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.
by Gretchen Shirm
I do not have a particularly visual imagination. I rarely ‘see’ the things that I write. More often than not, I hear the words. I’m never satisfied with anything I’ve written until it ‘sounds right’. This applies as equally to my critical writing as it does to my creative work. It’s almost like a process of tapping on a wall: for me any falseness will always be heard as I repeat the words to myself, rather than seen on the page. Perhaps this is why I find written descriptions of visual art moving. Sometimes more so than any visual encounter I might have had.
The first time I thought about written representations of art was when I read Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved[i]. In that book, one of the characters, Bill Wechsler, is an artist and his characterisation is provided in large part through his relationship to his art. The novel opens with this arresting description of Wechsler’s Self Portrait:
It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand – a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moved up and down the streets of New York.
This painting is described from the perspective of Leo Hertzberg, an art historian, who acquires the painting and begins a life long friendship with the artist.
When I read What I Loved, I became fascinated with the idea of what happens when we ‘read’ art. Whether it is a reduced experience because we do not see the artwork itself, or whether it is paradoxically a more intimate encounter, because our focus is drawn in to aspects of the work we might have otherwise overlooked.
This painting (and others described in What I Loved) does not exist outside the novel. The ‘art’ itself resides in the writing, rather than in the painting. We are not ‘shown’ the painting, but we are given the description that Hertzberg gives of it. We see only what Hertzberg sees and our view of the painting is locked into his perspective. The description therefore says more about the character (and perhaps some of the novel’s thematic preoccupations) than it does about the artwork itself.
Hustvedt’s subsequent novels also deal with questions of art and this is the overwhelming attraction of her novels for me. The way they contemplate art and attempt to capture the effect it has on us. How it shapes the way we live; her characters are disclosed through the way they interact with art. Her novels remind us that looking at art is a dynamic process. And somehow, the role art plays in her novels makes them richer, more experiential.
In some ways, because of the presence of art in Hustvedt’s novels, I find them truer to life. The moments when her characters contemplate art capture key moments of reflection that occur regularly in every day life but are difficult to record in novels, because of the need for narrative momentum.
Hustvedt is also an accomplished art critic and essayist. She has written two books of essays on visual art, the first a book of essays on paintings The Mysteries of the Rectangle[ii]. In it, Hustvedt offers us this explanation of why she loves painting:
Hours may pass, but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can… A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.
The second is a collection titled Living, Thinking, Looking[iii] and many of these essays document her intimate relationship with visual art, her own interpretations of particular artworks and artists (she has an ongoing fascination with Francisco Goya, for example) and the way art works on us.
Hustvedt writes that art is what happens in the relationship between the viewer and the thing viewed. She writes, ‘Art partakes of the intersubjective because we do not treat it as just a thing, but as an object imbued with the traces of another living consciousness.’
Photography has also played an important part in Hustvedt’s novels. In The Sorrows of an American[iv], for example, the main character Erik Davidson is pursued by a man who takes surreptitious photos of him and a woman with whom he is involved. The act of photographing a person without their knowledge is, Davidson observes, ‘an overtly aggressive act’. In fact, Davidson is terrorised by the man who takes these photographs and it is not difficult to see why: our image, particularly our face, is bound up with our identity and portrait photography is one of the few times we hand the control of our image over to another person.
A similar event occurs in Hustvedt’s first novel The Blindfold[v], in which the protagonist, Iris, is disturbed by a photograph that’s taken of her (by a man) in which her ‘face lacked clarity, in part because the light was obscured, but also because the expression I had was nonsensical, an inward leer or grimace that signified no definite emotion or even sensation.’ Iris feels violated by the image, because she does not think it accurately represents her.
Again, these photographs do not exist, except as they are written by Hustvedt and the offer key moments of stillness within the text, when we see her characters from the outside.
In her most recent novel, The Blazing World[vi], the act of artistic creation is brought into focus. Specifically, the book is about female artists and the fact that people feel generally more comfortable labelling a work as ‘great’ if they can locate ‘a cock and a pair of balls’ behind it.
The novel is about the fictional artist Harriet Burden, a sculptor and new-media artist, whose art went largely overlooked early in her career, but who stages an art hoax, in having three men give their names to her work and of observing the (dismaying) reaction to it.
Hustvedt’s novel is riddled with references to philosophical explanations for art, but at its heart, the novel addresses the idea that female creativity is often very different to its male counterpart. When Burden creates art, it is not a mere intellectual exercise; her art is deep and personal, she pours herself into it. In a way, her art cannot be separated from her. Or as Hustvedt puts it, ‘…she pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns.’ What Hustvedt is suggesting in this novel is that a rethinking of how we assess art is required: how we value art must be extended beyond male conceptions of meaning to include female ones.
Hustvedt’s writing acknowledges the way art affects us. That the moments we interact with art often coincide with key moments of understanding about ourselves and about how we fit into the world. We are rarely as ‘present’ and self-aware at any other moment as when we are observing art.
Her novels capture the profound moments of stillness and contemplation that occur when we look at art; how the process of looking outwards, inevitably leads us back inwards.
[i] Hustvedt S (2007). What I Loved, Hodder and Stoughton
[ii] Hustvedt S (2005). Mysteries of the Rectangle, Princeton Architectural Press
[iii] Hustvedt S (2012). Living, Thinking, Looking, Picador New York
[iv] Hustvedt S (2008). The Sorrows of an America, Sceptre
[v] Hustvedt S (1992). The Blindfold, Sceptre
[vi] Hustvedt S (2014). The Blazing World, Sceptre