Maris Depers is a Psychologist from Wollongong, NSW. His poetry and short stories have appeared in Kindling III and One Page Literary Magazine.
“Look at that crack!” my wife says with surprise, pointing at a jagged line where the wall once met the cornice.
“Yeah, I know,” I mutter and then, in an exasperated tone I hope she doesn’t pick up, add that it’s been there for months.
I just couldn’t help myself.
At the moment I’m trying. I’m trying in the way my father always told me I can be, so I’m trying to keep my mouth shut at times like this. I’m also trying to understand how she hasn’t noticed the yawning cracks that are appearing everywhere of late. But mostly I’m just trying to keep things together.
Anyone who has dealt with subsidence knows that once those cracks appear the uncertainty and sleepless nights start. And once the process starts its progress is difficult to stop.
I look up at the crack resembling a tear through the crisp white paint we chose five years ago wondering if it was always under there and we just overlooked it when we rubbed the walls back, excited to be in our own home. Whether it had been hiding deep in the walls all along, waiting with the patience of cancer.
“I just don’t come in here that often,” she says, a new found concern painted across her expression.
“It’s because it’s been so dry,” I attempt to explain “Everything’s shifting and moving. It might close up again if it rains”
But who knows when that might be? It’s getting harder and harder to predict the weather these days. Some fragile balance seems to be tipping and nothing seems the same as it was before. Summers are longer, winters drier and the bad storms are more frequent and damaging than ever.
“Is our house falling down?” she asks slowly, her tone moving from concern to fear, causing me to look up from the washing pile.
“I don’t know,” I answer genuinely, “I don’t know”.
The Circle and the Equator
By Kyra Giorgi
Review by VIVIENNE GLANCE
To find a collection of short stories so perfectly themed as The Circle and the Equator is a rare gift. These stories take us on a grand tour of the world, shifting in time, with each location bound to an historical event, often a violent one. They explore the lives of ordinary people confronted by extraordinary moments in history. The stories are in no discernible order with the first being set in 1978 Angola, the second in Berlin in 1921, the third in Hiroshima in 1952, and so on. However, what links them is an expression of often indifferent and random violence, sometimes because of conflict and war, and the aftermath this has on these people’s lives.
Kyra Giorgi is a consummate storyteller. The world of each story is furnished with small details, such as the description of how to make a wax mould of a disfigured soldier’s face in ‘The mouleuse ‘(p. 42), or of the musical instruments played by Hamid in ‘Tifilis Papers’ (p. 114). These details enhance authenticity and are most likely informed by research skills gained while Giorgi was undertaking her PhD in History. In addition, she crafts her short form writing with a delicate touch that reveals character as the narrative spirals forward, taking us deeper and deeper into the lives of these protagonists. At the end of a story, the reader is left at the edge of understanding, and we must decide for ourselves if we will take that extra step to complete our own journey with these characters.
Giorgi is more courageous in some stories than in others, particularly when she deeply mines humanity’s propensity for destruction and depravity. In The Sting, a young woman physically self-harms in order to keep her secret, while at the same time, the self-deception and exploitation of the doctor who has discovered her secret is alarming. Giorgi tells this story from the doctor’s perspective and so, as the reader, we are placed within his deception, a party to his exploitation, whilst we observe the young woman’s suffering and deterioration.
The singing and dancing of Maori children, and the offering of food, as told in ‘Parihaka’, is a poignant retelling the how passive resistance was a tactic used during colonisation. Led by chief Te Whiti, the community stoically witnesses those arrested by the colonialists and soldiers when their land was forcibly taken from them:
When they came for you, you held out your hands to receive the manacles, allowed them to slip over your wrists and be locked in place. Words failing them, your captors fixed you with a scornful glare, and you glared back.
However, the story focusses on the aftermath, the broken body that had once stood so proudly at the head of his people, is now shattered and twisted by his gruelling punishment. As with many stories in this collection, ‘Parihaka’ demands that we remember the role violence has played in our history, and, with this story in particular, readers from Australia and New Zealand are confronted with how its effects still resonate in many lives today.
Bodies, and their pain and mutilation, feature throughout this collection. This is visceral storytelling, both literally and metaphorically. Bodies are damaged, crippled, disfigured, yet the human spirit continues despite this physical harm. Fundamentally, these stories are instances of survival and resilience in the face of struggle. It is the blast of a bomb that shatters hope, but which is then rebuilt, piece by piece, with patience, determination, and at times, a sense of inevitability. Life will go on, and to go on is to be human. It is the fate of our spirit and a force of our nature.
VIVIENNE GLANCE is a scholar, theatre artist and creative writer. She holds a BSc (Hons) from Imperial College, London, trained at the Drama Studio London and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance; and diversity and multiculturalism in the Arts. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.
Kathy Sharpe is a graduate of the University of Wollongong’s Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She writes about contemporary Australian life, and her stories are often set within the small, enclosed world of country towns. She has twice been awarded a Varuna residency and was shortlisted for one of Varuna’s Publishers Introduction Programs. She was selected for the Hachette QWC Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program (2009). She has worked in editorial roles in regional newspapers for 23 years. In 2011 she helped create and publish a collection of memories of the older residents of one humble street in North Nowra. Track By the River collectively narrates the story of a very poor, but strong community of battlers who lived along Illaroo Road on the Shoalhaven River. No dams is the winner of the 2017 Wollongong Writers’ Festival Short Story Prize.
Mary flings open her jacket to reveal the familiar yellow and black triangle.
“Look what I found,” she says. John and I stare at the letters on her T-shirt, stretched large and straining, not slapped flat as they used to be on her younger, skinnier chest.
“I hate you for still fitting into that,” I say.
“No dams,” says John, tasting the words.
Those words, encased in their pool rack triangle, on car windows, telegraph poles and pub toilets doors all over Sydney. Shouted through megaphones at city street rallies. A call to arms.
Mary takes her seat.
“Now, who do I have to sleep with to get a drink around here?”
The barman doesn’t raise an eyebrow when we order champagne, even though the Swan has just opened for the day.
“Good man,” says John. “He remembers the 1980s.”
The Swan is our old student haunt, but gone is the lingering whiff of rancid hops and the faint smell of gas. Gone too are the junkies like shadows around the pool table and the nasal drone of the television, calling the dogs, the punters sitting transfixed, their cigarette ash growing long and finally falling onto the table in front of them.
“Gentrified,” John says.
We don’t wait for Bruce. We clink our glasses together, we three. Mary, still beautiful, though I notice a tiredness around her theatre-dark eyes. John’s salt and pepper hair suits him, but his face remains tense. His eyes are small but they still manage to dominate his face. He is watchful and wary as ever, as though the world is out to trick him.
Mary puts her arm around me and draws me to her, rubbing her hand over my hair. Her perfume is smoky and spicy like the incense we used to burn in our student house. The smell of our youth is a decaying mix of incense, Champion Ruby and seagrass matting.
“Lou,” she says softly. “Where do the years go?”
We drink quickly to cover how much it still means, for us to be together.
Bruce arrives, flinging himself into a chair, puffing and panting in his grey tracksuit.
He picks up a serviette and wipes his damp face.
“Someone get me a drink, for God’s sake.”
“Did you run here?” John says. “Why didn’t you tell us, we would’ve sponsored you.”
Mary divides the last drops of champagne between our glasses with scientific precision.
“What’s with you?” Mary says. “Trying to keep up with that young girlfriend of yours?”
Once a year we meet, and each time I wonder at the electricity that still sparkles between us, like static, raising the hairs on our skin. One day a year, to let old attractions and hurts jostle for position as memories are shaken out, aired and exposed under the harsh light of being grown-ups.
“Good for you, Brucie,” says Mary. “You’re still hot, if you ask me.”
At a nearby table, a group of students are drinking coffee. One of the young girls laughs loudly, flicking back her stream of caramel coloured hair.
“Look at those twats,” says Mary.
“It was better in our day, when university was free,” John says. “You got real students, like us. Dirty, unwashed, the arse falling out of our jeans.”
“But with ideals,” says Bruce.
Mary bursts out laughing mid sip, and spits champagne across the table in a fine mist.
“Still haven’t learnt any table manners,” Bruce says.
“Here’s to ideals!” John says, raising his glass and clinking it against Mary’s. “No dams!”
“No dams!” we echo.
We drink, and like always, our time together starts to race, as we build the warm, boozy cocoon around us.
John comes back from the bar with two bottles of white wine and four glasses. He puts them on the table and as he leans over he squeezes me into a tight, cold hug.
“I wish it was still the 1980s,” I say.
“Lou, you always wanted to save the world,” Mary says.
“But you didn’t, did you Lou?” John says. “You left that up to Nigel.”
They are all laughing now. They always have to bring up Nigel.
I sound whiny as I try and defend myself. I sound twenty again.
“You all came to the protest marches, too. It wasn’t just me.”
“I only went to meet girls,” says Bruce. “Greenies got all the roots.”
“I only went for something to do,” says Mary. “Plus, I got to wear this!” She flashes her Tshirt again, tossing back her drink. Bruce is staring at her breasts and I can tell that Mary doesn’t mind.
We drink, and the morning slips away. The kitchen is closed by the time we decide we are hungry, so we have to be content with bar snacks. A waitress brings a share plate scattered with a dozen tiny morsels of vegetable and animal, drizzled with yellow olive oil and sprinkled with cracked pepper. A single lemon wedge perches apologetically to one side.
“That’ll keep us going,” says Mary, refilling glasses.
“Don’t worry, it only cost $40,” says John.
The waitress’s expression doesn’t change. She looks like a shop mannequin as she picks up the empties with her long, stick thin arms and glides off back to her position behind the bar.
“Have robots already taken over the world?” Bruce says.
“We used to look like that, Lou,” Mary says. “If we’d known we’d never be that thin again we would have worn better clothes, instead of all those rags from vinnies.”
“And all that black,” I say. “The whole city, full of young people dressed in black. As though we were in mourning.”
“We should have worn tight fitting dresses, and short skirts,” Mary goes on. “With low cut tops to show off our goods. We might have met richer men.”
John flinches and Bruce rolls his eyes.
Nigel liked thin girls. With small breasts, he said. My breasts were small, back then, and at the time I had taken this remark as a great compliment. But now, all these years later, it seemed creepy.
Mary picks at a tired piece of tempura cauliflower on the share plate.
“Look at this crap,” she says. “Seriously?”
As the sun slants in from the street, travelling across the floorboards, Mary and John are bad-mouthing people we used to know. It’s a game they play, passing cruelty back and forth between them, each time saying something slightly worse. Their words shoot back and forth, soft and light as arrows, glancing towards some invisible line that should never be crossed. Mary throws back her head and laughs and her glossy, black hair, her Princess hair, bounces around her shoulders. John smirks silently, watching her, enjoying her reaction, looking forward to what she will say next. He raises his glass and drinks, never taking his eyes from her face.
The bottles of wine are empty.
“My shout,” says Mary, heading off to the bar.
“Get something decent will you,” Bruce calls after him. “Not that camel’s piss again.”
John turns to me now.
“Remember when Nigel made you beg in the street for money for the trip to the Franklin?”
“It wasn’t begging,” I say.
Me. Standing in Martin Place, rattling a tin, trying to project my voice like Nigel had shown me.
“No dams,” I said. The words came out small and flat, lost in the rumbling of trains and the clatter of hurrying feet. No one even noticed me.
“No dams,” I said politely. With each person who walked past, I seemed to grow smaller and my voice softer, until I felt invisible.
A busker turned up and unfolded a filthy blanket, which he spread out on the ground against the wall. He sat down, cross legged and took out his guitar.
“No dams,” I called but then I couldn’t hear myself above his singing and the clinking of the coins that people were tossing into his battered guitar case. After a while, he scooped up his loot and stuffed it into his pocket. He packed up his guitar, then walked over to me. He began dancing around me, singing, “No dams, no dams, no dams, thank you mam!” People were laughing. The busker pushed a five cent coin into my tin, then walked away. I could smell his dirty clothes and his cigarette breath. But it didn’t matter how bad he smelled. He was the winner. He had won.
“Nigel,” John scoffs. “You would have walked on water for that fuckwit.”
We always do this. We let the alcohol unravel us and then we start to snipe. We dredge up humiliating memories from the past. In this way we can keep from showing, at least for now, how fiercely we still love each other.
“So Lou,” says Bruce, “Still waiting for Mr Right?”
“Leave her alone,” says Mary.
“And what about John?” says Bruce.
“We’re not all pedophiles like you,” John says. I gasp and we dissolve into laughter.
Mary tosses her hair. She says it’s going grey underneath the dye, but it doesn’t show.. I see how John and Bruce watch her, transfixed.
“Maybe we burned up all our sex appeal back then,” she says. “It was like we had to have sex with as many people as we could. We were living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud.”
“That poster was everywhere.” says Bruce. “The mushroom cloud.”
“And that one with the poem,” I say. “When the last tree has fallen, when the last fish is poisoned….”
“And no dams!” says Mary, pulling back her jacket and thrusting her boobs out to make her point.
No dams. That triangle told of a far away world, in Tasmania. Students were packing up and heading south, in search of their better selves.
“Except I didn’t make it,” I say, then realise I have spoken out loud. But luckily, no one is listening to me. They talk, and laugh and tease and argue, while my mind goes back to the kitchen of the dark terrace house, that I’m sure is still standing, just outside the doors of the Swan, and around the corner. The morning I walked in and saw Nigel huddled over the table, looking at a map with a texta line drawn down to the bottom of Victoria, then a dotted line across the sea, then a solid line south to Tasmania.
“Morning,” I said. He looked up at me, annoyed. I pulled my quilted dressing gown around me, tying its belt, and suddenly felt hopelessly suburban. I lit the gas and put the kettle on the stove. I stood for a moment, watching the flame burn down the length of the bbq matchstick.
“We can only take 12, in the van,” Nigel said out of nowhere, just as I blew out the match, the smoke curling, white and pungent into a giant question mark in front of my face. Or maybe it wasn’t really a question mark, but that’s how I remember it.
“We had to prioritise,” he said, “according to personal commitment.”
I heard the scrape of him dragging his bike down the hall, the slam of the door. I stood there, my feet cold on the dirty lino, until the screeching of the kettle became unbearable.
The sun has lifted its fingers from the floor boards now and the pub is filling up with people. Mary is on her phone to her husband.
“Can you pick them up, hon?” she says. “And Holly’s got that dance thing later. I’ll get takeaway on my way home. Love you.”
“Listen to you,” says John. “The whole fucking package. The husband, the kids, the Range Rover.”
“Don’t pretend you’re any different, fuck-face,” Mary says, her voice loud and reckless. “None of us are fighting the good fight and rallying against the establishment anymore. We ARE the fucking establishment.”
Mary and I were sitting on her bed, watching TV when we heard. Bob Hawke came on, making his promise to stop the dam. The camera panned to the greenie camp, the people celebrating. I searched for Nigel in the blur of brown, dancing Dryza-Bones, bedraggled beards and wet hair, and suddenly the pain of not being part of the victory was worse than the pain of not being Nigel’s girlfriend anymore.
“Who’s got cigarettes?” says Mary. “Or are we all still pretending we don’t smoke.”
“Still pretending,” I say.
Bruce reaches into his jacket and pulls out cigarettes. He puts his hand on her elbow, to steady her, as they make their way out into the beer garden. Funny that the two who are coupled-up are the two who are flirting with each other. John and I are left in our pool of silence. He looks at me and I look at him. History passes between us. I raise my glass.
“Here’s to the unloved,” I say.
“Or the unloveable,” he says.
I see his small eyes are red with drink, and his face is clenched hard.
“But we used to…” I start.
“Don’t,” he says.
I stop talking. I reach across the table and hold his hand. It feels small and cold in mine.
Bruce and Mary are taking a long time. Their phones have been ringing and ringing on the table. When they finally come back, Mary picks up her phone, swaying as she tries to focus on the words in the message.
“Fuck,”she says. “It’s after six. I’ve got to go.”
“Share a cab?” says Bruce.
“Nuh.” She starts to gather up her things, swiping items off the table into her handbag; her phone, her purse, her sunglasses, Bruce’s cigarettes.
Bruce looks crestfallen and I know Mary has been kissing him, out there in the beer garden. Mary hasn’t changed, I think. She still wants everything. Everything and everyone.
“See you fuckers next year,” she says, and walks out. Bruce rises unsteadily from his seat. He hugs us both, awkward with John, their angles crashing together, the futile male patting of each other’s backs. He folds me into his soft, slightly sweaty chest. I don’t want to let go, but he pulls away.
Soon John and I will leave too, still holding hands as we walk down Abercrombie Street. We will walk slowly and silently under the streetlights. Gone are those kids who raced along Chalmers Street, Cleveland and Crown, devouring life, tripping and falling over and holding each other up.
We will go through the little iron gate of his terrace, and up the narrow stairs. We will lie on his bed with the balcony doors open. We will listen to the city roaring around us and the lost will come home and the unloved will be loved and we will remember how it was, back when we thought we could save the world.
Georgia Manuela Delgado is a writer currently based in Sydney with a Portuguese mother. She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from The University of Sydney.
My Familia and Other Pigs
When I was a child, I could see ghosts. I could hear them too. “What’s your name? What did you die of?” I asked a ghost one day. A nun, in her habit. “A broken heart, child.” This nun I picked up in the convent in the next village. She would get in the car with us and come home with us sometimes on Sundays after church. She would stay with me until I fell asleep. Then she would go back to the convent, that’s always where I would find her again. There were lots of ghosts there, from the convent cemeteria. One ghost died in a fire, she would bake cakes in the convent bakery. She was particularly good at baking Pastel de Nata. She was always offering me cakes, but I could never see them. Her hands were terribly burnt. The other nuns would kiss her hands and sing her ‘O Fatima’. All the ghosts in the convent looked after each other, spoke to each other with kindness. They were so gentle they almost whispered, which is strange for the dead because they’re normally screaming. Once I saw two nuns take off their habits and braid each others hair. Women, alive or dead, will practice the economy of reciprocal care. No institution, not even the church, filled with love and the holy spirit, could instill that in men. But these women, my fantasmas, learnt in life that to survive Salazar, the war, the rape, the suffering, the heat, the beatings, the fires in the mountains, the starving of everyday life in Portugal, the only way to survive all this is other women, and love. They use suffering and turn it into love. Like how women lie in their own blood once a month and still make children from that.
As to be expected, all of the women in my family believed I saw ghosts. These women live in the realm of the dead, death never ends when you live in a dictatorship. That doesn’t mean that they gave me any special attention. Women from our village have to grow up and be strong. When you work in the hot sun and open your pores to God, she fills them in with cement and hardens you. There’s no time for sentimentality. Even romantic love starts out soft and poetic and quickly becomes a cruel and brutal torment. Love is always unforgiving, especially for women. My mãe always felt unloved and therefore unloved everyone else. I never could understand why my mãe was not like the nuns. She never sang, she never oiled her hair, she never sat in the sun and closed her eyes and daydreamed. She had children to take care of. That included her husband. My mãe had one of her teeth knocked out with a rock in our garden because it turned grey. My great aunt knocked it out for her on a long warm Portuguese night. I remember that night because she put me in my room and closed the door. She didn’t want me to see. I opened the door and peeked anyway, so she hit me really hard with the rock across the face. I was nine.
By the time I was sixteen, I had stopped seeing ghosts. My mãe worked it out of me. I could still see all things I was meant to see, but, more faintly. It lingered because my grandmother would always let me into her rituals. She was a bruxa, a witch. When she knew my grandfather was lying, we would go to the butcher together and buy cow tongue. She would cut it up and ask me to rub salt and olive into it. Then we should cook it into his arroz com polvo and he would eat it. Then my grandmother would ask him his secrets, and he would tell them. This allowed me to keep my connection, to see the things inbetween.
My grandmother would send me to Lisboa once a week, to buy fabrics for her. She sometimes made me clothes, but she made them more for other people. Even now, sometimes people in my village will ask me to come into their homes and admire their curtains or blankets because my grandmother made it. I would wait for the bus in a petticoat my grandmother made me. The bus came when it felt like it, but not everyone buys a ticket. This doesn’t happen all over Portugal, but it does in our village. There’s less and less work and more and more trouble. Nobody speaks to me on the bus, even though I sit at the front near all the old people who love to talk, because I’m scared of the older boys at the back. Today people are talking about the fires in the next village. Someone died yesterday, a little girl, trying to save a picture of the dictator Salazar. The whole family escaped but she ran back in to get the photograph, and she got trapped like a moth in a lampshade. “It’s true, my friend lives in that village. That girl is dead” an old man my grandmother knows says. I think about whether that’s true, or if its propaganda. She definitely died, but not for a picture. The bus is moving but people are standing up, reading over the newspaper. “Oh she was bonita” I hear a woman saying. I can’t see the newspaper so I have to imagine the little girl. I know she already has her ears pierced no matter how old she is. I think of my grandmother who has never had her picture taken and never will. There will be no picture of her in the paper, and not one on her gravestone either. I feel something but I don’t know how to describe that feeling yet. Years later I recall that feeling as bitterness.
On the bus, we pass the best village on the way to Lisboa. Vila Franca Xira. Some neo-realist philosophers live here. Although I have no idea what that means, I know it’s important because an older girl at school told me and her sister studies philosophy in Lisboa. Vila Franca Xira has the biggest and most beautiful bull ring I have ever seen. The entire outside is painted gold. Sometimes people from Lisboa even come here to see bullfights. People in Vila Franca Xira drink coffee at the cafes, but in my village they only drink beer or poncha. I always want to get off the bus and have coffee too, but my mãe would have some ominous punishment awaiting me if I was late. We are stuck in traffic and I’m not sure why, it’s a Tuesday morning. There is no mass on. Sometimes I can feel when something bad is going to happen, although not all the time, just when God decides. It’s because I can see the whispers, because I can see all the things in between. I can see from the bus the Guarda Nacional Republicana soldiers and I know something is wrong. The Guarda Nacional Republicana make me nervous because when they come to our village looking for traitors, they stand in the middle of the sidewalk and make women rub against them to get past. The first time they did that to me I was eleven.
The bus stops at the Guarda wearing berets, even though it’s really hot. Behind them there’s blood splattered all over the gold, like the first time I lost my tooth and dribbled some blood onto my mãe’s gold hoop earring. The blood on the ground reminds me of the first time I got my period in the dirt, but I’m less scared than I was when I got my period. The bus keeps going, and people are gossiping. I don’t remember what they said about it then, I was too anxious to pay attention. By the time I returned from Lisboa that day, the reason had hit my village. A bullfighter had slayed another bullfighter. Machismo merda. The mortician said he couldn’t ply the teeth out of their knuckles with just pliers; they had to pour oil all over their hands first and massage the teeth out. Only years and years later did it come out that they were lovers.
My pai was fighting the fires in Vila Franca Xira that day I saw the blood. The fires were so bad that the firefighters from our village went to help. My pai fought one of the worst fires Vila Franca Xira ever saw at a piggery. The fire surrounded the men and they had no choice but to jump into the piggery waste lagoon and go under as the fire spread over the top of the water. The pigs fried, and the smell was so close to human flesh that the firemen believed they were smelling dead bodies. The men left the piggery convinced they had been underwater with dead children. Most of the men were discharged with what we now would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but back then was called going luco. In the middle of the night, my pai would wake up to the sound of children screaming, and then he would go into our garden and look for them naked. All the old women on our street talked about my pai going luco. On my way home from school, they would say “Yeah, there she is. Such a beautiful young nina. What will happen to her now that her pai has gone and decided to be fucking luco? Eh?” My grandmother thought it was funny and would laugh at him. She would say “What are they saying when they are screaming? What words do you hear?” She said my pai did not listen properly and they will not go away until he hears them. My mãe never laughed. “You are the man of this house, and ghosts are screaming in your ears at night? Fantasmas that don’t exist? They were porcos. Always porcos.” Is this the spiritual nobility of the peasantry? My pai started drinking poncha every night, to drown the noise. But ghosts don’t ever drown, they learn to swim. The children screamed less and less, and eventually my pai went to work as a labourer. He was still known as luco but someone who had pulled it together for his family. Then one hot day he died in an accident at work, he was completely crushed by a machine. It was so fast that they say he would not have had time to suffer. The night he died was the first night my mãe slept alone since she was nineteen. They were married at seventeen but he spent two years in Angola fighting for the colony.
Years later I fell asleep on the couch in my parents home during a tedious visit filled with remembering emotions suppressed in order to survive my childhood. I never slept on the couch, it was something my father started doing when my mãe kicked him out of their bed. I woke up hearing children screaming. I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
Sentences from the Archive
By Jenn Webb
Recent Work Press, 2016
Reviewed by ANNELISE ROBERTS
“I peeled apples and sliced them finger-nail deep, waking you with their scent” (1): Jen Webb’s Sentences from the Archive (Recent Work Press, 2016) begins with the pastel erotic vignette ‘Outside the Orchard’. It’s like a favourite private memory that gets indulgently recycled from time to time. “The astringent bite. Fluid in the mouth. Green skin, spiralling a green S across the lawn.” (1) But by the third poem ‘The heart of the sea’, the green is muddied, the tone becomes urgent, and the murmur of inner experience is abandoned for a collective voice: “The navy arrived in fast boats, urging us to board, guaranteeing our lives….” (3) The tense shifts midpoint to a present which seems to express a kind of futility, like the futility of prediction: “Tonight we wait, hand in hand, standing on the deck. In the distance we see it draw nearer. I think that it’s a rainstorm, but someone says no, it’s angels. Someone else says it is the herald of our end.” (3)
Webb is Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. In her collection of prose poems Sentences from the Archive she develops this hybrid practice of her bread and butter, addressing both poetic and traditionally academic concerns, and playing with ways of figuring the personal and the political. A bio from online journal Meniscus, which she edits, explains her two major academic projects: “the first investigates the relationship between art and critical social moments; the other explores the relationship between creative practice and knowledge.”
In Sentences from the Archive, as Webb explains in the afterword to this collection, these ongoing enquiries are considered through the Derridean concept of the archive. The archive has two aspects: it is an historical record of the where and when of events (its ‘sequential’ aspect), and it is a political authority that determines what can be culturally knowable (the ‘jussive’ aspect): “archive that shapes the future through the way it records the past.” (54) Each prose poem here is a punchy and insistent item in a sprawling archive. In fact the prose poems are somehow object-like in their density — the blocks of text, the sentences usually short and the flow dimpled, lines often blunt, matter-of-fact and brief in a bitter way (“Watch me fly” ). Objects are also a means of pinning down events in an otherwise bewildering flow of ongoingness: for the event of the death of a loved one, empty vessels like schedules, packing crates, and skips; for making a relationship comprehensible there are supermarket tomatoes, avocados, and cheese.
Sentences from the Archive enacts an intense, repetitive struggle that occasionally resolves into apathy, guilt, or regret. Largely the opponent seems to be time. The fruit-softening domestic noir of poems like ‘Elegy III’, for instance: “The capsicum left too long in the fridge, the carrots left too long in the fridge, the potatoes that have grown eyes, the onions with their rotten cores, the love I never gave you.” (29) Time wins in the hopelessness of making rules, designing schedules which never seem executable and never permit you to keep up, be in charge, act decisively, as in the wonderful suite of poems ‘Waiting for the bus’: the bus “runs later each day, as though time were running out, as though time had lost its way.” (45) Time is a woman’s evening dress, powerfully attractive and disinterested in ‘What happened that night’. Time is the impending crisis, careless and inhuman in ‘Waiting for the phone to ring III’: “You know it’s on its way. You know it can’t be outrun. Keep your head down. Before the last chance reaches you, call me. I’ll find you if I can.” (13) Time is also the dominant figure of the ocean that is deep past and future, for the asylum seekers “our first home and our last,” (4) incomprehensibly sublime and complex, unnavigable, sometimes lover and sometimes cold aggressor. This allows for the endless dramatising of the loss of control: the ships are always drifting or else careening towards rocks, maps can never be followed.
Sometimes the abstract tension assumes a form, like an interpersonal situation, often romantic or familial. Usually the tension is buried in a kind of numb resignation, as in the ringing near-rhymes of this passage from ‘Dès due le soleil’: “I avoid you these days, just as I avoid the sun. The tree we planted casts a staggered shade, paints leaves on my skin. I sprawl beneath it, pour myself some wine, and when you call me I leave the phone to ring.” (7) People, too, are always already lost to each other even when in romantic proximity, as in ‘No Stories Please’: “We walk home, hand in hand. We are trying so hard. Don’t we deserve a prize?” (26) Or the looming thing might be economic: “Across the plain the storm is coming … The dollar has sunk to an historic low and the DAX is stumbling.” (‘On the Road II’, 15) However, always, once the terms of the battle have been outlined in such a way that anticipates the loser and the sense of loss settles in, there is a kind of comical and absurd waiting to be done: waiting for the phone, the bus, the moving thing on the horizon. At the airport: “We can’t be certain we’re alive. The clocks have stopped. The barista has gone home. Even the air smells of dead feet.” (‘En route’, 42)
In Webb’s afterword, she explains: “I have long been wrestling with the ways in which creative practice can operate in the political zone. … Now I shift my focus to small individual crises and memories, and am trying to think my way into how a person, no less than a nation, might construct archives, and make sense of the past, in the work of facing and building the future.” (54) Reading the collection as a whole, the paired categories Webb makes reference to here — the personal and the national, the creative and the political, the past and the future — sometimes feel like they are frozen in a relationship of fraught juxtaposition. Maybe this effect comes about, for instance, from the decision to immediately follow the luscious poem ‘Tarte au citron’ (“Afterward, the sweetness still on your skin, you would look at me, lubricious, and I would lean into you, hungry as a flame” ) with the desperate voices of asylum seekers in ‘The heart of the sea’ (“We know where safe passage ends: an unstable tent, our children stacked like stones to build a wall.” ) There is some difficulty in clarifying the relationship between these two aesthetics, the romantic and the political crisis, so that they sometimes feel paired in opposition. Juxtaposition of this kind feels like a state that can’t be developed, for all of the labouring and rumination, but is only relieved with shoulder shrugging or smiling as in the final poem ‘Da Capo’: “Inside is all shudder, and you need to sign that form and you find that dammit you’ve bought only purple garlic, not white, and the cat has trapped herself in the cupboard again, and no one has emptied the bin. Breathe. It’s easily fixed.” (53)
But in a poem that acts as a hinge for the collection, ‘Keeping the record straight’, Webb reaches an aesthetic complexity through a smooth diffraction of voices and scales that is the real achievement of the book:
If the north had stood beside us. If, turning to walk away, you had only said. If the north would unbend, just a little. A moment lost, and another. If I had seized. Made the right or any moves. If the north turned to south. Agreed to disagree. If the north would stretch out its
hand. Or buy a copy of my book. If just once; then never again this. (41)
Here the sentence, the concept at the heart of this collection of prose poems, shows us what it is for. The sentence is a technical, rhythmic and aesthetic device, with a logic that shines through once it has been cracked in half (“If I had seized”); at the same time it is a judgement in a court of memory and history that delivers both moot and legally binding decisions: “If just once; then never again this.” It makes pronouncements for populations, and for personal histories, but these pronouncements repeatedly turn away from being definitive or predictive. The struggle to compose the sentence is the struggle to work with time and its substance, memory. In finding a means of expression that performs all these functions so sensuously, Webb has spoken back eloquently to her own questions about creative practice and the political, and to the questions she is prompted to ask by the figure of the archive.
Sentences from the Archive is a dense, emotionally adventurous, and commendably experimental set of prose poems, with a vast network of intertextual references from the Biblical, to the ekphrastic, to the pop cultural (“if memory could speak it would say lock it in, Eddie, lock it in” ). Webb has developed her own form appropriate to the granular texture of time as we experience it, true to the shuttling resonance of memory and event, and awake to the entanglement of self with the world.
ANNELISE ROBERTS lives in Melbourne and is a PhD student in creative writing at the Australian National University. Her work is about family, radiation, and the British nuclear testing at Emu Field, South Australia.
Sivashneel Sanjappa is a writer, chef and keen gardener originally from Fiji and currently based in Melbourne. He is currently working on his first novel. His work has been published previously in Verge literary journal. He can be found on Twitter @sivashneel and on Instagram @sivashneel.
- Questions and Answers
For every impossible question that had floated up inside Roop’s thought bubble, there was a very real answer, if one cared to find out.
Was it Roop’s childhood kingfisher that had visited him that morning?
It was not.
Kingfishers don’t live that long. Roop’s childhood kingfisher died well before it could reach its natural lifespan. It died from a dynamite bomb that exploded while it had dipped into the ocean in search of its lunch. After it exploded, the fish died and floated up to the surface. The fisherman collected them and sold them at the Municipal Market that weekend. The kingfisher died and was carried to the beach by the incoming tide. It was lodged in the roots of a na-ivi tree, where it decomposed slowly. Weeks later, the ebbing tide took away its feathers and bones.
It had had three little eggs in its nest, tucked away in the thick of the tiritiri, the mangrove forest. They hatched shortly after it died. The hatchlings starved to death within hours of hatching. Over the years, the entire population of kingfishers in that tiritiri vanished. The Municipal Rubbish Dump on a nearby shore regularly sent an army of plastic bags, nylon sacks and such to the roots of the mangroves. The leachate from the growing pile of decomposing garbage seeped directly into the lagoon, where it travelled up the roots of the tiritiri and suffocated the mangrove trees. The kingfishers, along with the mudcrabs and the herons, either died or migrated to new homes.
The tiritiri that guarded the lagoon near Roop’s current village was intact, but for how long? The beach there had been leased to an overseas investor, who was planning to erect a new marina. Gossip went that he was planning to dredge up the entire lagoon, with the tiritiri, to make way for construction boats.
The kingfisher’s call may soon become a myth.
Did Roop’s butterfly survive its first flight?
It did indeed.
After it disappeared into the canopy of the rain trees in the Library Gardens, after Roop and Zarina went home that morning, it embarked on its life as a free butterfly. It fed on the nectar of many flowers. It fluttered over the tops of the trees, over to the gardens in the villages close by. It mated with many other butterflies. It laid many eggs and, at the end of its life cycle, died a natural death. It lived a short, fulfilled life.
Roop would have been happy to know this. Had he not released it from the jar that morning, it surely would have died a wretched, captive death.
Where did Tinisha, Mrs Murthi’s wedding hairdresser, disappear to?
Well, they fell in love.
One afternoon, a man named Manoj, a regular customer of Tinisha’s, came to the salon for his usual haircut. Tinisha’s heart beat a little faster around Manoj, as it always did. They flirted with each other in their usual, uneasy, secretive manner. Then, out of the blue, Manoj put his hand on Tinisha’s hip. Tinisha took his hand and led him to the back of their salon, behind a short wall.
Tinisha was a lucky point-five, perhaps the luckiest of all point-fives in Fiji. They experienced a first kiss, on the lips. The loving embrace of a strong man. They lay on top of Manoj for some time, caressing his bushy eyebrow, while the Sugar City dismantled itself at the end of the work day and people went home to have family dinners.
Tinisha and Manoj eloped to a small, distant village. Tinisha took him to their brother’s house, which had been vacant since he moved overseas six years ago. They lit a little fire in the backyard and walked around it seven times, thus marrying each other like Bollywood sweethearts. They lived a brief, blissful married life.
Two weeks later, two men came to the house with cane knives. One of them was Manoj’s tavale, his wife’s brother. Gossip had spread quickly, and because gossip was a more accurate source of information than any media channel, it wasn’t hard to track Manoj down. His tavale had come to take Manoj back to his wife and two children. To remind him of his responsibilities, to hold him accountable. To chastise him for the shame he had brought to their family. To set him back on track.
They beat Manoj up and took him away in a blue van. Before leaving, they locked Tinisha inside a clothes cupboard.
Tinisha spent a day figuring their way out of the cupboard. They managed to break it open from inside. They took a bus back to the Sugar City and waited outside Manoj’s workplace. When Manoj saw Tinisha, as he emerged at the bottom of the flight of stairs that led to his office, terror contorted his face into a grim mask. He pulled Tinisha aside. His forehead was bruised and he had a bandage around a finger. He told Tinisha he had moved on. He begged Tinisha to leave him alone. He asked them to move to Suva or somewhere and start a new life. Then he ran to the kerb and jumped in a taxi, which disappeared into the afternoon dust.
Tinisha, shaken, heartbroken, downtrodden, took their wig off and threw it in a public rubbish bin. They took the bus back to the house where they had got married. They stepped back into the cupboard they had fought their way out of earlier that day, and hung themself from the railing with a wire hanger.
Some weeks later, their body was found by a neighbour who couldn’t handle the stench from rotting corpse any longer. The police tried to contact Tinisha’s overseas brother, but to no avail. Tinisha was burnt in a public crematorium.
Gossip travelled around the country, like a Sunbeam Bus, that they had moved to Suva and opened a stylish new salon.
And, finally…where do bijuriyas go when they’re not dancing at weddings?
Where does lightning go after it has struck?
No one knows.
No one cares to find out.
However, as Roop put his brain to sleep late that night, Shilpa, the bijuriya, sat on a secluded beach a few villages away, gazing at a gibbous moon.
A couple of hours after Roop and Zarina had finished eating their BBQ and driven off, Shilpa had arrived at the Library Garden. They had taken their ghaangra off. They wore a short skirt and crop top. They had reapplied their lipstick, which glistened under the street lamp.
Two women in similar clothes stood at the edge of the garden, keeping an eye on passing cars. Shilpa asked them for a cigarette. One of them handed Shilpa a half-smoked Rothman’s cigarette.
A shiny Mitsubishi drove past and slowed down. The tinted windows were rolled down. Four sets of teeth appeared, floating, inside the van.
The back door opened and one of the passengers, a man, urged Shilpa in.
They were given a cold Fiji Bitter stubby. They sipped it quietly. The man next to them took their hand and slid it into his pants. They massaged the man’s crotch quietly. The man unzipped their fly and shoved Shilpa’s head into his crotch. He held their head down.
Still, Shilpa serviced the man’s crotch.
The van drove out of the town, down a windy road, to a secluded beach. The men got out.
Shilpa adjusted their wig and got out of the van. They dropped to their knees, and serviced the four smelly dicks. One at a time, two at a time, three at a time.
They spat out each one’s ejaculate onto the sand.
One of the men, who had the unmistakable overseas aura about him, handed them a $20 note.
Shilpa kicked up a fuss. They demanded $20 for each smelly dick.
“We didnt even fuck you bitch,” they said, and drove off in their van.
“Saala maichod bhatiyara,” Shilpa shouted at the van. They threw a piece of dead coral at the van, but it missed. Shilpa sat on the beach, and watched the gibbous moon touching the ocean, ever so gently. The tide was out. The exposed tiritiri roots jutted into the sand like stiff, sedentary snakes. Little crabs crawled from one hole to another over the wet sand.
Shilpa felt angry, guilty. They hadn’t needed to be a whore that night, they had made enough cash at the wedding. Why had they taken to the street then? Maybe it was dancing in the lap of that beautiful boy with the piercing eyes and bulging eyeballs at the wedding. The force with which he had pushed her off. The disdain, the violence — it had aroused Shilpa, brought their point-five juices alive.
They waited for daylight to break, but fell asleep presently.
They were woken up by the prongs of a crab-spear poking their shoulder. A woman with a big afro like a halo and a charcoal-shined face was asking them if they were alright. The tide was flowing in, lapping at Shilpa’s feet.
“Isa, what you doing here?” the lady asked in Fijian. Shilpa replied, in broken Fijian, that they had been stranded there. The lady introduced herself as Siteri. She didn’t ask Shilpa for details. She invited Shilpa to her house.
It was a tiny tin house, surrounded by coconut trees. Siteri lived alone. She said her children lived near the town, and they visited her sometimes.
In the backyard, water was boiling in a big pot over a fire. Siteri fed more wood into the fire, then plunged the one crab she had speared earlier into the boiling water.
She rolled out a woven mat on the floor of her house. Shilpa sat down.
They drank tea and ate some boiled cassava.
Siteri said the tiritiri was dying. Back in the day, she said she would have filled her basket with crabs. She would have had enough to give some to her neighbours. Now the white vulagi who bought the beach wanted to dig it all up. She said the whole church was praying to God to save their village.
Shilpa asked Siteri about the charcoal. Siteri told her that it protected her skin from the sun.
When their clothes had dried up, Shilpa thanked Siteri and took their leave. They walked up the dusty road, following Siteri’s directions. They boarded a bus at the junction. The bus was empty, the bus driver didn’t charge them.
Later, around mid-morning, Shilpa arrived at the shack that she rented from a pimp. She shared the shack with two others. One was Julie, who had been forced to the street by her husband and then abandoned by him when he found himself a younger wife. The other girl wouldn’t tell them her name. She was Chinese, so Shilpa and Julie affectionately called her Ching. Ching barely spoke to anyone. She had been brought to Fiji on a student visa and given over to Shilpa’s pimp. The pimp said someone was coming to take Ching away soon, when her student visa expired.
Inside the shack, the bucket in the middle of the floor had filled up with the previous night’s rain (which had leaked in through a hole in the roof) and flowed out. The mattress was wet. Julie was snoring on one end. Ching wasn’t around.
Shilpa took their wig off and fell asleep on the wet mattress.
- The Much Needed Holiday
As Shilpa fell asleep, a few villages away, Roop sat up in his bed and stretched his arms. He cursed himself for waking up so late — he had probably missed the kingfisher’s call at dawn.
Other than the chickens scratching about on the lawn and the mynahs chirping up in the trees, the only other sound he could hear was the radio in the kitchen. An announcer was announcing funeral notices.
Mr and Mrs Murthi had gone to Sunday Service at the Big Church. Mrs Murthi left the radio on to ward off would-be burglars. She took this extra precaution even though Roop was the lightest of sleepers,
Roop flung his bedsheet off and went to the bathroom. He undressed and studied himself in the mirror. His stubble was overgrown and needed shaving. His unruly hair looked as though it was full of dust. As though dust would fall out if he shook his head.
Veins stood out in his thin arms. The hollows in his collar bones could hold a tablespoon of water each. His ribs were visible in his chest. The one thing he had retained from childhood was his small, round belly. He sucked it in and it disappeared. Then he exhaled and it was back, a little kangaroo pouch. Further down, his penis was limp. The foreskin was shrivelled and pointed slightly to the left. His balls hung heavily, as though gravity pulled them more forcefully than it did the rest of his body. Perhaps gravity was humiliating him for being a twenty-eight year old virgin.
His bum cheeks also hung low, like ripe pawpaws waiting to fall off a tree.
He turned the tap on and stood under the cold water for some time. Then he dressed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. The radio announcer had finished with the funeral notices, and played a jolly Sunday morning song:
Khush rehne ko zaroori, kya hai bolo yaar?
Khushi toh milti hai jab, mile kisi ka pyaaaar
To be happy, what do we need friend?
Happiness comes when we someone loves us.
Roop sat down at the dining table with his cup of tea. Yesterday’s newspaper lay open on the table. It was turned to page 13.
TWO MEN IMPRISONED ON HOMOSEXUAL CHARGES, the headline read in bold print.
Roop read the article. An Australian man and a Fiji-Indian man had been found engaging in homosexual behaviour in a hotel room. The Australian homosexual had called the police after he found all his money missing after the Fiji-Indian homosexual made a run with it after their ‘encounter’. The police came and seized the Australian’s belongings. On his digital camera, they found the recording of the ‘disgusting acts’ the homosexuals had filmed. Both homosexuals were arrested and the court sentenced them to prison.
Fiji had been one of the first countries in the world to have a bill of rights that specifically illegalised discrimination based on sexual orientation. But still two homosexuals were in prison. They were charged for filming sex, that is producing pornography, which was illegal. Still, the article made it clear that the two homosexuals were disgusting. A Methodist Church pastor was quoted as saying that.
In a few days, the Australian homosexual would be released and fly back to his country. The Fiji-Indian homosexual would remain in prison. His wife would beg a garment factory owner for a job so she could look after her little son and daughter.
It wasn’t by coincidence that the newspaper came to be lying on the dining table, conveniently turned to page 13. Someone had left it there, for Roop to read. Roop had found a similar newspaper article when he had come home during uni break in 2000, some months after the May 2000 civilian coup.
That time, it had been about John Scott. He was a half-Fijian half-white man who grew up in New Zealand. He had returned to Fiji and worked as a volunteer, and eventually became the Director of the Red Cross. After the ministers in parliament were taken hostage and kept captive in the Parliament House, John Scott had been most active in taking provisions in for them, checking on their health. The country had been awed with his generosity, his bravery. That he risked his life for the hostages. Media channels had praised and applauded him.
Then, one night he had been discovered brutally murdered in his house. His young lover, a kiwi man had also been murdered. The post-mortem results confirmed that the two homosexuals had been subjected to vile torture before being hacked to death. But even before the post-mortem results were released, even before the accused murderer had appeared in court, a senior police officer had made official statements about the case. He said the accused, a young Fijian man, had been abused by John Scott. That John Scott had lured him away from his rugby career in high school with alcohol and drugs. It had mentally disturbed the accused and driven him to this vengeful act. Several months later, the accused was sent to a mental institution and not charged with murder. John Scott, once a generous and brave hero, bowed out of history as a disgusting, alcoholic, drug-addicted homosexual. His body, and his young lover’s body, were both taken to New Zealand by their families for proper funeral services.
Roop finished his tea, and threw the newspaper in the bin. He turned the stupid radio off. Zarina came and picked him up. They drove to Village 4 to see a film. She had been hoping to see Brokeback Mountain, for the rave reviews it had received. She said movie tickets in Melbourne cost 20 Australian dollars. In Fiji, they cost 5 Fijian dollars. Roop told her that Brokeback Mountain had played in the cinemas for exactly two days. Then members of the Methodist Church of Fiji had marched through the streets in protest, demanding the cinemas stop showing it. It was now banned in the country. Zarina was furious. “When will this country move on from these foolish things?” she asked.
They decided to watch the remake of Umrao Jaan.
In the thirty minutes they had to kill before the film started, Roop went to the Internet cafe next to the cinema and printed out the application forms for an Australian tourist visa from the Embassy Website.
Jessie Tu’s poems and scripts have appeared in the Australian Book Review, FishFood Magazine and The Voices Project. Winner of 2016 Joseph Furphy Literary Prize in Poetry, she was shortlisted for the Peter Porter Poetry Prize in 2017. She is recently returned from a workshop in creative non-fiction writing at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival, University of Iowa. ‘Another Country’, an extract from her memoir-in-progress was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2017, judged by Alice Pung. Her poetry chapbook, You should have told me we have nothing left is forthcoming with Vagabond deciBels 3.
‘Memory believes before knowing remembers.’
William Faulkner, Light in August
When I was growing up, my father often told me to find a man who would love me more. Find a
man who will love you more than you could ever love him. As though it were a competition, as
though you could measure love, put it on a scale, graph it, draw charts and predict growth or
recession. Calculable. Everything was measurable. He felt the need to quantify things. Everything
had currency, as long as you knew where to look, how to decipher it in numerical components. That
was how he saw the world and the world saw it fit to bend to his will. After experiencing the grief
of losing a relationship with a man I loved, I came to understand, albeit over several years, what my
father meant by this. I understood that he wanted to save me from the hurt of loving, of being the
doer, not the receiver. The operator, the labourer. The less worthy. The love-er. My mother, being
the more beautiful of them, possessed more power. Beauty had the highest currency. For men like
my father, marriage and love was a sport of acquiring the highest beauty and he was prepared to
pull the highest strings of heaven and hell to obtain her, to garner her approval, to profess a
conquering. His value came from the ability to make the right choice in marriage. But later in life, I
saw how he became tired, exhausted, could no longer put her needs first and I saw how she’d scowl
him for it. Infatuation turned into love, into need, and finally into some dark, unspoken defeat. In
the end, their history was not enough to disregard the resentment they developed for each other.
“Once you spoil a child, there is no turning back time,” my father once lamented. “I did too much
for her.” In the pursuit of his duty to fulfil the life-narrative he was given, he lost himself. He turned
into a man mourning for a boyhood that never existed, and my mother realised she could do nothing
to absolve his trembling grief. Her beautiful face – that exquisite bone structure, perfect lips, soft
eyes, careful expression and tender neck, could not save him. My father became cruel and quick to
judge, spiteful when my mother was not in the room, complaining about what she lacked and all
that she had not become. “She’s sixty-one-years old and still cannot read a map!” On one of our
frequent weekend road-trips outside the city, my father would use the bent street directories,
crinkled at the edges, folded and refolded to the common pages of the city, and our tiny corner of
western Sydney. When we got lost, my father would stop by the side of the road and bark at us. We
were inadequate. We understood this at a very young age. My mother knew this too. She had never
learnt English. She did not know how to recognise the letters, the names. Each time he stopped,
he’d pound the limp directory onto the steering wheel, strip his glasses off, his shoulders a dark
shadow, and curse with force from his lungs. In the backseat of our eight-seater Toyota Tarago, we
learned to stay silent and still. My sister would take my hand and squeeze it, as though to say, “It
will pass. Hold on.”
When I was younger, his periods of silence buried the house in some invisible smoke, heavy,
something I could not name. There is no name for the thing we care about the most. He’d go outside
and stand in the middle of the backyard and I would forget he had a face. From behind, he looked
like the arch of a tunnel leading into a black mountain. He would stand for hours at a time, and all
around him the world would wane. I wondered what he was thinking. I sensed in the state of his
silence that he was far away, that we could not reach him, that we did not have the strength to will
him back to us. He knew the pain of not being enough. I realise now, as I approach my thirtieth
birthday, that my father had struggled with inadequacy too. I sensed too within him, valley deep
variegations of an internal life I had no access to.
“Epigenetics,” my diary told me. “Perhaps it was the grief of all that insubstantiality he felt that
was passed on to his children.” I was back for the third time in under two years, back at my parent’s
home, clearing and re-clearing space for the things I did not need but could not bring myself to
throw away. The plastic box of diaries – from when I was twelve. I took them out, one by one, and
dated them. – Book 1. Book 2. Book 3 and so on, until I reached Book 32. 1999, it began. Then,
2016. I read them and believed I was discovering someone else’s life. The person in the pages was
talking to me, and it felt right to listen to what she had to say. “Maybe all the anger, all the grief of
my father is pouring through the cells in my body. Invariably, there is no use trying to fight it. I am
always sad. And I am always sad because of him.”
On the final page of a long and over-sentimental recount of a failed romantic encounter, I copied an
extract from Melina Marchetta’s book ‘Saving Francesca’ – “Boys don’t like sad girls. So stop
being so sad.”
Perhaps my father and I both knew the power of beauty – that we didn’t possess it, that it would
always be beyond our reach, so we spent much of our lives trying to make up for it. If we didn’t
possess it naturally, we would acquire it another way. He once told me, “Don’t be the one chasing
the boy. You’ll never be enough. You’ll always suffer more.” By then, I’d known already that I
would glean the same fate as him, that my disposition – something I knew from a very young age,
was to be the greedier one, the one who would fill more barrels of tears. I was always wanting
something better. Lover sounded more interesting. Loving seemed to involve more creativity,
required more skills, more resourcefulness, asked for something more challenging than being loved.
To love was to ask something of myself. To improve myself. To change. To throw myself out of
myself. The pursuit seemed more noble. Giving felt bolder than receiving. I fell in love at eighteen,
with an Australian boy I had been friends with since the beginning of high school. He was the first
boy I brought home. We had dumped our bags in my room and emerged seconds later to take our
bikes out for a ride. My father was home early. He did not know about the boy, or that I would be
bringing someone home that afternoon. When he saw us, his expression was mauled with a strange
sort of disgust. In that moment, I felt his anger sear through me, something my small body was not
able to handle. But I received it, and still feel the residue of it simmering underneath my breath
today, at times as evident as blood in the mouth. My father was ashamed of me. The boy extended a
hand to my father. My father did not look at him, simply stared at me with that unforgiving piercing
disgust, and then turned his back to us. I hate the memory of that day. Because that day, I learnt that
I needed to live two lives in order to keep the love I’d accrued over seventeen years. I needed to
split myself in two. Weeks later, when he’d calmed down, I asked my father why he was so angry at
me. He told me that men only wanted one thing from me, and that he didn’t want to see his daughter
be stripped of her body. “When you give yourself to a man, you are ruined.” Was this the way he
was taught to understand sex and love? That it was the boy who took something away from the girl?
My mother remained silent on the subject of love. I once asked her how she knew she loved my
father. “I thought about him all the time,” she said. I sat on the couch beside her, transfixed by her
beauty at fifty-nine, waiting for something more profound, more insightful. But nothing came out of
her mouth and she got up slowly to bend down and wipe the floor. When I was older, she’d tell me
that when I was in primary school, after dinner, I would sometimes sit beside her on the TV couch
and teach her new words.
“You laughed at me each time I didn’t pronounced a word correctly.”
I don’t remember my own cruelty.
Once, when I was making a car insurance claim after a minor accident, I pretended to be my mother
on the phone. The operators demanded oral approval from her because I was under twenty-five.
“She doesn’t speak English,” I told the operator.
“I still need to hear her approval, madam.”
“But how? She doesn’t speak a word of English.”
“Can you please translate to her that she approves of you being the benefactor and just have her say,
I was in the car, alone. My mother was overseas and it was the final day I could make the claim.
“Fine. Let me get her.” I pushed the phone at arms-reach away from me and mumbled a random
string of words in Chinese, then put on a deeper voice and pretended to be my mother. I spoke a
line, then answered myself in a deeper voice. I had to cup my left palm firmly over my mouth to
suppress my laughter. My mother did not sound like how I was portraying her at all, but the
operator did not know this. It did not matter. If only someone had a camera to film it. When I hung
up, my heart subsided to its usual pace and I drove home in a state of elation mixed with guilt. I did
not like the dishonesty of what I’d done, but it had to be done. I recall all the times I had to translate
for my parents when I was a child – the electricity bills and insurance forms and tax returns and
school fees. We didn’t know what voluntary contribution meant, so we paid up, always – scared to
ask questions. When my father was diagnosed with high blood pressure, the doctor sent a three page
print out in the mail on what foods to avoid, what exercises to do, what medications to take and how
often and how much travel he was allowed to take per year. I was petrified of making a mistake.
At eight years old, I skimmed through the medical terms and nodded as my father looked at me,
waiting for me to explain it to him. He was waiting on me, and I was waiting for my intelligence to
catch up so that I could be useful. I hopped over words I didn’t recognise. I was good at hiding my
incompetency. In the end, the only part I could confidently translate was the section on
“It says you should walk thirty minutes a day,” I said.
“Every day?” he looked at me with bulged eyes.
“No, of course not.”
“But you just said that’s what they said I must do.”
“It’s saying you should. You don’t have to.”
“And you can swim or run too.”
“No thanks. What else? What about the other two pages?”
“Have you got the medication?”
“Yes, here.” He handed me a white palm-sized box and it felt like he was handing over his life. I
had no idea what it is and no idea how to pronounce the name printed across the box in large capped
blue font, but I nodded and pretended I knew. Despite the pressure of making sure my father did not
fuck up his health – I enjoyed the momentary authority he gave me over his place in the family. As I
grow older, he relied on me less, perhaps he could tell I’d been a fraud all those years.
One day in May 1987, a few months before I was born, my father received a phone call from his
father. He told him to return home immediately.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Just come back this instant.”
My father had been at a conference in Tai-Chung, an hour’s drive from their home in Chung-Hua. It
was late in the afternoon. He was stuck in a winding traffic jam. When he finally reached my
grandparent’s house, it had been two hours since the phone call. When he opened the front door, my
grandfather began shouting at my father. He cursed and spat and pointed his finger at him, yelling
repeatedly ‘I hate you! I hate you!’ My father stood at the door, shoe laces still tied, keys still
wedged in the sweat of his palms. When he asked, “What did I do?” my grandfather did not explain.
He continued. “I just hate you! I hate you for what you’ve done!” My father stood at the door and
let the violence of his father’s voice punch him in the chest. He couldn’t understand why his father
was so angry. But he would not make it worse by fighting back. My grandmother sat on the kitchen
table, silent. She kept her eyes on her hands, did not look up, as though she was ashamed of what
her husband was doing. But she too, was angry. She could not look at either man standing beside
her. When the screaming escalated, my grandfather said, “I’m so angry, I could to hit you with this
cup!” My father, unable to contain the frustration and battering, stepped in front of my grandfather,
grabbed the cup off the table and slammed it against his forehead. Blood came streaming down his
face. My grandmother scrambled for a towel and started shouting at my grandfather. “Stop! Stop!
This is all your fault!” At the hospital, when the doctors asked my father what had happened, he told
them he’d run into a wall. My father still bears the scar on his forehead. The six stitches he had that
day have disappeared, but the single white line still runs vertically down between his brows, a mark
from that day, as clear as a fine paint-stoke. He once joked that he was the ‘older, Asian Harry
Later, he found out from my grandmother the reason they were so angry with him that afternoon.
My grandfather had ordered my mother to set aside three boxes of walnut biscuits for my uncle. My
parents ran a small grocery and dried-goods store near the local train station. My uncle would come
by their shop in the afternoon to pick it up. He was on his way to an important business acquisitions
meeting; he must have it. In the chaos of the twilight rush hour, when my uncle finally did visit, my
mother forgot to give him the biscuits. She’d been busy with running the shop herself and trying to
manage three young children upstairs where we’d lived. She was also two months away from giving
birth to me. She was tired, large and exhausted. But in Taiwanese culture, when you did not comply
with your parents-in-law, you were seen as malicious, selfish. They thought my mother had
deliberately chosen not to hand over the biscuits. They became resentful and blamed it on my father.
It was, after all, the husband’s responsibility, the wife he took. My grandparents disliked all their
daughter-in-laws, except for my mother. But after that day, they put my mother in the same box as
my aunts, and they began to despise my father.
“Shame on you for marrying such a woman!” they told him later. My father, at thirty-three, could
not escape the deluge of conflict. He could not make both his mother and his wife happy.
“Do you know which question I cannot bare?” he asked me once. We were both a little older, and
I’d come back to interview him for a book I was writing.
“If your mother and wife are drowning in a lake, who would you save first?”
My father had lived a life set out for him by his parents, never straying from the expectations placed
upon him, never stepping outside the rules constructed by his society, found himself still bound, still
not his own man, constrained by a duty to please and serve his parents, to forever perform the roles
given to him with whatever dignity he could muster, to guard his integrity by oppressing it, to
honour his parents and their struggles by dismissing his own self-hood. Between the world and my
father, this was how he found his footing. He fought against himself to please and found love
through obedience and submission. He finally understood that day, the cruel punishment for
divergence, but it was a divergence he had no control over. My father, who once carried me to bed
when I fell asleep on the couch – knew love this way, by the fulfilment of other people’s desires.
My father understood too, the loneliness of a yearning to be freed. His hands were bound. The
obligations became too much in the end, and he ran away with his wife and children. He ran away
to the safety of anonymity and homelessness, to a country that would not punish him for marrying
the wrong woman. A country neither he nor my mother had ever heard of. A country called
Photograph by Sarah Katharina Kayß
Mascara Literary Review gratefully acknowledges the support of the Australia Council for the Arts for Issues 3-18
A Personal History of Vision
By Luke Fischer
UWAP Poetry, 2017
Reviewed by DOMINIQUE HECQ
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand, O to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being—R. M. Rilke
Luke Fischer’s second collection, A Personal History of Vision, published earlier this year in UWAP’s Poetry Series, firmly establishes him as a pyrotechnician of language. This is Fischer’s second collection, and like the first, which was commended in the Anne Elder Award, it brings a dazzling range and depth of experience to his writing. Fischer’s ‘Augury?’, included in Paths of Flight, won the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Prize. Fischer is also a scholar of Romanticism, and this informs his poetry in unexpected and delightful ways. He has learned from Rainer Maria Rilke that an attentiveness to language enhances our understanding of things and therefore intensifies our vision. Like Rilke, his purpose is ‘to say [words] more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being’. In that, he goes further than Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, in his Treatise on Logic, famously wrote: ‘it is words, names, or, if images used as words or names, that are the only and exclusive subject of understanding. In no instance do we understand a thing in itself’. In the poem ‘Why I write’ Fischer lists, and dismisses a number of reasons he might write for. He settles on the following:
I write for the expansion of the present
vital as breath to an empty lung,
for the garden that grows around me,
whether I’m in the city or on a mountain—
an invisible garden of fruit trees, hanging
wisteria and vines, honey bees, angophoras.
In these deceptively simple yet finely wrought lines, we recognise the path taken by the poet who, in Goethe’s formulation, ‘sees the universal in the particular’. We also make out the point at which the path forks out into three romantic traditions through specific images, and we hear echoes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Novalis, Lamartine, Nerval, Baudelaire, Coleridge and Rilke. There may be more. Or less. (I may be seeing and hearing things). This is to suggest how Fischer’s verse conjures up a singularly-layered poetic world that produces a richness of tones and references.
Fischer’s poetic world is formal, philosophical, historical and, to a lesser extent, ecocritical in engagement and the concurrent romantic vision of the redemptive possibilities of art. His domain is ‘Nature’s Temple’ as immortalised in Baudelaire’s credo, ‘Correspondences’. In it, there is wonder, but also the anguish of melancholy, solitude, grief, suffering, dispossession and death. However, against these his poetry essentially offers life-affirming opportunities for delight—delight in the image-making magic of its own plays upon perception and language and, through these, in the multitudinous variety of nature, culture and art. Often cemented in an aesthetic image, or work of art, many of the poems collected in A Personal History of Vision express concern and empathy for the dead, grieving, lost and afflicted, for isolates driven inwards by their own perceptions. Answers are often gestured towards with empathy, and glimpses of the sublime, but they are more often than not cut short, leaving it to the reader to cope with the affect delivered by the last image. In ‘Waiting for the Train’, the sublime takes on surreal qualities on closing as the protagonist is compared to a fly caught in a spider’s web irrevocably breaking free.
Because of the collection’s lingering melancholy, I first wondered if ‘Deadwood’ might be emblematic of Fischer’s method. Behind the poem which evokes Rimbaud through reference to his limp and poetic vision, is ‘a verse that once set me on fire’. Here, the poet sees himself as a fire thief whose ‘text / looks like a poem’ yet ‘is a torch’ and the poets ‘way/into the heart’s subterrane, / a wavering illumination / of its resistant textures’. Here is Prometheus, classical fire-stealer, the characteristic figure held up by the Romantics (especially Rimbaud and Shelley) as symbol of heroic rebellion, the imagination and poetry. The lessons taken from Rilke are integrated in the poem: acknowledgment of time and experience, facing up to dejection as instructive and potentially ennobling, respect for selfhood in all its particularities, paring the language, finding inspiration in the here and now, and allowing sublime intimations to emerge from the profane.
Each poem in this book is an exploration of the creative possibilities of the poem as self-sufficient construct and affecting world. Each poem strives to bring forth contradictions and resolve them through a controlled expansion of imagery along specific paradigmatic axes rather than an accumulative proliferation of random images, which ends with some unexpected juxtaposition or reversal. The ekphrastic poems in particular, display this kind of aesthetics, focusing as they do on lines of flight. Thus despite his interest in paring back the expression to perceived essentials, in toughening the poem’s fibre, there is no doubt that Luke Fischer is above all an image maker. This comes with a distrust of adjectives and yet a paradoxical reverence for quaint or obsolete ones such as ‘subterrane’ and ‘halcyon’, which conjure up other languages, other traditions, other dimensions. This is the case in the third poem of the collection, ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’, in which ‘halcyon’ refers back to classical poetry via the French Romantics. This poem in fact introduces a whole cortege of allusions and shows Fischer is at his best: the theme is fully developed, the vision complex yet sustained, the convergence of poetic traditions surprising and the philosophical inferences sophisticated. The poem deserves quoting in full:
Horizon of Alps (K)
At the Château de Lavigny, Switzerland
Always at the boundary of vision, of thought
even when we look the other way. Though
often concealed in cloud and mist
veiled in haze, we know they endure.
Seemingly impenetrable matter
we sense a hidden truth, that they are minds
absorbed in contemplation.
On halcyon mornings Lac Léman
almost renders them as they are
in an image on diaphanous depth.
Their peaks shorn of vegetation, sheer faces
of stone, absolute architecture, prefigurations
of the crystals they hold.
Frozen tsunamis, primeval modernists
their abstraction rises above the lake and
its scattered sails—white chips in blue paint—
above the foothills’ sprawl of villages, the tangle
of forests and human lives, above emotion.
Resembling a heterodox order of monks
great mathematicians, geometers whose bible
was Euclid, their enlightenment consisted
in continuous meditation on the axiom
of axioms, the formula of themselves.
With a sister order they communicate
in antiphon. Snow imparts: Out of moisture
air and cold we make your structures light,
lighter than the empty bones of the tiny birds
that nest in your pockets. They reply:
We keep you from dissolving, lend
you a feeling of permanence.
At times dark clouds envelop the summits,
tense as the disputes at the First Council of Nicaea.
On holidays the iconostasis opens
revealing Mont Blanc, the hooded high priest,
as censers spread their smoke
around the lower pinnacles.
Still epics, skeletons of mythic creatures, crystal skulls
pure forms, the moral law, metalogic, consonants
isolated from vowels. Your secret name:
the voiceless occlusive
In a gesture reminiscent of Shelley, Fischer answers the old suggestion that poetry is associated with primitive, indeed ‘primeval’ perception and declines with the advance of civilisation. The poem echoes ‘Defence of Poetry’, where Shelley claims an interrelationship of language, perception and poetry such that poets as contributors to civilisation in all manners aesthetic and philosophical are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ (1821). Lingering here is the romantic emphasis on the imagination, truth, beauty and pleasure allied with Shelley’s provocative definition of the relationship between imagination and morality in the form of the good. The poetic faculty creates ‘new materials for knowledge’ and engenders the asynchronous desire for their rearrangement and presentation. Through the emphasis on the paradoxically ‘voiceless occlusive’ in the French ‘blanc’ Fisher deftly suggests that, as Shelley puts it, poetry ‘is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge’ here epitomised by the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. He also, and not without irony, suggests that poets are authors to others ‘of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue and glory’. The irony pertains to the fact that ‘k’ at the heart of ‘Luke’ is indeed far from voiceless. Besides, after Kafka, the letter ‘k’ is loaded with connotations antithetical to the good. In this poem, the letter ‘k’ goes beyond anchoring metaphoric play: it highlights the classical idea of eternal forms, including the form of the good endorsed by philosophy. It does so only to question and subvert this idea. This is achieved through interplay of semantic binaries.
Diverse in their range and reference, arresting in their statement and wordplay, the poems gathered in this collection are, as ‘Horizon of Alps (K)’ demonstrates, very carefully constructed. Fischer uses the short line and variable stanzaic form with dexterity. The result is a poetry that is conceived with sharp attention to detail, joy in the possibilities of language, and self-consciousness about the seriousness and exhilaration of perception and apperception. This is equally true of the longer questing poems, of the extended ‘Elegy for the Earth’ with its personification of earth as a sleeping woman, and of the shorter inquisitive lyrics such as ‘Glance’, ‘Scene in music’, ‘Anonymous’ and ‘Labyrinth’.
In the poem ‘Certain Individuals’, Fischer ponders what draws us to some people by invoking images rather than traits of character. He begins his meditation proper with the question: ‘But isn’t it that / in one person we sense a clear glinting waterfall / refreshing to sit beside, in another something mysterious / as a fallow field at dusk? I could not resist attempting to qualify his poetry in analogous fashion. Were it a prose poem, or proto-poem, it would be:
Water cascading through a gorge, a pattern of cross-currents forming beneath, around and above stones, causing sudden changes to the water’s flow. The lap and splash of images, nuances, cadences, subliminal rhythms. The attentiveness to form, language and speech: the shapes of words, letters, lines, stanzas. Their resonances, uncanny silences. The larynx’s response to what is heard, recalled and felt, reforming patterns of speech and sense. In winter the snow erases images and emptiness beckons. Calls from the depth of its stillness. Calls for understanding.
With Fischer, the romantic legacy is still with us, whatever modifications are made by changes in cultural perceptions, social institutions, aesthetic preferences and work patterns. In deference to art and in acknowledgement of the metaphoric possibilities of language, imagination allows here for a dialectical interplay of opposite categories that yield a third register. This register bears Novalis’ aphorism : The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…’ Here lies the irresistible brilliance of A Personal History of Vision.
NOTE: “The separation of poet and thinker is only apparent and to the disadvantage of both…” –Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) is the key, as it were, that opens Luke Fischer’s website.
DOMINIQUE HECQ is a poet, fiction writer, scholar and literary translator. She grew up in the French-speaking part of Belgium and now lives in Melbourne. Her works include a novel, three collections of short stories, five books of poetry and two plays. Hush: A Fugue (2017) is her latest book of lined and prose poetry.
by Aden Rolfe
Reviewed by BRIANNA BULLEN
‘Anamnesis,’ the first poem and section of Aden Rolfe’s brilliant philosophical poetry collection, refers to Plato’s concept of learning as a process of recovering knowledge from within. This poem presents an initial simple supposition: “We who we are because of / what we remember,” which is then challenged and amended through Rolfe’s poetic interrogation in four sections. This poem introduces the settings—“coastlines and beaches / clearings and trails”—recurring through the collection, and the illusion of coherency, dependent on forgetting incongruities. It sets up the speaker and the addressee, their edited and untethered beings. Memory becomes “a range of values / not definitive states,” contemporary, relational, amendable, and always bittersweet. “They say we’re plural, post-memory / too old not to know / we should be playing what when / instead of / what if.’
In ‘Exchanges’ Rolfe critiques the loss of history and future in the precarious present: “We expected more from the twenty-first / century. Some direction, some push, some instruction / for living in the present-continuous.” There is failure in placing the self in relation to time, a loss reflexivity, which leads to inertia. This is strongly illustrated in ‘What have you been up to,’ its days of “discrete goals, ritual and activity / progression and reversion,” short-term focused nothingness: “but for now / nothing is happening / nothing happened / nothing is going to happen.” Moments of catastrophe and event are exceptions: “We’re drawn to / these scenes, where everything is salted and breaking / down, because it feels like the edge of something” (‘The end of things’). They search for events they can recollect later, to give a sense of having lived moments: “we try to watch the waves so that later we can say / we watched the waves” (‘We watched the waves’), going out of their way in near-pitiful attempts to find meaning. Rolfe diagnoses the millennia’s anxious condition: “The fear of missing out has been surpassed by the fear of going unrecorded, of not documenting our experience,” (‘False Nostagia’). Yet such records only contain what is crafted within them, distorting the event as it was.
There is a great deal of intertextuality, befitting a work dedicated to memory and culture, crafting connection between the personal and collective. Repetitions of photographs, photographers, forests, indistinct roads, coastlines, waves, reading on trains, wind, edges, leaves, lakes and weatherboard houses saturate the poems, recalling one another. There is a flux of representations of nature within culture, of “clearing the landscape for a set piece” (‘Mountainousness’) like gardeners and construction crews. The poet presents his figures as following stage directions, and artificial scripts, the exterior environments speaking for the interior. A road recalls a car ad, a Tarkovsky film reminds him of Lynch, although the former came first: “what comes after can / remind you of what came before. It’s about order of exposure” (On Zerkalo). Chronologies dissolve, over-layered. Personal chronology is privileged over the ‘true’ order, representation the real. ‘We watched the waves’ takes its title from a Robert Haas poem. Figures fall into convention expected of them (“I picked up some shells, because that’s what you do in places like this” ‘The end of things’) hoping for insight into some deeper truth (“You looked for the sublime / in a box of sultanas” ‘Mountainousness’) which is revealed to be banal repetition of the same.
The second section, ‘Ars memoria,’ moves into a mythic mode, recalling Anne Carson with its interpretation of a Greek myth (Simonides of Keos) in verse. Its hypothesis is “the tale is in the retelling” ‘[Mutatis mutandis]’, a meta-textual awareness of the power of poetry and narrative. Rolfe poses memory and myth are modes of integrating and interrogating the past. The myth involves a roof collapse at Simonides’s dinner party; all the guests are killed and Simonides must identify the bodies by way of remembering where they sat, placing name and image to place and in doing so “inventing the art of memory” (‘[Analepsis]’): the new mnemonic device, the method of loci. This section best displays Rolfe’s humor; it also, strangely, seems the most personal, with a raw examination of the speaker’s response to his grandmother’s dementia and his own burgeoning romantic relationship. Borges’s Ireneo Funes, a literary memory cornerstone character, remembers every moment of his life simultaneously until his death (via consumption), contrasts against his grandmother’s decline into dementia. An excess of remembrance against an excess of forgetting poignantly explores the merits of each function, its dual-process: “What if forgetfulness were not / a flaw / but the other side of the coin. / A way to stop a surge of detail from bursting / the banks / while its twin, memory, lets us / make sense of the world” ‘[Kindness]’.
It contains two prose personal essays, one a commentary on his own poem and the other, the titular ‘False Nostalgia,’ is an analysis of an unpleasant first viewing of the Haneke film Cache remembered fondly, opinion revised through memory. Neither are straightforward essays, circling around notions of memory, composition, and revision. These essays offer pauses of reflection and variety within the poetry collection that at first seem disruptive to the whole, its different structure proliferating new meaning in its contrast of form. Rolfe goes against Weinberger’s idea of memory-time as fragmented and non-linear, his approach following narrative logic. This approach enables Rolfe to highlight the artificiality of its framework from within.
Of the two ‘A note on ‘We Watched the Waves’’ is more succinct, situating Rolfe’s work within the literary theoretical history of memory (Calvino and Proust narrative precedents) while illuminating the philosophy behind his poetic work. Exploring what happens when recollection and autobiography hinges on a false memory it presents the act of writing as one way of ordering and making sense of discrepancies. Oliver Sack’s concept of ‘cryptomensia,’ unconscious plagiarism of an idea mistaken for original thought, runs through the collection. The subset ‘autoplagiarism,’ reproducing your own ideas as if encountering them for the first time, becomes not only the final section of the collection, but a structuring principle of the text in its restaging of scenes and phrases, integral for exploring the revision and recurrence in memory. Autobiography ultimately becomes “a theory of your life, not a proof:” its incompleteness and inconsistencies both necessary and productive to coping with the multiplicity of selves, relations, memory, and (dis)continuity.
‘False nostalgia’ puts forward the more radical hypothesis of the text: that a subpar and even unpleasant memory (in this case, watching an emotionally unsatisfying film) can become a form of pleasure in the process of looking back. Rolfe is interested in nostalgia that “looks back wistfully on moments that weren’t happy, on times that weren’t stable, on events that weren’t enjoyable.” This is the nostalgia of the present, a different kind of (bitter)sweetness, one that remembers what happens, its flaws and enduring pain, and sees in it something to celebrate. Pleasure becomes an object in past tense, achievable only creative recollection. Rolfe situates this emotion within a historical tradition of nostalgia, linked back to Hofer’s initial diagnosis of nostalgia as an illness through to its transformation into a poetic trope. Cache is the perfect choice of film to explore memory, full of hidden, unknowable and multiple perspectives, voyeurism, tapes (a key technology in ‘capturing’ memory with invisible subjectivity), and unresolved plot. Although it is a film about cultural amnesia, “guilt and responsibility and collective memory” rather than nostalgia, it opens up questions about the ethics of memory, recording, and witnessing, integral to exploring an ethics of representing nostalgia.
The final section ‘Autoplagiarism’ returns to ‘Anamnesis’, but in a cinematic experimental mode which, while stronger in technique, loses the floating philosophical exploration of the earlier section. These poems do not utilize blank space, so pivotal to ideas of forgetting, as well as previous sections, but increases the clutter, play, and humor, skewering previous preoccupations and earnestness. Things become more chaotic, temporally, with images of dinosaurs emerging onto the beach, a quasi-Schrodinger’s cat, being tied to train tracks, and fairytale wolves emerge in the forest quoting Heidegger in footnotes. Self-awareness is on high “we could go for a drive, perhaps / listen to speech break down on the radio” (‘Purge Landscape (the wolf in the fairytale)’). Liminality and divergences, previously integral, are critiqued: “There’s a difference between open-ended / and non-commital” (‘Everything all the time’). Irony and self-deprecation, lacing previous poems, capitalizes in the final poem, ‘Regression to the mean,’ which critiques not only his use of an empty feminine “you,” but also Rolfe’s methodology: “A jar, a thought, a slight breeze. Who else is tired of these props / and found objects? … the sand, the beach house, the predictable sets.”
Rolfe suggests that the problem of memory enquiry is also its pleasure: its obsession with trying to make moments whole and meaningful out of its jigsaw fragments. Moments get returned to, repeated, reset and reconfigured, and every time this reveals something new while concealing some other part of the scene. It is impossible to reconstruct the moment as it was, but there is a sense of play in the attempt that gives the endeavor meaning.
BRIANNA BULLEN is a Deakin University PhD candidate writing a creative thesis on memory in science fiction. She has had work published in journals like LiNQ, Aurealis, Verandah, Voiceworks, and Buzzcuts. She won the 2017 Apollo Bay short story competition and placed second in the 2017 Newcastle Short Story competition.