A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Reviewed by JOSHUA POMARE
‘Garner has always been a boundary-crosser. Refusing the constraints of literary genre she has sought to write across and craft her own versions of them’ – Bernadette Brennan.
It is at these boundaries, the rough torn edges of art and artist that we understand our subjects best. A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work by Bernadette Brennan is a remarkably shrewd study of Garner’s work knitted with a tender representation of her personal life. Brennan dives into the murky grey depths that separate ‘literary critique’ and ‘biography,’ choosing instead the more ambiguous denomination of ‘literary portrait.’ This bifurcation of sub-genres might seem like literary posturing; such distinctions are often made by marketing teams as opposed to the author themself. However the language we use to segment books into genre is significant for readers and thus important to authors in terms of distribution and readership.
Finding an audience for books that exist outside of genres can prove a challenge. For Garner, this is familiar territory, early in her career she leapt from genre to genre, often landing in the areas between, and muddied the waters further by splicing non-fiction and fiction. For many readers taste determines reading preference and consequently genre. Savvy publishers seek to typecast authors early in their career to maintain a base of readers which to many is contrary to genuine artistic pursuit. The true artist has no consideration of audience, let alone the intricacies between sub genres, between fact or fiction, between form and style. Brennan’s previous book, The Works of Brian Castro, is a monograph, shelved in the recesses of academic libraries. However in A Writing Life Brennan shows she is equally as prepared to defy genre as her subject.
With over thirty pages of notes and references, it is clear Brennan is a fastidious reader and researcher however in spite of her academic background, she chooses to employ simple accessible language. At once she delves into the workings of Garner’s relationships, and reflects on the ways in which life events contextualise Garner’s work. Indeed many of the models for Garner’s fictional characters inhabited her personal life. Brennan probes the real events that inspired much of her work including the poignant and challenging relationship with her dying friend Jenya Osborne, which Garner explores in The Spare Room, and the resistance and confusion Garner faced from third wave feminism as a consequence of the The First Stone.
Garner possesses an immense self-awareness and an almost refreshing uncertainty that is absent in most non-fiction. James Wood in his profile for The New Yorker describes her is ‘a savage self-scrutineer.’ This introspection and ceaseless self-assessment allows the ‘I’ to creep into the narrative of her stories. Garner is forever querying herself and her motives, and documenting her findings. Here we find the origin of the genre fluidity she affords herself. Garner herself, as a prominent thread in the literary culture of Australia, tends to defy any delineation outside of the broadest labels: writer, artist.
Without Garner’s introspection and sincerity on the page Brennan may not have the access to paint a complete portrait. When in The Spare Room ‘Helen’ the character notes, “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger,” a reader gets great insight into Garner’s own thoughts and feelings. Few artists are lucky enough to encounter subjects with such self-awareness and clarity of thought, fewer still will find one honest enough to share such insights.
One does get the sense that Brennan, although meticulous in her research and earnest in her approach, refuses to employ Garner’s imbuing of the text with the ‘I.’ Brennan at times seems to approach a counterpoint to Garner’s arguments without letting the thought reach the page as it forms in her own mind. Her voice is clear, objective and sensitive at times. The subtext, two years of conversations between Garner and Brennan, rises through the text softening the edges of the moral and ethical conundrums readers familiar with Garner’s non fiction may find themselves asking as they’re whisked along the summary of Garner’s work – each part of the novel represents in chronological order both a Garner novel and the period of Garner’s life in which the novel was written. One can’t help but consider Garner’s reflection and the fallibility of memory, and how this may indirectly shape the retelling of those long past episodes. This is another blurred line. It’s impossible for Brennan to maintain objectivity when such conversations are taking place, particularly considering the private letters Garner had shared with her.
Perhaps literary portraits require this input in the same way a painter might sit a subject down and constantly refer to her. If the subject moves, or changes expression the end product becomes a sort of amalgamation. We have twelve Helen Garners in A Writing Life; in the closing pages we get a final look at this ultimate Helen Garner in an email exchange with Brennan. It is here, in the final pages, that Brennan finds herself traipsing into the narrative. Brennan asks of Garner “Do you have another tale to tell me?” Garner recalls her recent experiences with her reading group, how the group grappled with a complex text, and in the penultimate line she asks Brennan, “Is that a story?”
A Writers Life, is published by Text Publishing in Melbourne. Text happens to be the publisher of all of Garner’s recent novels. It’s clear that Brennan has gone to considerable lengths to respect the wishes of Garner and has likely worked with Text for this reason. Garner has always been quite clear that she does not want a biography, however for this reader the biographical elements are the most important. Understanding who Helen Garner was at different stages in her life, how her opinions and worldview developed and of course how her life influenced her writing deepens one’s understanding of her work. Being such a devoted Garner scholar, Brennan possesses a knack for concision, clarity and an eye for detail but unlike Garner’s work we see it all from an arm’s length. Brennan is prepared to delve into Garner’s thoughts and motivations but not her own, certainly not with Garner’s characteristic candour. In this case, the artist and the art remain for the most part distinct. However, through dogged scholarly research, analysis, unparalleled access to Garners archive in the National Library of Australia and interviews with the subject herself, Brennan has weaved a complete and comprehensible portrait of Garner and her work. This is a book not only for Garner enthusiasts but Australian literature lovers in general.
JOSHUA POMARE is a writer living and working in Melbourne. His work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin and Takahe among others. He is also produces the podcast On Writing
Lindsay Tuggle has been widely published in journals and anthologies, including: Cordite, Contrapasso, HEAT, Mascara, Rabbit, and The Hunter Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry(2016). She was short-listed for the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, judged by Simon Armitage. Her work has been recognised by major literary awards, including: the Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize (shortlisted 2015), the Val Vallis Award for Poetry (second prize 2009, third prize 2014), and the Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s Poetry Prize (shortlisted 2016, longlisted 2014). Her first collection, Calenture, is forthcoming with Cordite Publishing. The manuscript evolved from residential writing fellowships awarded by institutions including the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Mütter Museum of Philadelphia. Tuggle also writes on intersections of poetry and science. The University of Iowa Press’s Whitman Series invited her first book, The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America (forthcoming in 2017). She wrote a chapter on ‘Poetry and Medicine’ for Cambridge University Press’sWhitman in Context (2017). She teaches literary studies at Western Sydney University.
it is best not to dream for long here
medicine disallows her florid stutter
skull calligraphy adorns
the austerity of wounds
a face cut by gravel
the floor observes her fall
cervine lesions embossed
with a queen’s head
siege follows invitation
the graceless mercy
of a master brought low
by his own hand
ungroomed and carnivorous
you dazzle me
if there were amnesty for the dead
we would be strangers still
our tongues bruised by
the flesh of angels
this, my apologia
they only come when you call
her gamine regression
discards once sinewy form
his archival hoard
to loom and seclude
her catalogue of false scars
triptych for an aspirational recluse
it is a problem without a solution
namely, asylum envy
‘for reasons of history
I want bedlam
or to be bedridden
or just to not be looked at like that’
leitmotif: diorama girls in feral dress
(cue dirt eating in hotel)
in their dyadic correspondence
the body is entirely absent
her assassin says
I’d love to work
but there’s no money
in art only death pays
in the morning we wear
each other’s faces
she’s prettier now
in coffined silhouette
after these many years
oddly blonder than before
someday soon we will inherit
each other’s faces:
evangelical and unlovely
do I covet her still
diluted by sleep
the concave half of a sister
long unburdened by skin
after her austere conversion
it’s all tithe and ruin
a nest of mouths speak of Jesus
in bandaged tongues
nice work if you can get it
we won’t be sequestered
in post-curatorial syndrome
suppress an exhibitionist’s desire
to salt her own wound, publicly
back at the fallout shelter
all the other feral anorexics
trace coal dust in the genealogy
of chemical squalls and delicate tibias
ascension is just another compulsion
to light and return
I love the dead more than you
and always will
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of Metro, subeditor of Screen Education, and a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. He has edited for Voiceworks and Melbourne Books, and been published in Right Now, The Lifted Brow, The Manila Review, Eureka Street and Peril, among others. Adolfo is one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30. http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com
We conquer hearts like climbing
mountains, gamble cliffs
with no bearings. You bring
totems of past lives
inhabited. Homes broken
by tectonic tears. It creeps in
like moss on foliage,
weeks old. I stood in that hallway
for hours, wanted words
to spill from cracks in
your pauses. Tell me again
we fear leaving worlds we know
are safe. The shape of a gum
is unlike any other. Warning
heard through window, solo
magpie yarns of sadness.
I break watches ’cos I’m shit
at being patient. With you
space is finite but between us
distance is immense. We’re migrants
with shared skin. We’re bound
by secrets we keep—saying
our faces are the same
as they used to be
when we were kids building
hills by the shoreline.
Writing to the Wire
Edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen
Reviewed by ALICE ALLAN
To live on the Australian continent is to be aware of the people who are excluded from it—those who are currently incarcerated in places coolly dubbed ‘detention centres’. Writing to the Wire, edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen, presents the work of poets grappling with this reality alongside that of poets actually living it.
An anthology such as this can be successful in a number of ways. At the very least, it can record a perspective beyond what Disney and Kelen describe as the ‘shameless procedural narratives’ that ‘damage our collective ethics and our nation’s sense of identity’. The recording of this perspective alone makes Writing to the Wire a necessary document. Even if Australia’s detention centres are shut down tomorrow, their repercussions will be felt for generations. In the aftermath, we will need to know how our poets responded.
We can also evaluate Writing to the Wire in terms of its position as an activist anthology. The editors admit that the collection is perhaps ‘a little like bashing your head against a brick wall’ or ‘like speaking to a wall’, but we do not have to link these poems to concrete political change to consider them valuable. Each poem is itself an act against what Kelen and Disney call ‘mute complicity’, registering ‘shock, disbelief, disgust, dismay, despair, contempt, cold fury’—never acceptance.
Another question we can ask of a collection like this is to what degree it amplifies the voices of those behind ‘the wire’. One of the most striking aspects of this anthology is the strong contrast between poems by those seeking asylum in Australia and poems by Australian citizens. Consider, to begin with, ‘My soul died years ago’ by poet NH, who was seeking asylum at the time of publication:
There are butterflies in my stomach.
I am very very very cold.
I have been dead for years
but my body is screaming.
It hits itself to the ground
and shouts: ‘I am tired of compulsory life’.
Reading these lines, the ‘mute complicity’ inherent in a comfortable Australian life is starkly obvious. While there are just 18 poems by people who have gone through the process of seeking asylum included in the 204-page collection, their resonance is such that the impact of many of the surrounding poems becomes muted. This is particularly apparent when it comes to poems written by Australians that examine an asylum seeker perspective. In ‘Illegals’, for example, Mark Tredinnick encircles all experiences of exile by writing of an ‘us’ that comes ‘just as far, across the hungry infernal sea’:
But the new land when we step down
onto its abstemious beaches
is so much more like a prison than home,
Another jail to break, another hope to abandon
Like memory in the sea.
Later we learn the language
of freedom, all its civil syllables,
But our tongues, parched from cruising so shabbily and so long into exile,
Will never learn to say our own names again
While there is no question of poetic quality here, there is a distance between the two writers’ experiences. Tredinnick is not alone in writing from the perspective of those seeking asylum—a number of poets have taken this approach to create their contributions. Again, these poems are the result of skilful, considered writing, but their inclusion also highlights the fact that those writing from outside the wire can only ever reach toward understanding, while those inside, in poet Ravi’s words, ‘have come into your very deep water / and have now sunk / in that deepest suffering’.
In making their selections, Disney and Kelen could have taken the same approach as the editors of the more recent anthology They Cannot Take the Sky, which is limited to writing by people who have experienced mandatory detention. The wealth of work by those who have no direct experience of detention in Writing to the Wire creates a broader conversation—a space where Australian poets can examine, in the editors’ words, ‘the idea of being Australian’.
While this is clearly a worthwhile task, the cumulative effect of the many poems by Australian writers somehow fails to amplify their impact. In fact, there’s often a sense of interference, especially when poems that are extremely strong cover the same or similar ground as those that are less accomplished. There’s an obvious irony in arguing for a more stringent selection process here—Kelen and Disney explicitly state that they were ‘guided by principles of inclusivity, pluricentricity and multivalence’—but perhaps fewer poems may have resulted in stronger collection overall.
All that said, Writing to the Wire also includes many poems by contributors who recognise where their understanding falls short and reveal this gap in thoughtful ways. In ‘Nationality II’, Melinda Smith uses found text from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s The Forgotten Children report to bring voices other than her own onto the page:
I feel like a killer
when they use my boat number.
The flat dead eyes of the mother. The gouges
on her son’s forearms.
Boat number has become like our first name.
The glut of bread that sticks in the craw.
This juxtaposition of Smith’s own words against those from the report addresses the question of whether her subject has been seen or merely spoken for. Other poets are more direct in marking their position as outsiders. Peter Minter’s ‘A Letter to You’ begins ‘I can’t think of anything. / I have nothing to say.’ Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘In the Bottom Eight’ asks ‘What else to do but clear the table and bring out the next course? Bleu cheese goes best with a third bottle of wine, not racism.’ Brook Emery’s ‘Return to Sender’ ends with that bleakly familiar phrase ‘you can bloody well go back where you belong.’
Disney and Kelen explicitly state in their introduction ‘We do not speak for the people incarcerated by Australian governments: they are speaking for themselves here’. While this may not be true of every single poem in the collection, it is clear that the editors are aware of their responsibility to elevate the voices of ‘people who would like to be Australians’. The fact that this problem of ‘speaking for’ is on editorial agendas, in writers’ minds and obvious to readers is exhilarating. It suggests historically silenced voices are becoming more audible.
Representing the experiences of asylum seekers, either directly or from a remove, is not the only focus of this anthology. Many of the poems here also bring to light what Kelen and Disney call ‘a collective burden of shame’. In ‘Queue-jumping’ Anthony Lynch catalogues positions of privileged safety in a poem that reads like a judge’s sentence:
When the pact was signed
I was eighth in line for a decaf.
When the navy arrived
I poured myself a second Scotch.
When the boat was towed
I sent my tenth email of the day.
When security tightened
we bought the fourth-best house in the street.
Along with shame, the ‘cold fury’ Disney and Kelen describe is another key theme, most obvious in poems addressing Australia’s politicians. In ‘Reply to a father from a Federal Member’, Nathan Curnow writes in the voice of politician giving parenting advice after two young boys hear about a detention centre suicide:
Tell them we’re calmly implementing policies.
In fact try saying it was ‘a horrible, tragic death’,
keep repeating it like a sober example,
after all, we’re in the business of saving lives
and that phrase helps discourage the journey.
Each of the poems in this anthology reveals an Australia so many would prefer to ignore. Nevertheless, Kelen and Disney position Writing to the Wire as ‘a book of hope—a book to make us look and think and feel again’. The collection begins with a poem in which Kelen asks a simple question:
And: For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share. Remember?
By the final page, each contributor has done their part in this work of remembering, adding a new layer to a complex and confronting picture.
In the unlikely event that Writing to the Wire inspires no action at all, it will at least endure as a record of Australia’s policies towards those forced to seek asylum here. By collecting the words of those who continue to feel the full force of these policies alongside the bewilderment of those who are watching their effects unfold, it answers its own epigraphic question, posed by Julian Burnside in his Hamer Oration: ‘What have we become?’
ALICE ALLAN is a writer and editor living in Melbourne. Her work has been published in journals such as Rabbit, Cordite, Going Down Swinging and Offset.
Mindy Gill completed her Honours in Creative Writing at QUT. She has won the Tom Collins Poetry Prize, a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Voiceworks, Tincture, Hecate, Australian Poetry Journal, and Island Magazine. She is an editor at Peril Magazine.
Home is the Solace of Small Towns (Springbrook 1991)
Eucalypts filter light like fly screen
onto the tan brick corner store,
a sign advertises Cornettos,
OPEN painted in soil-red.
My mother buys a newspaper,
two cans of Coke, counts change
from dawn-pink five-dollar notes.
The sun curls away as my father watches
the edge of town, devout
to the quiet of valleys.
He looks up at the grey gum bellies
of baby magpies, suspended moon-like
in the leatherwood.
My mother leans against the hot back of the car,
vermillion as a bird, vermillion
as this country.
The shop dog sleeps
like a mosquito coil
at her feet, blue back
dusty as drought.
With a line from Jeet Thayil
When my grandfather hears the first curlew
break the morning, before paradise
cracks its shoreline, the ocean shucks
away the tourists, he instructs
himself quietly, The best thing for stress
is to believe in God. From the third, glittering
eye of the high-rise apartment, among
the white-wash, the steel-skinned glass, the blue
of paradise, he watches the horizon like a line
or a flame that bars him from the dead, the past.
Under the prodigal sun, the gulls, ruthless with hunger
patrol the pools left by the tide, and the brine
dries the golden surface of paradise, and his last
word is not a word but a shudder.
JT Tait is currently undertaking the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and is the mother of a recently turned teenage boy who laughs that they will be finishing uni together.
‘Between Trauma and Beauty Itself’: Mothers, Memory and Forgetting
We tell stories because in the last analysis human lives need and merit being narrated. This remark takes on its full force when we refer to the necessity to save the history of the defeated and the lost. The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative
—Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative
First, the elevator. The long ride up in the stench of piss and stale cigarette smoke. The grey metal clunking back to reveal the paint-chipped door of Nanna’s flat.
Mum’s hair long, thick and swinging before my sister and me as she knocks. Nanna, grey curls and wheezing breath, opening the door to greet us. Walk into the dining area, a round table with yellow plastic tablecloth, stiff plastic in folds. Four chairs, brown vinyl peeling back, exposing white tufts like fairy floss, which we would work at nervously while eating lunch or dinner. Brown plastic placemats with yellow flowers sit on the table, matching the floral curtains at the small window. In the middle of the table a gold stork statue holds pride of place. A bench separates the dining room from the kitchen. Here we would eat our breakfast seated on the tall orange stools, Nanna passing cereal and toast over the scratched surface. Homemade sausage rolls baking in the oven, boiled-meat scent swamping the cramped quarters.
On the left the living room, always in darkness with blinds drawn and TV flickering. Dougie sprawled in an armchair. For years we thought Dougie was another word for Grandpa, turns out it was just his name. He was my Nanna’s boyfriend and father to none. But he remained our Dougie.
Go straight through the dining area and into the kitchen, turn left at the second door and you reach a small hallway. I slipped there and hit my head on the wooden frame of the door; vision blood-soaked and reddened, twenty-five stitches right in the middle of my forehead. My cousin did the same thing in the same place a couple of months later. It was the mat at the end of the hallway that did it. We’d come hurtling down in our never-ending rush to be somewhere and the mat would slip right out from under our feet. Nanna got rid of it after the second time.
The kids’ room is first on the left, then Nanna’s room; at the end a sewing room, and on the right a bathroom. Nanna died in the kids’ room. She had an asthma attack. They say she went there to be closer to her grandchildren. I was nine and thought I’d killed her because she’d hit me on my last visit. When I told Mum my fears, she explained that not everything was about me.
That was the first time I saw what a small part I played in the world around me.
Nanna lived in the commission flats. An overriding sense of depression clouds my memories of that place.
She had a brother, messed up from the war. She was always slapping the back of his head. He’d just sit there, food dribbling down his chin. He scared us with his vacancy and his constant wet smile.
She fought with Mum and Dad all the time. Said they weren’t fit. Mum said Nanna was an alcoholic. That’s why Mum doesn’t drink.
We used to love it when she gave us money to go to the commission shop and buy mixed lollies. Half-cent lollies, a couple of dollars would go far.
We’d cross the road to Prahran swimming pool and spend the whole day there with our cousins. Just us, no adults nagging. Lips stained red by icy-poles. Afterward we’d take the elevator up to her flat to soak in a warm bath. We’d share the bath, my sister and I. Blowing bubbles in each other’s faces and wearing bubble beards. Then we’d sit beside Nanna on the couch with her aged hands entwined in our water-wrinkled fingers.
I got two black eyes from a girl half my size but twice my age in the playground at the base of the stairs. We knew her as Googie. She was queen muck of the commission play areas. She told me she could see my undies while I was standing on the swing, swaying back and forth, minding my own business. All I said was at least I had some on. My mouth was always getting me into trouble back then. In any case, girls like that don’t take nicely to talk like that. I was six.
There was a forbidden stairwell. Where a man was known to play with himself and watch kids. We would dare each other to run past. Double-dare. Go up the staircase. I dare you. No, you do it. The call of the darkness of that stairwell was a constant black whisper. From the slide in the playground you could see its shadows beckoning us across the way. We had our own mysterious ways of learning life lessons when we were young. The way we’d torture each other with our fears, egging each other on to yet more foolishness.
I can’t remember ever seeing Nanna outside of the dimness of those high-rise walls. We would run wild with our cousins who lived in different commission flats across the way and around the corner. They were so much tougher than us, little flower-children that we were. We wouldn’t come home ’til dinner. Then bath-time and warm in clean pyjamas we’d sit by her side watching TV or reading stories.
Nanna was warm and soft when she hugged you and her clothes smelled of jasmine. Looking back now I think she was trying to make up for something with us, something she missed in raising her own kids.
I came to hate those flats. I hated the way Nanna talked to my parents. She scared me when she spoke of taking us away from them. How she could be so nice and turn so mean in the same breath. But I loved my Nanna. I loved her cooking. I loved that she loved me. I often imagine her surrounded by crayoned drawings, gasping for breath. I hope being close to us, her grandchildren, helped her. Somehow.
Funny when writing about Nanna how the child’s voice always comes to play. Time stretches ever onwards yet bounces me back to the girl I was. For I never learned to know her as herself, a separate identity. In ‘Bracha’s Eurydice’—her foreword to Bracha Ettinger’s The Matrixial Borderspace—Judith Butler writes of the loss of Eurydice that ‘the gaze by which she is apprehended is the gaze through which she is banished. Our gaze pushes her back to death, since we are prohibited from looking, and we know that by looking we will lose her’ (viii). Nanna will forever be real only as an extension of my mother, myself. Her story, her rationale for behaving in certain ways, is lost to us. No matter how hard we try to capture her.
Nanna lived in an unforgiving time and place but this doesn’t explain her apparent dislike of only one of her surviving children, my mother. She was of the time when people accepted Freud’s theory that ‘the desire for a child is the desire for a penis, and in this sense, a substitute for phallic and symbolic dominion’ (Kristeva 206). The concept of losing one’s identity after childbirth would have been beyond comprehension. In the Prahran commission flats and pubs no one cared two hoots about the identity of that Irish Catholic mother dragging her six children around, begging for money to feed her children and spending it all on booze. Who was Noreen Fergus? How did she come to be here? I think in another time she would have been a fiery feminist, a passionate activist. Instead she found herself stuck in a patriarchal society with no chance of escape. Nanna was not made to be a mother; I imagine she would have wholeheartedly agreed with the concept of motherhood as ‘a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis’ (Kristeva 206). Kristeva writes:
Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and the other, of nature and consciousness, of physiology and speech. This fundamental challenge to identity is then accompanied by a fantasy of totality – narcissistic completeness – a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis. (206)
All this is wholly imagined however, pieced together from stories told to me by my mother and told to her by hers. Butler begins her foreword by asking: ‘what does one do with early childhood? Or rather, what does early childhood do with us’ (vii)? All those misshapen memories, thwarted by time. How do they leave their mark on us? Who do we become because of them? I do not pretend to have the answers, just an enduring fascination with the complexities of intergenerational trauma.
Telling the story of generational addiction can be difficult: the tricks memory plays, the alternate perspectives. Telling one’s own family story can also be construed as self-indulgent. Fear of ridicule, of the dreaded ‘misery memoir’ tag, fear itself; all can skew the words on the page.
My nanna was an alcoholic; my father was an alcoholic and a heroin addict who died of an overdose; my mother is a heroin addict. I have an addictive personality; I am consumed by my passions. And all down this ‘wicked’ line, each addict has despised the others’ addictions.
My sister and I grew up with love in abundance: my mother did not. We all grew up with trauma. Butler writes:
We are speaking … not only of the loss of childhood, or the loss of a maternal connection that the child must undergo, but also of an enigmatic loss that is communicated from the mother to the child, from the parents to the child, from the adult world to the child, who is given this loss to handle when the child cannot handle it, when it is too large for the child, when it is too large for the adult, when the loss is trauma, and cannot be handled by anyone, anywhere, where the loss signifies what we cannot master. (ix).
Such phenomena are handed down to us through the generations, a family gift of unknown origin. Kristeva suggests in ‘Women’s Time’ that ‘there are cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature and imposes a temporality whose stereotyping may shock, but whose regularity and unison with what is experienced as extra-subjective time, cosmic time, occasion vertiginous visions and unnameable jouissance’ (191). Is it possible, within the reverberating tale of our family, there is joy in the sorrow? Are we now so tied to our past that we revel in our peculiar branch of divine melancholy?
In collating these seemingly random memories from my childhood I aim to create an overall sense of that place in time and how its echoes still reach us now. Ricoeur states that plot is first ‘a mediation between the individual events or incidents and a story taken as a whole’ (65). ‘In this respect,’ he goes on to write, ‘we may say equivalently that it draws a meaningful story from a diversity of events or incidents (Aristotle’s pragmata) or that it transforms the events or incidents into a story.’ The story you find behind the non-linear form may tell you more than even I know.
The greatest gift of growing up is, I believe, to meet your parent as a friend. A being beyond the extension of the self. My mother never had that opportunity. When you befriend your parents, much can be forgiven. When you’ve lived and known your own flaws, you can live with and love them in others.
First, the smell. Lemons. That sharp tang. It remains one of my first remembered sensations. I’m not sure why heroin cooking smells like lemons but cut one open and I’m transported back to that wide-eyed kid sitting on the staircase of our house in Birchgrove. Watching through the bannisters as Dad loosens the belt around Mum’s upper arm and slowly slides the needle from her vein. I watch her head roll to the side, her eyes grow heavily lidded. He makes sure she’s settled before pulling the loosened belt up his arm and tightening the cracked leather.
My sister comes creeping up behind me and I shoo her away, toward our bedroom. I feel the heavy weight of her lean against me, her stomach on my back, and sense her trying to look over my shoulder. Standing up, I take her hand and walk up the stairs. I look back once to see Dad put the needle in his own arm. I start chattering nonsense and watch my sister’s face light up.
In Birchgrove they were dealing. So we had lots of nice things and lived in a two-storey house with bars on all the ground-floor windows.
Our days were structured with lessons in the morning and play in the afternoon. On waking, we’d race down the stairs to find a message and maths sum from Mr Man. Mr Man was a stick figure on the blackboard. Once we’d answered the question we were allowed to wake Mum and Dad up. After breakfast Dad would teach us how to read, do a few more sums, and then focus on music. Dad was a trombone player and composer and he played Jazz.
Afternoons with Mum were endless and lazy play. Twice a week we had a Spanish tutor. Even when they weren’t dealing, the same structure remained. Lessons in the morning, play all day. That is, up until they separated.
We really felt we had the most normal of lives. Most of the time.
One day we came home from the shops and the bars on one window were bent. Dad told us Superman had come to visit while we were out. We asked why he’d made such a big mess? Drawers were pulled out of the cabinet and cushions were off the couch. Chairs were tipped over. Our Lego was spilt across the floor and Dad swore as he stepped on a piece. Mum put her bags on the floor in the hallway and quickly started tidying up. I went with my sister to the window and looked at the bent bars, our eyes filled with marvel. It was the side window in the lounge-room. We could see down the long garden pathway to the vegie patch. One of next-door’s rabbits hopped amongst the lettuces. My sister went to tell Dad, but I shushed her with a finger across her lips. I could feel something was wrong by the pressure on my back, my shoulders. I could sense something fearful behind their furious whispering. I grabbed her hand and pulled her across the room, up the stairs. Let’s play.
All was forgotten by dinner when we ate our lentils at the worn wooden table. Dad kicked up his feet and pulled the guitar onto his lap, softly tuning and humming under his breath. Mum started piling the dishes into the sink, flicking us with the tea towel to make us laugh. Bent spoons clattered into soapy water. Becky told Dad about the rabbits. Dad hooted and ran out to the back garden, making wild gestures and yelling. Taking the pesky rabbits to task. We followed laughing and he piled our crossed arms with ripe veggies. We dumped them on the kitchen table and Mum shooed us away, fondly grumbling about the mess. We sighed into our soft beds that night, safe and grateful for all things normal and comical.
The bars on the windows didn’t help when the cops busted us. They just put a ladder up to Mum and Dad’s balcony and entered through their bedroom door. The first I knew of it was the shouting. Gruff voices, violent. Then two police officers entered our bedroom, came up to our bunk bed. They told us everything was going to be okay. But I could hear the thuds and short breaths. I could hear my Mum screaming at someone to stop. And the faint sound of my Dad whimpering.
The next day Mum sold everything we owned to get Dad out on bail. It was the first time we got busted, but it wasn’t the last.
Living with addicts from a young age, you love them even when they’re hurting you and you don’t know it. The days they OD’d in front of us – mostly accidental, occasionally purposeful: dragging them to the shower and drenching them in cold water, the mad rush to the next-door neighbour for help, the ambulances, the misguided reassurances from adults who thought we knew nothing. The long hospital visits, the foster carers, the threats from family members to take us away.
Above all: an ever-abiding love and a longing to never be separated. Ever.
I was twelve when I first started wanting to write our story. Back then I wanted two things: I wanted to let other children of addicts know they weren’t alone, and I wanted people to understand addicts. I was tired of living a secret life. Of being afraid of being found out. I wanted to bust it open and just be. I wanted people to love my parents. Basically, I wanted to live without stigma before I knew what stigma was. Kristeva asks why we yearn to use literature as a means of affirmation: ‘is it because, faced with social norms, literature reveals a certain knowledge and sometimes the truth itself about an otherwise repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe? Because it thus redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid, the uncanny?’ (207) Perhaps at twelve I sensed that in making a game of the ‘frustrating order of social signs’ (Kristeva 207), I would in sense be making a place for myself, my family.
It was then that I realised I could never know my own story without knowing theirs. My parents’. Kristeva talks about how to ‘bring out … the singularity of each person and, even more, along with the multiplicity of every person’s possible identifications (with atoms, e.g., stretching from the family to the stars) – the relativity of his/her symbolic as well as biological existence, according to the variation in his/her specific symbolic capacities’ (210). We are all we are through a combination of biology and chance and hold a certain responsibility to represent our unique circumstance. So I bugged my parents day and night and I wrote down every word. All the hurt, all the mistakes, all the hopes and failed dreams. I gathered them and hoarded them like small treasures. But of course I was twelve, and didn’t yet know I’d make many mistakes of my own.
It was not pleasant, I am sure, to have one’s child ask the sorts of questions I did. But my parents had a knack for brutal honesty, which they delivered with a rhythmic beauty. Perhaps a perverse pride in their child’s inquisitiveness was also on display.
Growing up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’ also lent my writerly aspirations a bent and socially awkward tangent. Exposés of the kind that poured from my pre-teen pen were unexpected to say the least. Ricoeur states that,
as a function of the norms immanent in a culture, actions can be estimated or evaluated, that is, judged according to a scale of moral preferences. They thereby receive a relative value, which says this action is more valuable than that one. These degrees of value, first attributed to actions, can be extended to the agents themselves, who are held to be good or bad, better or worse. (58)
The reader, then, bases a character’s worth on the ethical nature of their actions. For Ricouer, ‘There is no action that does not give rise to approbation or reprobation, to however small a degree, as a function of a hierarchy of values for which goodness and wickedness are the poles’ (59). But who decides these moral values? And can one thwart these values once embedded?
The aim of my twelve-year-old angst was to turn wickedness on its head and show the banality and ordinariness of an addict’s life. It was not a cry for help, for saving. It was a desperate plea for understanding. The years fly by and slowly the world awakens to hear the voices it has silenced for so long. Now, forty-plus, I still write to break open addiction taboos, though many have already been broken. I still struggle to find the right words. Simone de Beauvoir writes:
Old age. From a distance you take it to be an institution; but they are all young, these people who suddenly find that they are old. One day I said to myself: “I’m forty!” By the time I recovered from the shock of that discovery I had reached fifty. The stupor that seized me then has not left me. (672)
I look in the mirror and see Beauvoir’s words reflected back to me, to my mother, to my grandmother. And to all those mirror images I say, forgive yourself. Forgive.
The story of my Nanna’s dying words has become mythological. I’ll never truly understand the power she had over my mother. Her stories of abandonment and loss are etched into my brain. Every hurt word, every dismissal, every avowal of hatred from her mother’s mouth. And so my mother chooses her needle, to forget. She gives me her stories and I keep them safe. Her stories become mine but are not me, they imprint. Butler suggests that such stories are indeed ‘never fully made one’s own, for the claim of autonomy would involve the losing of the trace. And the trace, the sign of loss, the remnant of loss, is understood as the link, the occasional and nearly impossible connection, between trauma and beauty itself’ (xi). And I choose to not lose the trace, to remember.
The memories shift and change, as does my perspective within them. Sometimes I see the stories as from a great distance. At other times I’m right inside them, living and breathing each moment as it happens.
My Nanna’s last words were an affirmation of all my mother’s greatest fears. But also an inspiration that changed the way she parented, so changing the arc of her story. I inherit the trauma and beauty both.
First, the shaking. It was the middle of the night when Mum woke us. Rain pelted against the window leaving glistening trails against a backdrop of darkness.
All is confused and jumbled as I swim into focus. I sit in bed rubbing my eyes, noting the panic in her voice as she shakes my sister awake. The bedside lamp sends a soft glow of purple around the room, shining through the scarf draped over it.
Wake up. Nanna’s dead. We have to go to the flats. I ask if she’s kidding. Well, that wouldn’t be a very funny joke would it, she snaps. It’s unlike her and so I know this is Real. I stumble out of bed and let her bundle me into a dressing gown and slippers. I must’ve fallen asleep because suddenly I’m awake in the back seat of the car. My head leaning against the window, the rain now in a hurry across the pane. Mum and Ava are arguing in the front. Ava steers erratically and beeps the horn loudly, gesturing rudely out the window. Mum cries.
Mum and Dad had been separated for a few years when Nanna died. Mum had stolen us away in the dead of night, barely packing a thing. First we’d travelled to our friends in Queensland, but he’d found us. Then she went to hospital to get clean and sent us with a friend to Melbourne, to live with Nanna until she got better.
When Mum arrived we moved in with her girlfriend Ava and they shared a bed. Then she cut off her long hair. We didn’t cry until we saw her short cut. It seemed the final straw. Too many changes and too quick. That hair we’d seen swinging before us all our short lives. We’d played with it and poured honey in it when she wouldn’t wake up. It seemed to signify who she was, and now wasn’t. We had to adjust ourselves to this new Mum, and figure out our place in the world beside her.
Dad followed us eventually. He was arrested in Sydney for attempting suicide so couldn’t come straight away. That’s what I overheard, or thought I overheard. When he arrived and came to see us, Ava left a note on the door saying NO MEN ALLOWED. When we stayed at his house next and they came to pick us up, he left a note on the door saying NO AVAS ALLOWED. And so it went.
When we arrive at the flats, we take the elevator up one last time to Nanna’s. This time, instead of Mum’s long hair before us, there is Mum and Ava’s hands holding each other in fists. There is no Nanna with wheezing breath to greet us at the door. One of our uncles opens the door abruptly after the first knock. Mum hugs him briefly and walks in. He ignores Ava’s outstretched hand. We appear forgotten so straggle in quietly and lean against a wall.
The dining room is too small for all of them. All their bodies too grown for the space in which they’d grown up. There is muted conversation and a thick layer of smoke across the ceiling. The gold stork stands on the table amid a crowd of bottles, stretching its neck gracefully over bourbon and rum, wine and beer, overflowing ashtrays. We slide down the wall and sit on the floor, huddled together. They seem like brooding giants from that angle. And it isn’t just sorrow I felt from them in that confined space but menace also. Something angry simmering below the surface talk. Something in the way her brothers held themselves frightened me.
I heard Mum asking where she was and someone reply the kids’ room. Her sister walked with her towards the hallway. We just sit, watching. Ava stands to the side of the room, completely forgotten. I can hear Mum crying in the other room. Loud sobs.
It was then I saw Dougie. But he was no longer our Dougie. He was filled with some emotion I couldn’t place. It made him dark. He gloomed. He came through the dining room at a pace I’d never seen him take. I heard him say something guttural in the next room. Then my mother screamed. A never-to-be-forgotten type of scream. The room erupted. All of them shouting at each other, so many words unknown. All jumbled on top of one another. But my aunt’s whisper carried through it all. He told her. Mum strides into the room, stopping suddenly and staring at the table. At the gold beak of the stork rising above the bottles. As she leans forward, I can see a faint line of sweat across her forehead, her eyes red. She picks up the stork and walks straight out. Ava gathers us up and we take one last look through that paint-chipped door at all our family before they slam it shut behind us.
In the corridor Mum is punching the elevator button. Ava tries to hug her and is pushed away. I don’t think she remembered in that moment that we existed. The grief is too much. We take the elevator down and we never see that place or those people again.
Butler, Judith, ‘Foreword: Bracha’s Eurydice’, in Ettinger, Bracha L., The Matrixial Borderspace, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
de Beauvoir, Simone, Force of Circumstance, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968.
Kristeva, Julia, ‘Women’s Time’ in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, New York City: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Ricoeur, Paul, Time and Narrative, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, ‘Cooee’, a collection of echo stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.
Wet Towards the Waterfall
for Silvina Ocampo
We fell in love quickly, he and I. That was certainly my way, to dive in without testing the water with my toes, to sweep up the consequences, later murmuring, “well at least I lived”. For him I could sense that it was an abnormality; that he was in above his head, that he was used to taking months where we were taking hours. But there was never a question of stalling, of taking our time. We were mad, and it was a river washing over us, dragging us wet towards the waterfall.
We started looking for a house to live in within days. I was unhappy in my large, grimy share house and he was essentially homeless—spending his nights on his studio couch or at friends’ houses in attics or spare rooms trying not to snore. It suited us both to move in together. The first place we looked at, on Jaggery Lane, was perfect. We thought it was perfect anyway, and danced in the kitchen holding our hips in when the real estate agent left to answer her phone. It had natural light and a double bed on stilts, and was small like our sighs as they echoed in the night time.
It was only after we had moved in that I wondered who he was. I knew his name was Badi, and that Badi meant wonderful, marvellous, brave. I knew that he had skin the colour of my grandmother’s hessian couch, and that when I kissed it I could taste what I imagined to be a clean and hairless animal. I knew that he loved to paint, or that he wanted to love to paint, and that he spent most of his time looking at big books full of sad paintings of naked men and trees. I knew he slept sideways, diagonally across whatever bed we shared, and that he liked me to wrap myself around the parts of him that were immovable. I knew that he was tangible, and that around him I was seen. But I started to have dreams that he was reaching towards me with a small knife, planning to slice at my throat while I was sleeping.
I couldn’t tell Badi that my subconscious believed he was trying to harm me. I had started to feel in my belly that he was superstitious; in the way he stacked the dishes upside down and locked the door and opened it six times each day before he left the house. He told me too, on our seventh morning in our new home, that he was scared of most things and dubious of everything, and that I was the first thing he had ever touched that hadn’t deceived him.
I asked myself in bed, feeling the rhythm of his breath in my throat—how did we meet? I couldn’t quite remember. He told me when I asked that we had walked past each other and locked eyes, but I knew that I looked at the ground when I walked, to avoid destroying those tiny sprouts of grass that sometimes grew. He didn’t seem to care why I wondered, didn’t question why I couldn’t remember how it had begun. This made me scared, made me keep my eyes half awake even as I fell down the well into dreams, and I saw his hand holding a butter knife just above me over and over, though I knew it was only for protection.
In our seventh week together, our sixth week of living together and eating toast together and wiping the toothpaste from the edges of our mouths together with soft towels, we received a letter in the mail. Well I received it, for I had taken some time off from work to make sure I could sleep. The letter was enclosed in a small, cream-coloured envelope and written on crêpe paper with a pencil. It read,
To Veronica (for Veronica is my name),
Don’t you know that Badi without the I is just Bad?
Someone who knows the consequences of seeping fear
After I read it, I left the letter on the kitchen table and went to the bathroom to sit on the toilet a while, with the lid down, feeling the cool plastic against the backs of my thighs. Who had sent me this letter? Who knew Badi better than me? What seeping fear did they refer to? I imagined it was Badi’s fear of everything: his terror at being watched when he was in public, his insistence that we check the gas stove and the iron over and over before leaving the house, the jumping at noises in bed at night that shook the very mattress. I felt a little sick in my stomach to know that someone was watching us, that our little life might be someone else’s game.
I began to have Badi followed. His routine was simple; get up hours after I had left, leave the house for his studio, leave the studio sometime later for home. All this told me was that he was ripe with boredom, for the detective followed my advice and watched him through a studio window one day, only to find that he lay on the couch in the corner for eight hours, not even flicking through a magazine or opening his eyes occasionally. Knowing that Badi was bored, was uninspired, did not quell my love for him. If anything, it made it grow fatter inside of me, for now I knew how much I was needed. But I was still scared, and every night would dream that Badi was somewhere in the room apart from beside me, often above me with a weapon. He always tried to kill me in my dreams.
One day I was at home from work, languishing in the bedroom, when the doorbell rang. I had never heard the doorbell. We never had visitors, and neither Badi or I had ever forgotten our key. I wondered who was out there, who would want to speak to me at such an hour, at any hour for that matter. It felt ominous, as everything did at that time. I pulled on my dressing gown (the need to impress or pretend that I was coping had left me) and answered the door, quickly, before I lost my nerve. Standing there on the nature strip was a young woman, a woman about the same age as I was at that time. She was beautiful but weary, with dark circles under her eyes and hair that had not known a brush in weeks. I was annoyed: she was too beautiful and too wan to be anything good, and I wanted her to go away.
I asked her what she wanted.
She continued to stand on the nature strip, staring straight ahead, not at me but through me, into the dwelling I shared with Badi.
“What do you want?” I heard my voice break on the end of the last word, as if I didn’t know myself what it was. This woman made me feel silly, I could already tell. I wished so strongly for her to leave that I could feel my fingernails breaking against the skin of my palms where they were wrapped up against them, my hands in fists ready to fight.
“Did you get my letter?”
The woman was looking at me now, not just to the side of me. Her eyes were a deep black-brown. I never usually noticed the colour of eyes but hers demanded attention.
“Yes,” I answered, wanting to ask her why she had sent it and what she had meant by it but stopping myself. I did not want her to know that she had scared me, for that had clearly been her aim.
She kept watching me, and lifted a hand to play slowly with the end of a piece of her dark, knotted hair. I wanted to pull at it, to break it off and stomp on it and make her disappear. Who was this woman to Badi? Why had he never told me about her?
“I meant what I wrote. You must listen to me. He is dangerous.”
“What do you mean?” I would not let her know that I was scared. Badi was the only thing I had.
“Badi! I know him. I know him better than you do and I want to warn you. I tried to warn you with the letter but I can see that you did not listen, that you are still living with him here in this tiny place where he can easily get you. I am telling you to leave, from one woman to another!”
Each word she spoke was faster and more urgent than the word before, so that at the end of this speech she was talking so quickly and so loudly that I was overwhelmed, and had to place my hand on the edge of the doorway to steady myself.
“I don’t want your letters, your warnings!” I stood back and saw the young woman’s face become sadness as I pulled the door shut upon her. I would try to smudge this finteraction in my memory; the letter too, and its insinuations. I could not be alone again. I needed Badi.
That night he did not come home. I waited in the softest armchair in the kitchen, pulling at threads on its arm until one whole elbow unravelled. I wasn’t hungry, but I strained some white beans in a colander and poured vinegar all over them, eating them one by one at the sink and letting the acetic acid bite the inside of my mouth. Badi did not have a phone; he did not like the idea of people tracking his calls and had no money to pay for a bill. I couldn’t call him, and I couldn’t leave the house to check his studio because I was scared and tired and unsure I could have him anymore. The young woman had been so beautiful, and so wild in a way I could never let myself be. I knew that he must still be in love with her, perhaps violently. I imagined them making love against the ladder going up to our bed in our little terrace house and I couldn’t banish the picture of their rubbing flesh from my mind.
At an hour past when I should have been sleeping, the doorbell rang again. It was a well known tune, and I hummed it as I walked towards the front door, feeling as if I might be floating, or that the floor had sunk and I had not descended with it. When I opened the door I saw standing there the young woman again, but this time she was crying, and in her hand was a leash that lead down to a small, black, topsy-turvy sort of a dog, with a thick pink tongue hanging from its mouth.
“Here, you take it then!” She yelled at me, thrusting the leash in my direction and turning to walk away down Jaggery Lane. I was utterly confused, and repelled by the small dog’s excitement.
“Wait!” I yelled back at her. She did not stop or look back. “Whose dog is this? I don’t want this dog!”
She turned around then; the terribly pretty woman with the hair like forest after fire.
Before I could reply, before I could even understand what she had said, she had turned back and started running, away from me down the narrow pavement towards the heated traffic of the main road that forked Jaggery Lane. Even the way she ran was beautiful, I remember thinking on the doorstep, with the black night air against my cheeks.
The dog was his. I believed her, despite Badi never mentioning a dog, or any other animal, or professing to owning anything at all since we had met. The idea of him was coming apart much quicker than I could believe. At least the beginning of his hands and his feet in my mind were fraying threads. The dog was whining and wagging and licking at my slippered feet and I wanted to drop the lead and leave it there on the concrete and not bother with its shaggy body, but I couldn’t do that. We went back inside the little terrace house together and I sat on the couch and the dog sat near my feet and looked up at me, so much hair in its eyes I could barely tell if they were trusting. I was tired, despite the excitement, and my eyes drooped as the dog panted and wagged and circled its body around the tiny living space filled with Badi’s scribbles on scraps of paper and my grubby bras and lipstick cups rusted with Milo. I let myself fall into sleep, and patted my lap for the little dog to join me.
The next morning was bright with sun and smelt of the little dog’s saliva. I woke with a start on the couch and saw that Badi had returned; I knew because he had left his boots near the door of the room and his jacket on the floor beside them. He must have seen me lying there and not woken me, even though he had been so late home. The thought was loneliness in my pelvis and stomach and groin, and a slickness in my throat.
I got up slowly; the little dog was still sleeping in a puddle on the floor at my feet and I did not wish to wake it. Fondness circled my heart for the creature, particularly now that Badi had begun to move out of my chest. I could hear movement coming from the kitchen and could smell bad vegetables, or lentils cooked too long, mixed with something young and sweet. Badi often prepared strange meals at odd hours, and I hoped he was not too busy chopping up a root or grinding inexplicable things into a paste to sit down and talk to me.
What to say? How to ask whether he was deceitful? Would a smile or a frown or a perfectly blank expression be the right way to approach him, this new version of Badi I was trying to understand? I gathered myself—,patting the dog hairs off my thighs and smoothing down my hair.
When I walked into the kitchen he had his back to me, and I did not think he knew yet that I was there. His back moved just slightly as he washed something in the sink, his shoulder blades flying like the wings of a slow bird. Anger shot out inside my torso as if sperm, or bile, and I wished him peace no more.
He turned, slower than I wanted him to, and I could see that he was washing strawberries, though it wasn’t summer and he had never eaten them in my presence before.
“Darling,” he answered me, his eyes softening as he took in my rumpled body and my creased face.; as if he had not been out all night, as if he did not own a dog and had not had a girlfriend I had known nothing about. As if he was still mine.
“Where have you been Badi? Where have you been!”
My hands were shaking now, and I wanted to tell him what had happened and to sit down on the couch with him and cry, to have him kiss my head. I wished he was not the enemy now, as crossed lovers often do, but I could not pretend the wild beautiful woman and the little dog were not real.
“I told you darling. I stayed at the studio last night. To work on an idea that needs space and time.”
It was true that Badi needed space and time when he had an idea; something that had not happened since we had known each other but that he had told me about, and that I now remembered. But I did not remember him telling me that he would be gone, and I had the little dog to prove his lies.
“No you didn’t Badi! I waited hours last night for you.”
“Oh my darling,” he answered, and I could not look now at his eyes, for they were soft and warm and etched like always. All the words I had imagined saying to him and the hair of the wild young woman and the smell of the dog’s small body were swishing around in my head and down my neck into my chest and I couldn’t get them to stop. I held on to the top rung of a kitchen chair and felt almost dizzy.
“And a woman came to the door and gave me your dog. She wrote me a letter first, warning me about you! Then she came and gave me your dog, she didn’t explain it but it’s yours! It’s your dog, Badi! And she was your woman, too!”
I stopped myself there and took a breath, waiting for Badi to be angry, or shocked, or to feign confusion. My chest was heaving, and the dizziness lingered behind my cheeks. Badi stood there, the strawberries still in his dripping hands, and I could smell them and their fleshy sweetness. A pot bubbled on the stove but the strawberries were what I could smell and it occurred to me that he must have been bruising them slightly with his hands, so that the smell could really come out. He was shaking his head, and his brow was pushing his eyes almost closed. Then he spoke.
“What woman is this? I have no dog, no other woman. Darling, you must be mistaken.”
I turned and opened the door to the living room, calling out for the little dog.
“Pup! Pup! Little pup! Come in here!”
The little dog did not come.
I walked away from Badi into the living room but the little dog was not anywhere I could see. It must have got out somehow, into the hallway and perhaps into our bedroom, where it was probably snuggled up on the bed right now, its black hairs sticking to the unripe apricot-coloured blanket.
In the bedroom I could not find the little dog, or in the bathroom, the toilet or the sunroom the size of a tall coffin at the back. I could not understand it, and my head was starting to thump. Badi followed me around the house, as gently as a sparrow below a table covered with crumbs. I turned around in the sun room, empty of sun and colder than it had ever been before and saw that he was crying.
“It was here. She brought it here. I am not lying.”
As we stood together in the little death room I started to shiver, and Badi came towards me with his wet face and wrapped his brown arms around my body.
“There’s no woman. No dog. You’re ill,” he said, his pupils big and black and fearful. He moved his hands to my shoulders to hold me still. I felt ill, now, all of a sudden. As if I needed to lie in bed for days, with a strange version of the flu.
“It’s okay,” Badi told me. “You’ll be okay.”
I could see the young woman with her wild snake hair behind my eyes. She might never go away, but I was safe, for now, and the little dog was safe too—no longer with her or me, but somewhere beyond us both. I didn’t have many options, I had always known that. But I still had Badi. Now he reminded me with his hot breath on my neck, his warm hands closing along my spine.
Jessica Dionne lives in North Carolina and is currently pursuing an MA in Literature from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She recently presented poems at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and her work has been featured in The Longleaf Pine, Luna Luna Magazine, and Pour Vida Zine, and is forthcoming in The Mayo Review, and Rust + Moth.
are for realizing. The slightest song, will
bring you back, ignite
other days are brittle and who can say I’m
sorry and me too on a Tuesday?
That inexact release. Clavical, a look, my mouth, your brow
all pulp-hearted and heaving towards something less shivery.
The truth is, we’re truceless. And we tend it
like some living thing,
although, wispy like baby bird bones
wrapped in paper mache’.
Easing into feelings of forgiveness but still remembering
that doctored way you cut me out.
We wrap up in the same blanket and no one’s toes are cold,
but tomorrow is Monday.
Exhibits of the Sun
by Stephen Edgar
ISBN 978 1 876044 88 6
Reviewed by DAVID GILBEY
‘… the sinople eye of a butterfly wing …’ Sarah Howe
Edgar’s poetry is like that – detailed, deceptive, minutely crafted, significant and changing – implicating both the watcher and the watched. In Sarah Howe’s ‘Two Systems’ lecture at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute last year, speaking of her own poetry’s slippage between different cultural and historical referents, she cited Heather McHugh’s dictum ‘All poetry is fragment … shaped by its breakages at every turn.’ Edgar’s is like that too: shardish, provisional, ‘hispid’ (to poach one of his clever, obscure words).
In the Old Century, and before it became unfashionable, we might call his poetry metaphysical – for its blend of complex thought, vivid imagery and iconoclasm. I can imagine Samuel Johnson complaining ruefully that Mr Edgar ‘… doth tempt … not with the softnesses of love but … with nice speculations of philosophy’ as well as Helen Gardner’s (and Yeats’) praise for his poetry’s ‘passionate intensity’ – though maybe Edgar’s steady iambics regulate passion to an intellectual pace …
And there are other voices in/behind Edgar’s finely-wrought surfaces too: Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Hope, Slessor, Stewart. So Edgar’s poetry is steeped in literary echoes, producing a richness of reference and tone belied by the elegance and lightness of his touch.
There are, simply, so many terrific poems in Exhibits of the Sun – this is ‘great’ poetry in that traditional sense of grand in scope, significant in thematic preoccupations, supply-artificed and multiply-perspectived. In the first section alone ‘Off the Chart’’s playful Australian metaphysics (a rotary hoist mirroring the planetary cycles) is framed by ‘The Representation of Reality in Western Art’ (playfully interrogating Proust and Magritte) and ‘Steppe’ (a virtuoso poetic essay in tercets conjuring a universal figure in a landscape as an image for poetry’s sublime possibilities). These poems hold and play with the reader’s mind and imagination – telescopically and microscopically.
One of Edgar’s persistent concerns is how poetry can see and know. Take ‘Morandi and the Hard Problem’ with which Edgar begins his third, and final, section in Exhibits: focussing on the objects, planes, arrangement and light in Morandi’s paintings, Edgar writes:
Nothing’s more abstract than reality,
These surfaces propped up against the day
To hold the light.
This is the paradoxical heart of Edgar’s poems – a koan becoming a conceit. The ‘hard problem’ is what we might call the ‘sentience of objects’: ‘what process could endow / Mere matter with the power to wake and feel.’ (p.49) The poem plays ekphrastically with Morandi’s paintings, displacing the human viewer as the centre of perception in favour of the objects’ capacities
… to see behind
The facile complications of event
… and view
What lies below the shining incident.
The poet/perceiver is a product/victim of his experiences and watches the sun’s power to ‘[shift its] abstractions once again’.
Edgar’s poetry echoes Coleridge’s thinking styles, especially the Conversation Poems (on the Imagination and Pantheism). There are echoes of Coleridge’s phrasing (‘esemplastic’, ‘pictures / shine in those walls’ etc) time and time again in Exhibits and there are pervasive hints of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ as well as the thinking and feeling of The Prelude. And we are held by the imagery, the cadences of the verse – this is poetry that persistently claims, implicates and apostrophises the reader.
‘The Trance’ begins with a dramatic, sustained conceit of a ‘gale kept feeding through the canopies / Like timber through a mill’ (p.21), becoming more like a conversation poem as it links this to a remembered childhood experience which is then framed ‘organically’ by the mother’s death. ‘Euroka’ too – camping near Glenbrook – repositions a Wordsworthian sense of place:
… the trees
Which reeve the boulders to the sky, the wide,
Light-dusted river that’s about to stall,
So slow its downstream glide:
You’re spellbound by inaudibilities.
Edgar’s (Miltonic) scope and tones can be seen admirably in ‘The Angel of History’ for example, with which he begins his second group of poems. An extensive prefatory note (thankfully) directs us both to Walter Benjamin and Klee’s Angelus Novus so we can get the picture/references as we need. The poem opens with an epic sense of physical and spiritual stress: ‘agape’, ‘mingled fascination and alarm’, of being in the middle of an ‘impending’ and harmful dilemma: ‘He reaches out as he is forced away’ (p.25) – the iambics enforce the paradoxical weight of the problem. The angel sees all humanity’s particular and collective histories
strewn out – achieved or botched, or incomplete –
Along the road’s
Unravelled pageant …
Like Himalayas hurled before his feet.
– the scope of the simile is impressive. There is a sense (again, Miltonic) of the regret the angel might feel in surveying the scene but he is compelled, ‘swept’ (by the imminent problems in Paradise) to leave – his back to the future, facing the past, ‘his task and vice, / But to record, not to restore, the toll’ (p.25) – a kind of allegory, reprising the traditional debate articulated by (amongst others) Sir Phillip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetrie about the essential conservatism and limitations of history (in contrast to both philosophy and poetry).
By contrast, the final poem in this section, ‘Pictures in the Water’ (is ‘this interlude and idyll’ a painting or a memory?) antiphonally focuses on a particular moment that might have been seen by the Angel of History. Reminiscent of Slessor’s yachts/harbour, the poem, echoing the preceding ‘Vantage Point’ and ‘Saccade’ (‘Its constant sense being constantly unmade’, p.43) proposes the frail significance of the micro against the inevitability of the macro.
Edgar’s opening poem is the justly praised 2011 Dorothy Porter Prize joint-winner ‘All Eyes’ – a clever, conceptually enthralling and linguistically transforming poem. The image of Saturn as a ‘ghostly Ferris wheel frozen in space’ is arresting enough but the subsequent lines ‘with all its shattered rings of icy lace / Exquisitely beyond repair’ (p.3) accrete and multiply understanding, giving what FR Leavis might have called a ‘felt’ seriousness. The brilliance of this poem is partly in positioning the reader with Saturn’s moon Titan, as a both close and distant perspective (the terms stretch to almost meaninglessness in a ‘felt’ sense) from which to (try to) contemplate what can’t actually be seen in deep space:
Who knows what sown and pullulating planet
Has come and gone, an ark of evidence
Interminably circling where it cannot
Be salvaged by the optic nerve?
Edgar’s resonant and charged adjectives in the first line above give way to a jostle between science and religion, resolved by a Miltonic sense of a lost paradise which cannot be physically perceived. This is a poem full of seeing (Saturn is juxtaposed with fossils found in shale/slime and sunflowers whose ‘yellow is the synonym for Look’) and brings the reader back to a fallible, challenged anthropocentrism (‘Was it for this the aeons fashioned us?’) displaced by a valuing of the intricacy of a ‘moth’s wing’ and ‘the fleck of matter in the nucleus’ which, in a dextrous twist, Edgar turns into a metaphysical compliment: ‘Your face which never fails / To show me what I cannot know’. (p.4)
In ‘Moonlight Sculptures’ Edgar contemplates another Saturn, apostrophising his partner asleep in their stifling moonlit bed: she is exhibited as an object seen from different perspectives – disembodied and fractured ‘intermittent anaglyphs’ – so at times she is a ‘swathed mummy’ or an avatar of Eve, or (affectionately and voyeuristically) ‘The world’s unspoken origin, / So openly depicted by Courbet’ (p.5). The poem becomes an aubade praising the different selves of his love, produced in a night of exhaustion for/by the moon, now eclipsed by its living creation.
‘Man in a Boat’ continues Edgar’s flickering essay on epistemology, focusing on the hyper-reality of the acclaimed Ron Mueck sculpture and, similarly to the Morandi poem, is concerned with the impermeability of the objectified (or painted) other. Edgar explores the defiance of art/image and the corresponding impotence of the beholder, an ongoing tension in Exhibits. The poem compels us to acknowledge the poet’s anxiety and recognition of his essential passivity – like the Angel of History, he can only record, not change, though perhaps, by another Coleridgean trope, the poet as Aeolian harp can hauntingly express what he imagines and constructs.
‘Paris’ too is about representation and its impossibilities – comprised of three quite separate stanza fragments, under Daniel Dennett’s whimsical epigraph ‘a film can be about Paris but Paris is not about anything’. Beginning with an exploration of Beraud’s Entrance to the Universal Exhibition, 1889, Edgar’s images cascade through the lines to arrive at
“…What’s it all about?”
Come on. No Jokes. Don’t say: “It’s about to snow.”
Don’t tell me it’s about three forty-five.
There is such pleasure in the playfulness of language and his own poetics. Stanza two recalls Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation lecture on Romanticism and Beethoven’s music:
… outcrop of dark rock
Juts minimally, intermittently
From masses of sea swell …
The final stanza begins ‘Across a fissured butte in Arizona / A wingèd shadow glides’: another Angel of History (or ‘Haunted Pane’) – something presaging harm? In this instance Edgar’s agnostic optimism is modernist rather than Romantic.
‘The Transaction’ and ‘Clues’ focus particularly on the different (masculine and feminine) nuances in comprehending past encounters and relationships. In both poems, Edgar is pointing to barely noticeable signs of trauma ‘Like an infection floating on a cough / Or swimming on the lip gloss of a kiss’ (p.33). ‘They found in her their metamorphosis’ sounds like the two understandings correspond but ‘she’ is an anarchic signifier pointing to the inevitably irreconcilable versions/views. His memory is sexual:
Still hidden like the blue tattoo
Of a hummingbird that flutters underneath
Her restless skirt.
Hers is of violation: ‘Knowing that rogue survives to gloat’. ‘The Transaction’ ends with a troublingly ambiguous image of masculinity.
Almost as a comment, ‘Peony’ explores the difficulty/impossibility of making sense of memories (and perceptions) ‘You have no sense that they make sense’ but its final image is of the peony’s generative power:
… in a garden bed
More wounding than a work of art,
The peony’s packed, swollen buds, which hold
Whole galaxies of red
And forces too immense to be controlled
Wait quietly to tear the day apart.
Many of Edgar’s poems play with the ways words create, fracture, problematize and reposition perception. ‘Grand Canyon’ (p.61f) and ‘Cinéma Vérité’ (p.66f) play masterfully with perspective. The watcher is watched. The poet is an ‘Ibis trying to prise apart a tub / of salad’ (p.66).
And I must not forget the butterflies – eg. in ‘A Scene from Proust’ (also ‘Govett’s Leap’) – Edgar’s miniaturist and imagist subtleties propose (echoing Douglas Stewart?) a minute signifier which the ‘whole of history has unravelled’ (p.65). Like Fuyue Anzai’s famous one-line modernist poem (a haiku without the line breaks?), 1929: ‘A single butterfly passed over the Tartar Strait’, Edgar has managed to grasp the world in fists of words.
Occasionally there are grandiloquent awkwardnesses such as ‘self-unfolding zone of plenitude’ and ‘thrumming potencies of un-ness’, both in ‘Exclusion Zone’ (p.51) but for the most part, these ‘exhibits’ are absorbing, subtle, beautifully crafted conversations.
In the final poem, ‘Rembrandt with Seagulls’, the last lines celebrate stillness, beauty and the (Brennanesque? Slessorian?) eye of the beholder:
Luminous and remote
Under the strobe-lit passage of the day,
The circling seagulls float
Somewhere that you can only see from here.
Exhibits of the Sun is poetry of glittering fragments and multivalent complexity, its fissuring and layering conjured up and held by Edgar in his ‘artist’s isolating eye’.
DAVID GILBEY is Adjunct Senior Lecturer in English at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, and President of Booranga Writers’ Centre . His most recent collection of poems is Pachinko Sunset (2016, Island Press).
We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo
Reviewed by HAYLEY SCRIVENOR
We Need New Names is a work of literary fiction about hunger of all kinds. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel begins in Budapest. Darling, an eleven-year-old girl, runs with her friends through a community of gated houses (named for the Hungarian capital) in an unnamed country in Africa. Darling and her friends have come to these gates and the large, clean houses they conceal to steal guavas.
In Paradise (the incongruously named shanty town in Zimbabwe where Darling lives), she and her friends Stina, Godknows, Chipo, Bastard and Sbho play games like Find bin Laden, Andy-over and the country-game. Success in the country-game is dependent on what country you are assigned before the game has begun. The friends vie to be the USA or the UK. No one wants to be countries like North Korea and Ethiopia. No one wants to be the country that they all live in either: ‘who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (49). The bulging belly of Darling’s friend, the eleven-year-old Chipo is a constant reminder of the threat of violence, sexual and otherwise, in Paradise—we are told in passing that ‘somebody made her pregnant’ (2). A scene where Darling, Chipo and a girl named Forgiveness ceremoniously prepare to ‘remove Chipo’s stomach’ is understated. The children imagine they are playing out a scene from ER. Forgiveness bends a rusty coathanger out of shape. This ‘play’ abortion (which is cut short) is a reflection of the realities that the girls have heard or know about, but do not really understand.
Darling’s descriptions are startling and often, quite funny. She describes economic collapse, poverty and political unrest with child-like concern for detail: the impossibly appetizing smell of baking bread, a grandmother who counts her money ‘like somebody told her it lays eggs overnight’ (22), the ‘o’ formed by the lips of a dead woman like she was ‘maybe interrupted in the middle of saying something’ (17). Most pressing is the constant hunger the children feel:
We shout and we shout and we shout; We want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away (10).
Darling has been dreaming of ‘Destroyedmichygen’ for a long time. The promise that her aunt (who lives in Detroit, Michigan) will send for her sets her apart from her friends. The process of getting to America is deftly described as ‘harder than crawling through the anus of a needle’ (240). And yet, Darling’s journey from Paradise to the USA is not is the focus of the book. Indeed, the physical journey from her home country, away from hunger and guavas to American excess and a new kind of poverty is barely touched on. Instead Darling (already in America for a period when the book takes up her story again) invites us to ‘come here where I am standing and look outside the window’ (147) as she turns her frank gaze on her new life in America. Darling’s migration is, at first, perfectly legal. She attends high school, works part time jobs. When her visa expires she joins the ranks of undocumented workers, at one stage working as a housecleaner for someone her Aunt knows. In America, the memory of a faded orange Cornell t-shirt worn by Bastard, Darling’s playmate in Paradise, is thrown into sharp relief by the beautiful daughter of Darling’s employer who attends Cornell, but refuses to eat:
I just kill myself with laughter. Because, Miss I Want to Be Sexy, there is this: You have a fridge bloated with food so no matter how much you starve yourself, you’ll never know real, true hunger. (268)
And yet Darling own hunger doesn’t end when she leaves Paradise and arrives in Detroit. It’s only exchanged for a new hunger, shared by outsiders everywhere. Darling’s unease and dissatisfaction are sharpened by thoughts of her home, the friends she has left behind.
While most of the story belongs to Darling and her distinctive impressions, there are a few significant point of view changes. The passage below employs the third person, adding depth to Darling’s story of leaving her home country:
Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing—to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves (p, 145).
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is ‘How They Lived’, a chapter told entirely from a collective point of view using the first person plural. Instead of Darling and her friends, this ‘we’ seems to consist of a range of people who have left their countries to come to the USA:
Because we were not in our own country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. When we talked our tongues thrashed madly in our mouths, staggered like drunken men. Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words. It was only when we were by ourselves that we spoke in our real voices. When we were alone we summoned the horses of our languages and mounted their backs and galloped past skyscrapers. Always, we were reluctant to come back down. (240)
Although the first person plural could be accused of wearing away the individual edges from the narrative, these sections told using ‘we’ broaden the book, make it about more than one girl’s journey. As Darling bemoans in the novel, Africa is often thought of by the people she meets as one place, with one story. This book joins others like Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Taiye Selesi’s Ghana Must Go that are complicating those assumptions while exploring the experiences of characters who leave their homes to travel to a new reality.
Viktor Shklovsky said of Tolstoy that the writer ‘describe[d] an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time’. The small details recorded and defamiliarised by Darling are the real strength of this book: a slice of pizza described by someone who has never encountered one—slices of pepperoni ‘the color of burn wounds’ (6)—and a calendar Jesus who ‘has women’s hair and is smiling shyly, his head tilted a bit to the side; you can tell he really wanted to look nice in the picture’ (23). There’s also a friend from Darling’s high school who’s ‘got this chest like she’s going to breastfeed the whole of America’ (220). When Darling misses her country, she describes a sky ‘so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off.’ (151). More than these details, it’s Darling’s even gaze, her frankness that stays with the reader. We Need New Names is a visceral, embodied book where hunger is more than a motif. It’s a book where hunger—for food, for love, for home—and the experience of being alive are inextricably intertwined. As people continue to move across the globe, playing their own version of the country-game, carving out new homes in places often hostile to them, We Need New Names is a book that helps us see these migrations on a human scale.
HAYLEY SCRIVENOR is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, Australia where she also lectures in creative writing. Her research areas include the first person plural and empathy. She is the director of Wollongong Writers Festival, held annually in November www.wollongongwritersfestival.com. You can find more of her writing at her website: www.hayleyscrivenor.com.