The Herring Lass
by Michelle Cahill
Reviewed by NADIA NIAZ
In a 2011 interview with the Goethe Institut Australia, Michelle Cahill spoke of how her work explores an ‘imaginary habitation in many places’. The Herring Lass is the latest phase of this exploration, demonstrating Cahill’s ability to move and connect repeatedly across massive distances.
The sea, oceans, and bodies of water all serve as the connective tissue of this collection, tracing the edges of the world and all the stops Cahill makes along her way. But expansive as this movement makes the book, the individual poems themselves are acutely observed, the images sharply drawn, the character studies intense and specific, so that each poem has at its centre a stillness, a feeling of a breath held so as not to disturb the moment.
The titular poem opens the collection on the east coast of Scotland. In a few sonorous strokes, Cahill sets the scene:
Not far from the stone harbour, herring kilns
pump wood smoke, smudged into an enterprise of masts
and the hemp rigging of a whole fleet, outward bound.
The long vowels and nasal consonants have a languid effect, creating the sense of a scene that has been repeated for so long that all sense of time is not just lost but irrelevant. But just as the opening stanza lulls the reader, Cahill follows it with:
Her knife flashes in four-second strokes,
her wet hands never stray from a salted barrel.
These shorter, sharper sounds break the spell and focus the reader into the reality of a lone woman gutting fish, of what she sees, of how she must make do while ‘the sailmaker, cooper, boat builder have all prospered’. We leave her then, making her journey up and down the coast to make a living as the ships return with their catch. There is no resolution offered or needed. In zooming out once more, Cahill reminds us that the scene, woman and all, is timeless.
Cahill’s ear for of language is a delight and provides a counterpoint to the contemplative, often dark tone of her poems. Here is a poet who is at ease referencing everything from Classical Greek dramatic conventions to text and internet speak, so that each poem feels like a treasure hunt. She revels in words, in sound and reference. Take for example the marvellous ‘Night Birds’, which contains lines like, ‘Once we chased Mallarmé’s swan, dragging dissolute/ wings into flight,’ and:
…Words broke their
baroque chords creaking in my nest of bones. You wrote
me tempting alibis, singing the frost, blotting out stars.
Night birds slumber. Stay – with arms unhinged we’ll
watch sparks flame as dancing roses, souvenirs of silence.
My body rivers over absent fields, where words rescue
or reduce me…
This is work that demands re-reading, that requires the reader to taste the words, to feel them rolling off the tongue, to hear them ringing in the air.
Migratory birds appear often in these poems, appropriately enough. Cahill’s observations of swans are masterful, but more startling still is the poem ‘Houbara’. At the centre of this poem is a brutal description of the kill, when the hunter’s falcon catches the bustard.
He points from the dunes, he circles her, melding
in a riot of awkward feathers. She cannot be twisted
back, her neck, a broken string he jabs in agony.
But there is more to the poem than just the murder of this endangered bird. Cahill conjures up a vision of the hunt, the technology deployed to locate and track an unassuming bird, the thrum of a generator, singing, four-wheel drives, campsites humming with activity, all against the backdrop of an enormous desert in the Arabian Peninsula. Even the falcon is invested with intention. Most sinister of all, however, is the ‘you’ to whom the poem is addressed, the ‘you’ who turns the organisation, the hunt, the kill into a metaphor for desire that destroys its object.
In the middle of the book sit ‘The Grieving Sonnets’. Unlike the quick shifts of scene in the preceding and following poems, these are all firmly anchored in Australia, even if the speaker is not. Kangaroos, kelpies, wallabies, lyrebirds, Tasmanian devils, eucalypts and many other recognisably Australian fauna and flora crowd these six sonnets, but the mood is still empty, the speaker still lost. The grief at the heart of these sonnets is never named, but in the fifth sonnet, finally, Cahill suggests what has seethed beneath the surface all along. ‘I’m twice in trespass,’ she says, and later, ‘history’s a genocide’. In the sixth, she says, ‘We feel the ignominy of territory, we chase idioms/ borrowed from culture, from memory, the past’s psychosis/ and prison.’
The book continues past this echoing stretch into poems that feel more rooted in the present than the ones in the first half of the book. There is air and vitality in these poems, and although the wind is still often cruel, the present still alien in some way, there are spots of sunshine and even heat that seem to radiate off the page. In ‘Renovations’, for instance, we find ‘the violence of time/whistling through a sou’westerly’ as the speaker packs up her life, copes with growing older and accepts ‘all the drop sheets, all/the brawn and Epoxy sealant it took to keep me single.’
The book continues its exploration of the present in the ironic ‘Real Life’, which is bursting with digital and virtual life. The idea of reality, of a life, of the self, is questioned and re-questioned as the poems goes from connection to alienation and back again. Although this poem stands out because it is the most conspicuously ‘modern’ in terms of reference, it grapples with the same questions and ideas that the entire book does, perhaps most acutely so.
This is a collection of great depth, both intellectual and emotional. Cahill’s voice never falters as she sweeps the reader along from location to location, bringing each alive for the duration of the poem. Through it all, Cahill’s voice is erudite but also curious – there is a sense of deep thought given to the smallest details, and an understanding and appreciation of their importance. Although she covers great physical distance, the poems are emotionally involved and keenly felt, showing the multitudes that one individual can contain. The itinerant Herring Lass haunts the whole book in this way, her small, sharp knife probing moment after moment before she must move on.
NADIA NIAZ is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne where she teaches Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in Cordite, TEXT, Strange 4 and The Alhamra Literary Review.
The Historian’s Daughter
By Rashida Murphy
Reviewed by VIVIENNE GLANCE
Set in India, Iran and Australia, and spanning several decades, The Historian’s Daughter tackles personal and political trauma through the eyes of Hannah, a young Anglo-Indian girl. Hannah, her sister, Gloria, and their two brothers, love their gentle, caring mother, Farah. She cooks delicious food, and heals their hurts and sickness with herbal medicines, earning her the moniker, the ‘Magician’. Iranian-born Farah calmly tries to protect her children from Gordon, their ill-tempered, unpredictable and abusive father – the ‘Historian’ of the book’s title. The Historian’s aberrant behaviour includes womanising, drinking and locking his so-called ‘mad’ sister, Rani, in the attic. His sanctuary is his library, which is full of books about famous English men, including a series titled The English Conquistadors of India, along with his own father’s diaries. These books are a secret source of fascination for Hannah as she tries to understand herself and her family.
One morning, Hannah discovers that the Magician, Rani and Gloria have all disappeared, and that the Historian has sold the house and is packing them all off to live in Perth, Western Australia. The mystery of these disappearances plagues Hannah as she matures into adulthood, until one day she receives a phone call that starts her on a journey of discovery.
At the centre of this story is an exploration of abandonment, and the fear and insecurity that this sudden change can evoke in a child. By using the adult Hannah as narrator, the emotions of her child-self are handled with hindsight, thus allowing adult readers space to reflect on their own childhood confusions. We are also exposed to the unreliable memory of a child, so places and family are seen from a restricted perspective; one that senses there is more to a situation or a person, but is unable to fully understand what this is.
This childhood perspective, which is set entirely in India, fills the entire first part of this four-part novel, and is titled simply ‘Family’. With well-crafted vignettes, Murphy builds a sense of life set within this rambling ‘house with too many windows and women’, shadowed by hills ‘with their memory of forest, of deodar, oak and pine, of rivers and waterfalls’ (p. 1). Amongst the smells of cooking and the many rooms of the house, we come across aunties who visit and then never leave. They are a background dissonance to the music of the home, as they clean or eat, scold the children or call them ‘half-breeds’, or debate if they are Anglo-Iranian or Anglo-Indian. Hannah who is darker than her siblings, learns from the always grumpy Aunty Meher that she is a ‘kallo’ or a throwback (p. 4).
This sense of uncertain identity gently murmurs throughout the story; it is never explained or excused, but is presented as it is experienced by Hannah, and so is without any judgement or angst. Nonetheless, Hannah’s origins become a central part of the narrative when she begins to suspect her familial ties are not what they seem.
Murphy deftly creates a compelling atmosphere through small moments that slowly accumulate and then resonate around this extended family. By showing us their lives in patchwork we become familiar with a culture and place that may have seemed exotic or distant if merely described.
She also fractures the narrative chronologically, again reflecting memory, telling the story non-linearly. We are invited to sit within this first part of the book, almost as if a guest of the family, and so, over several years, will become familiar with the rhythms of their lives. The weaving of the narrative through time occasionally feels too measured, but by staying with this first part we are rewarded as the book opens out in the second part: Immigrants.
When, Hannah wakes up to discover the Magician, Rani and Gloria have disappeared, she blames herself. The Magician had allowed the son of a distant relative from Iran to stay with them. Sohrab reminds the Magician of her homeland, and Hannah feels the closeness she had to her mother become disrupted as she hears her speaking Farsi to him, and cooking unusual foods. Sohrab and Gloria grow into adolescence, and Hannah is disturbed as she notices they have become close. When she discovers them kissing, this increases her sense of betrayal. Her immature perspective only sees that Sohrab has taken both her mother and sister from her, and in anger she tells the Historian what she has seen. The upheaval that follows is more than the Magician can smooth over.
At the same time, we are taken into the future, when the Historian moves Hannah and her brothers, Clive and Warren, to Perth in Western Australia. It is at this point that Hannah is exposed to other possibilities in her life, and she matures into her own person.
It is also the moment when there is a subtle shift in how Murphy tells the story. Up until this point the story has been set within the confines of the house. The rooms are defined by their function and by the people who inhabit them. Once in Australia, the wider world impinges on Hannah and broadens her outlook.
Two particularly stunning passages describe the effect seeing the ocean and Kings Park has on her. Her limited horizons are quite literally expanded, such as: ‘Nothing could have prepared me for the ostentatious sky, silver sand and emerald water on a summer morning’; or Kings Park ‘where tall eucalypts carried the names of lost soldiers at their base and the hill sloped down towards the city and the river’ (pp. 101-102).
As Hannah moves from the interior world of her childhood to the outdoor world of Perth, she matures into a young woman who no longer fears the Historian and begins to strike out on her own. She meets Gabriel, a wood turner, who is a kind of iconic Australian male, complete with a red dog and shed. Until that phone call.
It is this incident that promotes a quickening of the pace of the narrative and we are thrown into the turmoil of dislocation and trauma. Set mainly in Iran, Hannah is thrown into a world where real terror comes in the form of soldiers knocking on doors in the middle of the night and taking people away. Where any misstep by a woman in public could lead to her death. Unable to leave her sister to escape from Iran alone, Hannah accompanies Gloria on the dangerous journey, aided by people smugglers. Their fear of uncertainty contrasts with the need to trust unknown others with your fate; blinded by the dust of the road and sustained by meagre bowls of rice and scare water to drink.
Murphy takes us on the journey many desperate people have endured to find safety, and effectively pulls us into their orbit. She shows real people struggling to stay alive, and avoids easy polemics by keeping us as much in the dark about the future as Hannah is. We are there with her as she is shut up for days in the back of a van, or hidden in a room in Karachi with little food.
Murphy does not allow the story to be side-tracked by politics or the bureaucracy of illegal immigration, being more interested in the emotional journeys of her characters, particularly the women.
Her focus throughout the book is firmly on how women navigate the places they find themselves in. The Historian’s Daughter provides a unique perspective by adding in questions of racial identity, familial duty, the challenges of immigration and dislocation, and the lasting effects of trauma from abandonment. How the women of this book are treated by men and the wider society, and how they treat each other, creates a compelling story for both male and female readers. Avoiding exoticism, we are invited to look through the partially opaque windows of memory and see the present-day struggles of immigrants in a new light.
The Historian’s Daughter is a fine debut novel from a writer who is confident with her material and takes risks with her narrative structure. Murphy presents us with deeply moving moments that test her characters, and creates a poignant atmosphere that resolves through reconciliation into a hopeful future.
VIVIENNE GLANCE’S work as a playwright, short story writer and poet, has been published and presented in Australia and internationally. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia where she is an Honorary Research Fellow. Her interests particularly lie at the intersection of science and art, and advocating for cultural diversity in the arts.
By David Brooks
Brandl & Schlesinger
Reviewed by JONATHAN DUNK
This slender but wide-ranging collection of essays approaches the question of the animal from a number of complimentary and dialectic angles. Conceived through different paradigms and contexts a figure of the animal emerges in philosophy and poetics functioning as a liminal mechanism, a boundary stone constructed to police the edges of the structures and systems of the human image. The historical force of this translation of animal being is such that its ethically obvious and urgent problematics are stymied by the aporetic tensions implicated in any rethinking of the animals we are and are not.
This is elucidated most concretely in the volume’s titular essay, which interrogates one of the more salient iterations of the conceptualised animal’s tendency towards paradox. Derrida’s turn towards the question of the animal in his late phase stands among the more spectacular and influential developments in recent animal philosophy. Most notably in The Animal That Therefore I am (2008), but also elsewhere, Derrida pursued his own deconstructive method to its ‘logical’ implication, and with characteristic force, that “the animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature.” Like many scholars, Brooks is sensible of the generative energy of this critique, however he situates it in the context of material ethics to examine why Derrida’s brilliant explication of this lacuna did not translate into more substantive political action, and specifically into consistent vegetarianism. The conjectured Derridean answer is that vegetarianism qua vegetarianism constitutes a foreclosure, a release of the tensions of ethical doubt, or in David Wood’s terms, an attempt to “buy good conscience on the cheap” (22). Understandably, Brooks reads this gesture as a sophistry, and interprets this hesitation more generatively through several forms of structural psychoanalysis. Derrida’s incongruous hesitation becomes an iteration of an Oedipal “deep doubling that seems both endemic and epidemic when it comes to thinking the animal” (26, emphasis Brooks’.) This doubling effects a form of circular or helical ressintement, a misrecognition of the possible connections between philosophy and the literal animal – prompting an attempt to cure system with system. In effect this means that Deconstruction is finally as incapable of addressing animal suffering as other intellections, which remain complicit with the metonymy of domination: “the mind alone, Western and otherwise, is for the moment so enmeshed in defences of its own monstrosity that no such leap is possible to it” (33). While generative, Brooks is being deliberately obtuse here, and owns the “naïve, crude and simplistic” (33) aspects of this reading on the firm ethical imperative that drives it. This move is successfully justified, but it remains the most tenuous aspect of the volume’s intellectual structure. It rests on a lamentably ubiquitous mistranslation of il n’y a pas de hors-texte and – knowingly albeit – evades the colossal significance of Derrida’s final efforts in The Beast & The Sovereign, which, certainly, speak more lucidly to the latter part of the dialectic, articulating the last gasps of the Pax Americana then transpiring in the disastrous stupidities of the euphemistic War on Terror. This measured criticism notwithstanding, this essay is a rigorous challenge to the ethical limitations of philosophy’s hegemony over praxis.
This argument is extended and clarified in terms of the particular semantics with which the word of the animal is invested in the second and third essays ‘The Loaded Cat’, and ‘Meeting Place’ which perform strong, nuanced readings of figurations of the animal in a range of literatures. The latter effects a particularly striking revision of Derrida’s own reading of D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’, in which the philosopher mistakes, or prefers, an allusion to Coleridge’s sacral, innocent albatross, for Baudelaire’s self-piteous anthropomorphism. The difference inflects Lawrence’s reading of the animal palpably: Brooks’ interprets the poem as a mea culpa, an admission of the absurd arrogance implicit extending the obligations of hospitality – the master-theme of hospice being property – to the animal in its alterity. Derrida’s reading however, like the persona’s final futile gesture of anger at the snake’s trespass asserts the closure of ethics, and of philosophy, even as it ruptures it.
I found the collection’s final essay ‘At Duino’ its most provocative. Here Brooks’ concentrates the nuance and rigour of his critique specifically upon poetics, and the implications – political, aesthetic, and psychological – of the Orphic tradition. At a conceptual level the influence of this tradition, or complex, likely touches most European elegiac forms, but it’s present with particular intensities in the work of Rilke. Exemplifying his broader attempt to make philosophy stand upon the question of animal suffering, Brooks revises the Orphic myth through the eleventh poem in the second book of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus written in response to observing an expedition of dove-hunters. The poem is unsettlingly powerful, and the “handful of pale doves” (82) flung from darkness into light are figured as a readily appropriable resource for Eurydicean metaphor, a ritual of rhapsody. The Karst doves are disturbed from their limestone caves by lowered lengths of linen cloth which, as one of the poem’s shifting apostrophic subjects actuate their paradoxical connotations – cerecloth and virginal robe – into a figure of sacrifice – a being sacrificed to the chthonic deity of the darkness below, interpretable as a register of negative capability. In return for the temporal sacrifice of the beloved in time, the poet receives the enduring stasis of the rarefied art object, a “calmly established rule of death.” This paradigm has been the subject of extensive revisions. Among many others, Blanchot in The Space of Literature argues that the movement of the orphic project:
“does not want Euridice in her daytime truth and her everyday appeal, but wants her in her nocturnal obscurity, in her distance, with her closed body and sealed face… not as the intimacy of a familiar life, but as the foreignness of what excludes all intimacy, and wants, not to make her live, but to have her living in the plenitude of death.”
Art, in this configuration, desires the beloved through the beloved’s displacement into art. Such is the power of that displacement that Rilke abjures pity, on the grounds that: “Killing too is a form of our ancient wandering affliction” (emphasis Rilke’s). This logic is observable in many of Rilke’s poems, including Requiem for a Friend written a decade before the Sonnets. Brooks’ singles out this poem because it clarifies his wider argument of a metonymy between the Orphic sacralising of death, and the ease with which we justify animal slaughter. Thus violence becomes the poem’s deep theme: culture’s ‘rules of death’ are seen to subsist upon a model of Cartesian dominion, whose first symbol is the hunt. If this reading seems too atavistic or bluntly Freudian for relevance, consider John Taggart’s discussion in Conjunctions of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson: “the poet becomes a hunter by putting on power… Power is pitiless”. It’s worth noting here that Taggart and Howe draw heavily on Heideggerian schematics, particularly the notion of the Open as a site or space of disclosure, itself drawn originally from Rilke. The song of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld becomes the aestheticized violence of the hunt by which Heideggerian poetics assume the risk of composition in language’s wilderness – read as ‘wilderness’ a waste land theatre of projected solitudes, not a living ecology. The fascist implications here are obvious, and even without them the slippage inherent to metaphor renders death itself becomes thinkable as poem, as a cultural meaning rather than a horizon of event, of which it doesn’t take much to see the twentieth century’s industrial symphony of deaths as a synonym.
To utter peace to the animal, Brooks argues, we must liberate poetics from the power of Orphic myth. A functional poetics must be cognisant of death however – not least of its own – and at this juncture Brooks doesn’t suggest what an Anti-Orphic poem might look like. John Kinsella, another Australian Derridean – for want of much better words – and who appears in Brooks’ acknowledgements, illustrates a possible direction in the third movement of his poem ‘Graphology: Pastoral Elegy – An End Written for the End When it Comes’:
- Signing Off
It was always going to finish in an airless room,
sketchbook air freshener, deodoriser;
only enough light coming through; substantives
plebiscite, like planting crops
in carpet-folds. Furrow is all
there is, the biro’s ink run away
from ballpoint, dry bearing. Signed books
can’t go back to the publisher, unsold
remain in limbo. I sign off, wheatbelt
poet, anarchist, for whom copyright
was something others did:
Eros, artworks, the dark.
This poem faces its own aporia without the involution of a doubled other, and without veiling its own means of production in metaphysics. Its power is piteous in every sense, gesturing beyond the narcissine projections of the Orphic gaze, and the fascist onanisms of the hunt.
- Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans Ann Smock, Nebraska UP, 1982, 172.
- Derrida, 208, 392
- Taggart Conjunctions no. 11 (1988, 270-273)
- Graphology Poems 1995-2015 Volume II, 5 Islands Press, 2016, 184.
Owen Bullock is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. His publications include urban haiku (Recent Work Press, AU, 2015), A Cornish Story (Palores, UK, 2010) and sometimes the sky isn’t big enough (Steele Roberts, NZ, 2010). He has edited a number of journals and anthologies, including Poetry NZ. He won the Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Poetry 2015.
Five untitled prose poems
Thoughts bother the night, they’re out of control. He tells himself the thing he’s thinking about, lecture, meeting, poem, have already happened. He stops thinking and sleeps. Next day, on his way to an event he tells himself it’s already happened. It messes with his head, the body feels a kind of loss, a lack of excitement, but it’s useful.
Num num, birdy num-nums, nom du nom. Creosote, croeso, welcome, willkommen, Belconnen (Belco-nin). Nom du nom. Nom nom. Numb numb. Umyum. The Republic of Umyum – his fantasy. The pixie forest, pixie-dundle on duty, watching the road for strangers, who seldom come. Dreams of Jodhpur and Miscreant in search of the Sacred Barrel. He shall never realise. Num.
He made an inventory of men assassinated by King Edward; gathered stone, beams and thatching to restore the cottage; attended rebels who stormed garrisons, wound and unwound bandages; mended shields, retrieved frightened horses; procured weapons and necessaries, Wallace.
You visited, as no one else in the family had; played with the children, knitted toys and folded hankies into mice; let them into the caravan with the password ‘cup of tea’; welcomed my wife; accepted my deviating path; gave me money for gigs and football matches; introduced me to friends, at their level, boasted of my achievements; took me to relatives; knitted jerseys; washed me when I wet myself, yes, screamed, and gave birth to me.
The pipe eased his mind. Thoughts of his beloved cat, endless rows with his wife, the garden, human manure. Not having anyone to share his vision with . . . he never had one before . . . when it arrived like a rainy morning and wouldn’t leave it was too late.
So Much Fruit…
(for a Malaysian Grandmother in Australia)
You look so odd in this backyard
(for it is a backyard not a garden)
with its dusty lawn and barbeque,
long unused, lurking in the corner.
Surrounded by the splintery teeth
of a paling fence, you pause
under a tree purple heavy
Later in the kitchen your deft fingers
dance like butterflies –
wielding a pair of chopsticks in
a sizzling wok – conjuring the perfume
of a time long gone.
I show up at your door each afternoon
(sticky lipped, licking a banana paddle pop).
We step out among plums
split and syrupy, scattered on dry grass –
What to do with so much fruit?
This question never plagued you
when rambutans clustered,
crimson and fragrant,
in leafy branches on the tree
in your garden at home.
Apples and Chillies
Last night I heard a woman talk about apples.
Her words hung like fragrant orbs in the twilight,
the crunch and tang of apple stories
beguiled us for a while…
But I must admit I do not relish this cold climate fruit –
Fine for fairy tales and picnic baskets –
rosy sweet, neatly sliced, baked in a pie,
delicious, no doubt, but too cosy
for those of us who grew up with the
scarlet spite of chillies on our tongues –
those shiny, pointed (sharp as painted
fingernails) berries spiking our tastebuds
and staining our lips blood bright…
There is no place for crisp and juicy
apple simple syllables in mouths that know
the seductive malevolence of chillies…
Kay Sexton’s fiction has appeared in over 70 anthologies and literary magazines. Her recently published novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in addition to being shortlisted, finalist or winner of many literary competitions she has had two non-fiction books on gardening published. This is remarkable given that her sole ambition as a child was to become a librarian so she could read all the books ever written, rather than writing anything.
If I get up during the dawn chorus I can make quite a lot of noise without waking anybody. It’s even easier if I don’t go to bed, stay awake all night and head out first thing in the morning when the sky is folding back the lemon-peel edges of dawn for a fat blue day. The land birds clatter around, relishing the absence of seagulls in these first half-lit minutes.
My brain soaks up the bird sounds; it is porous with alcohol and lack of sleep. As I prepare the trays for early morning tea it takes everything in and gives nothing out, so it’s good there is a list. The list is pinned up in the still room and the tea and coffee pots are stored beneath it in the hot cupboard, which is cold at 5am. The pots are old silver, made matte by long use, but when I hold them to the pre-day light they offer back the citrus gleam of the sky.
My only job today is cups, saucers, pots, jugs and sugar bowls. As I lay up the trays, two lumps of white sugar, crisp and unreal, sit on my tongue. They melt to a slurry that slips around my teeth and slides down my throat in a rough, sweet, flavourless gulp, giving me the energy to plait my hair and shove it inside my blouse. People don’t like stray hair in their cups.
I switch on the urns and fill the bain marie with cold water. When my father comes down at six he will put oats and milk in a big bowl and slide it into the simmering bain marie. By eight it will be porridge.
Before that he’ll walk in his silent shoes to the first door, knock gently, intone ‘early morning tea’ and place the tray on the floor. We serve early morning tea from six-forty-five to seven-thirty and breakfast from eight to nine. Normally I help serve breakfast until eight-thirty, when I take off my apron and leave for school. Apart from the apron, my school clothes and my waitress garb are indistinguishable – white shirt, black skirt, flat shoes.
Today is Sunday, my day off, and I am escaping, but only if I leave before the live-out staff arrive. This reminds me to switch on the deep fat fryer and to put yesterday’s sliced white loaves out on a big flat board. Fanned out, in the heat rising from the hot cupboard, they will fry quicker and crisper than fresh bread.
I have a long walk ahead, three miles across the headland to the marina where I will ‘borrow’ a boat. It’s a more complicated trade than that, which may include cigarettes, or gossip, or if I am unlucky, being groped.
By the time I get outside, the birdsong is over; there is no sound in the lull between dawn and breakfast. The pavements are cool. By nine they will be warm, at eleven they bake and until two or three in the morning they give back their heat to the night. I kick off my shoes and let my feet relish the chill.
I need to take a strange route at first, along the side of our hotel, across the road into the cliff top gardens, down and along, angling my way parallel to the main road until I pass the next junction.
Walking the direct route would put me in danger. I might see Milly, our housekeeper, walking to work and if she tells me that one of the other girls can’t make it today I’ll have to go back with her and be a chambermaid for the morning. Or I could bump into Jeff the chef, full of bad temper and last night’s beer, falling out of the first bus of the morning and that would lead to a boozy hug and salacious comments about how much he’d like to take me out one night. My parents don’t want me to upset Jeff; breakfast chefs are not easy to find.
Or worst of all, I might find Old Bert sidling up to me, his long yellow nails spiking from spongy finger ends. His hands are always wrinkled and pink from so much time in hot water. Bert runs the washing up machines and hand-washes the pots and pans too big to fit in them. He makes me feel sick, especially when he pins me in the corner of the still room and pats me as though I am a dog. My parents don’t want me to upset him either, because he is cheap and washer-ups are not easy to find. Sometimes I think daughters must be the easiest thing to find.
The truth is, we are dying. My parents’ hotel, all hotels in our town, our whole coast. There are no longer enough tourists to pay wages, so instead of hiring staff we do the work ourselves. The odd day off school, the odd swig of booze, the occasional night out that goes wrong … prices that hotel kids are happy to pay, prices that hotel parents have no choice but to stump up for. There’s a long winter ahead in which to catch up on schoolwork, after all.
Once I’m clear of all the routes by which our staff reach the hotel, I can get back on the pavement and run. I run because I need to be at the marina before the day staff open up at eight-thirty, and because running is just about the only thing that my coordination seems to permit. I am always turning ankles, walking into doors, tipping motorbikes off their stands just by walking past them, banging into tables and bumping into walls.
My mother says I am uncoordinated. It is really because I am drunk. Nothing else seems to give me away, but drunkenness releases a spirit in me that requires a bruise for every binge. It’s a price so small that I rarely notice it although I try to hide the evidence from others.
There’s always drink in a hotel – dregs from wineglass, a quick nip from an optic before the bar opens, my Dad giving me a cherry brandy at the end of a long day, bottles hidden in guest’s wardrobes and topped up with tap water. Anyway, we all drink and nobody cares. How else do you survive a summer season? Hotel kids thrive on a bit of booze, my father says.
Each hotel I pass is preparing for the day ahead, lifting blinds, opening curtains and taking in the big blue trays of bread: white sliced; bloomer; fancy roll, and breakfast special. Slouching towards me are waitresses in gingham aprons. They all have plasters on their heels from the espadrilles they wear at night. The plasters ruche up under sensible black waitress shoes and expose espadrille blisters that will be rubbed raw by evening. Another way to get alcohol – dress like a tourist and pretend to be one. Nobody asks your age, they just take your money. Can’t turn away summer trade – what would we live on in winter?
I have the blisters too. That’s why I am running barefoot.
The sea is sixteen thousand shades of blue. It says ‘sixteen’ with each incoming wave, sibilant with power, and ‘thousand’ with every grumbled backwash, rolling grains and small pebbles back into its salty dance.
I bargain for my dinghy, oars, and anchor with the marina night manager.
‘Going far?’ He stares at my red bikini top showing through the white blouse.
I shrug, pushing forward a crumpled five pound note.
‘What do you do out there?’ He doesn’t really care.
‘I could come and join you.’ He does mean that.
I stare fixedly at his wedding ring until he gives up and hands me the padlock key that releases the little craft from its mooring.
The fiver will go in his pocket and I’ll lock up the dinghy when I return, dropping the key back in the night box, none the wiser. We all seek out hidden profit, come summertime.
The dinghy is a repo, taken to cover unpaid mooring fees and I’ve used it a dozen times this year. The oars and anchor were probably found, left behind, abandoned. It’s amazing how profligate yacht owners can be.
I row, after a fashion, out beyond the marina. My rowing is not good. Nobody has taught me and my left stroke is much stronger than my right, requiring an extra right-hand stroke to stay on course. This means I rock backwards and forwards and my loosened hair flops in my face, yet nobody laughs when I row. A year ago folk would have roared out loud; when I was fourteen and just a skinny whelp they would have pointed at me and howled until their eyes ran. But now men stare when I pass and nobody laughs at me.
In my bag I have six peaches, a packet of extra strong mints, forty Marlboro, two cigarette lighters, a bottle of cherry brandy. In my boat I have an anchor, a baler and – sitting on the thwart where I can see it as I row – Justine by Lawrence Durrell.
The list of things I don’t have is longer; no water, no flares, no life-jacket, no protective clothing, no compass, no sunglasses, no hat, no sun oil, no radio. When the night manager goes off duty nobody will know I am here.
The sixteen thousand shades of blue become slap-blue, slap-blue as I heave my baby boat through the water. Gulls caw, but they will be quiet by ten, unless a lobsterman comes back into port. Flies are travelling with me, quizzing my bag for the peach-blood they can sense inside, but they will depart in the next few minutes, zigzagging back to land. How can landlubbers not know that the best place to eat fruit is out on the water? No flying insects will bother you. And how do the flies know when they must turn for shore? These mysteries puzzle me.
I will spend the day getting hard-baked drunk, sieving cherry brandy through Marlboro-furred teeth. I will listen to the sound of the deep ocean scuffing against the dinghy. I will read Justine and cry at the end because there are only four books and now I have read them all. I will smoke, cleanse my palate with mints, and sleep.
There are seven positions to enjoy in this little craft.
1. Flat on my back in the hot-as-tea seawater that is too low in the boat to bale, with one foot over the stern to trail in the seawater, easing my blisters until they swell like full moons.
2. On my belly, legs bent up, soles to the sky, with the book on the thwart to keep it dry.
3. Crossways, so that the boat wallows even in the calm, both my feet in the water, my neck cricking against the side.
4. Upright in the bow, feet paddling in hot water, toe-teasing the varnish bubbles and kicking peach stones through the bottom brine.
5. Upright in the stern, ditto.
6. Upright in the stern but facing over it, both feet in the sea; this soon stops the circulation to my legs as the wood cuts into the backs of my thighs.
7. Flat on my back in the stern with both feet in the water. This is my favourite – cool feet, warm, brine-lapped spine, gazing at the blank sky. I can sleep like this, with my book over my face and my hands folded on my belly. This is when I sleep best.
When I look to the shore I am far enough away. I let down my anchor and prepare for the next eight hours, or nine, or ten, or as long as my cigarettes last. This is my home. Far enough from the shore for the jewelled lines of the island to reflect the sun, near enough to hear the car horns and yells of boat-launchers, I am anchored to the secret of what makes this non-place the love of my hollow heart’s core.
I am offshore.
Karen Whitelaw is a Newcastle-based writer and teacher of creative writing. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Cutwater Literary Anthology
, Newcastle Short Story Award 2012, Award Winning Australian Writing
2016. Her flash fiction has been performed at Newcastle and Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and made into a visual presentation. She has completed a Master of Creative Arts at the University of Newcastle. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Caught in the Rip
The last day of summer. The westerly snorts a premonition of autumn, but by midday that will be forgotten. It’s just the type of day the bronze retirees live for; everyone else back at work – snigger, snigger – and the sea scattered with morning dazzle. At this time of year all I’ve got to do is sit in my watch tower with my feet up on the desk, keeping an eye on the odd swimmer and the board riders and resisting, and then surrendering at lunchtime to the fat salty lure of hot chips.
I glance down at the sand and there she is. I check up the beach, but no one’s with her. She puts her red beach bag under the black and white chequered flag which warns surfers away from the swimming area, and stands with her hands low on her hips, thumbs pointing forwards as if all the responsibility for this beach belongs to her, not me. She keeps glancing up at my tinted window, squinting. I lean back and stay very still.
She’s wearing one of those floaty see-through things over her bikini, and it makes me think of the time I overheard a guy say – unfortunately for him he didn’t know I was still her husband then –that even when she wears clothes she could be wearing nothing.
This is a new thing for her, coming to my beach.
After fifteen years I can read the ocean well. I know when to expect the whale migration and recognise individual dolphins who live along the shore. I can point out the submerged rocks, the treacherous rips, I know which wind will bring the blue bottles and I can smell the change of the tides.
But I can’t read Chloe.
What do you make of a woman who faces my tower square on, crosses her arms to grab the hem of her shift, and pulls it slowly up over her thighs, her hips, her belly, like a stripper?
I glue the binoculars to my eyes and aim them right over her head. There’s a board rider paddling hard for a wave. I lock onto him. Behind him the wave rises like something dark from the deep. It peaks, looms over him like the black osprey on the cliffs eyeing their prey, and pounces. But the rider is up and whooshing along the dark underbelly while the wave rolls and crashes behind him, spitting up angry mountains of spume strong enough to break a surfboard in half, or a man.
When I put down my binoculars Chloe’s cutting through the thigh-high foam near the edge, arms raised to her shoulders against the cold. Then she dives under the water and steps up on the sand bank with her face to the sun. She stands calf-deep, alone in the ocean, and slicks her streaming hair back with both hands, arching her body as if she’s in a shampoo commercial. It would be laughable if anyone else did it.
People think a sandbank collapses without warning. But it’s always gradual. A slow erosion caused by the force of water. Like the wearing away of limpet shells on the rocks, a dead seagull washed up on the shore, marriage. It can take months for the sandbank to erode under the normal tussle of the moon and tide. Or only hours under the churning force of a violent east-coast low. What usually happens is people on sandbanks get swept off their feet in a sudden surge of water coming from the deep unknown or backwashing from the shore. They’re snatched over the edge and into the channels where there’s nothing solid under their feet, just a swirling maelstrom in which they lose all control. Some of us struggle across the current and crawl back to the safety of the sand bank. I’m not sure if we could be called the lucky ones.
It’s low tide and Chloe runs across the sandbank with her legs shooting out to the sides and the spray leaps around her like an adoring dog. She dives through a breaking wave on the other side of the bank and swims out into darker water. Here the current has carved a deep trench running parallel to the shore and the only sign of danger is a slight ripple on the surface. It pulls left towards the rocks and does a dog leg out to sea. Chloe lies on her back and rides the swell. She of all people would know she’s in a rip.
Behind her the board riders wait near the first break. The waves angle across the flagged area and I’m usually lenient with the surfers if no swimmers are out the back, especially when it’s pumping. My finger hovers over the loudspeaker switch. Chloe is the only swimmer. Unless you count the two old ladies standing in the shallows with their sarongs hitched up into the legs of their one pieces.
The westerly sprays the top of the breaking waves backwards like lace veils. I watch Chloe’s head bob in the space between like a dark buoy. I check her through the binoculars. She’s smiling. A surfer slides into view and flips back off a wave. He’s only ten metres away from her. I drop the binoculars and they bounce across the desk.
I flick the switch and the loudspeaker crackles in the air.
“Board riders. . .” Something occurs to me and I switch it off.
I turn it on again.
“Swimmers. The swimmers past the inside break,” as if she’s not the only one, “come in now. There’s a strong rip out there.” I repeat the message. I flip off the switch and high-five myself.
I check Chloe through the binoculars. She’s looking right at me. And waving. And I’m having trouble understanding why she looks like she just got awarded the Bronze Medallion.
Her chest rises out of the water, and she waves with two arms like they’re windscreen washers. She sinks chin deep, and bobs up again, waving. All she has to do is catch one wave to the sandbank, for Christ’s sake.
The old ladies in the shallows start jumping up and down. Waving one arm at the tower, the other pointing at Chloe as if they’re landing aeroplanes. They sound like screeching seagulls. I stand up so they can see me more clearly through the tinted glass and make a show of lifting my binoculars. When I check on Chloe she is staring straight at me. I stare straight back.
The final collapse of our marriage came when the woman across the road stormed into our back yard. I was nailing the new weatherboards onto the extension I hoped would eventually become a nursery. She stood at the bottom of my ladder, eyes all red and soggy, her mouth stringy with saliva, yelling up at me to do something. If Chloe hadn’t been having it off with someone we knew I probably wouldn’t have found out.
I put my nail gun carefully on the fold-out shelf and climbed down, first one heavy boot, then the other. I noticed the red paint splattered on the risers from when I painted the bedroom. The blobs of putty from the leaking bathroom window. By the time I felt the ground firmly under my feet I knew I was through fixing things.
‘Hey. Someone’s … in trouble … out there.”
One of the women from the beach is bent over, clutching the door frame with one hand and the bunched ends of her sarong with the other.
‘I’m watching,’ I say, and wave my binoculars.
Out near the kiosk the seagulls squabble over chips, seduced by the smell of crisp fried potatoes and salt air.
‘Watching isn’t …going to save her.’
‘She’s not panicking. She could be waving at her friends. Or her husband.” I raise one eyebrow but the woman stays stony faced.
‘She’s waving at you.’
That knocks the breath out of me but I look right back at her. “She put herself there and she knows exactly how to get herself out. But I’m watching her.”
I turn away from the door and make the binoculars fit my eyes as tightly as a wetsuit. The woman actually growls, and I hear her sandy feet scrape back across the concrete.
Every summer people do idiotic things: swim outside the flag area, jump off the rocks into big seas, ignore the red flag. Some of them are tourists, but usually they’re just stupid. Last year we even had a guy with a body written in tatts swim right in front of the shark sign. In the shallows, would you believe? Offering them something to read while they eat. When stupid people get into trouble we usually leave them for a little while if we can. Fear is a good teacher.
But Chloe is neither a tourist nor stupid. I lean on the desk and watch her. She keeps her chin above the water and her head makes jerky movements that show she’s dog paddling like crazy. Every now and then she lifts one arm above her head but slaps it back down quickly. The current has swung her round near the rocks and she’s heading out. Even now if she swims a few strokes across the rip she can hitch a wave. She’s lived with a lifesaver for fourteen years and must know that.
Both women are on the beach going berko. Doing some arthritic version of star jumps and shouting to the board riders. Chloe’s got them fooled.
I lift the binoculars and watch close-up as a wave slaps her face and her head disappears in the whitewash. She doesn’t resurface. I sweep my binoculars in circles. Past the rock outcrop. Along the dark empty trench to the churning white water and out to sea. Automatically I start counting seconds. …4, 5, and on the way back in see her out past the rock ledge. Her head is thrown back, her eyes red and scrunched shut. Her lips are blue and gaping. And while I watch the next wave smoothly erases her.
I have nowhere left to hide. I scramble down the concrete stairs three at a time. Race across the sand. The old girls yell something I don’t catch. I slice through the first cold shock and make for the trench. The salt water stings my eyes but I don’t close them. Out past the sandbank the water resistance slackens and instead of holding me back the current snatch me up and we rush towards the open ocean – and Chloe – with a force that’s too powerful to resist.
Cassie Hamer is an emerging writer from Sydney who tends to make up stories in her head while walking around the beautiful Centennial Park. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently working on a full-length manuscript. She wrote ‘By Proxy’ after a recent visit to Hobart where she was inspired by an exhibition of photos and mementoes, telling the story of women who travelled in the turbulent post-war years to the other side of the world to make a new life for themselves. Cassie remains in awe of their bravery.
It is Rosa’s last night on the MV Toscana, and she would quite like to die. The boiling sea has muddled her insides. Stomach in mouth. Heart in knees. The cabin is stifling and the vessel is in delirium, pickled by sea salt and alcohol.
Above her, from the dining hall, the piano accordion wheezes and gasps a slurred tune. Heels and toes keep syncopated time on the wooden floorboards. Below her, the bunk vibrates as the ship’s engines power and shudder through the swell.
‘Rosa! Rosa! Vieni alla fiesta. Addesso!’ Rosa, Come to the party. Now! Through the key hole slides Maria’s voice, lubricated by alcohol and hoary with cigarettes.
But Rosa does not want to go to the party. She wants to die. She wants Mama to smooth the hair on her forehead and bring her stale ciabatta and aqua minerale. She does not want to be this message in a bottle, at the mercy of tides and currents.
‘No. Sto male.’ I’m sick. Rosa rolls with the ship and her stomach heaves in time with both. Tomorrow night, he will be in her bed. Mama has said it will hurt, but she is not to cry. The blood will please him.
Her stomach reels again.
‘Va bene, Rosa.’ Ok. From the unsteady beat of Maria’s footsteps, Rosa knows she is stumbling down the hallway, lurching from side to side.
For Rosa, sleep is a butterfly beyond reach. Instead, she practices her English. Like a baby tasting new fruit, she lolls her tongue around the foreign words, tasting and testing them and swallowing the sound in her throat.
My name is Rosa. How you do? What your name is?
The words are a lullaby, talking her to sleep. In her dreams, the white caps are the ghostly fingers of souls lost at sea, pulling at the resolute little boat and trying to pull it under to join in eternal rest.
It is the stillness that wakes her. Are they still sailing? Rosa shimmies out of the bunk, past Maria’s pale and snoring face. The girl is nocturnal. For her, as for all the passengers, the voyage has been dream-like for its strange configuration of people and behaviours. On this boat, they are not themselves. There is no cooking, no cleaning, no work. They are between lives. Adrift.
Sitting on her trunk, Rosa pulls on the silk stockings she has been saving. The rest of her trousseau is stowed safely in the hold. There is Mama’s porcelain dining set, the lace tablecloth that comes out at Christmas and napkins Mama used for her wedding day. All that is new is a chemise, for later, and the stockings. Word on the boat is that one of the English ladies has nylons, but she has a cabin on the upper deck and it is only a rumour.
In the bathroom Rosa pinches her cheeks for colour. Maria has promised to loan her some rouge but there is no thought of waking her now. She adjusts the wool duster coat, the same one she wore for the photo she sent him. The one of him is in her pocket. She doesn’t need to look, for his face appears whenever she closes her eyes, pushing through the greeny-redness. She touches the picture, though. Rubs it like a talisman. The surface is even smoother than the silk lining of the pocket. She repeats the words mama said. Good hair. White teeth. Not too skinny. A good man.
Hopefully, he has not changed. She remembers him a little from childhood. Hide and seek in the olive trees with all the other kids of the village. But that was before the war, before all the men went off to fight and his family moved south to be with his aunt and cousins.
Up on deck, the morning is blue velvet. The ship leaves a caterpillar trail of smoke. A deck hand clears the streamers from last night’s party but stops when he sees her. He leans on his broom and points to the water. ‘Derwent… Derwent.’
She repeats after him. ‘Derwent.’ But perhaps her pronunciation is no good, for the young man shakes his head at her and resumes sweeping.
As the sun arcs into the sky, the ship’s occupants emerge slowly onto the deck –blinking like pipis brought to the sand’s surface. The river is wide and blue but the land is flat and unimpressively empty and disappointment ripples through the crowd.
They were expecting paradise.
With a gentle bump against the pier, the ship delivers Rosa into her new life. The dock is curiously empty. No streamers. No band. Here, they are not known. There is no family. They are new and friendless.
He is easy to spot. Dark eyes flitting across the deck before they come to rest on her. Slimmer than in the photo.
Through a scudding heartbeat, she smiles and he gives a half-hearted wave in return, his hand dropping quickly as Maria, now standing beside Rosa and smelling of musty wine, starts blowing kisses.
‘Smettila!’ Stop it, Rosa hisses.
‘What? It’s my husband.’
It is then Rosa notices the other dark-haired man running down the pier and waving his cap. The husband Maria has not seen in two years.
‘Cara, mio. Cara, mio!’ My darling, my darling, he shouts.
Tears have streaked Maria’s rouge. Her smile is tight.
Does she cry for what has been, or what is to come?
Rosa is suddenly aware of an ache in her finger where the cool breeze has settled on the silver of her wedding band. It is slightly too small but he has promised a new one for the ceremony tomorrow, before they leave Hobart for the hydro. There will be a priest and one family member, a cousin who works with him.
You do this for the children, says Mama. They will want the photo.
Her wedding dress is in the trunk, wrapped around the dinner setting. Her veil just fit inside the tureen. There is a small red wine stain on the hem where Papa was too excited. It is not every day your daughter marries, even if the groom is half a world away! But she thinks her husband will not notice the mark.
The gangplank is lowering.
‘Rosa, in bocca a lupo.’ Rosa, good luck! Into the mouth of the wolf. Maria will be staying in Hobart to live, and the hydro is two hours away. Rosa does not expect to see her again.
The pair embrace. ‘Crepi il lupo.’ And to you, Maria. May the wolf, croak.
With her bouncing stride, Maria makes the plank wobble to the point where Rosa must cling to the handrail. Her palms are greasy. Clicking heels will be the last she sees of the older girl.
For the first time in weeks, Rosa steps onto dry land and sways from the firmness. The solidity. She is not used to such steadiness and he rushes to take her hand.
‘I’ve got you,’ are the first words she hears from her husband’s mouth as she stumbles before straightening.
She drops his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
The apology is shrugged away. ‘Is this all?’ He gestures to the small trunk in her hand.
‘No, there is another coming. The trousseau.’
The crew is starting to unload the hold and Rosa and her husband stand together in silence until her case is placed alongside all the others.
Their hotel is not far and he decides they will walk.
‘Battery Point.’ He nods over the pier to a small piece of land jutting into the river. ‘The Government.’ A brown-stone building. ‘Mount Wellington.’ He lifts his eyes skyward.
‘A mountain?’ It is nothing like the ones at home that are sharp edged and snow capped and graze the clouds. This one is squat and fat, with houses dotted into its protective foothills. An Italian nonna, with grandchildren coddled into the folds of her dress.
As they walk, she is aware of his breathing, laboured by the effort of carrying two trunks. She has never listened so closely to a person’s breath. The way it’s catching in his throat as it constricts with effort. She supposes this is what it is to really notice someone, to be married.
Their room is up a narrow set of stairs above some kind of public bar. As he fumbles with the key, she is sure he must hear her heart beating. Will he want it now, or will they at least wait until the sun has set? When the door opens and he stands aside to let her through, she can barely walk and her teeth chatter out of control.
There are two beds. Narrow, but definitely separate. The one foot gap between them may as well be an ocean and Rosa reaches for the wall to hold her up. He has not spoken since pointing out the bathroom on the landing.
‘I have a letter from your mother,’ says Rosa, and starts busying herself with the trunks that he has placed in the corner. The bed creaks as he sits frowning.
‘She is well, and your father too. Your little brother has a cough but it is nothing to worry about.’ She is babbling but cannot seem to stop. ‘The summer has been terrible. All the village is suffering. There is no water for anything. Since the war, you know. You are so lucky—‘
At that he sighs and Rosa falls silent. She concentrates on the clips and curses herself. No one is lucky. But here they are, alive.
Finally, the lid of the trunk is free and she opens it to find great creamy swathes of fabric – the wedding dress she swaddled so carefully about the plates and the tureen. She digs in her hands with archaeological purpose but instead of finding smooth porcelain, her fingers are met with hard, grainy edges that threaten to cut the skin. A vision of her trunk, being tilled about by the ocean brings a wave of seasickness that Rosa tries to swallow away.
The first plate is broken in three. The second is in four pieces. The third is shattered as well. They all are. The trunk is littered with shards. She bows her head and coughs, shamed by her tears. But silently, he kneels beside her and together they begin to arrange the pieces on the floor. They could be children doing a jigsaw puzzle but to Rosa, they are grave robbers, picking through the white bones of a skeleton.
In the trunk, there is one piece left. The tureen. To Rosa’s surprise, it is intact and she splays her hands around the cool base of the round basin and cradles it with the care of a new mother.
‘The letter is in here,’ says Rosa. ‘And my veil.’
He nods and she indicates for him to take it, which he does.
But the brush of fingertips is so unexpected, so warm, that Rosa lets go of the tureen and it falls to the ground with a great smash.
For a second, there is silence. Then, there is a howl of despair and Rosa is shocked to discover that it is hers. But what does it matter? There is nothing left now for her to lose.
At some point, she becomes aware of a hand on her shoulder. She looks at the man she does not know but is expected to love. His face is anguished. Pained. Gently, he pulls her head towards his chest and smooths her hair as she sobs into him.
‘Shhh,’ he croons. ‘We will make it right.’
And as she feels his heart, beating loud and strong, and sending blood to all corners of his body, she is inclined to believe him.
Getting By Not Fitting In
by Les Wicks
Reviewed by CAROL JENKINS
Getting By Not Fitting In is Les Wick’s thirteenth book. As someone who has arrived at poetry latish, thirteen seems a lot of books. What would one have left to say? Plenty it seems. I came to Getting By Not Fitting In, after reading Sea of Heartbreak (Unexpected Resilience)(Puncher & Wattmann, —a good place for readers new to Wick’s work start. Getting By Not Fitting In (GBNFI) possesses the same Wickensian kaleidoscopic concision, wit and dexterity as Sea of Heartbreak. There is something Ginsberg-esque about Wick’s range and anti-hero stance, his keen eye for the cultural milieu, we have the Golden Age of Sydney Pub Music instead of The Beats, but without Ginsberg’s grandiosity and neurotica.
The collection is set out in seven thematic sections; the first two look at men and woman in general, and the next two others take up the themes of their namesakes’ Narrative and Location, the following two parts build portraits of the characters Matt Kovacs and Tess Manning, and the last section, ‘What Ends’ forms a coda.
There is a gritty piquancy in Getting By Not Fitting In. Wicks has a keen eye for how society bends people into and out of shape. The title suggests a study of those living on the margins, but in Getting By the marginalised become the mass market—a phenomena we have seen play out in the USA with Trump’s triumph in selling snake oil to the disenfranchised. We find the mass market, and the masses, messy as they are, concern Wicks, in general and in particular. His poem a ‘Brief History of the Mass Market’, is pulled into focus by the mass media — movies, TV sitcoms and Facebook, as the poem skips from Annie Oakley, through Glen Miller and comes around to the FBI it is constantly nearly making an argument. On one level it is seems lucid but on another just beyond coherence, and so works to deliver a symptom as well as a synopsis, he seems to be saying, take this dose of not-quite confusion, not-quite denouement, our cultural chaos.
Amongst the tea candle economics in the first section ‘The Company of Women’ there is an unsettling sense of living in housing commission high rise on benefits, even when the poem is located in suburban garden, as in ‘Suburban Fabric’ where the characters are scrapping by, even the social-worker downwardly mobile. All this makes for a disturbingly real atmosphere. For those in government that argue we are a classless society Getting By Not Fitting In would a salutary read, showing us as all the greasy perplexities of a society that accepts or ignores those whose lives teeter into poverty.
Something similarly disarming happens when Wicks re-jigs the common slang. He has a penchant for reversals, ‘dodo as dead hill of the king’ in ‘A Staunch Life in Common Sense’ The reframing leaves the reader acutely adrift in the every day language of ‘Common Sense’ where the protagonist’s easy shortcuts act as a kind of social anesthetic— a Novocain for the relationships that a certain type of men have with society. The witty reversals of sets, ‘chicken gum and chewing wire’ gives a visceral churn, a nearly queasy undoing of language that supplies an air of surrealism to what might be a study for a character in an Australian version of BBC TV series ‘Shameless’.
Location brings us Sydney in spades, the kind you might dig a grave for your dog with. Wick is an aficionado of the multi-use homophonic sequence, ‘Oatley Pleasure Ground’ we progress through, leaden, leading, led a little further on to the laconic turn of ‘a new toilet block—/strident stainless steel like Soviet dentistry’.
‘Oatley’, is too clear-eyed to be nostalgic. While the title gives you its temporal setting, so we settle acutely into the park alongside the St Georges river. While Oatley was not one of my youthful haunts, it could easily be Woy Woy or Ettalong, with its sunburnt lawns and inadequate trees, and of course that telling toilet block. I came back to the Soviet dentistry simile a number of times when I read and reread this poem — like a wobbly tooth you can’t stop wriggling— there is a jab of painful accuracy to it, a stab of recognition, which strangely gives an odd sense of ownership to this piece of Oatley though I’ve never been there, and the poem is an invitation not to, but I might as well have been there, so closely does it evoke its period and hanging out at the beach or waterfront. As with many of these poems, we are connected, and, as he counsels on the final page of Getting By Not Fitting In, that interlocking might just be the point.
In ‘The Sydney Problem’ Wicks tweaks the old Tinsel Town tag to Trinket Town, while skewering our collective lack of determination to preserve ‘historic clutter’ — the deprecation of history to clutter, suggesting both an authorial complicity and culpability in this problem, and so deftly avoiding what is one of the most annoying postures in contemporary poetry, ‘eco-piety’, to steal Peter Kirkpatrick’s elegantly coined term, though here it the subgenre ‘preservo-piety’ would be more accurate.
In the fifth and sixth sections we find first Matt Kovacs and then Tess Manning, two people in overlapping stages of drug fueled downward spirals, each new opportunity a new chance to demonstrate their penchant for destruction. These two parts and final coda might be a crazy storyboard for a TV series, Wicks’ writing here is filmic, an evocation of place and mood. These sections work something like a mini-verse novel and there is drive to the storyline that is more top-less grunge than bodice ripper. When we get to the seventh part , ‘The Sixth Intersection’, where Matt and Tess, our characters, briefly intersect, both asking the other ‘Are you happy?’ and go their ways, leaving us to ours, and giving us something substantial to ponder.
CAROL JENKINS is an Australian writer and publisher. She lives with her family in Sydney, near Balmoral Beach. Coming to poetry from a career in chemical regulation, her first poem was published in 2004. She has two collections of poetry Fishing in the Devonian (2008) and Xn, 2013 both from Puncher & Wattman. Her most recent book and silliest book is Select Episodes from the Mr Farmhand Series. In 2007 Carol launched River Road Press, which has recorded and published 21 audio CDs of Australian poets. She has a blog Show Me The Treasure (www.showmethetreasure.blogspot.com.au
Have Been And Are
by Brook Emery
ISBN: 978 0 994 5275 3 0
Thinking Poetry: Brook Emery’s have been and are (Gloria SMH, 2016)
[From the launch speech given at the Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe on Saturday 10 September, 2016.]
Welcome everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Luke Fischer. I’m a poet and philosopher, and this afternoon I have the great pleasure and honour of launching Brook Emery’s splendid new book of poems, his fifth collection have been and are, published by the new Melbourne press Gloria SMH. Jacinta Le Plastrier, whom many of you would also know as the current director of Australian Poetry and who formerly worked at John Leonard Press, is the publisher and co-founder of Gloria SMH. At the outset I’d like to congratulate Jacinta and her colleagues on the beautiful production and design of this book.
While I am quite used to swapping between my philosopher’s hat and my poet’s hat, in certain cases this is neither appropriate nor adequate. Sometimes it is necessary to wear both hats at once, one balanced on top of the other, or the two stitched together. This is eminently the case with respect to Brook Emery’s poetry.
At times, when art and poetry aim for a philosophical significance they end up reproducing in an inferior manner a theoretical content that would be better articulated in a philosophical treatise or essay. This is evident in what for the present purposes I will call ‘second-rate conceptual art’. However, this is not true of the best conceptual art nor is it true of Brook Emery’s poetry. The philosophising that takes place in Brook’s poetry, both at the level of form and content, is worked out poetically, is native to the poetry, and in significant respects gets at aspects of experience and the world in a manner that surpasses conventional modes of philosophical articulation. For instance, the question and nature of embodiment and perception are key concerns of philosophers, but there are few, if any, philosophers who are able to describe embodied experience as richly and concretely as Brook’s poetry. In addition, whereas philosophers usually present their readers with their polished arguments and conclusions, Brook’s poetry invites the reader into a philosophy in process, the mind at work in questioning and deliberating. There are, of course, important strands of twentieth and twenty-first century European thought in which philosophical writing has become more literary and poetic than it has traditionally been. In this respect Brook’s poetry can be viewed as a significant contribution within a larger cultural movement in which philosophy approaches poetry and poetry approaches philosophy.
The title of Brook’s new book, have been and are, is extracted from the last sentence of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and intimates a central theme of the book: the relation between past and present, and time in its various forms and scales, including the geological time of evolution, human history, autobiography, transience and human mortality. The full sentence from Darwin is also the title of the penultimate poem: ‘Endless forms most beautiful and wonderful / have been and are being evolved’. And Brook’s poems relatedly suggest how the continuity between past and present lies in change and transformation, and the present is evolving into the future.
have been and are is at once expansive in its explorations of diverse and significant themes and impressively cohesive, a livre composé. The titles of all the poems, except the final one, are quotations selected from a wide range of texts by poets, philosophers, scientists, novelists, historians, anthropologists, musicians, artists, and others… Each poem responds to, expands on, subtly critiques or digresses from the content suggested by its title-quotation. What is implied by much poetry, namely that each poem one writes is in conversation with other poems and poets, and with poetic traditions as one understands and evaluates them, is explicitly embedded in the book’s architectonic and inner workings. The individual poems are also filled with direct references as well as subtle allusions to other texts and thereby develop further intertextual connections.
The book’s cohesiveness is also evident in the way each poem picks up or develops a thread from the preceding poem. Every poem ends with an ellipsis, which serves to indicate its open-endedness and its anticipation of the subsequent poem as a complement and supplement to what has thus far been elaborated. The themes of the book organically emerge, develop and transform, and the poems enter into dialogue with one another as well as with the reader. As suggested by the epigraph from Virginia Woolf that opens the collection, we find ‘a voice answering a voice’, including the poet speaking and responding to himself. At both a macro and a micro scale the structure of the book reflects the title-quotation of one of the poems, which is taken from the American poet Robert Hass: ‘Echo, repetition, statement / and counterstatement, digression and return’.
While at the level of form and content Brook is interested in the possibility of cohesiveness, he is opposed to any kind of closure. Brook is just as interested, if not more interested, in the ways in which we misconstrue ourselves and the world as he is in experiences of belonging. In this poetry we find a poet-philosopher restlessly interrogating what in German Idealist philosophy was called the Absolute, a supposed ultimate unity of mind and world, spirit and nature, thought and being. For Brook any sense of ultimate unity can only be momentary or provisional and thus not ultimate: the feeling of beauty or harmony fades, what we assume to be true is subject to revision.
A significant philosophical insight underlies Brook’s emphasis on both the necessity of a relationship between self and world and a disjunction between them. The very problem of knowledge presupposes disunity as a starting point. An omniscient god would know and experience unity but would have no questions and could not make errors of judgment. There would be no problem of knowledge as everything would be ever-present and evident. As human adults we also do not have the option of retreating into a prelapsarian existence, of returning to childhood, or of enjoying the unknowing unity and bliss that Rilke ascribed to primitive animals, which possess sentience but are far from the human form of self-consciousness that divides us from any immediate sense of oneness with the world.
It is the gap between ourselves and the world, language and experience, thought and being that makes it possible for us to establish some connection between them. In one of the late poems in have been and are Brook develops this notion with the image of shadows: ‘Shadows are an intercession / between me and not me, a suspension // between “I feel” and “it must mean.” Words / shadow other words, shadow other worlds…’ There is a slight gap between what we aim to say and what we manage to say. The very first poem includes the following lines near its beginning: ‘There’s a dappled light falling / across my forearms… Mmm…there’s that word ‘dappled’, that won’t do. It’s not a bad word…’ and the poem proceeds to reflect on the spaces and connections between linguistic predication and being. It is worthwhile to mention that Brook’s interrogation of how we speak about the natural environment makes a valuable and thought-provoking contribution to crucial concerns of contemporary ecocritical theory and ecopoetics, and the specific need to find a way of bridging a postmodern awareness of the constructive role of language with a realism about the natural world that is being destroyed.
One of the many remarkable features of Brook’s poetry is the protean way in which it moves between walking, swimming or body-surfing and speculation, evocative description and philosophical reflection, and also seamlessly unites them. Take this description involving seaweed: ‘I float on my belly as still as can be /in the softly lulling swell. Sea-grasses / and rasp-edged kelp float back and forth in unison / or a quarter tone off key, caught and tweaked / by competing currents.’ We have here at one and the same time a vivid image of floating seaweed and the encapsulation of a broad philosophical idea that there is a cohesion to the world but not a perfect harmony; the musical metaphor of a choir singing in unison is qualified by the subsequent judgement that the voices are a ‘quarter tone off key’.
Brook is often a brilliant imagist and offers the reader moments in which he/she experiences a sense of participation in a re-enchanted nature. However, he does not want us to remain captivated. That would be a naïve and self-deceiving return to childhood. Here is an example from the short poem that is titled with a quotation from Piet Mondrian: ‘I, too, find the flower beautiful / in its outward appearance: but a deeper beauty / lies concealed within’:
I’m trying to remember a train trip south,
the particulars or even the generality. The glass-grey,
reflective flatness of the river, the immobility
of the tethered boats (their patched and peeling hulls),
a passage through split rock (weather-dulled, oxide blotched).
And trees, eucalypts stretching back and up the hillside,
textured, darting light shifting slantwise into shadow,
picking out this or that, catching at the eye.
I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…
The poem opens by drawing us into its descriptions of scenery from a remembered train trip, but then as though telling the reader not to get too absorbed, not to fall asleep, we encounter the self-reflexive line: ‘I am inventing this, the verbal surface of things…’ Children, when they watch a puppet show, almost take the puppets for animate creatures and are oblivious of the human hands, rods, and strings operating behind the scenes. In Brook’s poem it’s as though the show were interrupted mid-scene and the instruments exposed to view, but in this case the instrument is language.
It is arguable that the advent of free verse as a dominant approach to writing poetry in the early twentieth century reflects a larger cultural process of fragmentation and individuation, of dissonance between the individual and the collective. Brook himself places this development within a broad historical context when he writes: ‘The old verities – Christianity, Communism, rhyme and metre – are dimmed…’ Nevertheless, even though free verse cannot adopt a pregiven form, this does not mean that it is formless or arbitrary, that it lacks aesthetic cohesion. T. S. Eliot famously criticised, as did Denise Levertov later in the twentieth century, the adjective ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ because of its implication of arbitrariness. While I don’t share this objection because there are other relevant ways of construing the word ‘free’, the significant point is that any successful poem must convince us that there is an integrity or even necessity in the way it is constructed.
Brook’s poems are assiduously and masterfully crafted free verse compositions, which reflect and embody the dynamism of his poetic philosophy. They at once accentuate the temporality of the unfolding poem and the temporality of thought in progress. Like the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, as well as Hegel and Heidegger, Brook has a deep interest in contradiction and apparent contradictions. He also loves paradoxes, oxymorons, chiasmi, and aporias. Like a poetic equivalent of Hegel’s progression of thought through the generation of contradictions in The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is a dialectical momentum to Brook’s poems. The very first poem in the collection begins with: ‘It’s not about me…and of course / it is.’ Not much later we find the statement: ‘This book is all about / how lucky I am to be walking under these trees…’ The reader can surmise that, of course, it is not really all about this, but only partly about this. The poems propel themselves forward through judgments that are shown to be provisional, through negations, qualifications, contrasting propositions, and revisions. The poem with a title drawn from Wallace Stevens, ‘The poem must / resist the intelligence almost successfully…’ begins as follows: ‘I’m dawdling. Killing time. Or time / is killing me…’. These lines employ a device that in classical rhetoric was distinguished as an antimetabole. The terms of the proposition ‘I’m…killing time’ are reversed in the statement ‘time is killing me’ to epigrammatic effect. Characteristically Brook has also placed an ‘or’ before ‘time is killing me’, highlighting the provisionality of this second judgment.
If Brook were a painter, in an analogous manner to Cézanne’s late watercolours he would leave many white spaces in his paintings, so as to allow the viewer to imaginatively decide on how they might be filled in. Or he would paint his canvas in layers while ensuring that the later layers allow the earlier layers of paint to peer through. He certainly would not aim for the realism of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis whose painted grapes were supposedly so realistic that birds flew down and pecked at them. Rather, he would leave clear evidence of the brushstrokes on the canvas.
Brook himself refers to a number of painters in the collection (Mondrian, Hokusai and others) and one of the passages, which comes as close as Brook gets to encapsulating his philosophy, involves a description of a painter. Those of you who are familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology will recognise the deep affinity to his philosophy in the following lines, which present the invisible as the other side of the visible rather than as other-worldly or as merely subjective:
From this angle or that perspective, day after day,
in painting after painting, an artist friend tries to capture light,
not capture, not even render, tries to apprehend light’s temptations
on cloud and sea. It’s a search for the invisible in what is visible,
something that depends on sense but is beyond the senses,
what cannot be expressed without distortion: the reflective
and absorbent qualities of water, the way it is sometimes grey,
sometimes blue or green, sometimes so reflective it is invisible
and simultaneously opaque: the texture of this world in time and place.
It strikes me this is ground on which to stand…
In spite of the emphasis on provisionality in Brook’s poetry there are moments when the perceiver and the perceived, mind and world seem to cohere, moments of beauty and harmony, even if the ‘concord’ is ‘teetering on the edge of discord’. While some of my characterisations of Brook’s poetry might make him seem like a predominantly rational poet, this is not my intention. The book contains many deeply felt passages and poems, and the poem titled with a quotation from C. K. Williams, ‘Everything waste / everything would be or was’, is among the most moving and poignant poems I can remember reading anywhere. After evocative and brilliant descriptions of a seashore and basin at dusk, it also includes this line on almost-completeness: ‘What if we could hold all this like the sail almost holds the breeze…?’
Brook’s poetry explores and aims to do justice to the complexities of existence. It neither advocates a simple lyricism nor does it oppose feeling and thought as, unfortunately, occasional reviews of Australian poetry still sometimes do. Subtle irony, self-scrutiny, humour and wit are also sprinkled through the collection. I delight in the humour of these lines from earlier in the aforementioned poem: ‘At the water’s edge livid green strands tangle / and flop like snakes writhing in a B-grade / horror movie.’
While it has only been possible for me to touch on a few of the salient features and main themes of this wonderful and expansive book, I would like to at least mention one other poem. In a sequence of historico-political poems there is a long poem with a title-quotation from Joseph Conrad, ‘The brown current / ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness’. This complex and formally innovative poem intertwines an unfolding description of the natural environment of the eastern beaches of Sydney and its brutal history of colonisation with factual synopses and examples of the worst atrocities in human history from ancient times to the present day. Its masterful handling of this difficult material reminds the reader that Brook was a history teacher for twenty years.
I wholeheartedly encourage you to buy, read, re-read, and think about Brook Emery’s new collection have been and are. I am delighted to declare the book launched.
Luke Fischer is a Sydney-based poet and scholar. His books include the poetry collection Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015), and the forthcoming poetry collection A Personal History of Vision (UWAP, 2017). For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com