Martin Harrison was an esteemed Australian poet, teacher, and, as with many, friend and colleague of the Southerly editorial team. In his memory, we would like to post a recent poem published in Southerly.
Editor David Brooks says:
Martin was a fine poet, a fine critic, a valued colleague, and every bit as much as these a good and empathetic person. Much as I admired him and appreciated his company when I could get it, I never saw enough of him. I will miss him. Australian Literature is the poorer for his loss.
Editor Elizabeth McMahon says:
Australian Literature gained so much from the precision, erudition and generosity of Martin’s writing across both critical and creative modes. His friends, colleagues and students gained more besides. Southerly pays tribute to the man and the writer. He will be sorely missed.
Harrison’s poem About Bats appeared in issue 69.3. We hope you enjoy it.
Vale Martin Harrison.
Photo credit Sydney Morning Herald online September 8 2014
by Joshua Mostafa
During the month of September, I’ll be travelling through Europe as part of my research for a work of fiction set in the prehistoric past. Some of my posts for this blog will document the process.
This endeavour: there are three shelves on my bookcase dedicated to it. In my citation management app, there are several hundred articles on its various aspects. And so many notes, scattered among ring-bound notebooks, online backups, and annotations: digital, or pencilled in margins. I could not begin to count my trips to the library, beginning on the campus of an obscure town in the American Midwest, and continuing in Australia, increasing both in frequency and the weight of each bag of borrowed books; I think I must have unwittingly saved enough rarely-read volumes from the Fisher Library’s infamous ‘dust test’ to fill a reasonably sized ute.
All this study. I’ll have to admit that there is something a little odd about it. Two things, actually. First is the subject: thousands of years in the past. It’s too far removed from our modern experience to be of much interest to anyone. I certainly couldn’t use this information to seem erudite at a dinner party. Except perhaps at a dinner party of etymologists or archaeologists. No, not even there—they would find me out soon enough as an amateur, a dabbler. That’s the second odd thing about it: I’m not even a historian. I’m not even a particularly good student; I don’t have the attention sp
So what have I been doing? It’s a question I ask myself, gazing at those rows of hardback spines on my shelves, with a mixture of contentment—the satisfaction of the hoarder—and guilt, that I haven’t done, yet, what I set out to do, ten years ago. Yes, it’s research. But research for what?
Historical fiction. An awkward name for a strange genre: the contradiction of the two words reveals an inherent tension. History, an attempt to reconstruct the past, to establish authoritative truth from patchy and incomplete evidence, is a stern, empirical discipline that necessarily deals with the unknown, the uncertain and the unreliable: enemies with which it must contend, yet accept as the inevitable conditions of its labour. In a way, the past is also the raw material for fiction, but it’s a different kind of past, the author’s own memory. And its transformation into the finished work is a process not of purification but of bricolage: real-life experiences must be melted down and reforged in new configurations, to create stories of events that did not, by definition, actually occur. There are similarities, sure: common modes of rhetoric (diegesis) and production (synthesis), and a measure of quixotry to each. But their epistemic foundations could not be more different. They have antithetical attitudes to truth. One strives for objective fact, the other for subjective authenticity.
If the two went on a blind date, it would be a disaster. To indulge in a little crude stereotype: History, a prim woman from Oxfordshire, would look askance through her owlish spectacles at Fiction, a louche Dubliner in a velvet jacket, already on his third glass, leaning back in his seat as he regales her with an inexhaustible supply of anecdote, cheerful at first, but descending, through dinner, to a series of tearful and deplorably maudlin reminiscences—none of which, she suspects, contains a word of truth. Fiction, meanwhile, would find her stuffy, tedious and stuck-up; so cautious that she cannot recount an incident, however trivial, without listing exactly how she has heard about it, the reliability of each eyewitness and every slight discrepancy between their accounts, until any she has wrung out any drop of interest there might have been in what actually happened. The only time she shows a spark of passion is when she starts talking about competing theories of how to distinguish truth from falsehood; boring enough, and then she makes it worse by droning on about her ex-boyfriend, Philosophy, of whom she still seems to be in awe, though to Fiction he sounds like a pompous old fool, even more self-obsessed than she is. History is likewise annoyed when Fiction won’t shut up about his ex, Poetry, with whom he is still clearly infatuated, despite complaining of her erratic behaviour and addiction to absinthe; besides, if History were inclined to listen to hearsay, which of course she is not, she would know this Poetry as a woman as a woman of loose morals and a penchant for vulgar exhibitionism.
Yet I fancy—to persist with this conceit a moment longer—for all their mutual dislike, there would be a hint of envy in their attitude to each other. History, though proud of her work’s rigour, wishes that she had just a little of his pizazz; Fiction would love to tell some of the great stories that she is burying under all that pedantry.
The temptation is there, then, on both sides; though it’s not without danger for each. In popular history, the tools of the fiction writer are sometimes used to allow the reader to follow a certain historical figure as if it were a character in a novel, for a while at least. Inevitably, this technique risks the elision of uncertainties and lacunae inherent to the historical record, in a narrative that must—if it is to seize the imagination of the reader—give the impression of an assurance that the available evidence rarely justifies. Step too far in this direction, and the historian will be accused of crossing the line that separates history proper from historical fiction. The other way historians can engage with fiction—to cite literature written contemporaneously with the events they are recounting (I’m thinking of Thomas Piketty’s references to financial matters in Austen and Balzac, to illuminate the economic history told in Capital in the Twenty-First Century)—is much safer, because here the historian acts not as novelist, but as literary critic; of a New Historicist persuasion, perhaps.
Writers of historical fiction also face a highly specific problem. In a way, it is something like a balancing act, to walk the thin line of intersection between the subjective truth of the story and the objective truth of historical evidence. Having done plenty of research, it is tempting to show that off, to festoon every page with detail and historical allusion—and thus to bore the reader to tears. Even the greatest novelists are not immune from this temptation. It is what makes Romola, despite flashes of brilliance and a cast of fascinating characters, the most plodding volume in George Eliot’s oeuvre. The other danger is of sensationalising the history, of straying too far from the facts, or using them as superficial cladding for a storyline and characters that have obivously been transplanted from the modern day. Most of what’s published under the heading of historical fiction fails on one or the other of these counts. I remember trying to read one particularly inept novel that managed to do both: tedious exposition intermingled with clumsy anachronism. I managed about ten pages before it went in the bin.
The sheer volume of bad historical fiction makes finding an accomplished instance of the genre all the more remarkable. The diversity of approach is also striking. While the bad or mediocre ones tend to seem pretty similar to each other, every good piece of historical fiction I’ve read has taken a different approach from every other. To take two obvious examples: there is little in common between the emotional intensity and immediacy of Hilary Mantel’s novels, which inhabit the past with such assurance and adroitness that they seem to naturalise it, and the much more self-conscious and layered approach of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, in which we follow the journey of the historians themselves, via Byatt’s brilliance for convincing literary pastiche. While Mantel makes the history in her fiction invisible, Byatt foregrounds it: we could almost call Possession historiographical, rather than historical, fiction. Yet both are excellent. It seems that, more so than in other kinds of fiction, the genre needs constantly to reinvent itself to avoid falling into cliché.
Writing fiction is always a somewhat mysterious activity, even (or especially) for the writers themselves, and the marshalling of historical research together with the resources of the fiction writer—memory, imagination, intuition, empathy—more so. I have a kind of superstitious dread of probing the process too closely, of dissecting the golden goose. So it is in a practical rather than analytical spirit that I approach the question facing me: how best to make use of a decade’s worth of—admittedly intermittent—research, and begin to pivot from the amassing of information and the weighing of competing theories, to the antithetical activity of composing a fictional narrative.
I’ll go into some detail about the specific challenges involved in my own project in a later post. For now, I’m simultaneously inspired and intimidated by the series of posts by an earlier guest on this blog, Claire Scobie. Intimidated, because she writes about the process of historical fiction from the vantage point of having finished her novel, The Pagoda Tree, set in eighteenth-century India. I’m at the uncertain transition stage between research and beginning to write in earnest, having written no more about my chosen era (excluding research notes) than a couple of short stories: sketches, really, just getting my feet wet.
But the passage that gives me heart is where she recalls a moment of panic, when an academic tells her that the voices of her historical subjects is ‘irretrievable’. Then, she says, ‘it dawned on me, for a historian, these voices may have vanished. For a novelist, it was a question of becoming quiet enough to hear.’ With that in mind, I’m about to set the books and notes aside, allow the buzz of disputatious scholars and their warring theories to subside from my mind, get on a plane, and walk through wilderness on the other side of the world. I hope to hear some echo, to catch some glimpse of the ghosts of past millennia.
A huge thanks to Angela Rockel for her excellent, lyrical posts.
This month our blogger is Joshua Mostafa. His bio is below.
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