In my many visits to libraries and literary museums, I’ve seen poems written in tatty exercise books, on thick expensive paper, on the edge of a menu, on a piece of bark, and on various scraps of paper, but I have never before seen one written on an airline sickbag. The Fryer Library has such a poem – it’s a work by Australian poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was known as Kath Walker until 1988 (1920 – 1993).
In November 1974 she was flying from London to Australia. The BOAC plane had stopped at Dubai airport, when suddenly it was stormed by hijackers. Over the course of the next three days, one passenger was killed and another wounded. The plane flew to Tripoli and then Tunis where those on board were finally released. The hijackers had threatened to blow up the plane unless they were given immunity in Tunisia.
During this ordeal, Oodgeroo Noonuccal tried to understand the motivations of the captors and learned that one of them had given up a career as a paediatrician to fight for the Palestinian cause. Using a blunt pencil, she wrote the following poem:
Yussef, (hi-jacker) by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
“Yussef, my son,
What do you do here,
With your dreamy eyes
That tell of moonlight
And the warm touch of a girl’s embrace?
The love you feel for children
Pours from your heart
And it’s easy to see
Since you wear it on your sleeve.
The soft lines around your mouth
Tell of endearments
You dare not speak.
Your tired eyes
Have seen blood and tears,
Fear and contempt.
I see you in the moonlight
Contented in a girl’s embrace.
But reality clouds my vision;
For there you stand,
A repeating rifle,
In your desert-strong,
Oodgeroo Noonuccal also wrote a poem called Commonplace during the time on board. Both poems were later retrieved and sent to the staff at BOAC. The sickbag, that you can see in the image above, is now in the Fryer Library in Queensland.
Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.
You can listen to the poem here:
or listen to John Denver singing it (with some lines added):