don’t notice

th’ vicious little twin lines o’

toothmarks in ‘is chicken dinner.


Poem by Giles Watson, 2014. Picture: NPM, Volume 6. Based on a painting by the ‘Port-Jackson Painter’, an anonymous colonist, or possibly several individuals, who used watercolours to document animals, plants and daily life in Sydney from 1788 and into the 1790s. There was much confusion over the identity and biology of marsupials, particularly in the case of the Quolls or Native Cats, which were variously identified as polecats and martins until it was realised that they raised their young in pouches. In the documentary evidence of the period, the larger Quolls are also confused with the much smaller Phascogales, so that the “Spotted Opossum” was described by the surgeon, John White, as being the size of a rat, and given the aboriginal name for the Phascogale, Tapoa Tafa, whilst others testified that it was fifteen inches from head to tail. Unlike possums, Quolls are voracious hunters, filling an ecological niche similar to that of the European fox, albeit with the additional advantage of being expert climbers. The Port-Jackson Painter’s picture depicts two quolls in the act of eating one of Governor Philip’s chickens.

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Taken on July 10, 2014