by Judith Beveridge
Reviewed by CAITLIN WILSON
“I often think about
The long process that loves
The sound we make.
It swings us until
We’ve got it by heart:
The music we are”
Judith Beveridge tells us what she is. In the introduction to her collection Sun Music: New and Selected Poems, she describes herself as a lyrical poet, and discusses her belief that poetry must be a “showdown between the word and the poet” (xv).
She begins her introduction with her ‘why’. A shy child, she found comfort and company in books and her own imagination, something she credits with drawing her into poetry: “I could manipulate words to sound more confident” (xiii), she says, and that her use of “masks and voices” (xiii) allows her to open up. For someone who doesn’t “particularly like” talking about her own poetry, this introduction illustrates an ability to zoom out, adopting a self-aware bird’s eye view of her own poetic idiosyncrasies and inspirations.
Echoes of this interest in shaping and moulding abound within the collection: in “Invitation”, the speaker does this with food; “I try to steer the flavour, arrange the colours on a plate” (38).
However, her most striking confession is how her childhood shyness inspired her love of nature, a fascination which proliferates in her work and in this collection. She explains that “the natural world didn’t make demands of me to speak to it”, something which is clear in her poignant and meticulous observations of nature (xiii). Her poems are earthed and earthy, giving the impression of a poet bewitched by the simple wonder of the world. Nature as a lively yet undemanding presence operates in Beveridge’s work as both a jewel to behold and describe, valued in its own right, and as a gateway into an examination of humanity, womanhood, personhood. In kitchens and gardens, nature is sniffed and poked, something to be moved by and something which, of its own accord, moves. Beveridge paints us a nature that is elegant, blunt, and vibrant, but never uncommunicative.
The introduction prefigures a curation of some four decades of a much beloved and awarded work, as well as thirty-three new poems. Once delved into, this collection ebbs and flows, widens out and narrows in with pin-point focus on facets of a rich and richly observant creative life.
Her earlier work, sampled here from The Domesticity of Giraffes (originally published in 1987) and Accidental Grace (1996), wafts from the page in familiar spirals. These poems are soft-edged, recognisable. They could be written about moments from a hundred Australian childhoods, or the subject of a thousand lunchtime daydreams. It says something about what we ask of poetry that I need to clarify I mean this as a compliment. The poems aren’t out to skewer a broken world: they speak to it and about it with gentle care and curiosity. This work is invested in the flux between indoor and outdoor, the grey space between inertness and liveliness. Symbols weighty with meaning are juxtaposed against the everyday – in For Rilke, ‘our hearts – they’re like utensils’ (7) and in The Fall of Angels are ‘faces cracked like china plates’ (33). This early work is also ripe with soundscape, fitting for a collection collated around its namesake. Yachts (86-87) asks the reader to hear the small symphony of seaside sounds – “the call of an oriole”, “the sharp strike notes of bellringers”, “a child count the stars in the water off a rickety pier”. The way her speaker conducts the soundscape changes – “if you can hear” becomes “you’ll know”, becomes “maybe you only hear”, and “perhaps you hear”. This vacillation between certainty and uncertainty, concrete and imaginary, leave the reader suspended in a moment at once real and magical. Dichotomies abound in Beveridge’s work.
Through her title Sun Music, Beveridge rightly draws our attention to her preoccupation with poetry’s sonic and rhythmic potential, encouraging us to hear the poems she crafts. However, it is her use of another sense that charmed me most. Scents drift up from her poems – a “dark potato” and the leaves and lemon the speaker uses to try to cover its funk in “Flower of Flowers” (30) tickle something in the back of the reader’s mind, a curiously powerful invitation to enter a poem through the nose. Perfume plays a strong part through the decades, a seeming favourite motif of Beveridge’s. It makes sense: smell is hugely connected to memory, and perfume, in particular, is something man-made that gestures toward the natural. Hints of rose and sandalwood are concocted to remind us of the beauty of the earth, to allow us to wear it. Beveridge’s use of scent activates something almost primal in her reader, leaving them no choice but to live through the poem, to step into it like an herbaceous bubble.
The works taken from her 2003 collection Wolf Notes are populated with more spectres of the human than the earlier selections. These characters are at once strong and vague, often more archetypal than wholly ‘real’. The mysterious ‘she’s of “The Lake” (102) and “Woman and Child” (105), the titular Fisherman’s Son (109), “The Artist who Speaks To His Model” (116). The animals remain, in Wolf Notes (112), and the birdsongs of “Woman and Child and Whisky Grass” (107), though their existence is often filtered through a character’s sensory experience of them. Visuals, too, are sumptuously laid out. In “The Dice-Player”, dice are “an affliction of black spots” (99).
“Marco Polo’s Concubine Speaks Out” (61) and “The Courtesan” (119), written some seven years apart, illustrate Beveridge’s ability to return to characters and images and develop, deepen and darken them. The speaker of the first tells us the “wind is blowing in the chrysanthemums”. In the second, the courtesan describes how “lightning flexed its muscled whip”. Whether this marks an overall turn to the darker, harder and more visceral in Beveridge’s oeuvre depends on how you receive the images she offers, part of the beauty of her work.
The Storm and Honey selections, from 2009, shift pre-occupations from the earth to the sea. Beveridge conjures fishing metaphors and watery imagery with (perhaps verging on tiring) frequency, though her gemlike capturing of moods and moments is omnipresent. There is a sense of looking out, looking beyond in these works that feels like an exhale.
The new poems, however, begin with a look back. “I rarely come here now, once or twice since you died” begins “Revisiting The Bay” (175), an achingly nostalgic memorial poem for Dorothy Porter. They are littered with memories, with preferences and perspectives earned by a life of creative observation. There is a sadness to these poems, though she warns us of this in her introduction: “I hope there’s enough overall sense of joy and wonder to override a creep into these darker tones” (xviii). These darker moments are, indeed, visited upon but never lingered in unduly, and she looks to the future here alongside remembrances. Her natural affinities remain but seem more charged with worry now. The poems show an enhanced sympathy and affinity with animals, beyond passive but loving description. They are impassioned, and loaded with a satisfying punch of righteousness. “To My Neighbour’s Hens” (178) is explicitly animal-rights (or at least chicken rights) oriented, with its plea that the sweet hens next door need never experience “slopped wire floors” and “battery cages”. “A Panegyric for Toads” (214) is a masterclass in balancing levity with the deep and dark.
Beveridge’s poems are all about balance – conversational and musical, weighty yet light as a perfumed breeze. They give the reader the space to live with them, comfortable and churning, until a line strikes you like a sparkling melody, lingering long after the music stops.
CAITLIN WILSON is a Melbourne-based student and writer of criticism and poetry. Her poem was recently short-listed for the University of Melbourne Creative Arts poetry prize, and her criticism can be read in Farrago and The Dialog, among others.
out of emptied cups
by Anne Casey
Launched by ELEANOR HOOKER
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote poetry is a ‘dividend from what you know and what you are’.
I am going to tell you about Anne Casey, the person, things I imagine you already know – Anne is a powerhouse, a force for good in a world where cynicism and doubt abound. She is collegiate, kind and considerate of her fellow poets, wherever they might live – just look at her social media, her reach and her conversations are global, she celebrates our successes and commiserates when we miss – that’s a rare thing and something to be cherished. Thankfully, Anne’s accomplishments and achievements have not changed her, she is too steady and noble a character to have her head turned by that.
The poems in out of emptied cups, Anne’s second collection with Salmon Poetry, make the unseen appear, whether it is beloved family members long gone, souls transitioning between this world and their next incarnation, or monsters (who are ever denied a hiding place in a Casey poem).
In many of Anne’s poems, tragedy and joy collide, and it is this collision that moves her poems toward: action – that which nudges us toward conscience, ecological consciousness, and self awareness, and, discovery – that which incites in us the wish to live well. I will talk about this later.
Just as a cinematographer uses a camera, Anne uses language in her poems to create a visual aesthetic – in her poem ‘out of a thousand cups’ (the first poem in the collection) Anne employs a filmic pan to show us the ascent of a soul before its turnaround and return to re-emerge in a different form, and the effect is feather light.
She uses the same technique in ‘All Souls’, the final poem in the collection – shifting between the noises, sights and sounds of Australia, and those desperately poignant images of her mother, delivered of a terminal diagnosis and yearning for her child, twinned with a suffocating religious iconography, associated with old Ireland. All of this is in contrast to the openness and natural exuberance of her adopted homeland, where ‘rainbow lorikeets… ‘will swoop… lifting our hearts/out of emptied cups and away with them into/the heavens’ – a suggestion that Australia is the land where Anne will live out her days.
When I’m editing footage from a lifeboat rescue, I’m careful where to place transitions so as to move the story of the callout scene from scene – transitions are like a blinking eye, that, each time it opens it encounters another image, another time. Anne places her ‘transitions’ to masterful effect in her poem ‘if I were to tell you’, as she shifts our view place from place and person to person central to her life – the second verse is a heart-stopper and illustrates how in describing the personal, that moment of wanting to speak to a parent and remembering that they have died, Anne depicts a universal moment of grief. (I was brought back to a moment soon after my own Dad died when, alone in my car on my drive home, I called out ‘Dad?’ – I frightened myself, and the absence of a response was just desperate.)
This collection includes poems that are at once mysterious and captivating. ‘Wildness’ is a personal favourite, and though the wild creature is never named (and that restraint adds power to the poem,) Anne draws on the many tropes of woman as shape-shifter: selkie; of the woman-hare that links to the Otherworld (a notion central to Irish folklore – Aos Sí), and even to the concept of doppelgänger. At another level the poem is about woman denying her true nature, suppressing her instincts. Interestingly, at her launch, Anne gave an altogether different account of this poem – which shows how a reader imports meaning to a work.
and I will curl up
wrap myself in your shed skin
and marvel at its length
all that had held you back
your wildness denied
This haunting poem encapsulates one of the central themes in out of emptied cups, that of a woman navigating an often unforgiving world, but ultimately recovering self and strength through family and history, by loving and being loved.
If poetry is the closest art we have to silence, Anne’s poems frame the silences. She is fearless in observing what can and should be named, and what should remain unnamed.
Jane Hirshfield has said that one of the ‘laws of poetry seems to be that there can be no good poem of unalloyed happiness, that good poems always pull in two directions’, and this is certainly what Anne achieves in her book, that sudden shift, that collision, achieved purely by precision of words.
A wonderful example of this (and of an exquisite employment of visual metaphor and experimentation with form), is offered in Anne’s poem thank you for shopping with us – a remonstration that our eco-destruction will literally cost us our earth.
This collection is one of vitality and rhythm. It uses the music of words to make silence felt, and leaves the reader with the glad appreciation that there is so much more to poetry than meaning alone.
Before I conclude I would like to acknowledge the Trojan work Jessie Lendennie and Siobhan Hutson do at Salmon Poetry, their support for poets and especially women poets is phenomenal and is celebrated; the Press is an inspiration.
I will finish with another quote by Czeslaw Milosz written in 1996 and as pertinent today as it was then, and which relates both to Anne’s poetry and Salmon Poetry – ‘that poets today can form a confraternitas transcending distances and language differences may be one of the few encouraging signs in the current chaotic world order.’
Congratulations Anne, I wish you and your work every success.
Photograph: Anne Casey with Eleanor Hooker and Luka Bloom
ELEANOR HOOKER is an Irish poet and writer. She has published two poetry collections with Dedalus Press: A Tug of Blue (2016); The Shadow Owner’s Companion (2012). Her third collection will be published in 2020, she is working on a novel. Eleanor holds an MPhil (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, an MA (Hons) in Cultural History from the University of Northumbria, and a BA (Hons 1st) from the Open University, UK. Eleanor is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (FLS). She is a helm for Lough Derg RNLI Lifeboat.
Down The Hume
by Peter Polites
Reviewed by HAROLD LEGASPI
There is not a simple matter of homogenous ‘queer’ voice, literary or otherwise (Hurley, 2010). As poststructuralist theorists have contended, for various historical and social reasons, ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are discursively unstable and contested categories (Jagose, 2002) and homosexuality is ‘a performative space of contradiction’ (Sedgwick , 1990). In highlighting Polites’ engagement through his noir, i.e. of the thornier breaches of the queer-racial diaspora, I seek to explore the ideals behind his proposed definitive ‘queer’. Are bodies racialised erotically? Can queer love be normative? The answers to these questions, as the chapters of Down The Hume have argued, is yes, and the implication is that a radical tension and a central paradox is characteristic—are queer relationships driven by sex?—and perhaps even definitional—of the very term “queer” (Sedgwick, 1990).’
I have felt, time and again, that the boundedness of Polites’ queer imaginations suggests delimiting factors. While at times, Polites novel outruns many heteronormative cultural constructions, thereby placing his work within the queer realm; his championing of a protagonist in Bux, a second-generation Greek-Australian lad, often horny, distinctly off-beat and mostly impotent, strips Polites’ voice from ideologies or institutions that might give queers a less troubled life, albeit one that is ‘mainstream or normative’: life-long marriage and offspring.
Down The Hume portrays Bux and his Aussie ‘boyf,’ Nice Arms Pete through a masochistic (and at times clandestine) relationship fuelled by addiction to ‘little moons’ (street name: Syrinapx), amidst violent outbursts and sexual encounters with other men, juxtaposed with Bux’s traditional Greek upbringing, marking him as an outsider. It is an attempt to ‘reconfigure the blinding whiteness of suburban history’ by taking us on a ‘flâneur’s tour through the Western suburbs of ‘Lebs, wogs, and reffos’, with streets evoking memories as he laments the disappeared places of his youth, his observations filtered through an urgent patois of clipped sentences’ (Caward, 2017).
Down The Hume and other novels within its constellation, e.g. Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995, Random House) position ‘queer’ hegemony that feels disenchanting by depicting characters who ‘lack a sovereign mind’, yet to ‘wake up’ from the consequences of their nihilistic fury. In a sense, the queer representations may promulgate homophobia by way of its self-indulgence, its construction of alternative values and ceaseless hopelessness. While this ‘queering,’ serve Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘making-strange of identities’ through ‘derangement and reconfiguration of conventional taxonomies,’ (Davidson , 2004) more than anything, it exposes the dark crevices, the shadows that lurk within the ‘thematic trinity of class, race and sexuality’ (Andersen, Collins, 1997) discourses that are a quintessential part of the narrative of suburban Western Sydney.
Down The Hume reads like an essay on tribalism (Caward, 2017). The community structure in Western Sydney is a device in achieving this narrative. One of the features of a queer noir is that the protagonist often does not have a solid family structure around them, as evidenced by the flailing tapestry of Bux’s relations with his parents (he is an only child). Down The Hume broadens, deepens, and complicates the kind of purgatory these characters are in, particularly Bux, who loves irrationally, but cannot justify his queer love as normative on the grounds of his dysfunctional family life.
Polites cautions: ‘a lot of people from a queer background first identify themselves culturally, then they label themselves as queer.’ (Polites, 2017) In an Althusserian sense therefore, one is ‘born into a nation, not just a nation…but into a ‘nationness,’ the ideology of nation as category of identity, a category that is continually reinforced by the state’ (Ashcroft, 2009). Bux in particular, identifies himself as Greek first then gay second, as a measure of ‘saving face’ with his parents. Even against his better judgement, Bux finds himself feeling proud, or more often, ashamed of his ‘nation.’ This is because, whether he likes it or not, it is his. Though when his Greek heritage and queerness are taken together, certain paradoxes are revealed, of the underlying psychology and politics of his racial eroticism.
Polites uses philosophical theories from the ‘F-fathers’—Freud and Foucault to demonstrate the trajectory of desire, fantasy and sexuality of his plot. Freud’s theory that male homosexuality developed from an ‘unsuccessful resolution of the Oedipus complex’ aligns with Bux’s psychology of seeking ‘male sexual objects whom he might love as he had been loved by his mother’ (Freud, 1933). Freud’s notion of only one kind of libido, i.e. the masculine one focused on the phallus, pays attention to hyper-sexed portrayal of Bux and Nice Arms Pete. Moreover, the masochism between them, and their compulsion to repeat aggressive impulses, ‘succeed in binding erotically the destructive trends which have been diverted inwards (Robinson, 1972):’
‘How can you sell it if you don’t fuck him?’ I just said it, my eyes scanned the surface of Nice Arms Pete’s face. It was slowly contorting and puffing up red. Tops of his eyelids creasing, lips slamming against each other. His fist shot out. Struck the side of my face. Nostrils got pushed down, my neck clenched taking the blow, and my eyes expanded post impact. I spun around away from him, put my whole arm on the wall and slumped into my body. I held up the walls with my arm because if I didn’t the whole house would have crashed. I breathed into my lungs but the worry beads spun around in a tornado’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites’ queer imagination exhibits a prejudiced, often complex set of power-relations, which oscillates: Bux feels, at times, superiority as well as a disenchantment of his Whiter counterparts.
‘Dark Rum just a bit older than me; Lakemba Street light wasn’t generous enough to get a make on him. Pretty shitty skin. Oily forehead, dry cheeks and already had laugh lines and frown lines all over his face. The other one was younger, a scumbag Aussie, a dirtbag colonial. Sturdy legs with red stubble and a rat’s tail he’d been growing from birth…Scumbag Rat’s Tail let out a laugh. A high femme laugh…When that scumbag Aussie laughed, it changed the distance between us. Only one or two feet away but I could feel their breath, noticed how their trackpants fit around their waists. Their fingers were calloused with dirt underneath. I realised they wanted to unwrap me’ (Polites, 2017).
Bux subjugates the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ whom with his ‘femme laugh’ he deems a ‘dirtbag colonial,’ typified by Bux’s awareness of Britain’s colonial history. Foucault’s notion of power is therefore evoked, that the ‘individual is a result of power turning upon itself,’ (Rozmarin, 2005) when Bux derives a ‘focal point of resistance’ (ibid) to the ‘scumbag Aussie,’ which is affected by ‘specific historical power relations,’ formed by governmental, economic, and cultural institutions’ (Deleuze, 1986). I want to suggest that Polites’ positions Bux as a Greek queer ‘maverick’ with a special perspective on sexual and class norms, especially as the narrative consolidates around race, which might also be said to particularise his brand of class-racism rather than to remove him from the its grip’ (Brim, 2014).
Paradoxically, Down The Hume non-chalantly if not ironically pokes fun at clichéd ethnic stereotypes: from ‘Viet dudes’ with their ‘God complex’, ‘muscle Indian gay boy doctors who (speak) with phony deep voices,’ ‘Persian hotties’ from the north side who evade local Iranians to ‘copper Spanish Filo’s’ with their ‘Filomerican drawl.’ There’s slang, reversions to Greek, SMS texts, queer appropriations and ESL diction that exemplify the isolating force of language, These classifications, central to this novel, fuel Polites’ engine of divisiveness but can also be used to establish identity and inclusion. It has driven the relevance of Western Sydney in the zeitgeist of contemporary Australian literature.
That Down The Hume’s protagonists ingest a haul of painkillers as a form of escapism, is symptomatic of the jaded possibilities of the ‘kind of life’ they couldn’t have—‘being some wog fag way out west…limited money…housing insecurity…never having a wedding that (their) parents would dance at (Polites, 2017).’ The story portrays these men as victims, unconscious of the possibilities of their imaginations. The characterisations are such that they illicit a base depiction of young gay men, insecure, addicted and broken, in their plight for a just existence. It’s not the sex they fight for, it’s the lifestyle. This book is a silent plea, most evident in its final pages—‘I didn’t want a fight for gay marriage – all I wanted was a clean house (Polites, 2017).’
What there is then, is this quixotic striving for a normative outcome, evidenced by Bux and Nice Arms Pete living together, as well as with Bux’s journey to his origins in Greece in the final pages, where the protagonist sinks into a literal arrest. Here, Bux resolves his existential dilemma by delving deeper into his ancestral village, but concedes that the streets are his real home—Haldon, Park, Caldwell, Brunker Road, Burwood, Lakemba, and others. Like a vagabond, he questions their relevance, but derives their meaning as the places that have ‘wrapped themselves around (him)’ (Polites, 2017).
Polites has articulated such a fragile but sordid voice in Bux. Bux’s voice lacks direction but is uninhibited. Polites’ queer imagination fluctuates as it seeks to transgress the bounds that queerness tests, penetrates, and fails to penetrate. The readers can revel in Down The Hume’s noir posturing of a complex psyche. In as much as this, Polites’ voice sometimes feels frustrated, bereft of spirituality, as it oozes machismo among the white noise inhibiting his troubled existence. Down The Hume has remnants of the queer struggle for conformity and is best read upon brooding or with an apprehensiveness to the state of Sydney’s queer culture, an openness to the complexities constituting queer formations, or at least an appreciation for suburban pride and the evolving institution of marriage.
- Brim M, 2014, ‘The Queer Imagination and the Gay Male Conundrum’, University of Michigan Press.
- Hurley M, ‘Gay and Lesbian Writing and Publishing in Australia, 1961-2001’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2010, Web: https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c2b14e180e, [Accessed: 2 May 2018].
- Jagose A, 2002, Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence, New York: Cornell UP.
- Sedgwick E, 1990, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: U of California P.
- Caward C, 2 Mar 2017, Down The Hume review: evocative, if flawed, urban debut’, Sydney Morning Herald, Web: https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/fiction-review-evocative-if-flawed-urban-debut-20170301-guny1q.html [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Davidson G, 2004, ‘Minor Literature, Microculture: Fiona McGregor’s Chemical Palace’, Southerly: a review of Australian Literature, 64 (3).
- Polites P, 2017, Down The Hume, Hachette, Sydney.
- Andersen M L, Collins P H, eds., 1997, Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, 3rd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Polites P, Scott R, 12 Dec 2017, Down The Hume, Sydney Writers Festival Podcasts, Web: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-bookshelf-abc-rn/id499762704?mt=2 [Accessed: 17 April 2018].
- Ashcroft B, 2009, ‘Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope, The Journal of European Association of Studies on Australia, Vol. 1, ISSN 1988-5946 under the auspices of Coolabah Observatori: Centre d’Estudis Australians, Australian Studies Centre, Universitat de Barcelona.
- Robinson P, 1972, ‘The Modernisation of Sex’, Harper and Row, New York.
- Freud S, 1933, ‘Femininity’ in Strachey, J. (1933) editor, S.S., London: The Hogarth Press.
- Rozmarin M, 2005, ‘Power, Freedom and Individuality: Foucault and Sexual Difference’, Human Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1.
- Deleuze G, 1986, Foucault, S. Hand (Trans.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
HAROLD LEGASPI is a poet, novelist, writer of short fiction and essayist who migrated to Australia from the Philippines in 1989. He has lived in Manila, Sydney, London, Taipei and Beijing. His writing has been published internationally and in Australia. More of his writing can be found here.
The Artist’s Portrait
by Julie Keys
Reviewed by VICTORIA NUGENT
The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, is not an easy novel to categorise. It’s not exactly a page turner but it simmers along with a slow sense of intrigue. It’s not quite a murder mystery, not quite drama, not quite historical fiction. Its switching perspectives and the knowledge that a key protagonist is self-editing her history make it a challenging but rewarding read. Not all is as it seem, facts are not immutable and character motivations are far from clear-cut. The novel is a debut for Keys, a writer from the Illawarra region on the NSW South Coast, who has worked as a tutor, registered nurse, youth worker and clinical trials coordinator before a nasty car accident motivated her to swap her career for full-time writing. Whilst conducting research for a PhD in Creative Arts, Keys has delved into gender and prestige for Australian writers.(1) The Artist’s Portrait was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, under its then-title, Triptych.
The Artist’s Portrait intersects the worlds of aging artist, Muriel Kemp, and nurse, Jane Cooper. The pair meet when Jane, battling late-night nausea and subsequent insomnia takes to pacing the suburban Illawarra streets at dusk in the 1990s. Their first meeting is abrasive and confusing. In Jane’s own words “whatever drew me to Muriel, it wasn’t her charm.” (333). In the work, Muriel’s sharpness but also her evasiveness when it comes to questions she doesn’t wish to answer intersect to make her a compelling enigma while Jane herself is somewhat of an every woman, with writing aspirations that set the scene for Muriel to suggest she write her life story.
As Muriel and Jane’s paths continue to intersect, Jane becomes an unwitting but dedicated biographer, soon drawn to know more about Muriel as her own research unearths mysteries around her life and her identity. Newspaper accounts tell her that the artist Muriel Kemp died in 1936 and what’s more, that she was accused of murder. Her art is shrouded with controversy, scandal and harsh criticism and there’s the matter of some paintings that went missing decades ago. The more Jane tries to grasp the truth, the more slippery it becomes. At times the entire narrative seems slippery and hard to keep a handle on, perhaps a reflection on how so much of people’s personal histories are entwined with the teller’s perspective and what they want us to know.
Keys plays carefully with the concept of the unreliable narrator, drip feeding the reader details as the story progresses through the tapes Muriel records for Jane, but never quite lifting the veil to show the full picture. Much like Jane, I found myself being pulled into Muriel’s orbit, trying to puzzle her out. The tale begins in 1914 but much of the main action takes place throughout the 1920s. The depiction of Muriel’s early life in the tenements with its gritty realism brings to mind Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, set in the same slum streets or even Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At 10 Muriel is caught between a childhood playing tag along “Samuel Street, with its scabby terraces of sandstone and weatherboard and iron, and balconies that looked like eyelids slumbering above the backyard patches of dirt”(8) and her first job in an artist’s studio that “stunk of cats, Lysol and turps” (3).
Keys goes on to deftly paint a picture of the 1920s Surry Hills art world so vivid that it is entirely possible for the reader to believe some of the figures she breathes life into once walked the streets of Sydney. This sense of gritty realism is highlighted by faux-quotes about Kemp’s works from authorities such as celebrated artist Norman Lindsay, whose epigraph quote describes Kemp’s paintings as having “the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless, barren- a reflection of the artist, no doubt”(1).
The historic sections of the novel are imbued with vivid characters… Muriel’s quick buck-seeking father, established artist Max Jenner with “his rat’s face” (21) and harsh words, Muriel’s artistic rival and fairweather acquaintance Adam Black, her childhood friend Alice Cooney and society darling cum arts patron Claudine Worthington.
The novel abounds with roughness as Muriel spends time around brothels and captures coarser elements of the Surry Hills scene. It is soon clear that the art world disdains her and her works are frequently written off once critics know who painted them. One young artist tells Muriel that she, as a young woman, is “taking up a spot that could be filled by somebody who’s serious about the whole thing”(20) and she baldly states to Alice in the earlier stages of her career that “being good isn’t as important as being noticed”. However, it seems that when Muriel’s work’s are noticed, critics tend to appraise them negatively, with opinions ranging from her pictures being “ vulgar and contemptible”(1) to “the banal”(1). Notably Muriel promises herself at one stage to only paint women, sparking her Working Women series. “It wasn’t something you saw; waitresses, teachers, housewives, nuns, barwomen, shop assistants, nurses, women catching trams, walking, on the back of horses and sitting in traps- hanging out clothes sweeping. There was an abundance of subjects. Women who ran brothels and sly grog shops. I’d paint them all” (59).
Muriel quietly scorns “portraits with women with sugary lips and unshed tears” (23), instead honing in on light and shadows and “dark and violent subjects” (156).
Structurally, the delineation of perspectives becomes less clear as the narrative progresses, just as the murkiness of Muriel’s past seems to grow. Muriel’s voice on the tapes increasingly digresses, telling Jane what to leave out and dodging from one subject to another. At one stage in the book, Jane tells Muriel she’s “not much of a storyteller” (67) and the meandering tale only serves to cement that impression.
Biographer’s notes in italics interspersed throughout the text pulled me out of the narrative flow, reminding me each time of Jane’s own note to herself “do not believe everything Muriel says”(72). The writing itself is peppered with rich descriptions and clever metaphors- Muriel’s injured Nan is “a lump moulded into the rocking chair, her leg raised like a busted snag on a fruit box”(89), while on another page “two crossed branches rubbed together like cicada legs”(170).
In the 1990s narrative strain, Jane is struggling with morning sickness and the life changes wrought by her pregnancy. Throw in the reemergence of a childhood friend, now “tantalising but dangerous”(113) and her own past tragedy and you’ve got a personal history that could easily hold up a plot on its own, but ultimately it pales in comparison to Muriel’s conflicted past. Again the connection between gender and creative work is a significant theme as Muriel warns Jane that “if you were serious about being a writer… you’d get rid of that baby”(42) as they stand on the doorstep of her turps-scented house.
The 1990s setting also works particularly well as the addition of Google or online history archives would change the pattern of Jane’s research significantly. But there are no convenient buttons Jane can press to expedite her fact-finding, helping to keep the pace at a slow simmer throughout, making every big revelation feel precious, even while vital puzzle pieces remain lost.
As the novel progresses, much as a sketch might become a full blown artwork, Muriel fleshes out her past but there are still gaps and uncertainties. There is no deus ex machina here to wrap it all up with a neat bow. A second reading adds further depth but the same puzzles remain. I found myself craving more, thinking of the questions I would have liked to ask Muriel, ultimately leaving a lingering impression. The Artist’s Portrait is a great addition to the Australian literary scene, a quiet, thought-provoking achiever, that doesn’t overstate its case when it comes to gender and creative work, but still manages to say so much.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.
by Tricia Dearborn
Reviewed by ROSE LUCAS
What are the elements – multiple, multivalent – which constitute and compose us as individuals, as bodies in time and place? What are the factors which make each of us precisely who we are, as well as who we might become? In her third book of poetry Autobiochemistry, Tricia Dearborn uses the analogy of the chemical elements which comprise physical matter as a framework for understanding a range of elements which contribute to a building of ‘self’: memory, childhood, the specificity of experience, sexual desire and love, the mesmerising world of ideas and of language itself. This is powerful poetry, engaging in its directness and emotional honesty and further establishing Dearborn’s position as an important voice in Australian poetry.
Riffing on an undergraduate experience in biochemistry, the poems in the first section are clustered under the signs of the periodic table; both separately and as a sequence, they gather and interpret various aspects of the speaker’s experience. In ‘Fe Iron,’ for instance, the poet recalls her first bleeding, recorded in her ‘pale blue Hollie Hobbie diary’ (p. 26); in ‘O Oxygen,’ she re-inhabits the gasping for breath as a childhood asthmatic, ‘hauling in triumphant/catch after catch of air’ (p. 15). In ‘C Carbon,’ the poet recognises and celebrates the permeability between the individual body and the structures of the universe, between the brief passage of our personal lives and the wider currents of time:
When my body stops, its carbon
will be freed as carbon dioxide
by fire or decay
and a tree may breathe me.
The poem ‘Na Sodium’ explicitly explores a fundamental tension between the search for a mythical element of stability and purity – a kind of prima materia ‘incorruptible’ as she describes in ‘Au Gold’ (p.35) – and a recognition of impurity or change as the only possible constant:
I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient,
swaddled in the safety
of needing no one
now I know we’re never pure
beginning as we do admixture
of the genetically new,
from the outset, chemically intermingled
then we separate, but never completely
even when we feel entirely alone
our mirror neurons
prove us liars…/
I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate
but humans are never
found free in nature
Connecting and being separate, wanting engagement yet feeling at the margins of acceptance, celebrating individuality and pushing the world away – these ambivalence and defences mark the recollections and re-inhabitations of childhood encountered in these poems. However, in the section ‘Covalent Bonds,’ there is a definite movement toward connection and an acceptance of the risks and sustenance of loving in its different forms. ‘…how lucky/that I outlasted/my inability to feel loved,’ she writes in ‘At last’ (p. 44). It may be painful to reach the point of release, but eventually ‘unexpectedly love/came flooding in/throwing the world open.’ Such connection is not sentimentalised in these poems. In ‘Phelgm: a love poem’ for instance, the labour of loving, ‘its energy and joy,’ survives even the contrariness and staleness of illness with its ‘fluorescent yellow-green phlegm’ (p. 40) and the disturbances of sleep. Similarly, ‘Ride’ explores the incipient violence of sexual encounter to identify the abrasion of surfaces which might exist even between two people who love each other: ‘my stubborn selfishness, your willingness/when pushed to ride roughshod’ (p. 39).
In the poems included in ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs,’ Dearborn shifts the focus from a more introspective style to consider how another person – someone else who is also a writer, who has documented and narrativized aspects of their experience and thinking – manages the complex elements of her ‘autobiochemistry.’ The Woolf whom Dearborn delineates, a little like the artist Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, is both overshadowed by a-figure powerful father – ‘while he was in focus/you could not be’ (p. 50) – and struggles to be seen by a mother who would always serve husband and sons first:
Despite your singularity
her eyes, which were yours,
never saw you (p. 51)
And when Woolf undertakes her own explorations of self and memory, she too finds ‘liars in the house,’ a violence at the heart of the family romance:
…When you started tunnelling
in earnest, excavating
the caves behind yourself,
a small you was spotlit
on that ledge, your half-brother’s
hand under your clothes
The ‘Elephant Poems’ see Dearborn undertaking her own tunnellings of memory and psyche, enabled by the caring structures of therapy. As in ‘The invisible elephant,’ this involves the excruciating process of admitting to the dominating element which has always crowded the psychic space of her life, ‘us[ing] up the room,/ breath[ing] my air/ fou[ing] the floor’ (p. 62) – no longer avoiding or pretending, but actually naming the debilitating shape of pain: ‘the shape of/stifled cries in the dark/fear of footsteps/waking in puddles’ (p. 63). This psychic and linguistic process of addressing what has been unaddressable – ‘to discover, astonished,/that the world is not made of amber/then to haul myself bodily/from the viscid exudate/of my father’s lies’ (p. 69) – is to find the possibilities of making one’s own self, of moving into a life which might exist ‘beyond amber’ and its frozen denials.
The poems included in ‘The change: some notes from the field’ are, by comparison with the emotional suffering and labour alluded to in the Elephant poems, celebratory. In these poems, which detail the inexorable rising of the hot flush, the loss of predictable patterns of ‘’bodily knowledge’ and being largely bodily and emotionally adrift where ‘conditions are choppy out on the water/storms blow up from nowhere’ (p. 93), there is nevertheless an acceptance of the literal integration of self and biology. In the playful concrete poem ‘Perimenopause, in which everything is a fan’ (p. 96) a life of love, creativity, family, connections, art and the physical body are brought together, seemingly no longer at war. Indeed, as ‘Perimenopause as uncertainty and invitation’ would suggest, this ‘change’ in the life of a woman is as much opportunity as loss, a space and time enabled by the biochemical in which to grasp a challenge for directness and courage and excitement:
you never dared
should you choose to accept it
to take no shit
for the rest of your life
Not only is it refreshing to read about hormonal changes in a woman’s life as part of the vital stuff of poetry, but these final poems do also suggest something of a triumphant gathering together of the troubling elements of experience, of being one’s self in the world.
Autobiochemistry is about the relationship between parts and whole, between the elements which shape us and the selves who emerge from that process of influence; these poems traverse that tension and impel us to enquire into the extent of the agency which might be possible in the emergence of self. As Dearborn writes so movingly in the poem ‘Your life as a jigsaw,’ we can only work with what we’ve got – analysing the pieces, trying to find what’s missing, trying to interpret and reincorporate fragments of colour and shape into an overall pattern that is meaningful, to take a path forward:
enough pieces matched
by painstaking experiment, by guesswork, by luck
until there is enough tree, or sky, or land or water
for you to see
which way is up
ROSE LUCAS is a Melbourne poet and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University. Her first collection, Even in the Dark (WAP, 2013) won the Mary Gilmore Award; her second collection, Unexpected Clearing was also published by UWAP in 2016. She is currently completing her third collection, This Shuttered Eye.
Kavita Nandan recently moved to Sydney and teaches creative writing and literature at Macquarie University. Her first novel Home after Dark was published in 2014. She is the editor of Stolen Worlds: Fijiindian Fragments. Her short stories have been published in Transnational Literature, The Island Review and Landfall.
Photo: by Michael Kosmider
The Family Circle
Arjun steps onto the cool marble floor of the Se Cathedral. Away from the hot stickiness of the street front, he can breathe. They have cleared four tourist attractions so far, and this is to be the last for the day. A giant chandelier spills like a waterfall from the ceiling. Brass candelabras rise like stalagmites from the low altar, and above it, in a panel of the gold screen, Saint Catherine awaits martyrdom. Sublime paintings of biblical scenes suddenly turn feral on a ragged wall, throwing up his suspicion that God is more absent than present in these holy structures. A loud clatter echoes behind Arjun and he turns. His aunts sit in the pews with their digits darting into bags of salty cashew nuts and one of them, probably Aunt May, has let fall the gaudy plaster model of the Se Cathedral with a digital clock face embedded in the remaining bell tower. Bloody aunty fingers! Perspiring nephews and nieces in their ‘I love Goa’ flea market T-shirts trot in twos down the aisle. Uncles fling themselves this way and that way as if part of a dance routine, in their attempts to capture every angle of the architectural wonder. How they gushed all over the centuries-old Portuguese church like a tidal wave. Surely, only his family possessed this special talent of diminishing grandeur so completely.
At first, Arjun had ignored the summons to the reunion. But as he sat outside under a cloudless Sydney sky eating carbonara pasta in a café he liked, the email with its subject heading, ‘Reunion is the go in Goa’, revisited him. A red-tipped tailed shark of a Qantas plane, slipped away in the distance. The sky’s spectacular clarity unnerved him and a feeling of loneliness reawakened in his heart. It had been a decade since he had gone back to the country of his birth. Then, whether vision or visitation, he swore he saw his long dead grandmother, gesturing North-West with her fleshless finger from heaven. Arjun booked his flight from Sydney to Goa.
The family commandeer six standard rooms at an inexpensive beach resort. The aunties, who had promised their mother before she died that they would remain a close-knit family despite the geographical challenges, organised for the clan to meet, every ten years, in a different part of India. On this occasion, May, Maggie, June and Preeti bubbled with moral superiority at the absence of the two elder sisters who lived in the UK and Australia. At least, they consoled themselves with exaggerated sighs, their strange children, with their Indian faces but foreign accents and values had come from overseas.
Jetlagged, Arjun, and his cousin Arti and her husband who have come from London, go to bed early. The domestic travellers settle in industriously, putting clothes away in cupboards, storing cooked food and snacks brought from home in the mini fridges, scolding the children for turning the ceiling fan on and off, pressing the buttons of the TV remote control at random, juggling ornaments and stabbing at the fruit pyramid gleefully.
The next morning, Maggie, dressed in a floral-patterned kaftan, is jubilant that consensus has been achieved: all 16 of them are visiting the Spice Plantation. A keen cook, she savours the aroma of vanilla, then cinnamon, then cardamom. Andrew, her son, excavates his nose with a grubby finger and retracting it says, “Look ma, spice!”
Arjun grins to himself. Obnoxious kid. Then a glimpse of a scarf the colour of kingfisher blue. He remembers that afternoon in Uncle Joseph’s and Aunt May’s bedroom – the first and only time Lara and he were together – how carefully she had placed her scarf on the side-table as if it was a fledgling bird. His cousin Lara darts through the spice trees chasing after her own child.
The guide leads them though the leafy green plantation, stopping often to point out the different spices and tropical trees. He hands out bananas and star fruit to the kids to soften their boredom.
Like the others, Arjun tries what’s on offer but he is not satisfied. He remembers this gnawing sense of want, of wanting more, from his year spent staying with his Aunties in his twenties. For a moment, he thinks back to those nights he smoked hash on his Uncle’s and Aunt’s terrace and how he’d stare up at the night sky, smeared with stars, seeing a portal warbling between a familiar and an unknown world. Always, Lara, there, by his side. Squeezing his hand. Back then, they’d thought fuck parents, fuck the establishment . . . fuck making money when the family already had enough to see them through to kingdom come. Now, he can’t get to that state of being high with a pre-party Ecstasy tab or hit of LSD.
One of the twins’ stuffs a handful of black pepper into his mouth and yells for a straight five minutes. The little potbelly of the other twin is convulsing with shrieking laughter as Aunt May skips and hops and scolds.
After the plantation excursion, the family return to the hotel restaurant for an early dinner. Light-hearted banter between family members soon turns personal and vicious.
Maggie, his mother’s sister reaches for two of the extra-large Goan chapatis, and looking first at May, then at the chapati pile again, says “The twins have grown fat, May, but poor little Bunty . . . is he not getting enough food? Look at him. Thin as a bhindee.”
May like a snake provoked, bites immediately, “Andrew has become very naughty, don’t you think? And his sister seems a little behind at school. I hope she doesn’t have to repeat class four.”
“Arjun, are you losing your hair?” Asks Uncle Harry as he runs his hand through his own, then repeats the gesture. “Pity your parents couldn’t make it. They always seem to be going to some overseas conference. Intellectuals eh?”
The bastard, Arjun thinks. He wouldn’t have minded so much about the hair comment if Lara, still cold as hell towards him, wasn’t in earshot.
Uncle Rai slurring and slurping his third glass of Feni begins his worn-out tirade: “It was Maggie’s butter chicken that finally killed the old bird. She knew Mummy’s doctor had expressly forbidden rich foods.” Maggie’s fingers are greasy and flakes of chapati are all over her lap, but Arjun can see her left ankle beginning to shake and he wants to stride across the room and slap his uncle for being such a patriarchal jerk.
Uncle Rai can’t stop himself: “So Maggie, I suppose it’s all decided now that the kids are going to private schools?”
“Rai! It was in our mother’s will that we get the house. We did spend a lot of time with her after you and June moved to Chennai.”
“Maggie!” June says heatedly, “You know we moved to be closer to Rai’s family after his father had the triple bypass.”
Aunt Preeti, who had been listening silently to the conversation up to this point, explodes like corn kernels hitting hot oil, one after the other. “YOU. ARE. ALL. OBSESSED. DID. ANY. OF. YOU. CARE. WHEN. MY. HUSBAND. WAS. DYING!”
Aunt May, red faced and perspiring replies, “Preeti, you never did see the value of money.”
“That’s why we all pay for her now!” shouts Uncle Joseph from the opposite end of the table.
“What an ass,” Arti mutters under her breath to her husband. Mark hurriedly hides the sucked curried prawns on his plate under the serviette, conscious that he might have taken too many.
Why do they bother? Arjun thinks. It’s as if the weeks of goodwill it took to work out the logistics for every family member coming from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore and as far away as Sydney and London, and meeting in one spot – Goa – had only pushed their divisive emotions underground temporarily. They toured the churches, the beaches, the plantations, the markets together, but seemed only vaguely interested in the attractions themselves, and only too willing to argue at every turn. A gap of ten years was a reasonable time to expect quarrels to be forgiven if not forgotten, but neither seemed to be the case. The family’s differences were returning like resurrection plants.
Maybe his cynicism came from his lack of innocence. Since nobody had committed murder within the family yet, he was probably the biggest deviant here. Though sleeping with his first cousin had felt. . . inevitable. . . for both of them.
Knowing that the year was almost up and he would be returning to Australia to start an MBA had made him daring and insanely horny. Lara had been willing, flirty and in unison they had drunk several whiskey gulps from Uncle Joseph’s liquor stash kept in his cupboard that he thought no one knew about. Three days later, he had left.
It was almost annoying how she gave nothing away, no secret looks in his direction or holding his gaze a little longer than necessary. She was behaving as if nothing had ever happened between them and seemed completely engrossed in the child. Since when did Lara have a child? He regretted now that he never hit send on that email he wrote to her. On all those emails he wrote her. What kind of an insensitive bastard was he? He had only thought of his own embarrassment.
Lara yanks back the pallu of her sari from Max who is gripping it with both hands and using it to slide around the room. Then she cuddles the boy and gives him a piece of papaya.
He needs her to look at him. He remembers the diffused, sexiness of her eyes like she was either tipsy or in a state of desire that she used to have. He feels guilty for wanting her, again. Christ. He’s nearly thirty-five, surely . . . He thinks of Michelle back home redecorating their small Sydney apartment so they might sell it and buy a house, start a family.
Lara grips the knife she is using to cut up the papaya and turns to him, transforming into Kali, the goddess of death, with human heads around her neck and arms of men in a girdle around her waist.
He knows then that he’s terribly wrong: of course she remembers and hasn’t even come close to forgiving him. Max is sticking out his orange-Fanta tongue at him.
The family spend the next day at the beach. They encircle three tables joined together in a beach shack. They are practically hijacking the place with their sheer numbers. But then he remembers this isn’t Darlinghurst. The waiters gossip amongst themselves in Konkani. His uncles consume bottles of local Kingfisher beer, except for Uncle Rai who is silently reading a philosophical tract at the table and avoiding everyone’s eyes, especially Maggie’s, after the insults of yesterday.
Boney M and Michael Jackson interspersed with Indian movie hits spin around the room, escape outside, tumble and disappear into radiant waves.
His aunts are chatting with each other and laughing as if they have forgotten the angry things that were said to each other the day before. Aunt Preeti, however, is sitting apart, on a deck chair. She wears her hair in a stylish knot under her European-styled hat and the leg of her salwar billows in the wind. A young man prances on a jet ski in gold speedos near the seashore. Arjun sees that his aunt is older and sadder but still beautiful like her daughter Lara.
The men, having eaten and drunk too much at lunch, lie like overcooked lobsters in deck chairs on the beach and the women fret about the kids drowning and what to prepare for the next meal. They pass the usual comments about the tourists being too fat, too skinny and too liberal. When a topless woman walks past them, Aunt May does not have enough hands to cover all three sets of eyes of her unruly boys. When she realises that the woman in the white triangle barely covering her private parts is her niece, Arti, her hands drop, enabling her sons to get an eyeful.
The next morning, Arjun wakes up before the others to go sightseeing on his own. Walking around the seventeenth century church, he looks at the revered statues of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Peter and Saint Paul and remains unmoved. The broken body of Jesus on the Cross, however, strikes a chord. All those years of going to church and reading the bible to please his grandmother, what did they amount to? He feels regret at all the wasted Sunday mornings at bible study, but not a lot, too much time has passed.
He finds Sonya, Aunt June’s and Uncle Rai’s grandchild, sitting on a pew, head bent deep in concentration. Perhaps like him, she had wanted some time alone. Sonya is sketching something on a large notebook. He sits silently behind her, taking a peek over her shoulder, which is newly branded with a thick white stripe from yesterday’s swim. She is drawing a caricature of Jesus on the Cross. Her Jesus looks a lot like Uncle Harry, the family’s only politician and self-proclaimed martyr. He wishes he’d been that savvy at her age.
At the Bom Basilica, he stops several times to take photographs for Michelle. Photos were the only thing she asked for apart from some Goan silk, ‘preferably in marigold yellow, beaded along the edges and large enough to cover a Queen sized bed.’
“Arjun,” she had asked while she was chipping away at the tiles in the splashback, “is the real reason you don’t want me to come that you are ashamed of me?”
Why does she walk like a giraffe? Arree, her clothes are so drab. She should close her mouth when she smiles – her teeth are too big, don’t you think? How could he explain to her that his family would find fault in everything he loved about her. So instead he offered no explanation at all and reiterated that of course he wasn’t ashamed of her. When he discovers extra pairs of underwear and sunscreen in his suitcase, he knows that this is Michelle’s way of forgiving him.
He notices Mark, Arti’s husband, up ahead talking to a dark and pretty Goanese girl. It is the waitress who served them yesterday at the beach shack. He sees Mark touch the girl’s arm and he strides forward, not willing to wait for something more to happen as it does so easily in this hot and fleshy city, when he hears a sudden braking followed by a series of skids, a loud bang and waves of screaming.
As he turns around, the crowd rushes past him leaving him isolated on a square of concrete, dwarfed in front of the great church with the heat piercing his brain like a bullet.
He can hear Mark’s voice, dream-like, as he runs past in the same direction: “Shit man, are you coming?” The crowd is forming a circle on the road up ahead.
Arjun is standing by Mark now who looks unsure of himself. He grabs Mark’s arm to steady him, but when it looks like Mark is about to spew, he shoves him away.
A person lies under a vehicle with his knees facing upwards. It almost seems as if he is repairing the bus. But why would he be doing that in the middle of the road? And holding up all this traffic? Now that he looks more closely the legs are remarkably still. He starts to notice, even though he doesn’t want to, other things like the paleness of the legs, the tattoo of a tribal lion covering a large area of thigh and one bright red flip flop still clinging to a foot.
The bus driver is sitting in his seat, his eyes darting everywhere and sweat running down his face like monsoonal rain. Soon they are surrounded by noises and activity: ambulance sirens blaring, cars screeching to a halt, doors being slammed, and policemen running about dispersing the unheeding crowd. The commotion dies down and some people within the circle leave, satisfied that they are abreast of the latest in Goa. They are easily replaced by others whose curiosity is yet to be satiated.
“Some poor foreigner,” Mark says in a hopelessly Scottish accent.
Arjun looks down at his shaking hands and legs. As he raises his head again he sees familiar faces interspersed in the crowd. Maggie is standing next to Rai and June next to Harry as if they have swapped husbands. Joseph picks up Preeti’s hat that has fallen on the road and gives it to her. May’s three boys are holding hands and Lara is covering her child’s eyes with the pallu of her sari and waving. It seems as if the whole family are there, looking through the multitudes and smiling tenderly at him.
As the ambulance workers are piling the foreigner onto the stretcher as they might a dead body, the bloodied and broken corpse sits up. The crowd gasps collectively, cheers collectively.
Arjun trembles as the ring of people holds fast, then breaks, and breaks again.