The photographs, when they come out, look just like Victorian-era death portraits, only my subjects are still alive. (15)
Noir graphics on the front cover of Captives foreshadow light and shade, life and death. A reader might approach this book of flash fiction with curiosity, wondering if these themed fragments are for everyone. But it is doubtable that one needs to find a penchant for the short form to locate these stories as windows to the real world. Clever harmony, or discord, in the text invites this reader to what author Sandra Horn calls a suggestion of more, a glimpse or hint of a wider story (2015).
Angela Meyer’s compilation, her first book of fiction, is disciplined. There is thought, attention and restraint in its writing. It is this restraint, Meyer’s confidence in the reader—their ability to decipher—that makes this body of micro-fictions compelling. The prose is uncomplicated, taut at its best, poignant. It transverses times, invites the reader to years 1883, 1918, 1934, 1971, to yesterday, then and now.
Captives opens with a pocket-sized epic, ‘The day before the wedding’ (3), where a bride-to-be runs onto the marsh, sees her lover through a hood of dew, halts: his gun is trained on her, not the ducks:
Bang! Another duck pivoted sideways and spun towards the ground. That was her cousin’s doing. Still her love had the gun trained on her, and she stood, and even when he lowered it and his expression revealed play, a joke, she knew she’d seen his true face.
This opener sets the assemblage’s tone. True to the short story, the narratives have the ability to ‘throw the reader straight into a world, and pull them out again just as quickly, leaving them asking questions, and constantly thinking’ (Canlin 2015). Aligned with the title Captives, the collection’s characters are incarcerated in some physical, physiological or psychological condition. The reader encounters Miranda’s flighty mind in ‘Uproar’ (17):
A pregnant woman stared at Miranda’s orange jumpsuit. It was what He had told her to wear today. Miranda imagined the train was a rocket and made the sound of thrusters between her teeth. That way it would get her to the hospital faster.
‘Are you lost?’ asked the pregnant woman.
Miranda wasn’t sure. She said, ‘They don’t call it Bedlam anymore, you know.’
Each titbit—longer ones exist—offers insight into the human nature or condition, obeys a propensity to confound a reader’s expectations, as author Paul March-Russell suggests a short story might (2009, p. viii). A finger of chill touches careless memory in ‘Thirteen tiles’ (28) where reminiscence compounds a man’s entrapment in a windowless room, a rectangular one. Suspense snuggles with idiosyncrasy in ‘Foreign bodies’ (31) where small-shouldered, nondescript Kate asserts authority in a simple yet complex act of swallowing: objects. Slowly she bulks to a grim conclusion in the women’s cells. Then the reader cannot help but share the childless woman’s longing in ‘Empty cradle’ (39):
Mostly the desire was so great I knew I had to hide it from myself, but seeing Isabella’s bloody bairn crying hotly in the morning had wrenched me like a neep out of the ground.
Insight arrives in staccato, like the score of horror movie music, in ‘Rock, paper, severance’ (74), a story that invites the reader to a sense of foreboding of which the hitchhiking runway is yet unaware:
He didn’t normally pick up redheads. But her skin was pearly, almost translucent, like the brucite. He put a rock in her hand … ‘I’m tired,’ she said, and mimed sleeping. I pulled over for her and she won’t even have a chat, he thinks, glancing at a dark blue vein across her chest.
The collection is partitioned into seven thematically linked subsets: On/off, Up/down, In/out, With/without, Here/there, Then/now and Until. Meyers uses a recurring motif of conflict, aloneness, knowing, unknowing. She offers a strong sense of person, of place … Her flash fiction is set around the world; there is, for example, Norwegian ‘The north’ (4) with its ore currency or Scottish ‘Highland pickers’ (35), with its character McCulloch and his dialogue: They’d nae get a hoold of tha’.
Speaking to the subsets, On/off appears to be about tragic knowing, perhaps a dawning or resignation … Ol’ Henry in ‘Brand new’ (10) is a startling find with his ‘permanent present tense’ (Corkin 2013):
He looks out the window, his mind winding back, moving on. But his body is still turned toward me, radiating warmth.
Up/down pays attention to ‘the suicides’, the lost—all people—even the wrecked, like the woman in ‘The old man’s dog’ (18), a mongrel bitch. In/out bears themes of being between worlds; for instance, ‘One of the crew’ (23) portrays corporeal presence yet psychological float, while ‘Amsterdam’ (25) depicts a narrator’s solitude in a world filled with strangers. With/without places emphasis on the fragility of being … Like the narrator and the ‘missing’ little boy in ‘A cage went in search of a bird’ (41):
When the boy rolls over in the night he takes the blanket with him, locking it down with surprisingly strong arms. It’s the only thing that annoys me about him. He’s been in my room for three days … He doesn’t ask for much.
I didn’t take him—kidnap or abduct him, I mean. He followed me.
Here/there is a backdrop to living and dying; presence and absence, a person’s ‘episodes’ … Then/now is mesmeric with in-the-moment stories, reminiscence stories, engagement with the fringes of society. In the heart of normality, the reader is suddenly plunged into the abnormality of a truth (such as infidelity) … The closing section Until is a promise, even if it arrives in the face of apocalypse, or a child in the train window, or the blackness of space, or a blue-white current of death that leaves a skeleton, reaching …
Even as longer pieces like ‘Nineteen’ (81) could be clipped or tightened the writing stays full of light and darkness. It startles. It prompts the reader to reflect, to cross-examine existence. Meyer captures the everyday with conflict and tension, with a subtle interrogation of life and death. Some of her stories are potent but forgettable with stronger distraction. Others like ‘The day before the wedding’ linger, summon your mind to constant thinking as you lie in bed at dusk awaiting the nudge of sleep: ‘they come to visit for a while, take you somewhere you didn’t expect and then put you back where you started before you’d even realised you were gone’ (Ariss 2015). The reader is more than a witness; Captives invites them to enter this space, and be present.
Ariss, Paul 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/paul-ariss/1363.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
Canlin, Alistair 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/alistair-canlin/1246.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
Corkin, Suzanne 2013, Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M, Basic Books
CUT 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com (accessed 6 June 2015)
Horn, Sandra 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/sandra-horn/1387.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
March-Russell, Paul 2009, The Short Story: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press
Permanent present tense 2013, ‘Permanent present tense by Suzanne Corkin’, http://permanentpresenttense.com (accessed 6 June 2015)
Rintoul, Don 2015, http://www.cutalongstory.com/authors/don-rintoul/1355.html (accessed 6 June 2015)
EUGEN BACON studied at Maritime Campus – Greenwich University, UK, less than two minutes’ walk from The Royal Observatory of the Greenwich Meridian. Her arty muse fostered itself within the baroque setting of the Old Royal Naval College, and Eugen found herself a computer graduate mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She is now a PhD candidate in Writing by artefact and exegesis at Swinburne University of Technology. Her short story A puzzle piece was shortlisted in the Lightship Publishing (UK) international short story prize 2013 and is published in Lightship Anthology 3.
I grew up in a quiet and oftentimes dingy suburb in the outer north-west of Melbourne called Gladstone Park. Whenever someone asks me where I grew up or moved away from, I’m surprised if they have heard of it. What strikes me most is that I have no way of characterizing that suburb to outsiders. Tropes, stereotypes and ridicule are expected but nostalgia has softened my memories of the two-hour commutes to the city; the cat-calls and overt racism from passing cars; the lack of anywhere to go. These memories are the ones that I tell people about because they lack specificity but then there are the ones I don’t talk about: finding a thin, brown snake curled up amongst the tanbark of the playground and dreaming of it for months; the huge and beautiful bike track and the hilly meadows; not being allowed to play tennis with myself against a big concrete wall erected for the purpose in the local basketball courts; an aged stranger saying “Hello” as he pushed on the door of the men’s toilets and I pushed on the door of the ladies; hanging out all day at the local shopping centre for no reason and my brother impressing me beyond measure by buying me twenty-cent potato cakes from the Chicken and Chips shop. They are too private, too specific, too strange and unfinished for small talk.
For the most part, it is this intimate realm of the strangeness in the minute details of suburban life which Zoe Norton Lodge’s new short story collection, Almost Sincerely concerns itself with. Norton Lodge’s quasi-autobiographical/quasi-fictional stories are about the real Sydney suburb of Annandale, “that skinny little suburb that fell asleep between the good suburbs” (Norton Lodge 3). These stories are as quirky, erratic and as plotless as suburban life is apt to be.
Her story, “How Come Why For Did You Call my Friend Denise a Bitch” is beautifully relatable for me in its lack of explanation over the real mysteries of childhood: not how sex works or where the light escapes to at night but why an older girl is mad at you and why she thinks you’ve called her friend Denise a bitch and why her grammar is so bad. It’s also one of the stories in the collection that feels like a well-honed and crafted short story rather than a pleasing dinnertime anecdote told by a verbose and very funny friend who is well-known for exaggerating the facts. The story fits perfectly within the limited point of view of Zoe’s twelve-year old protagonist of the same name who dramatizes this story of her mother bullying a pack of girl bullies who are bullying the Zoe of the story. The humour of this story is not just concentrated within Norton Lodge’s sharp zingers:
Mamma was one strict lady when I was growing up. Playtime at the park directly next to our house was limited to short spurts in high daylight….That’s how I grew up to be in a rare subset of ethnically Mediterranean people with the pallor of jellyfish (41).
The humour is plotted and planned throughout the two major arcs of the story: Zoe and her friends’ wonderment over which of their fathers drinks the most and the accosting of the girl bullies. Neatly, both threads are tied up when, to protect their safety, all of their fathers are ordered by their mothers to supervise their children at the park:
“Mamma made Dad go have his after-work half-bottles of Chardonnay in the park with Sally and Swayne’s dad every day after that. This was pretty good because our Dads were not as good at knowing what we were and weren’t supposed to be doing. Also it made it much easier for us to decide who was the most drunkest every day.” (48).
However, this sense of a nifty conclusion and a steady build-up to the end of this story is absent from some of the other stories in Norton Lodge’s collection. “Petrol” was, for me, as meaningless and meandering a story as a car ride without a destination. A story detailing the fact that Zoe’s mother drives her from place to place and once sprayed petrol all over herself by accident was simply not enough to hold my attention. It seemed to me one of the stories in her collection that sunk into the realm of dinnertime anecdote rather than well-written and truly entertaining piece of fiction. Like “Hats” and some of the other stories in the collection, “Petrol” gave me the distinct impression of a story that would be funny if the writer was reading them aloud to you but becomes rather bland when read alone at your desk. This is of course, a symptom of many of these stories having been lifted from Norton Lodge’s live event, Story Club, in which she and others tell stories with an oftentimes confessional and humours bent to a live audience. A story like “Hats” about the minutia and everyday absurdity of our lives is exciting when told to friends. However laid flat and bare on the page, the story is nothing special without the intimacy of that storytelling experience to engage us. A reader is, perhaps, more sensitive to when a story lacks tension, momentum or real feeling in the words than a listener who can look the storyteller in the eye and hear all of those things in the trembling of their voice.
In the absence of plotting, Norton Lodge should be commended for her engaging and enigmatic characters and blown-up humour in stories such as “Madame Guillotine and the Imitation Samoan”, “The Birds”. “The Devil Wears a Denim Winter One-Piece”, “The Red Light” and “The Old Curiousity Shops.” These stories are flat-out funny and so strange and charismatic that they are utterly believable. “The Birds” made me realize I’ve been telling the story of the place where I grew us all wrong. Norton Lodge knows better than to simply re-write the classist tropes and familiar jokes that have been used to characterize these strange suburbs. Instead she opts for the unfinished and the odd which, as they always seem to in fiction, draw us closer rather than push us away as readers. In the same vein, we realize how many off-smelling untold stories we have inside of ourselves when we read “The Devil Wears a Denim Winter One-Piece.” This hyperbolic tale contains a very funny and memorable villain, LaReine. “The Old Curiousity Shops” is a personal favourite of mine because it articulated perfectly the sadness of the obscure and unpatronised small business on a literal level; while on a metaphorical level, shows that human beings can be totally lacking in self-awareness to great comic effect.
Zoe Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely made me think twice about the way I tell stories and the way I listen to them. Norton Lodge probed at the different facets of Annandale the way a scientist probes at microbes in a petri dish. She felt an anthropological curiousity about somewhere that was close to her heart and in doing so, she made me re-consider the ubiquitous for myself. Her humour is not to be taken for granted, it is the result of the kind of extreme close up lens with which she sees and sweats the small stuff in her writing. Almost Sincerely is not without its flaws as a work of fiction but as a book about celebrating and teasing ourselves for our flaws, perhaps Norton Lodge’s is the most fitting way for these stories to be told.
JESSICA YU is the recipient of the Young Writers Innovation Prize 2014 and founding editor of interactive narrativity website, Betanarratives. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in The Best Australian Poems 2014, Cordite, Mascara,The LiftedBrow, Kill Your Darlings,The Saturday Paper and Award Winning Australian Writing. She is a 2015 recipient of a Grace Marion Glenfern Fellowship as well as a Hot Desker at The Wheeler Centre.
Peter Boyle lives in Sydney. He has published six collections of poetry, most recently Towns in the Great Desert (2013) and Apocrypha (2009) which won the Queensland Premiers Award in 2010. A new book of heteronymous poetry Ghostspeaking is due out next year with Vagabond Press. As a translator of French and Spanish poetry he has had four books published, including Anima (2011) and Tokonoma (2014) both by the Cuban poet José Kozer. He is currently completing a Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney.
My attempts to find Maria Zafarelli Strega
During my partner’s absence in Bhutan I went by myself to Buenos Aires in late May 2014 to find out what I could about Maria Zafarelli Strega. I had read the few poems by her included in the 2011 Antologia de Poesía Rioplatense published by Alianza Editores and wanted to find out more. It seemed she was still alive but where? A friend in the film and theatre business in Buenos Aires had suggested an address but no one there had heard of her. Asking at nightclubs and bars in the Palermo district (a suggestion sparked by correspondence with one of the staff at Alianza) eventually brought a result.
After three nights of useless searching, I met a middle-aged woman who gave her name as Carlotta and immediately sparked up at the mention of Maria Zafarelli Strega’s name. “Of course I knew Maria”, she said. “Buy me another drink and I’ll tell you about her.” The chill from an open side door drifted across us. Up on the stage a rather shrill singer had just finished a round. A noisy group of Spanish tourists had moved on to another nightclub. We settled down at a table in the rear of the bar and she began, “Maria was tough – her life was tough. When she was young she was wealthy, I mean they were all wealthy, her family, but cursed because of that father of hers, a monster if there was ever one. Dead now and anyone might have done it though I’ve got my theories. The only really happy time in her life was the summer holidays with her grandparents in Uruguay – at Punta del Este. She’d talk about the huge drop from her grandparents’ house to the ocean and the din of cicadas. And then, when she was twelve, her grandparents both died. I don’t think she ever got over that shock. She told me too about when she was fourteen and another girl in her class sat on a window ledge to feel the top of her head, found all these bumps and told her she was destined to be a great genius. She never spoke about her father and the terror she and her mother knew because of him – I think she was too frightened ever to talk of that. But, as I said, he’s gone now, found in a lane near Teatro Colon with three knives in him. She disappeared just after that.” She said this last phrase slowly, with a knowing look I thought, but maybe I’m reading too much into it. “Maria told me she was twenty two,” Carlotta went on, “when she finally got free of her father. She’d left secretly for Uruguay, finally ready to become someone else – the only way she could ever be herself. It was tough, her three years in Montevideo. Moving from place to place, half-starved sometimes, looking for cheap places to eat or sleep or escape from it all with alcohol or pills, mostly in Aguada and Villa Muñoz, never that far from the Estación General Artigas – that was when she met Aurélie, the great love of her life. But if you know about Maria you know about Aurélie. I don’t want to talk about Aurélie – if you know how it ended it’s too painful to talk about, and maybe I’m jealous – maybe I hoped somewhere I would be loved like that. But I was never Maria’s type. We got to know each other around the time she and Aurélie broke up, after she’d tried to kill herself with barbiturates. But I don’t want to talk about that.” And at that Carlotta looked worried, confused, downed her drink, swept everything into her handbag, and prepared to leave. “I forgot. I should be somewhere else. Come back tomorrow night and I’ll meet you here. I don’t want to talk any more but you can see the scraps of writing she left me. It’s all I have of hers . . . she never liked photos.” And with that she rose to her feet and, slightly the worse for her several drinks, vanished into the chill late autumn night.
The next day I went back to the bar and waited and waited. At one in the morning there was still no sign of her so I left. I returned the next night and waited. When she hadn’t turned up by twelve thirty I started to leave. We almost collided in the door as Carlotta walked in, making no apologies as if the missed night had not existed. Once we were seated at the same table in the rear of the bar she produced from her handbag a battered dog-eared copy of a French edition of Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval. And, as I opened the front cover, there on the title page was the word “Aurélia” surrounded by hand-drawn stars and a strange shape that on closer inspection was a bolt of lightning severing a pigeon into two parts. Flipping through the book I saw pasted onto various pages small cards covered in what I took to be Maria’s handwriting, at times in a peculiarly disjointed Spanish. Were these really the writings of Maria Zafarelli Strega, the poet born in September 1961 whose whereabouts had been unknown since 1995? Her name was written on the front cover, in a neat miniature script that certainly looked like the one letter of hers I had been shown from the archives at Alianza Editores or, to my mind, like the scrawl on a handful of similar cards later brought out by the owner of a bookshop on Florida, another enthusiast of her poetry whom I met through introductions from my film and theatre friend, Fernando. (When I spoke to the woman at the bookshop a few days later, shortly before flying back to Australia, she gave the impression she was tired of the mysterious disappearance and the endless speculations. She seemed fairly certain that if Maria had disappeared it was because Maria had wanted to disappear. After all, she said, the years of the dictatorship were long gone and there seemed little reason to suspect foul play, and yet?)
Carlotta spoke very little that second night, content to give me time to read the notes and, with her permission, I copied down several of the cards. There were many I barely glanced at, cards with only phone numbers, names of people, individual disjointed words or phrases scrawled in ways I could not decipher. They seemed to point towards a privacy I already felt should be left as privacy. It was Maria’s writings as a poet I was interested in. I already felt I had come as close as I ever would to the real Maria. Her thin volume of poems I have never been able to track down – only 100 copies were produced in 1988 and there have been no re-issues. It is only her poems in the Anthology I have ever been able to find. The fragments I found on the cards I will reproduce (in translation) here. I was struck by the strangeness with which she wrote about herself, almost always, in the third person, not unlike the poem in the Alianza Anthology titled “From the notebooks of Maria Zafarelli Strega”
Only later on the plane back to Sydney did I recall a certain phrase used by Ana, the woman in the bookshop, “Sometimes when people disappear they stay exactly where they are.” It occurred to me that if Maria had changed her name once she could do so again and for a few moments I wondered, but it seemed too crazy a thought, could Carlotta be Maria?
The Card Collection
MZF’s vertiginous reinvention of herself began at age 22 on a sidewalk near the Cementerio del Norte in Montevideo, a cold morning in mid-winter. She no longer had a name – that baggage of evil had fallen into the sea on the ferry from Buenos Aires – and for three days she had wandered the city without a name. That morning she saw it appear all by itself on a shop window frosted over by 6 am chill: Maria Zafarelli Strega. Her name.
She heard only the sounds no one hears.
Poor Maria. If she could just climb out of herself and step down into the other world. Then she could love.
She always dreamed of living in Paris but every time she saved up money to go there someone would break into her flat or strangers would steal it. Even when she had no flat, even when she had no money. She was destined to survive here only or not at all.
It will not be easy to be born under the earth. I have heard plants tell me that.
An ordinary evening in the park near Paseo de Florida. She was invited by two mice to accompany them and she tracked her way across the park into a deserted building, the two mice constantly looking back to make sure she was following. Once she entered the building, they wanted her to go down into their underground burrow and she had to explain patiently that this was not possible. And from the window, just above her, the leaden weight of the sky kept trying to force her to surrender.
For a whole month during the bitterest winter of my memories, in a hovel near the docks I would unfold my map of Paris. The two working girls who let me stay there marveled at the joy I took in my map. I would say out loud, I will write this novel on this street, on this street I will write a poem, at a bar near this corner I will begin my most famous book. And I would imagine making my way through the curves and steep tunnels of lanes leading to Père Lachaise or heading across the Marais. The two girls watched with incredulity as I played with the map. I was at some time the lover of both girls but we did not make love anymore. Our bodies had become too strange, too much a tangled skein of catastrophes. I remember once kissing the long scar that trailed down one girl’s belly. I remember a very drunken dawn when one of them tried to kiss the knot of pain that kept exploding deep under my skull. When they made it back to the room at dawn after all the clients of the afternoon and the night, after working the streets and sometimes being kicked and beaten, they came back to sleep.
Years later I had a much older woman who was my lover. When she left me she said, “I have made this for you. Lay this small sack of herbs over your eyes and you’ll find sleep. Someday you’ll see. When you can’t give love anymore, at least you can give sleep.”
I was destined to survive here only, to invent my name, to discover almost nothing – but that slender thread would be everything.
Self-sabotaging faces in a frosted mirror at dawn.
We were breathless like the wire of the sky.
When the cat came to play with me and I had to explain that I would be dying soon it understood everything straightaway. Everything I could never explain to people was clear straight away. And because words were almost unnecessary, new playful words migrated into my head or suddenly were just there, secreted by some twist in a vein or fold of tissue, puffed up there and then like balloons in the vexing inner chamber of my head. The words were not audible. I simply saw them, like the words of my new name that just wrote themselves out before me one morning. They made me remember things that came from another world.
She was being driven out along the magical bridge of the seven rivers. River after river flowed slowly by under the narrow bench of her carriage while, in front, the driver sat idly flicking a knot of string into the air above the horse that shifted a little forward every few moments. An immense dawn sky stretched in layers of gold and pink interrupted by white wisps of cloud but there were no birds. She wondered why in all the teeming flow of waters there were no birds, and why the silence of the world was so total. “India” she thought to herself, and here she was, being driven towards this secret India devoid of people, this plain of silent rivers and limitless dawn. Each river she crossed was less than a river – it was as if every river had been shredded into thin ribbons of water in an inexhaustible plain. Is this the Ganges or the pampas, she wondered. “Nous voyageons vers l’Orient mais nous sommes en ‘Oriente’”, she said to herself in French, using the old Argentine name for Uruguay, and then, counting each separate stream she was passing, she thought “when the sequence of finite numbers has run out I will wake up at my grandmother’s house in Punta del Este”.
Waiting out the grey wind. Sometimes I wake and I think: it is somewhere. In a small box slipped under the floorboards of the stairs, my blue wish, my breath. What came out of my eyes one night, what hid away.
At a certain time I had to say, No, I will not go any further down the dark road. I will stop just here, under this tree, and write for two days, then I will die. And the two days grew and grew and started to look, almost, like a lifetime.
Along the flat endless road where I walk sheltered from the brisk wind by fragrant burning piles of cow-dung, I stop beside a small one-room house where I catch sight of a tiny mirror dangling from the ceiling. Stepping through the doorway I am suddenly in a corridor of whirling mirrors each turning at different angles at different speeds as if in answer to a multitude of undetectable breezes, a myriad of off-centered climates or micro-whirlwinds that arise only in private deserts. Fearfully I step among them and my face slips into one mirror while my hands, my legs are elsewhere. I am enjoying my fractured loneliness when a woman steps from behind a curtain. She is wearing purple gauze and a conical blue hat that is topped with the sign of the moon. “It is all frightfully simple,” she says. “You just choose.” And her smile slides back and forth between a wide gentleness and a knowing carnivorous intensity. Between the small circling diamonds of glass I freeze and I wonder, Am I she?
Who is it who comes to me, who is almost known, almost visible, almost might leave a glance inside me, a thumb print on a wall, a name, even just a single word, now in extremis as a curtain falls back into place when the breeze stops, something or someone whose gliding past brushes me, glare of the one day so awful, yet needing to be stayed with, this absolute face I yearn for, the longest arc of days, washing of the sea through the window of death, wave on grey wave tilting towards the end of vision, almost slightly, who?
Yesterday all day rats circling round me – first in the rat eyes of the old woman nibbling at the fingers and toes of the children caught in the sugar house, then in the two small sandals worn by the woman eaten by rats. When all that is left is terror and hunger. When we are both the rat with its numbed eyes and the victim unable to escape, a wilted starved body nailed to a bed of collapse. In the distance the rising falling notes of the legendary piper who would lead away our nightmare. A music in the world’s far corner that holds the key to our unsuspected otherness. The part of us already elsewhere.
Annette Ong studied Creative writing at the University of Western Australia. She is a published writer of fiction, articles and reviews.
A crow surveys the scene; cocks its head to the side and eyes its kindred circling above. With hunger unabated, their squawking increases as the single crow stands sentinel over its lifeless prey, shielding its form. Claiming ownership, it claws at the lifeless body of a rat; its tail the length of its body. Nudging the rat inches down the footpath, it is hopelessly exposed to the scavengers overhead. Instinctually, it snaps the rat’s already loose neck in its beak and lifts. Airborne for a short distance, it struggles to get proper lift-off. The dead weight weighs it down. The crow tries a second time; desperate to escape, it clutches the rat’s neck tightly in its beak, the still-warm body hanging, a sack of blood, flesh and bone. The crow expands its brilliant wings to full length and this time, manages ascension. Higher, higher, slowly, it flies. Landing softly on the branches of a tall pine tree, hidden by green, it lays the rat’s body down. Its beak has punctured the rat’s neck; a hole the size of a ten cent piece, gapes red and inviting. Sliding its sharp beak into the hollow, it pulls back on tender meat and sinew. Holding the body down with its claw, its beak meets bone. The crow feasts. It takes its fill until the rat’s body is turned inside out. Stepping back, it inspects the carcass. With a belly full, it carefully preens its wings, while the call of its kindred rises from the below the branches.
High above the city streets, shadows lose strength as the sun begins to rise. The crow perched comfortably, listens, as machines churn to life, traffic begins to spill into the streets and the rats… the rats, are awaking.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, the clock flashes and the alarm screeches alive. He springs upright in bed, remembering a news report he’d read in the past, stating the dangers of being jolted awake. Something to do with letting your body wake naturally; a shock to the system is never a good idea they’d said. Listen to your inherent body clock, they’d said. If he did that, he’d never get out of bed. No, maybe a shock to the system was a good idea.
World weary and its only six a.m. Shuffling to the bathroom, he washes his face, brushes his teeth, shaves a little and tugs a comb through what is left of his hair. Inspecting his balding head in the mirror, he is reminded of Moses parting the Red Sea. His remaining hair stands on both sides of an ever-expanding patch of sunburnt scalp. He rubs sunscreen in and hopes it works.
He dresses mechanically; sniffs at yesterday’s shirt and puts it on. He grabs his battered briefcase and shuts the door behind him. On the way down, he meets others. They nod to each other in recognition as they descend the apartment stairs. They don’t know each other’s names but they know each other’s lives. Together they are channeled out into the street, under the growing sunshine, and into the maze.
Entering the fray, he walks with little purpose; defeated by the day already. Bodies on both sides of him, scamper from one side of the footpath to the next. Some whistle down taxis, others natter pointlessly on phones, while some stare down from the grubby windows of passing buses.
Arriving at his desk, he sits down and can’t remember how he even made it there. He can’t recall getting up this morning, let alone entering the office building. Everything is a haze of foggy memories, with no sharp edges, nothing to grasp and hold on to. He suspects it’s like this for most; as he sees the young girl from Accounts sit resignedly in her chair, her eyes blank and lightless, as her computer screen flickers to life.
The cubicles begin to fill. Together, they live and die by the clock. Glazed eyes survey the big hand, willing it to chase the little one faster, faster, faster. The hours pass but he can’t remember what he’s done all day. He has no memory of lunch; however, a half-eaten egg sandwich sits on his desk suggesting he must have got up at some point to buy it from the staff canteen.
When five p.m. comes around, he stands. They all stand. Together, they emerge from tunnels of different hallways to wait for the lift. Those with little patience take the stairs. He takes the stairs. Exiting the building, he heads home. Bodies merge as one, as neighboring buildings expel workers for the day. He stops off at his local supermarket to pick up dinner.
The automatic doors slide open to welcome him. Walking to the Deli counter at the back, he can’t recall how he arrived there. He takes a ticket from the machine: Now Serving 65, it flashes. He fingers his ticket stub; he’s number 75. He waits with the others as they survey the meats on display under glass countertops. A teenage boy wearing a hair net weighs five hundred grams of salami for a woman with a screaming toddler attached to her left leg.
There is a special on roast chickens: five dollars a bird. There’s only one left and it looks like it’s been there all day. The unforgiving glare of fluorescent lighting makes it look even sadder as it spins languidly on the rotisserie. Under hot orange lights, the oil drips from its headless body, resulting in a stagnant river of fat, reflecting its grossness in all its glory. He welcomes the rush of saliva in his mouth, as he desperately eyes the carcass.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, growing secretly desperate as the numbers flick by and the chicken remains spinning. 71, 72, 73…the seconds feel like minutes and the minutes like hours. New customers join the queue and eye the bird with the same focused intent. He inwardly screams “It’s mine!” as he begins salivating at the thought of tearing into the white meat. They circle the counter, fidgeting with anticipation.
“75!” yells the teenage boy.
He approaches the counter, gives the boy his ticket and grandly asks for the chicken. With the bird safely wrapped in its heat insulated bag and tucked under his arm, he spins on his heel and the scavengers’ part, cowering to the sides as he marches down the aisle.
Slamming the door to his flat behind him, he can’t remember making the journey home. Standing in his kitchen, flinging his briefcase to the floor, he opens the sliding doors to his tiny balcony. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he sits and places the still-warm chicken on a chair in front of him. Ripping open the bag, he tears a drumstick from the lifeless body. Biting down on the flesh sends him into raptures; he feels a gnawing hunger being satiated, albeit temporarily. He pulls off another drumstick and chews down hard. Chicken grease coats his stubby fingers as he splits the body in half; a hollow cavern within. Sucking the bones dry, he flicks them to the street below. There is nothing left but soggy skin.
Belly full, he leans back and closes his eyes. Shadows begin to form shapes on walls and in corners, as the sun loosens its grip on the day. A stale wind wafts from the street below and above him in darkening skies, a murder of crows circle.
Le Serment des Horaces, a large neoclassical oil painting by the French artist Jacques-Louis David painted in 1784, depicts three Roman brothers saluting their father. The father holds their swords out for them so they can then go on to patriotically kill the three brothers Curiatii. 1784 is historical for us, but in 1784 the classical period was their epitome of History. This then is a typical ‘history painting’.
Angela Gardner begins her latest collection of poetry The Told World with a poem that bears this title. ‘History Painting’ is a work that reminded me of David for its lines ‘in the grand scale/what price heroic death, in brushmarks’. Where it differs is in the scene as a whole. Gardner is careful, cagey even, about what her history painting depicts, for it is ambiguous. There is ‘wind in long grass’, ‘children legging it away’, ‘a throat of gold’, but it ends with the lines ‘no more than the usual neurons’ trick/of light’. This conclusion is telling for it indicates to us what the major trope, organizing concept and device are in the book as a whole.
If The Told World is ‘about’ anything it is about light – as deception, as beauty, as thing. There are poems titled ‘Half-Light’, ‘Brightness’, ‘Night’ and ‘Beyond the Footlights’ and that is only in the final section ‘Solo estoy mirando’ alone. There is ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Animal Light’ besides. The eye, sight, looking, optics is there too in various phrases throughout. For example, ‘the one who looks at the mountain’ (‘Landscape with Birdsong’); ‘the tool’s crude optic’ (‘Barely Noticeable I’); ‘pathway beyond the eye’ (‘Pastoral’); ‘double mirrors’ (‘In Double Mirrors’).
Consider ‘Half-Light’ in which Gardner writes:
I’ll start you painting flat. Objects next:
modeling three dimensions until light-gleam
appears on something. Garment folds, soft
dark of velvet, a feather in an angel’s wing.
Distance then to frame – landscape
a mirror – so real birds dash against it.
Face and hands last, unless you count
everything pulled from background by light
and darkness a stillness as it develops.
At one level this is a directive – how the ‘I’ will start the ‘you’ painting. It is a list of ascending difficulty – objects, garments, feather, landscape to realistic quality, then face and hands. There is the return of ‘i’ as an organizing vowel – light-gleam/something/angel’s wing/everything /light/stillness – that gives a pleasing cadence and sense of circularity too. As a set of instructions it may be useful, but as a pensive thought to be left with we have a comment on ‘half-light’, on what is suggested by the title.
‘Half-Light’ is one of Gardner’s more linear pieces. There are of course concerns other than light and object – sky, body, bird, suburb, landscape, Star Trek, birds, language, pollen, metamorphosis, Gallipoli, GPS, hens, clouds, and birds once again. Indeed, birds as part of the pastoral and anti-pastoral are central. Occasionally one must work hard to ‘uncover’ the meaning of the poem, which may or may not be the point. Difficulty of course has an important place and to slow down and apprehend The Told World is what adds to its painterly quality. Surely we can luxuriate in the medium rather than try to read the message? As she writes, perhaps paradoxically, ‘nothing is settled’ (16).
The Told World exhibits a sort of deformed realism, somewhere between the style of Le Serment de Horaces but not quite like the abstract modernism of say Mark Rothko, or Gardner’s own paintings or even Paul Celan. In other words it occupies a middle ground that discusses the real world but in a language that can be elliptical and understandable rather than transparent or hermetic. It is this disjuncture that I found most interesting and productive for it attests to an ongoing exploration of ideas through different media rather than simply an application of frame in both word and paint. Gardner then knows how to make her materials respond. This is not a simple ekphrastic relationship.
There is only one poem that explicitly references painting, and that is ‘ilium’, which is ‘after Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli series’. Ostensibly ‘about’ the beach landing, the poems chronicle the relationship of a man and his horse, with the sea and war playing a pivotal role. The poem is balletic in parts (‘bodies ripped in streaming light’/…/…/in limp animal-hipped shallows’), which resonates with Nolan’s bursting shells. Yet there is a stripped back, almost spare quality too, again capturing the spaciousness of Nolan’s series. Read now Gardner’s work seems less like an attempt to build nation, to show bravado and a certain type of emerging masculinity that Nolan’s can be read as, and more as a comment on what war does to people and animals. Her re-working is subtle, effective, resonant and apt for our time.
Painting has always had a different relationship to photography. This has as much to do with the medium as the historical and contemporary language of its exchange. Gardner has a painterly eye and turn of phrase – warmer, longer, slower than realism, more ‘Poetic’ than a photo. We linger in her descriptiveness even as we are not overcome with lyricism or nostalgia. For those who want to know what the seen world is like, The Told World is the place to start for it gives us a view of life out there and in our mind’s eye with resplendence, charm and chiaroscurotic ability.
ROBERT WOOD holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. His work appears in Southerly, Plumwood Mountain, Counterpunch and academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research.
Luke Johnson’s work has appeared in numerous journals and been shortlisted for such awards as the 2014 Josephine Ulrick Prize. His novella Ringbark was published by Going Down Swinging in 2015 as part of the Longbox series. He lectures in Creative Writing at UTS and UoW.
Toasting an Honorary Jet and Okay Son-of-a-Bitch
What a circus. Old people wearing red-rimmed wayfarer sunglasses and riding scooters, bums getting around in toupees made from real human hair, ugly teenagers dressed in t-shirts that say, so fucking ugly! so fucking what! I stopped in Newtown once before, to look at a sofa bed for sale. The man selling the sofa bed said to me, I can tell you it’s the most comfortable sofa bed I’ve ever screwed on; that’s a fact. It was his guarantee to me against discomfort, I guess. He was wearing a vest and I thought comfort was clearly not his big thing. I looked at him in his vest and asked him, Have you ever let somebody fact check you with that vest on? I tried pronouncing the word the way he had pronounced it, fact, with my nostrils forming a diaeresis over my vowel of a mouth. He flattened out his chin and said, Go back to the north side, arsehole. I said, Don’t be so sore. He went inside his apartment and left the sofa bed on the street out front with only his dog to look after it. I have a suspicion the mutt might have been named William Carlos Williams after the poet William Carlos Williams. At least, it had the initials WCW engraved on the pendant attached to its collar and when I petted it and asked it to tell me something interesting it barked in an offbeat, syncopated sort of way.
That was a year and a half ago. Today it’s, ‘Sir, we are trying to raise money for racism.’ Yes, reluctantly, but sure enough, I’m in Newtown again. Not looking for furniture but to help honour my father with a bronze cast in the foyer of the theatre where they staged his first ever play. Of five children, I’m the only one to have followed in his decrepit, artistic footsteps. My participation is expected. Something in the order of, ‘Yes, he was a tyrant to live with—but didn’t he know how to pull at the heartstrings.’ Maybe even an elaboration on how my own writing is going after that. Provided there’s some genuine interest, of course. Often hard to tell. But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, before any of this conjecture can take place, the man walking in front of me needs to drop a dollar into the girl’s bucket for racism, so that I can slip past without being harassed and the world can become the stupider, albeit slightly more tolerant, place she dreams of. ‘Against racism,’ he corrects her, impatiently putting his hand into his pocket. He’s black, she’s white—he should know, I guess. I’m tempted to ask him if he’s sure. She nods her head enthusiastically and in it goes. And on I go.
Past the red and white barber shop where dad used to get his beard trimmed and neck shaved. Of course, it’s a café now. The kind that expects its patrons to bring their own chairs. Not completely true: there’s a pile of dirty red and white cushions on the footpath out front. Then again, I suppose people who drink their coffees at places like this—places that have their web address built into their clever, lower-case titles, t h e j i t t e r y b a r b e r . c o m—probably don’t have any major prejudices against parking their skinny-jeaned derrieres directly on the asphalt anyway. They can watch to make sure their pushbikes aren’t being stolen while writing in their journals (they write with pencils in this suburb) or working on their MacBook Pros (and process with three-thousand-dollar Macs). What’s the wireless range like? I wonder as I pass. Not really; I know it’s excellent—I can see the simultaneous looks of contentment and annoyance. Actually, what I really can’t help wonder is what happened to the old barber who used to have signed photos of the ’51 and ’53 premiership winning teams on the wall of his shop and who drank cider and listened to the races while he was working and who’d dash out of the shop mid-shave to place a bet at the last minute. He used to think of my dad as an okay son-of-a-bitch too. At least, he never cut open his throat and let him bleed out over the floor after one of his horses got picked at the post. I’d call that an endorsement.
That was then. When even the gutters smelt like they’d run with Brut. Even Brut couldn’t save this suburb now. What it needs now is one big long moving walkway. The kind with glass panels down either side. High glass panels. You could stroll from Darlington to Enmore without being licked by some bohemian’s gypsy dog that way. On this occasion the mutt in question—not at all like the dignified beat-mutt I met the last time I was here—and its owner are standing at the stairwell entrance to one of the street’s many sex shops, two doors down from t h e j i t t e r y b a r b e r . c o m (or is it just the jittery barber, dotcom implied, like PtyLtd?), trying to argue their way in. For a moment I’m not sure which one of them has been refused the entry. ‘Come on, if she was a seeing-eye-dog you’d let her in,’ the mutt’s owner is defending his right to bring his non-seeing-eye-dog shopping for pornography with him. ‘Blind people don’t buy pornography,’ the shop keeper is arguing back, ‘they jerk off by sound, like whales.’ There’s your answer, I tell myself, feeling sorry that the dog should be discriminated against on account of its able-bodied mammalian jerker owner. I consider offering to stand there and hold the leash so the owner can dash upstairs and buy some new DVDs—or magazines, if it’s the sound of pages crinkling that tingles his blowhole. But I don’t want to be late to the theatre do, so I just pant my tongue at the poor mutt and press on.
Jesus, the theatre do. I can see it already. A soiree of handsome actors and actresses milling about with scarves wrapped loosely around their uncollared necks, volunteer drama-academy students playing the roles of waiters and waitresses (black-tie costumes borrowed from the department wardrobe), celebrated choreographers appalled with the pitiful range of vegan alternatives, and one or two professional bar staff—the poor RSA-trained sons-of-bitches—acknowledging shom-payne orders with the tiredest of nods. If there is time to elaborate (returning to an earlier thought, circa paragraph two), then I’ll state now that I intend to bite down on my lip, look them in the collective eye and respond, ‘Difficultly.’ Let them lower their heads then and understand how tough things must be for me—the talented bastard’s untalented son. ‘But we find a way to go on,’ I hear myself filling the awkward after-silence, signalling the end of my dismal blessing. ‘Hard as it is. We find a way, right?’
And between you and me, I must say, it gets harder every day too. The writing, that is. The letting go part was decisively easy. My father let go of us long before we ever had the chance to let go of him. He was an expert in letting go. First he let go of us and then he let go of himself. When it came time to grab hold of something again, the patch of chest covering his heart was about all he could manage. Even the number 0 at the bottom of the phone’s keypad was beyond his reach by that late stage.
A word on my dad, as I pass by a schoolkid with his socks pulled right up to his knees in a way that was squarely unpopular in my heyday: he hated the theatre. My dad was meant to be a famous rugby league player, not a divorced playwright. He trained with the Newtown Jets’ reserve-grade side in 1982. That was the year the first-grade team played their home games in Campbelltown in preparation for the merger. Dad probably would have been a second-rower for the rest of his life if the alliance hadn’t failed and the Jets hadn’t been booted out of the competition. As it was, dad fell in with the theatre crowd and never played rugby league again. This isn’t as dumb as it sounds. Well, it is, but we’re talking about a period when the players still held regular jobs during the week and worked out in public gyms at night and on Saturdays and held diplomatic immunity against DUI charges. My dad worked out at the Newtown gym every night and was the second strongest bench presser in the suburb. (By the time us kids came along he could lower the thing right down onto his sternum plate and shoot it back up with such force it felt like a special gravity ride you paid to go on.) Only one person in the gym could out-lift dad in those early days, and he was tied in with the theatre as a stagehand. That’s where dad started. With Roger. In the day Roger worked as a cop, at night he shifted props. He was a prop cop. Shifting props with the cop: that’s where dad met mum. And then some. (Like I told you, difficultly.)
Meeting mum was one of the stories dad didn’t wait till I was old enough to tell me. ‘Your mum, she was trying to be an actress,’ he liked to start, thinking I’d enjoy the bawdy rhythm he used to inflect it with right from the opening. ‘But the thing is,’ he’d whisper, ‘she was terrible. No matter what it was, they only used to give her background roles—usually playing the part of some piece of scenery, a tree or a rock or a farm animal or something. Then one day I see her waiting backstage, getting ready to go on and I say, “Hey, you’re too good to be playing a tree again. I’m going to write you a lead part. How’d you like that?” “You’re a stagehand,” she says. “Hey, I’m a stagehand like you’re a tree,” I tell her back. “I’ll write you a lead role but you gotta promise you’ll go out with me.” A week later, I finished Willow and when they cast her in the lead role, not only did she go out with me but she gave me a suckjob on the first date. Midway through she stopped and looked up and said, “I can do it like a tree if you want?” I just looked at her without saying anything and she went back to it, waving her arms about and making whooshing sounds as she did.’
Less than half a block from the theatre I come across dad’s old pub. This was where he used to go after each performance. Often he wouldn’t even bother with the show, he’d come here and get drunk instead and threaten to kill himself by driving his car across to the Sydney Football Stadium without stopping at a single set of lights regardless of the colour. This feat was one he famously achieved during his internship with the Jets. It’s what made him a club legend without having ever even sat on the reserve bench for a first-grade game. Another time he reversed his car all the way to the top of an eight-storey parking garage. They were set to inaugurate him for this. Then the collapse.
I decide to stop in for a drink. I tell myself it will help me with those questions which require an answer beyond difficultly, or the condolences which come in the form of tedious stories, beginning, ‘You know, I never told anyone this, but it was a performance of The Brave they put on at our university which convinced me to drop out of my degree in the final year and pursue fulltime acting…’ ‘You don’t say?’ ‘See, arts-law was the dream my parents had for me, not the dream I had for me.’ ‘What about your student loan debt?’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘Never mind. How about swooshing your arms like tree?’
What shall I drink to? I ask myself, taking a seat at the bar. Besides me there’s only two other people in this hotel. One’s a permanent shadow on the wall of the poker machine room, the other’s the bartender. Maybe it’s too early to expect a crowd. On the north side anything before eleven-thirty p.m. is too early. I thought this was the suburb of premature crowds. What about those pagans I crossed coming out of the train station? Camped out with their sleeping bags like dedicated rock fans. Their toupees might have been made from the hair of the prophet Kurt Cobain, the way they shone up at me. The girl trying to raise money for racism could have learned a great deal from the way they went about their business too: head shamefully down, letting the sign do the talking. ‘To dad,’ I say, charging my glass.
After four beers and four toasts I’m just about ready to front the scene awaiting me, when a very unexpected thing happens. Russell Crowe comes into the bar. I know it’s him straight off because tucked into the front of his tracksuit pants, with the flap that contains his licence and Medicare card hanging visibly over the drawstring crotch area, is a South Sydney Rabbitohs wallet. That is, a bright-green Velcro wallet with a big Rabbitohs emblem on its front and red hemming. Before I can say anything the son-of-a-bitch comes right up to where I’m sitting and orders himself a beer. He doesn’t just order himself a beer, he leans over the bar and pours himself one. A stout. At first he drinks from his cupped hand the way we used to drink water from the taps when we were down at the netball courts kicking the soccer ball around. When he’s taken his fill that way he grabs one of the dirty glasses sitting on the sink top—could even be one of my lager glasses—behind the bar and fills it, leaving no room for head. He doesn’t sit down to drink either, but stands with his hairy forearms soaking the spilt beer back out of the soggy bar mats.
‘What’s your story, morning glory?’ he says to me.
‘My dad used to play reserve grade for the Jets,’ I say.
‘Then your dad’s a bloody legend,’ Russell says back.
‘My dad’s dead.’
‘Yeah, cheers to that,’ Russell nods his head, decent son-of-a-bitch that he is.
Aaron Peysack is a Melbourne writer who has lived and worked in Japan. His fiction has appeared in Antipodes journal and will be featured in upcoming editions of Page Seventeen and Filling Station. He is currently working on a collection of short fiction.
It was July, the coldest month of the year, and I had no winter overcoat. I sat in my room for an hour thinking about the cold, trembling with indignation. I’ve always been sensitive: the slightest change in temperature or pressure upsets me. In that tiny room I longed for the tropics, for the heat of Angola or Brazil, some burnt-out island where life is slow and undemanding.
When the hour was up I left my room and headed downstairs. On the second floor I met a tall, lean man with lovely blue eyes.
‘Give me your winter overcoat,’ I said to him. He refused, so I grabbed him. For several minutes we struggled, right there in the stairwell, a silent, deadly struggle that could only end in defeat for someone of his slender build.
But he was one of those people who are stronger than they look and he used his long arms to advantage. It was like wrestling an orang-utan. Halfway through the struggle I knew I was going to lose—I felt like a chess player who has lost his queen—but I wouldn’t concede. Keep fighting, I told myself, at least you’re warm. Eventually he threw me down and fled into one of the apartments. It wasn’t meant to be, I thought, dusting myself off.
Outside, I dragged myself along the street, past law clerks and meat packers and men in half-price suits purchased in pairs … All the wreckage of humanity washed around me … An hour later I was near the sea and the wind was cutting me open. A boy of twelve or thirteen was standing on the sand looking out at the water. A philosopher, I thought, one of those unpleasant children who are old before their time, not quite human. I was one myself so I know what I’m talking about. I walked over and stood beside him.
‘Why are the crests of the waves white?’ he asked dreamily.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, watching them fall, thinking of horses in old movies. ‘Give me your winter overcoat.’
He looked at me curiously then shook his head.
‘It was a gift from my grandmother.’
‘I won’t tell her.’
He smiled and shook his head again.
Children are not as weak as they seem, plus they fight a lot, which makes them dangerous opponents. The boy landed a few punches but was helpless against my knee. As I pulled the coat over his head, he grabbed at it violently, tearing it along the seams.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ I said, ‘you’ve torn your winter overcoat. Now neither of us can have it.’
‘It’s better that way,’ he answered with eyes full of sadness.
I left him there and made my way across the river. It was almost dusk by the time I found the warehouse. The place was filled with coats, hundreds of them, in every size and style. I entered the room where people change and stood in front of the mirror, entranced by my own reflection. He has the face of a tsar, I thought, looking at the man in the glass.
Outside, the sun went down and evening came on, tugging at night’s shoulder. The owner locked up and went home and the sound of the city faded like snow falling on a frozen river. All night I stayed in that winter palace, surrounded by coats, and by morning I felt almost human.
In Heat and Light Ellen Van Neerven tells us stories exploring ancestry and identity and the experiences particularly of Aboriginal women and girls in small Australian towns or dwelling on the metaphorical fringes of Brisbane and the surrounding regions, where its young Yugambeh author is based. As its title (taken from the Tracy Chapman song ‘Smoke and Ashes’) signals, Heat and Light is interested in the elemental, particularly sexual desire and familial bonds, the dangers, hopes, and sense of identity and place sought through these relationships, and the harsh natural environment on Country. Heat and Light is a book in three parts written in a simple, spare colloquial prose and has a tripartite formal and temporal structure, with ‘Heat’, ‘Water’, and ‘Light’ respectively focused mainly upon the past, the future, and the present, and the presence of the past in the present is one of the unifying themes of the collection. While ‘Heat’ and ‘Light’ contain a series of mainly realist short stories, with some mixing myth and reality, ‘Water’ is a speculative fiction novella with elements of satire and political allegory, in a collection that traverses genres. Van Neerven’s achievement with Heat and Light has been recognised by receiving the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished Aboriginal writer in 2013, and in 2015 both the Dobbie Literary Award for a first-time author and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelist Award.
The strongest writing in Heat and Light is mainly in ‘Heat’, which is comprised of interrelated stories about incidents in the fractured history of three generations of the Kresinger family, told from different narrative viewpoints and shifting between different times and places. The stand out story in the book is the first story, ‘Pearl’, whose eponymous protagonist is a free-spirited agent and object of desire, existing outside black and white codes of morality, and a mystical outcaste, both victim and shaman-like avenger. In ‘Pearl’ disrupted family histories and the search for identity – a major theme in heterogeneous Aboriginal Australian writing – is the consequence not of official state policies of the removal of children, but of the pack rape of an Aboriginal woman by white men. The itinerant Pearl gives the baby conceived in rape to her married sister Marie, who presents the boy as her son, while Pearl’s name disappears from the Kresinger family history. ‘Pearl’ is alternately narrated by an old woman in the local store, and the young Amy Kresinger, to whom the woman tells the true story of Amy’s ancestry, that she is the granddaughter of Pearl not Marie, disclosing family secrets and local historical silences.
Interestingly, the story and character of ‘Pearl’ seem inspired by the Chippewa novelist Louise Erdrich’s short story and character ‘Fleur’, which is also adapted as a chapter in the novel Tracks. There is no anxiety of influence here, as Van Neerven has commented that she was reading Erdrich when writing ‘Pearl’, and she employs the classical method of imitation well, adapting borrowed elements of language, plot, narrative structure, and characterisation to enrich a story that is her own. Fleur and Pearl are both native women whose mystical powers, sexuality, and daring make them pariah figures, the subjects of malicious gossip and fearful mythologies generated by the locals who try to drive them out of town, and we learn about both characters indirectly through jealous narrators. Fleur is a shaman believed to be the desired creature of the waterman monster of Chippewa myth, Misshepeshu. She seemingly drowns in the lake twice, and is said to have caused the deaths of the men who pull her from the waters the first time, and the man who approaches her ostensibly dead body the second time. Comparably, Pearl is a mystical creature of the wind, which seemingly takes her life twice when she goes out into wild storms and makes physical gestures resembling embraces. She is wind-hurled first into the waters, only to mysteriously re-emerge two days later, while the man who tried to save her was drowned. The second time Pearl dies is when the windman lifts her into electricity wires, ‘and they curled into each other like lovers as she was jolted.’ The electricity that killed her is conducted out of her body and into the brother who touches her and ‘he takes her place.’
Fleur is raped by three men who work with her in a butcher’s shop and Pearl is raped by three men who come into the café where she works, and both women seemingly conceive during the rapes. The attackers of both women die shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances. It is wild winds that destroy the town where Fleur is attacked and distract the townspeople from noticing the absence of the three men, who are found days later frozen to death. Pearl too is associated with the wind and later Kresingers continue to associate the wind with their spiritual ancestry. The wind is also a motif in ‘Heat’ for the way the past pervades the present and history repeats itself. The rape of Pearl is followed, two generations later, and in the third story ‘Hot Stones’, by the pack rape of Mia, a young Aboriginal girl. The schoolboys’ savage attack is a more extreme expression of the hostility the schoolchildren routinely direct at the dark-skinned, recognizably Aboriginal Mia. There are of course many differences between the works including Erdrich’s lyrical prose and engagement with history. Fleur, for example, attempts to save her tribe’s land and traditions from white encroachment in the era of the Dawes Act (1887) that served to destroy the Indian land base and in turn culture. Van Neerven’s first book focuses mainly on individual odysseys and family histories that register social issues of racism, domestic violence and mental illness.
A light satirical engagement with contemporary Australian politics and history is presented in part two, ‘Water’, which imagines a fantastical future as a fresh way of talking about past and present realities, notably in its allegory of the imperial genocide of the ‘plantpeople’, who are revealed as Aboriginal ancestral spirits. The final part of Heat and Light is comprised of ten stories mainly set in contemporary Brisbane and narrated by young, gay Aboriginal women finding space for self-expression and self-definition in the relative anonymity of the city, often having left small towns to attend university. Another interesting literary influence evident in stories from ‘Light’ and recurrently in the book is the magical realist novelist Jeanette Winterson. The young loners narrating some of these stories are searching for sexual connections of different kinds with other women, and the recurring motif of oranges as a gift to a lover, and a desire that does not fit the received social expectation, alludes to Winterson’s North of England lesbian bildungsroman, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Coincidentally, Van Neerven mentions that it was a mandarin Melissa Lucashenko handed to her to calm her nerves at an early book reading. The support Van Neerven has received from Lucashenko and other Indigenous Australian writers, including through high public praise of her writing, is the beginning of locating her in a lineage of Aboriginal women writers. Lucashenko’s literary influence is perhaps manifest in Van Neerven’s use of a light Aboriginal English in gritty, colloquially told tales of young working-class Aboriginal women in particular. Van Neerven’s influences in Heat and Light are Indigenous and European, local and cosmopolitan, and enhance the sense of her potential and readers’ interest in future publications.
CHRISTINE REGAN is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and former Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Assembled in Singapore with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang is interested in form and formation, creativity and quotation, lyrics and line breaks. His chapbook is hyperlinkage (Math Paper Press, 2013). He graduated from the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago in 2014 with a concentration in poetry and creative writing, and co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative literary journal OF ZOOS, as well as Unfree Verse, an anthology of Singapore poetry in received and nonce forms. His first full-length collection, Deeds of Light, is forthcoming. www.tsehaoguang.com.
I am from the high rise bomb shelter.
From the Speak Good Singlish Movement, red as plum,
where the joyful grammarian worms. I am from nameless
noodle stalls with frowny uncles, from palm copy-paste
plantations, from the ice-stoking wilds of Torontonian
suburbs. I am from the strut and peck of hao gong ming. I have a badge. I am from the policeman who drove
me to school, from the lawyer’s letter, the leaving.
I am from muddy tea stretched to a metre and a half as we
looked for its heart, from the black nut that oozed and invited
fingers or silver spoons. I am from the are you from China?
I am from the gongs of Imperial China. From each love
letter of the alphabet, crisp, incandescent. I am from
Asian Values. I signed a pledge to outlaw the water vapour
stirring in air. I am from the thing that spits and spits.
I am from the itch to sugar the split.
Toby Fitch is the author of Rawshock (Puncher & Wattmann 2012), which won the Grace Leven Prize for Poetry, and Jerilderies (Vagabond Press 2014). He lives in Sydney and has a book of poems forthcoming, The Bloomin’ Notions of Other & Beau.
massive black & blue Hoovers
\ suck the tortured moonbeams off Ebony street /
the pitted canopy of night
\ like a coffin amassed with consumables /
this urban pastoral for the kids
\ a twenty car collision of bloomin’ flowers /
amazed at the animals men are
dappled / ungoverned
\ faces download a horse & lead it to the /
\ vicious moons thinking surely the /
lemonade witch is dead
\ a polls charade in the shade of /
purple lizards who
\ frack their way through slippery /
slopes / the right
\ angle for a carpark dawn /
in the vapoury
\ wake of summer’s /