by Angela Rockel
Salient: [— L. saliens, -ent-, pr. pple. of salire leap] 1. Leaping, jumping … of animals … of water … 3. Salient point: in old medical use, the heart as it first appears in an embryo; hence, the first beginning of life or motion; the starting-point of anything (OED)
The waning moon rises later and later, nearer and nearer to dawn, ever thinner, until, lined up between earth and the sun, only its unlit face is turned our way. Then after a pause it reappears, a shining filament on the evening horizon.
High pressure systems flatten the ocean and push away rain – as the days continue to lengthen, we sit at the bottom of a deep, still well of clear, dry air. It feels exhilarating after the darkness of winter but this warmth, so early, also points toward the season to come. Already the sun begins to burn as the layer of ozone over Antarctica is destroyed with the return of light and the hole widens to take in these latitudes. In the northern hemisphere, fires rage and customary protections do not serve. The shade of an olive tree is no longer a guarantee or even an image of peace as the missiles come in.
But here, now, soft air moves and buds open. A grey shrike-thrush investigates nest sites under the eaves and reports to its mate – wejo jo jo wikijowiki! Narkies, waterhens with mad red eyes, fearless, chase off a feral cat, then gather beside the dam to make their mating and nesting arrangements. Night and day they shriek a chorus in tag-team crescendo – na keena keena keena kee – like a conference of crazed plumbers hacksawing pipes in concert.
Bees work the grevilleas for nectar and gather a sudden flush of willow pollen that ripens as catkins open and change from silver to gold in the course of a morning. A new holland honeyeater gathers nesting material – thin strips of honeysuckle and teatree bark for the cup and furry bud-tips from the banksias for lining. Frogs are calling.
I bear witness to this place, which shapes me as I attend to it. I wait for what the body brings – sensory events which register like speech-acts with ‘sudden salience on the surface of the psyche’ (Bachelard xi). These words of place become part of a mode of bodily thought that greets the creatures of sound and touch, scent and taste and sight. I notice what brings itself to my attention, what leaps forward and stays with me. I let sensations connect, walk myself into rhythm until a beat begins – a word and a word and a word from the world. Attention and event – warp and weft of the text-cloth as a phrase begins to form. A life’s work, to call out of the here-now-only stream which passes through me, part of a pattern of intelligences, speaking place and spoken by it.
My inheritance is a consciousness buckled by silences and frightened of the conjuring power of words. Like so many others, I was born into a family that was punchdrunk after a couple of hundred years of destruction, displacement, reinvention. Amnesia and fantasy, desire to pass, invisible, and desire to excel slugged it out in the production of identity. Hiding in the thickets of clannishness and religion, refusing to look back at the devastation behind, my forebears sought to protect themselves and those who followed.
My mother’s tired body and baffled mind brought me in, sombre on sombre, to a world of interdictions and erasures; all that could not be spoken pressed, blinding, at our backs. In her shadow I squeezed through the gates and the air I breathed was fear – of speaking or hearing or thinking the unknown-unthinkable. Reverie was discouraged as tending to madness – that is, to a propensity to make connections that might run away into story, which could – and surely would – clutch and take its creator out into a dazzled hell-realm. This is where I come from, light threatening.
To work with my legacy I call on peripheral vision, developed in darkness and sharpened by anxiety, to acknowledge and give form to intensities that have gathered over generations, bringing them into language. They take shape as images of precise particularity – creatures and weathers, their interconnections and patterns of growth and decay – and in doing so they become personal, lose the intolerable glare that till now surrounded them. As they step out of formless dread or longing into speech, they widen my sense of the nature and boundaries of psyche to become merely themselves – both subjective states and creatures that help me make sense of things. Looked at sidelong, soul and its inhabitants turn out to be not less than everything – I in the world, the world in me, with its mortal dangers from which no shelter can be had and its rich portion of pleasure and joy.
Fog gathers in the valley and lifts on brightness; light burns through from inside, dazzles from outside as it goes and comes – just itself, salient.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
by Angela Rockel
capable of being in uncertainties
Working at night, I disturbed a little bat; I heard wings and thought a bird had found its way in, then recognised the sound and saw the dark, glove-leather sheen of fingered webbing as the bat made puzzled rounds of my head in the glow of the screen. It’s a chocolate wattled bat – they hibernate for a shorter time than the other seven species that live on the island. Tucked into a fold of curtain or wall-space cranny, this one is already beginning to rouse from its winter sleep. All the bats here are small insectivores – microbats of the Vespertilionidae family. A couple of species have adapted well to living around humans, making use of buildings as roosting places and feeding on insects attracted to their lights. The walls of my workspace are porous – the flittermice have made themselves at home.
I once found a sleeping bat on a footpath in the middle of Hobart. It was about this time of year – someone must have put on a seldom-used coat that had been chosen by the bat as a hibernation roost; it was carried along until it fell out, there in the street. These bats are tiny, covered in fur that’s thick and ravishingly soft; holding the sleeping creature in my hand, its few grams’ weight was imperceptible – all I could feel was the faintest warmth as my own body heat gathered in its pelt. Its face was almost invisible, deep in a ruff of fur; along its sides I could see the arm-bones and shirred skin of its folded wings. I wrapped it loosely in a shirt and kept it in a quiet place while I worked. Walking back to my car after dark, when I lifted a corner of the shirt, the bat stirred and flew off. How far from its roosting place had it been carried? Did it survive until spring? All the species here hibernate through the coldest months and to be disturbed at the wrong time can mean death by starvation.
On the mainland, bat lyssavirus, a form of the rabies virus feared throughout history for its symptoms of delirium with terrified aversion to water, followed by convulsions, paralysis and death, has become a cause for concern among those who come into contact with the big fruit bats of the tropics and subtropics. Several people have died after being scratched or bitten. There’s a vaccine but not much hope of cure once symptoms appear in the unvaccinated. As settlement encroaches on forest and the fruit and blossoms these bats feed on become scarcer, they move into orchards and parks; as seasonal patterns alter, they’re also extending their range further south. Occasionally one strays across Bass Strait, although there are no colonies here, so far. But the virus has been found in one species of microbat on the mainland too, so it’s possible that animals here could carry it.
It has snowed – big wet flakes mixed with rain at first, then the rain stopped and the snow continued, falling in silent showers through the night. But the ground here was sodden and all that remained in the morning was a crusted glaze on the grass, though the lower peaks and passes were white and the mountains gleamed. By late morning it was gone from all but sheltered pockets in the high country. Thirty years ago, we used to get two or three falls each winter that lasted a day or so, but now that’s rare and some years pass with none at all.
With the snow, the black cockatoos are back – they’ll tell you when bad weather’s coming, yes, and where from too – they’ll be flying out of it, away. A flock of sixty or more make the rounds of pine hedges and wattle gullies along the valley and their signs are everywhere in shredded cones and chunks pulled from fallen timber, torn apart for the grubs that live in the dead wood. Three young birds, their feathers still greyish, not yet grown into glossy black, sit in the prickly wattle outside my workspace and eye me, unconcerned, as they strip bark from a rotted limb. They keep up a continuous conversation – it’s a sound I love, a mixture of hissing creaks and a kind of nickering wail, keen and directed out of some wild will, untrammelled.
And mixed with these cold days, wafts of balmy air and the smell of working ground – grass in the paddocks has begun to grow and buds are moving – all of it beginning weeks early. Parrots feed in flowering wattles and shower the ground with nipped yellow sprigs. The call of the first pardalote falls, drip-drop, into the still air of afternoon from high in a eucalypt, and the first quail answers from the cover of grass and tangled weeds under the lucerne hedge, sip here? sip here?
The platypus has appeared in the dam, as it did last winter after heavy rain turned roadside drains into creeks it could follow uphill, investigating. It took up residence for a few weeks under the upturned canoe, coming and going via the prow, which had been submerged by quickly-rising water. Then it was gone – did it move further on or go back the way it came, to the dams and permanent creeks in the valley below? Now at twilight it surfaces and goes under in smooth, rolling, purposeful dives, stirring up mud and turning the dam turbid in search of its invertebrate food. The canoe has been dragged well clear of the water’s edge and I don’t know where the animal is sleeping.
Last year the platypus came in the days after I returned from a journey to Ireland, to the area where my maternal grandparents were born in the nineteenth century. The creature’s combined reptilian and mammalian attributes, its capacity to move back and forth between day and night, between land and water – these things were consoling to me in the state of self-divided turmoil I had been thrown into, having been given a disturbing reconfiguration of my Irish family narrative; not victims or bystanders, some of my people had been landlords’ agents during the famine.
Around the anniversary of that pilgrimage I had this dream: I am standing on a quay in West Cork with a little town at my back, watching seals sunning themselves on rocks some way offshore. Complacently, my dream-self rehearses the selkie stories in which certain seals, benign shapeshifters, are able to shed their skins and leave behind their oceanic life at will, to walk on land as humans, with whom they sometimes fall in love, though often at great cost. But as I look, I realise that by some reversal I’m using the wrong word and that these creatures are not selkies but kelpies – waterhorses, also able to take human form but at best tricksters and at worst intent on taking humans – the unwary, the greedy and naïve – with them into the water to be drowned and eaten.
I took my familial blindspot, my cushioning ignorance, with me into famine country in Ireland and in return the ancestors showed me faces I hadn’t bargained for. Working in the dark, we scare up what’s been sleeping; into the dream-space and the space of each moment, uninvited, come uncertainties, mysteries, doubts – furies that can tear us apart in payment of blood-debts incurred generations back.
In the light of our little lamp, the space of the page permits a meeting with these rouselings in a human arena, mediated. And if, as part of a writing practice, we can sit with what approaches, if we can tolerate grief and anxiety for the necessary interval (days, months, a lifetime), sometimes a curse can be transformed; we find a way to honour the furious dead, let them speak, hold the tension between worlds to find what redress is required.
But there’s a seasonality to this process and we override it at our peril – periods of shutdown in the face of wintry forces, periods of choosing life on land over entry into the cold and dark, infected by a horror of the watery realm and its fearful work – acknowledging all that is damaged and destructive. And then there’s a shift and again the work becomes possible.
Early or late, ready or not, change comes. Something wakes us; our dwelling is plucked up and removed and we take to the air, the water, the road. There we go – zigzagging up into the darkening sky, or over the rise and down to the west-flowing winter creek; drawn or driven, impelled by necessity we add our inscription to the immense tracery that elaborates itself everywhere.
Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters. Ed. Edward Hirsch. Random House, 2001. Kindle
This issue considers how to think about the future in a time that doubts it will occur. It addresses the question of how culture retains its capacity to imagine possible futures in the face of multiple forces that threaten its existence: climate change, global war, the extinction of species. In local terms, Forward Thinking looks at how Australian literature imagines the world beyond present constraints and crises or as its impending corollary.
The essays range from Bill Ashcroft’s discussion of the utopian possibilities within literature itself to Australian science fiction, recent literary works that envisage post-catastrophic worlds and the role of catastrophic commemoration. There is also Lucy Sussex’s account of writing and teaching speculative fiction and a consideration of the utopian speculations of late Marxism as a way of opening up older works from the Australian archive to new readings – to give them a future, so to speak.
The issue includes fiction that relates to the theme as well as work that too compelling not to publish immediately. The issue contains a wealth of new poetry – a testimony to the current range and strength of this field – and reviews of new fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
by Angela Rockel
We crawled down into the dark and we waited
When I was a child I loved to take charcoal from the fireplace and grind it to paste with water to make ink. Its opacity fascinated me – I would hold the jar to the sun, tilting it to find the thin meniscus at the very edge of the liquid through which some light could find its way. It was the world of darkness in small; I could come nearer to it, hold it in my hand, touch its surface and watch the end of my finger disappear into its mystery. And I could find images there; I used it to write and draw and paint lines and washes in velvet-black and soft grey, with a brush made from a chewed twig and a pen cut from a kelp gull feather brought back from the beach. It was satisfying to find the materials I needed close at hand. Sometimes I added the purple juice of phytolacca berries that grew in a weedy corner of the garden, and which we children called deadly nightshade, though of course it is not.
Here in the valley of the Huon the inky water of the river, stained purple-brown-black by buttongrass tannin from the high country, reminds me of those experiments in depth and darkness. In places on the west coast of the island where rainfall is very high (as on the west coast of the South Island in New Zealand), huge volumes of fresh water, tannin-dark, pour off the land and create an opaque layer on top of the salt water of the sea, limiting available light – and so the deep comes nearer. Feathery sea pens, corals, sponges that usually live very far down move up to reefs and outcrops just metres below the surface.
I’m thinking about all this because it’s cold enough to light the fire each evening and my husband has begun to collect the silky-brittle logs of char that are left in the morning ashes after the stove has been shut down overnight. He’ll crush them and soak them in seaweed tea before adding them to the garden beds. Charcoal is porous – each piece becomes a little outpost like a sunken wreck that hosts a world of life, supporting bacteria and fungi that sweeten and fertilise the soil. And if the char is made in a fire that’s not too hot, it retains oils and tars – an aromatic chemistry of persistence which allows it to last and last in the ground, doing its work without breaking down.
All over the world, rich black earth can be found where people have settled and stayed; where they’ve lit their cooking fires and dug the charcoal into their gardens with the kitchen scraps and broken pots, with the liquor from their ferments and pickles and brews thrown in to bring it to life. It’s there under the streets of Roman London; it’s there in the terra preta of pre-Columbian Amazon settlements abandoned hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago, quietly regenerating itself in collusion with earthworms, while the leached, infertile soils around it slurry and bake in the tropical wet.
Days are still short; the sun grinds in its black bowl – shining chunks, our planets and moons against that dark. Some of my companions have gone there already – one breath then gone, sounding. Night rises and I step in – sometimes it’s all I have of them, this ink that swallows the world.
Out in the paddock a circle of sodden ash marks the place where the solstice bonfire, bone fire, took the year’s accumulation of everything that’s unassimilable and turned it airy, bright and dark, ready to go back under. Each year the flames unfurl their hands and the cold lump of the heart hisses and wails; in the embers everything speaks and sings in its own voice and that is the song. The bonfire’s a chance to hunker down together; we watch the sparks go up and let the smoke catch in our hair and clothes, breathe it in, let it wash around us. Against all evidence of the immensity of cold at our backs, we turn our faces to the spot of warmth and light we’ve made to signal our hope that, truly, after this night, once again our part of the earth begins to lean toward the sun.
Humans everywhere have their ceremonies to mark the turns of the year – fires lit from a splinter of last season’s wood, char and ashes ploughed into fallow ground or scattered among the growing crops. The black, the coals and dust, the body of ink, unknowable, from which the next thing can come. After winter, something can happen; the ground rises in steam like a dark loaf – lives come up, trumpets and bells from underground, out of this fabric which we have a hand in creating and to which we return, ourselves and all that we make and do, for better and for worse, out of our own necessities. This journal, for instance, these posts of char.
Find Angela Rockel on her blog: http://onsilverhill.blogspot.com.au
by Angela Rockel
Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.
Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects
There’s a memory I carried as a series of sensations, wordless, all through my childhood:
I’m looking at something that fills my visual field. It’s a surface, squarish, textured and undulating, patterned with lines. Around its edge it separates into projections – I discover that I can move the thing, turn it and find another side, a different texture.
Eventually words attached themselves to this experience – surface, line, projections, move – but it was twenty years or more before I put them together to make a story – an adult hand, my infant hand reaching to hold a finger.
Another memory – this one with words in it:
Bright colours, their soft edges on a flat field which can be moved, turned to show more. A yellow animal, a blue animal and words connect them. My sister knows the words, the same each time. I lean against her, feel her voice in the bones of my face and chest.
But being read to brought both comfort and danger – stories were full of violence, misunderstanding, betrayal. Malevolence and damage rode in on the bodily conviction of a voice. Rustem and Sohrab, father and son, manipulated, unknowing, fought in the dust between the camps of their opposing armies. Grendel and his mother erupted from their den beneath the lake. Relentless, my sister read on as the prince gave away even his eyes.
I wanted to read for myself, to find out whether or not stories would be more intelligible if I had control of the book. Impatiently I pursued the skill, though words and their fixed meanings didn’t match my world and left me feeling mysteriously askew; my moon and sun travelled backwards in their skies. Stories were interlocking collections of fixities that moved inexorably to their conclusions; they were artefacts, found items, inscrutable, finished. Stories were, as words seemed to be, closed.
Then when I was about seven, my mother gave me a prayer book filled with the wild laments and praise-songs of the old testament:
My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; He cuts me off from the loom.
Deep is calling on deep in the roar of waters; Your torrents and all your waves swept over me.
Poetry showed me that fixity can be turned, unfolded; these voices spoke a response, had their say about the stories they were caught up in. I began to recognise that while language had created the world-view into which I was born – where experience was prescribed from outside by a monstrously capricious He – it also offered possibilities of resistance and change.
Divinities and the cultures they ratify are modes of (un)consciousness at play in language; consciousness widens with attempts in language to encompass styles of thought that are adequate to experience. As Rilke puts it, this stretching out is the process by which der Gott beraten sein (‘As once the wingèd energy of delight’) – from rat, read, riddle – this is how god works things out, takes counsel.
But it’s a risky thing, to offer advice to a culture or a god, to seek a way to work with those inhuman voltages. Exhilarated as I was by the opening-out achieved by poetry, as a reading child I didn’t yet understand that the attempt to confront and reorganise received consciousness is costly, undertaken out of necessity. Anne Carson speaks about this cost in an essay on the poet Stesichoros. She says:
Born about 650 BC on the north coast of Sicily in a city called Himera, he lived among refugees … A refugee population is hungry for language and aware that anything can happen …
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives… are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being … In the world of the Homeric epic, being is stable and particularity is set in tradition … Into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. [He] began to undo the latches … All the substances of the world went floating up … To Helen of Troy … was attached an adjectival tradition of whoredom already old by the time Homer used it. When Stesichoros unlatched her epithet from Helen there flowed out such a light as may have blinded him for a moment … (Autobiography of Red)
Temporarily or permanently, writing can be disabling. Escaping ‘the still surface of the code,’ the writer must tolerate exile and bewilderment within what theorists Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘foreign language within language’:
The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the ‘tone,’ the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people to come. (What is Philosophy?)
But first this ‘foreign language’ summons a self to come. As a young woman I wrote to make a song in the bleak standard English that was my inheritance as a mid-twentieth century New Zealander; I knew that this was possible because of the work of Janet Frame and others who wrote a particularity of place ‘unlatched from its epithets,’ in a syntax which stammered and sang. But in learning to do this for myself, I had to meet and come to terms with the existence of a non-standard cast of internal characters or modes who could make this local music, with whom I had till then been unfamiliar. I had to endure understanding that I didn’t know myself and I was panicked at times by what I learned.
The process of writing brings change, both freeing and frightening; it sends me out to practise a riddling conversation with the world that steps towards me each day, each night. Sensations – ‘rogue intensities’, as Kathleen Stewart calls them – bring me into a new relation, through thought and narrative and song, with ‘all the lived, yet unassimilated, impacts of things, all the fragments of experience’ which would otherwise be ‘left hanging,’ in the absence of this habit of attunement, of paying attention through writing.
The blog posts I offer in the coming weeks are part of this conversation – a winter suite in which things continue to unlatch from what I know about them and, looming close, emerge in all their strangeness. I touch, I turn things over, I wonder about them. I answer.
Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. New York: Random House, 1999.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Rainer Maria Rilke. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Picador, 1982.
Kathleen Stewart. Ordinary Affects. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.
A huge thanks to Gretchen Shirm for her excellent, interesting posts.
This month, our blogger is Angela Rockel. Her bio is below.
Angela Rockel is a writer and editor who lives in southern Tasmania. Her poetry, articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in the Age, Australian Women’s Book Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Famous Reporter, 5 Bells, Hobo, Island, Jacket, Meanjin, RealTime, Salt, Siglo, Southerly, Southern Review, and a poetry collection, Fire Changes Everything, was included in the Penguin Australian Poetry Series edited by Judith Rodriguez.
Photo: Ngaire Green
It’s almost here! The new issue of Southerly, 74.1 Forward Thinking: Utopia and Apocalypse is at the printers and will be in our office in a fortnight’s time.
This issue considers how we think about the future in a time that doubts it will occur. It addresses the question of how culture retains its capacity to imagine possible futures in the face of multiple forces that threaten its existence: climate change, global war, the extinction of species. In local terms, Forward Thinking looks at how Australian literature imagines the world beyond present constraints and crises. The issues includes fabulous essays and non-fiction, as well as a wealth of poetry, short fiction, and reviews.
The issue is coming, but the time to plan a party is now. With that, we’d like to invite you to the launch of Southerly 74.1! There will be wine and nibbles, readings and general bonhomie, so please join us on Monday August 18th, at the University of Sydney, for a fabulous literary evening.