(Clozapine Clinic: edited by Tim Heffernan & Alise Blayney)
My world is controlled
I see them everywhere
Like some numerologist
Or lost mathematician
Descartes with his planar thought
I’m on the z-axis
But I have no scene for to play
Just an axiom of rhetorical
And you are doing
But I could
Be a better 1
If you could 2, only 3 is the number
I plead 4 less 5 is the 6-note and the 7
Isn’t 8 it’s 9
Sell the Kids for Food
Order the next anti-psychotic
I’m not a danger to myself
I’m not a danger to you
But you better put me away
Cos my knife is to your throat
You cut me with your DSM
My veins are blue
But my hands are read-
Y for your kiss of death.
Take this pill and you will feel more yourself
More than who you really are
More than who you know
More than you can believe is right.
Get ready for a fight
Get ready for some control
As they steady your ass
For the jab
The short upper-cut
Stare at the walls
Stripped of your emperor’s
De-robed, dismissed, dis-armed.
Nominate me for life
Open the door for laughter
Close it again, when finished with me
Do not know it
But do it too when I see you here
Looking at my words like they are poetry
But really they are new to me
As they all are.
I want to be a poet
But I cannot
So I will be then and there
The free writing agent of the passable
Use of words.
Bruce Saunders is a funky dove in a hip-swinger kind of thing called the rejuvenated part of South Africa in England where he lives with Madiba in his house called the Bat. It is not for you to see but for you to hear as he goes from one to another trying different things in order to get attention for his plight in the Mental Health Industry here where he is empowered by his desire to do the harm he can to the psychiatry that wounded his try at the politics of the day, and he would be grateful if you can read his work and see if you go to the home of the woods without seeing it all as he does. Called the Big B by some, he is the first to know it is found not in the Heart but in the Wrist Action. To read more of Bruce’s work, visit his blog, Too Lonely To Make Sense.
(edited by Robyn Cadwallader)
In Krissy Kneen’s 2009 memoir Affection, her grandmother Dragitsa Marusic (aka Lotty Kneen) was introduced as the family’s best storyteller, and as a person who did a lot of cooking. A woman whose precise cultural heritage remained mysterious even to her immediate family, Dragitsa could reliably be found in her kitchen preparing a ‘haphazard’ mix of Egyptian and European dishes – including ful medames, vegetables stuffed with rice, and hand-rolled gnocchi.
Steeped in stereotype as the trope may be, grandmothers continue to retain a reputation for being great cooks. So it’s meaningful (if confronting) to encounter the Kneen of Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle literally eating particles of her grandmother’s ashes. From the opening section, ‘Prelude’:
I pick a grain of her, stolen from the urn
place it on my tongue.
My blood. (4)
This act appears to be spontaneous — it could be interpreted as a moment of divine possession, which is appropriate given the obvious allusion to the Christian Eucharist. The practice of Holy Communion (i.e. the ritualistic consumption of bread and wine as symbols of the ‘body’ and ‘blood’ of Christ) itself is subject to interpretation — some Christians believe that Christ is literally present in the Eucharist, while others consider it to be only a symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper. With regards to Kneen’s act of consumption, it would seem she is unsure of what, exactly, motivated her decision, and that she is using poetry as a tool to understand her own behaviour. There are moments that fixate on the literal — on page 8 she asks ‘What part of her have I secreted away?’, suggesting that she swallowed the ash so as to keep a physical part of her grandmother (‘Her hand?’, ‘Her legs?’) inside her own body. But as the book progresses, the act begins to reverberate with metaphysical significance. For instance, the lines ‘She is the rain coming / and the sand filling us up’ (p. 21) suggest that her grandmother’s spirit has merged with the elements – although whether this is directly connected to the ashes in Kneen’s stomach, is unclear.
While Affection voluptuously charts Kneen’s sexual past, Eating My Grandmother records her experience of grief in the months following her grandmother’s death. It is also, incidentally, Kneen’s first work of poetry. In her own words: ‘Poetry was like a new language I learned to speak in the bleak heart of grief. I had never written poetry before but suddenly the flow of verse was unstoppable’.[i]
Poetry is as much about words as it is about silence. On the page, this silence is registered as the white space that surrounds (and sometimes threatens to engulf) the lines and stanzas. A poem is so often about what isn’t said, and the crafting of poetry can feel more like erasure than creation.
It makes sense, then, that Kneen turned to verse while she was grieving. The abrupt line breaks that characterise Eating My Grandmother sever the flow of Kneen’s prose, creating the sense of a person trying to speak through their tears, of talking while taking in ragged gulps of breath:
for what remains.
A hollowed earth
grit that might be bone or rock or salt. (3)
Eating My Grandmother makes reference to some of the people and places that appeared in Affection, however a prior knowledge of Kneen’s personal history is not necessary to understand (or enjoy) this work, as the language glistens with lucidity. Lovers of poetic ambiguity might be frustrated by this, however the style suits its subject well because it gazes unflinchingly at the starkness of grief – demonstrating how it can be ugly, uncomfortable, and at times maddeningly unremarkable.
Which isn’t to say that Eating My Grandmother is unbeautiful. There is rawness, yes, but there is also musicality, warmth, and humour. The pleasurable assonance of ‘mire’, ‘silence’ and ‘drive’ in part viii of ‘Fugue’, for instance:
I want her storm to spill its wrath
to thunder down and sweep away.
Instead there are stodgy muffins
thick sugared bread.
My mouth is empty of her
my phone is empty of the messages
that might extract me from the mire.
We race the deluge
and it is nothing.
We wait in damp silence
And we drive. (31)
The darkness in this work is counterbalanced with playfulness and wit. Just like laughter at a funeral, the comedic moments in Eating My Grandmother are what make it so affecting. Kneen compares her grandmother’s ashes to cat litter/fish tank gravel — images that work to undermine the churchy seriousness that is so often adopted when people speak of death. Then there’s the line ‘sepulchral degustation’ (19), which leavens the horror of eating ashes by making it sound like something you might read on the menu of a contemptibly fashionable inner-city restaurant. Speaking of food:
My friend ate her placenta.
A piece of her child
fried with garlic, oregano, thyme.
The first one.
The second placenta was frozen
transferred to our freezer
beside the breasts of chicken and the leg of lamb.
She didn’t like the taste (34)
The motif of eating reoccurs throughout, and we follow as those granules of ash travel through the digestive tract of the poem. Eating and sex are both acts of life — of propagation and survival. In part vii of ‘Fugue’, the two are combined in a series of stanzas that depict an act of lovemaking, followed by another course of ashes (which she swallows in the bathroom ‘with the skin still flushed’). She speaks of sex as an affirmation of life: ‘and only the promise of sex can wake the blood… I flare to life briefly, breathlessly, the drowned resurrected’ (p. 29). Kneen’s fusion of sex, death, and eating brings to mind the Ouroboros; the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail, representing cyclicality and infinity.
However it’s the smaller, seemingly ordinary details in Eating My Grandmother that best capture the experience of grief, because they communicate that unnerving sense of the world just carrying on, as if nothing significant has happened, in the wake of the death of a loved one. The final section, ‘Cadenza’, opens with:
in the picnic aisle
a packet falls.
there are plastic knives
The pointless sound
is what breaks me. (85)
It’s an image that chimes, perhaps oddly, with a song lyric from the 2016 album ‘Skeleton Tree’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: ‘I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues’. It’s an image that is vulnerable and human – even artists still need to participate in the ordinary rituals of living – and it works to broaden a personal experience of grief out into something more universal. The supermarket might seem like an unlikely place to reflect on mortality, but then again, these large, well-lit spaces of anonymous congregation may well be just as suited to existential contemplation as any church.
Poetry is such an exciting medium because it facilitates discovery. Eating My Grandmother transcribes a mind attempting to extract sense from the apparent senselessness of death, scrutinising the minutia of everyday existence for clues. The last section of the book (‘Cadenza’) signifies that the grief cycle is near its end — but there is a sense that more could have been discovered over time. It will be intriguing to see where Kneen’s poetry ventures next.
[i] Media Release: Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle, UQP Marketing & Publicity, 24 June 2015
Eating My Grandmother: a grief cycle
University of Queensland Press, 2015
92 pages, $24.95
Louise Carter’s poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2012 & 2015, Westerly, Seizure and Meanjin. She is a member of the Writing & Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, where she is slowly undertaking a Doctor of Creative Arts.
Roanna Gonsalves is the author of The Permanent Resident (UWAP, 2016) a collection of short fiction exploring how the newly arrived find their place in a new land. Her series of radio documentaries, On the tip of a billion tongues (commissioned and broadcast by Earshot, ABC RN) is an acerbic socio-political portrayal of contemporary India through the mouths of its multilingual writers. Gonsalves has a PhD from the University of New South Wales and is a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award. She is also co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings, a writers’ collective aiming to re-imagine Australia, South Asia, and the world, through the lens of South Asian bodies and minds. Acclaimed novelist Michelle De Krester has said that ‘The Permanent Resident is a brilliant fashioning of newness in the Australian literary landscape’. We speak to Gonsalves about this ‘fashioning of newness’ in her work, and discuss why readers from such a broad range of backgrounds have connected so strongly with it.
Interviewer: Stephen Samuel
Congratulations on The Permanent Resident. I was struck by the individual power of each of the stories. Can you describe the reaction readers have had? You recently were at a writer’s festival in India — was their reaction different, considering many of these stories, indeed most, concern recent arrivals to Sydney?
Thank you so much. This is such a lovely question to begin with. It cuts to what I was attempting to do, which is to try and make every story strong and different from the others in form, not just in theme. I think the shape of a story is crucial to the way it is received. So thank you for picking that up. I feel humbled by the reception of this book here in Australia and also at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival in December 2016, where I was invited to launch the book at the inauguration of the festival. I thought only a few readers would connect with these stories, as they are quite strongly marked by a specificity of ethnicity and place, and even of religious background. They’re quite niche, I thought. However, I’ve had such wonderful feedback from readers of all ethnicities and backgrounds. What readers have been telling me is that they connect with the ‘humanity’ in the stories, the pace, the playful use of language. This is from Australians, Indians, people I don’t know. Yes, it’s true many of the stories concern recent arrivals to Sydney. Yet these stories seem to have struck a chord because I think they attempt to touch upon the condition of being an outsider apprehending the strange, the unfamiliar, whether it be as an outsider to a place, or to a community, or to a culture, or even to a new way of being within oneself.
I think the ‘humanity’ that has connected readers to the stories is the spotlight, often an intense spotlight, on the plight of individuals. Your characters often find themselves picking up the pieces of a life that they had not thought possible. Is there an overarching purpose in this portrayal? Does it enable your characters to connect to their new lives in ways that privilege can’t?
Yes, that’s a good observation. I didn’t set out with an overarching purpose except to start with language, have a play with the English language, and through that to chronicle the lives of Indian Australians at the coalface. I think though that there seems to be some themes that emerge, of precarity and also of trying to fit in. Most of the stories began with interesting clusters of words in my head and on the page, rather than with characters or image. But because of who I am, the multiple concerns I have that are shaped by the various markers of identity that I hold within me — as we all do —these concerns permeated my word clusters as they developed into sentences and stories, as happens with anyone who creates something. So yes, the characters do seem to be picking up the pieces of a life all the time, and just when they think the floor is clear, something else breaks again.
I was hoping to avoid neat resolutions, although at one stage I felt most of the stories were so sad, I needed to have one with a happy ending, and so I wrote ‘Cutting Corners’. In the first draft of that story, the couple live happily ever after. But that was a bit too unrealistic and neat for me. So I decided to rewild it and write the current ending which I think is much more effervescent.
If I may, I would also like to say that I locate my work within many traditions, one of them being that of South Asian literature in Australia. I’m not the first and won’t be the last person of South Asian heritage to get published in Australia. I’m proud to belong to such a fine tradition of Australian literature, with shining stars, very accomplished writers, especially Michelle De Kretser, whose work has been a huge influence on my work. I think my small contribution is to write about the lives of people at the coalface in contemporary urban Australia, those with little privilege, the people who work in restaurants and petrol stations, the international students, who are are highly visible especially in contemporary urban Australian life, but not very visible in contemporary Australian literature. As we know, Australian literature, indeed the arts in Australia, the way Australia imagines itself, is so white that it’s blinding, in more ways than one. And since I believe in the power and importance of self-representation I felt I needed to write about people like me, not in an autobiographical way but in a way that says ‘we are here too, this is how we resist and we co-opt, these are some flashes of our existence’.
There is a beautiful line in the story ‘CIA (Australia)’ that encapsulates the ‘flashes’ each of these stories gives the reader: ‘I did truly understand how the ground wobbles when you first arrive here and only begins to steady itself when you have wobbled with it for a while and then learned to secure it with the toil of your own hands and the untwisting of your own tongue.’ As I read these stories I felt my world (and my perception of my Australia) wobble as if this was not the place of my birth. And that is the great achievement of this collection, allowing the privileged to empathise with those ‘at the coalface’. Was it hard to achieve this freshness in each story?
Thank you, I’m so happy that you connected with these stories in this way. Yes, the work of fiction is the work of building empathy sometimes. I’m glad that this collection demonstrates that it gestures towards that aim. To be honest, I tried not to second guess what readers would think of it, and I wrote each story for myself first. I had these gloriously perfect ideas in my head, but when I tried to render them on the page, the struggle for me was to keep coming up with fresh ways to express what I was trying to say. Language is important to me. Yes themes and characters and story and structure are important of course. But for me it all starts with a ludic approach to language. The language is the story, in many ways, for me.
You have a character quote from the poet A. K. Ramanunjan ‘that a story is cathartic for the teller in the tale’. Does this apply also to the teller of the tale? Is this the same thing as ‘untwisting’?
Yes very much so. Writing, creating something out of one’s imagination is always cathartic for the writer or creator, at least this has been my experience. In fact, my first novel (unpublished) began as therapy while I was an international student here in Australia, but then quickly leaped into fiction. Yes, I think what I meant by ‘untwisting’ was the process by which we learn to fit in, and attempt to make our tongues, our bodies, our ways of thinking fit into mainstream spaces so we can achieve some degree of comfort, however fleeting or even chimerical it may be.
This quote is so interesting for me, not just for what it means but also because of who wrote it. As has happened for many readers of the late A.K.Ramanujan — the brilliant genius of a writer-translator-archeologist of stories — I felt his extraordinary work leap off the page into my head. I wanted to share this, and pay homage to his work in my own work. I wanted to also pay homage to the work of Eunice De Souza, Chekhov, Michelle De Kretser, and other writers whose work had influenced me.
Yes of course, like most students of English Literature, I cannot deny the percolation of Chaucer, Wordsworth, the many big names (usually White male) that make up the English-American literary canon, into my brain. But I also wanted to lean on a different canon. I wanted to invoke, to harness the incantations of different literary voices that ring pure and true and mellifluously for me and for millions of others on this planet. I also think that readers, of all colours and proclivities and inclinations, welcome fresh voices and fresh reverences, rather than paying respects to the same saints all the time, however holy they may be.
There is a lovely story located almost in the centre of this collection that is different to all the others. However, in the first story ‘Full Face’, the character finds an Aboriginal shell midden, calling it ‘the ancient compost of lives lived before the land was fleshed with whiteness…’ For your characters (and for you), it seems important to acknowledge ‘the weight of this country’. As your characters learn to live in Australia, there is a constant recognition that for the Indigenous communities, there is a need for them to ‘untwist’ the new landscape in which they find themselves.
Ah! I’m so glad you mentioned this. This story is incoherent in terms of time, space, plot etc. I tried to make something that resonated with my own ignorance in relation to Indigenous communities when I first got here over 18 years ago. Instead of a neatly plotted story with characters and scenes, I chose to rely on rhythm, repetition, and yes, vestiges of past memories, to make this story. I still call it a story, and I’m glad you do to, because it does tell a tale, however discordant and incomprehensible it may be. At another level I think that my writing this story is also an attempt to wash one’s dirty linen in public, a different kind of untwisting, one that demands an active engagement with history, and recognition of one’s own part in ongoing oppression. Like many, I feel that as immigrants to this country, we are complicit in the continuing oppression of Indigenous communities. Our wilful ignorance about, and incomprehension of this continent’s history, further implicates us in the awful treatment of Indigenous people. As the great, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once said to a racist caller on radio, ‘Well, if you are sitting on the title of any block of land in New South Wales you can bet an Aboriginal person at some stage was dispossessed of it’. I was trying to render some of this complication and entanglement onto the page. It is a concern that I am trying to address in my own life and through my work. So it was important for me to leave these buoys, such as the Aboriginal shell midden, positioned throughout this collection, even if only for myself, to navigate a way towards an ethical, decolonised relationship with Indigenous communities. This may be seen as utopic and maybe not enough, or maybe just an empty gesture. But for me, it was important to do.
I don’t think anyone could read it as an empty gesture. In fact, the power of these stories makes the relationship — anyone’s relationship — to this country something that needs reassessment. With that in mind, is there a significance for you between the traditional binary of ‘citizen’ and ‘permanent resident’?
This is such a good question. I think both of those labels can have a lot of emotional significance or they may be seen in a more pragmatic way, as enablers of hassle-free travel, something that is the privilege of White nations, to be kept out of reach of the brown hordes of South Asia. When you move from tourist or temporary resident status to that of ‘permanent resident’, it is a movement that is enabled by immense privilege. If you can afford the fees to apply for permanent residency then you are already amongst the ‘haves’, who have left the ‘have-nots’ biting the dust, at least in relation to a country like India. This new legal status generates a sense of relief within the body, as if the see-saw you are on, that has been making you nauseous, has finally been stabilised. Now they can’t kick you out on a whim, or not too easily at least.
Moving from ‘permanent resident’ status to that of ‘citizen’ can be a difficult decision because it can feel like you are shamelessly stripping away your history, the skin your country gave you. There is that gulp of guilt at willingly abandoning the country of your birth for another country. There is also that sense of sweet deliverance from the hardship of life in the homeland. But there is also huge responsibility that comes with that label of citizen. There are legal obligations of course. There are also moral obligations to uphold the democratic values that attracted us to the new country in the first place.
This means understanding that we are the beneficiaries of the trauma of colonisation, and also the beneficiaries of the struggle of the thousands of other citizens, of activists, who have made the good aspects of Australia as good as they are. This means being aware of the blood on the ground, which has now turned into buildable square metres that can be bought off a plan. Sometimes it’s hard to think through this when, as first generation immigrants, we are worried about how to pay the rent and put food on the plate. But we must, otherwise we just become one more photocopying machine replicating inequality and oppression.
In writing this book, I wanted to dream-catch these modes of acceptance, resistance, and subversion, on the hard factory floor of immigrant life. These things are crucial, vital to our sense of self and the way we enact our old Indianness, as well as our new Australianness. But they don’t really get talked about much amidst all the trade agreements, cricket statistics, and Bollywood-yoga-tantra holy trinity of the India-Australia industrial complex. I hope readers find within these pages, an enchanting forest-full of such stories.
The Permanent Resident can be purchase from UWAP
Stephen Samuel’s first novel, Strange Eventful History, won the Varuna Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript. His short fiction has appeared in Tincture, SoftCopy and Dark Edifice.
It was just Suzy and I, in the end, who drove down to Damboon on the Friday night. I picked her up after work in the big old navy-blue bogan-mobile station wagon I’d bought cheap off my uncle’s widow a couple of months before.
Heavily laden, we staggered down the garden path – the others were all now coming on Saturday instead, in the one car, and needed us to take some of their bags for them. Her house was a narrow Victorian terrace half-sunken into the ground, with faded Tibetan prayer flags above the door. Partway down the path, I got my sleeve caught on the thorny tentacle of a leggy, ancient rosebush. I wrenched myself free and stumbled. I would have backed up into the bush on the other side, but Suzy caught me.
‘Ta!’ I said.
Then I got stuck at the rusty gate.
‘Let Daddy do that,’ Suzy grinned and said. She shuffled past me, smelling like old-fashioned men’s cologne, with her leather jacket and her buzzed hair.
‘I think you should know,’ I said, ‘I don’t get along with Daddy.’
‘Daddy loves you, baby,’ she protested, winking. ‘You just let Daddy take care of you.’ She ushered me through the gate with a bow.
‘Oh, ho, ho!’ she hooted when she saw the car. ‘Bogan-mobile to the max!’
‘I told you.’
I had got breath-tested the other day, and the cop had looked at me – a woman in a cheesecloth dress with a pen in her hair – and said, ‘You are not who I expected to be driving this car.’
We put the bags in the back and got in.
Suzy threw her motorcycle boots up on the dashboard and said, ‘Well, fuck this holiday shit, let’s go down to Commercial Road and cruise for chicks.’
‘Hell yeah,’ I said, ‘I can put the back seat down and everything.’
I fired up the ignition. ‘Oh, baby!’ Suzy said.
‘Shit,’ I said, ‘someone’s parked behind me. I can’t manoeuvre this thing for shit. If I run into that car, you can’t tell anyone, alright?’
‘What are you going to do for me?’ she asked.
‘Not tell your girlfriend that you talk to me like this.’
Suzy clutched her chest like I’d shot her in the heart.
I was fizzing inside about this trip.
I had been living with my ex-girlfriend Steph and two of our friends when Steph told me she was seeing someone else. I left, and was thrown on the skids in a serious way, with nowhere to live and no money coming in, in the middle of summer when there was no sessional work going at the university. Now perhaps that time was coming to an end. First I had become a person who had a car. Now I was once again a person who could go on holidays.
Granted, the holidays were with people whose idea of a good time was talking in a circle about the difference in their experiences of faith between Buddhism and Christianity. Before I knew them all, Suzy’s housemates and my housemates had once been one giant household, which had been all-lesbian, all community service workers, and had kept chickens, shared all the cooking, and had house meetings every Sunday night to work out their issues. Then they’d been evicted from the very large house and had to split into two smaller ones. I had taken a room in one of the smaller ones less than a year ago; I was the only one who had come via an ad in the paper and had not known any of them before. My household had inherited the chickens, and we had the Sunday house meetings too, but they were usually about something I had done wrong, such as putting a half-full mouldy sauce bottle in the bin instead of washing it out and recycling it.
By contrast, most of my friends over the years had been people I’d met at the university while studying subjects like Power, pleasure and the body in Renaissance Florence. My sort of people nominally belonged to the same side of politics as my housemates, but mine were the sort who liked to get drunk on cheap wine and crack up at double entendres about phallocentrism. If one of my friends had ever said while eating a bowl of lentils, ‘I just really think you can feel the energy of the earth,’ as my Buddhist vegetarian housemate once had, it would have been a joke.
But I didn’t seem to have any of those friends anymore, so the housemates it was.
We were in sheep country that dipped and rose like a green quilted doona, when Suzy said, ‘Roo!’
I chanced a look. But my eye had gone straight to Suzy, to the soft light on the t-shirt fabric stretched over her left breast.
Admittedly, I had looked at that breast before.
I wasn’t so confident travelling at a hundred and ten that I could chance a second look away from the road. ‘Where was it?’
‘Over that way.’
I kept a watch on the black-green stands of bush along the fence-lines of the paddock. I could just imagine a dark shape detaching itself and streaking in front of the car.
It was just before sunset when we crested the hill above Damboon. A plain, low, post-war holiday town, upstaged by a great bolt of Prussian-blue sea with a froth of white lace at the hem. Great, black cypress pines marched in an even line down the main street, which ran along the foreshore.
In town we passed a pub, the light in the disc-shaped Carlton Draught sign beginning to twinkle in the twilight, then a fish ’n’ chip shop and a servo. Then we turned right into the residential streets.
The house was salmon-pink fibro cement, single-fronted with a peaked iron roof. Its yard was runner-grass with bald patches of ochre sand.
Car unloaded, we stood in front of the open door of the elderly, chrome-trimmed fridge and looked at the groceries we’d brought with us. This would be the moment when the evening took a sudden turn for the depressing. Suzy would want to cook something like my housemates liked: a purgatorial pile of vegetables topped with two teaspoons of grated cheese, shoved in a baking dish and called a casserole, or a vegetarian meatloaf made entirely of unseasoned lentils cooked to mush, L.S.A. mix and grated carrot. Something that bore its wilful ignorance – or perhaps refusal – of culinary art, its denial of pleasure in eating, as a badge of some sort of hippy, pseudo-Puritan honour.
‘Don’t suppose you want to go to the pub?’ Suzy said.
‘You’re a genius,’ I said.
On the beach, there was still a blue glow on the horizon between the black arrows of the cypress pines.
We passed beneath the trees onto the sand. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled up my jeans, while Suzy waited, serene in her high-zipped boots.
The breakers came in low and regular. I rushed to the water’s edge.
Further down the beach, the sand ended in dark shapes of rocks. Beyond that, the land was treed and rocky right down to the shore, ending in a distant point where lights illuminated parts of a wooden structure.
‘What’s out there?’ I said.
‘Dunno,’ Suzy said. ‘Too far to check it out tonight.’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said. And then, ‘It looks like elves live there or something.’
Suzy smiled, hands in her pockets.
‘Or pirates. Or it’s where the ships come in from Avalon.’ I began to run in a circle around her, arms out like an aeroplane.
I wanted to do something explosive, something more than running around in a circle. But I couldn’t think what it should be.
I stretched my arms above my head and pretended to look out to sea.
A couple walking beneath the cypress pines were looking at me. I let my arms drop.
The pub was like the country-town pubs from when I was a kid: wood-panelled throughout with maroon carpet stamped black along traffic ways. Along the row of dull-brass beer taps sat local men in their high-visibility gear from the power plant over the hill. They were watching the TV over the bar, so uninterested in each other they might have been a family alone together in its private lounge room. For a long moment, when Suzy and I walked into the taproom, they reacted with almost the surprise of that family, if strangers had just let themselves in the front door.
If I’d known it was this much of a small-town pub, I might have tried to deflect Suzy from coming in. I had taken my hair down and put on some dangly earrings to come down here; I didn’t look like a local but at least I was a recognisable kind of woman. Suzy, on the other hand, might have been the only female person ever seen in this town who could have passed for one of the T-birds from Grease.
‘G’day,’ Suzy said, to the first of the row of rude stares. The whole row of them startled into brief, embarrassed animation.
‘G’day,’ the first bloke in the row returned. Some others nodded. Suzy sauntered though to the Ladies Lounge with me scuttling at her heels.
We were on our second pint by the time we finished dinner, when in walked two blokes from the taproom.
‘You ladies want a game?’ one of them said, gesturing at the pool table.
‘Aw yeah,’ Suzy said. ‘I’ll give it a go.’
The table was covered in a cloth. The two blokes put things to rights with an air of familiarity.
‘You blokes live here, do ya? You just lie down under the table and have a nice sleep at the end of the night, then get up in the morning and start again?’ Suzy mimed pulling a beer from a tap.
They laughed. The leader said, ‘I wish.’
They were big fellers: broad and thick around the middle, wearing navy-and-orange high-vis shirts, navy trousers and work boots. Lightly grubby all over. The leader was the ginger: Damian. The other was thicker-set, dark-haired: Chris.
We paired off for the game. Damian broke with an almighty crash, following through till there was more cue in front of his hand than behind.
‘There’s gonna be balls on the floor, later, is there?’ I heckled.
‘Balls on the floor,’ Damian parroted.
‘That’s a bit personal,’ his mate piped.
Each time either of them said anything funny, they would look at both of us for a reaction, then look at each other and twinkle, as if to say, Did you see what I did there?
Suzy shook her head.
‘Can I’ve a crack at this?’ I said to my partner, Chris.
‘Yeah, go for your life,’ he said.
‘Can’t resist some low-hanging fruit,’ I said, and dropped the ten ball in from where it teetered on the threadbare lip of the far centre pocket.
‘Aw!’ Damian hooted. ‘We’ve got a pool shark here.’
‘Aw, no, you’re not supposed to break it out till later!’ Suzy remonstrated with me. ‘When we’ve got ’em laying bets.’
‘Ha,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m going to miss this one.’ The only thing still out in the open was the eleven, back towards the centre of the table.
‘Nah, you’ll be right,’ Chris said.
‘Nah, I can never do these ones.’
‘Think positive,’ Chris said.
‘We can all think fifty-dollar notes are about to start falling from the ceiling if we want, but that doesn’t mean they will.’ I took the shot and missed, dribbling the eleven into a hopeless position flush against the cushion. ‘Where’s my money? You obviously weren’t thinking positive hard enough.’
‘You didn’t give me enough warning,’ Chris squawked. ‘You gotta get a run-up on these things!’
‘Alright, let’s try again.’ I made a face like I was taking a shit, and he copied me. ‘Is it working yet?’
‘I dunno,’ Chris said. ‘Keep going!’
In the background, Suzy was shunting balls away like they were on rails. ‘Are you lot right?’ she said, leaning over with one knee up on the cushion to take a shot. She potted the ball with a crack, and Damian hooted like a kid in a dodgem car.
‘We’re trying,’ I said witheringly, ‘to make money fall from the ceiling.’
‘Well, then,’ Suzy said, ‘carry on, by all means.’
Finally it was Chris’s shot. He surveyed the pickings.
‘So youse are from the city, are ya?’ Damian said.
There was a pause. Chris didn’t take his shot.
They could have been fighting words.
‘Yep,’ Suzy said. ‘I grew up in Newcastle. Came down here when I dropped out of school.’
‘I’m Melbourne-born and bred,’ I said. ‘You blokes always lived here?’
Later, when we were quite a bit drunker, Chris leaned over to me and said, ‘She’s, ah, not into blokes, I take it.’
‘You’d take it right,’ I said.
‘Is she your missus?’
‘Nah. She’s not my missus.’
‘Are you into blokes, then?’
‘Love ’em,’ I said, ‘for lunch, with a bit of tomato sauce.’
I watched him bending over the table to take his shot, ponderous and careful. There were traces of black at his orange collar like pencil rubbings. You imagined a building falling on him, and him emerging with a bit of dust in his eyelashes and an expression of mild consternation. No doubt he didn’t mind how other people sorted the recycling.
I could fuck him.
All he probably wanted was someone who’d make him wash his sheets and buy some proper coffee. He’d probably quite like showing off to his friends about what a smarty-pants I was. I could take him to Christmas, to drinks at work, and absolutely no one would be weird about it at all.
He sunk his shot with a sharp tock.
‘Score!’ his mate called.
When Suzy and I shouldered in the front door, Suzy said, ‘I’m going to turn in.’ The bathroom door closed behind her.
I had half been thinking we were on a kind of date, and this was just the next phase of it.
I went and sat on my bed with the door closed.
When I heard the bathroom door open and Suzy’s door close behind her, I got up and used the bathroom myself, then got ready for bed.
The bed sagged in the middle, and the sheets had gone transparent with age.
As I got sleepier, I lost the leash on my mind.
I imagined Suzy turning me over, pressing my face into the pillow. A mother cat controlling her kitten.
I dared to roll to my hands and knees.
I imagined somebody coming in and seeing me that way and instantly, violently threw myself onto my back again. The hairs on my arms had risen in shame.
I had thought about a place like this for a holiday house for Steph and me: a cheap family place that the owners had filled with their terrible brown seventies crockery and mismatched wooden salad servers with burn marks. It would become our place, the way Rest’s Creek was my parents’ place, the way they started all their stories with, One year, down at Rest’s… Once we were sure we liked it, we would get our friends to come down too, and then it would be everyone’s place.
But those friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were Steph’s. I suppose I could have made it up with some of them. There was a period there where I would tell myself I was just going to try calling someone. I would try to plan what I was going to say. But I couldn’t get far enough through the plan before I would start to cry. So I had stopped trying to do that. Now I just didn’t think about it at all.
I was awake again. The air was dark blue, too dim to make much out.
I shambled out of bed and pissed explosively in the rust-streaked toilet. On my way back, I saw Suzy’s door was standing open.
I went to the kitchen. The back door was open onto the dark.
Outside, she was leaning on the railing of the back porch, smoking in a singlet.
She carried her shoulders so square and still, in that masculine way – beautiful.
I went out to her. When she noticed me, she moved a smidgeon. I leant on the rail beside her.
She offered me her cigarette, whole hand curled around it. It was almost exactly how I remembered a high school boy trying to style himself as he hit on me. She sold it utterly.
When I did not take it, she turned her body towards me in question.
I was seeing it: her bra-less breast beneath the white singlet, lovely as a tear-drop.
Heat was crawling on my scalp.
‘Who’s going to know?’ she said, smoky-voiced.
She was looming over me, within a hand’s breath. Her face was a collection of shadows.
‘You would,’ I said. It was not a suave voice.
The shadows of her face emitted a huff of breath. I realised her hand was on my back.
‘Also, your girlfriend’s here in the morning,’ I said.
She recoiled. ‘So what? It’s just a ciggie.’ She strode off to the end of the railing. Only then did her silhouette say, ‘Settle down.’
‘You settle down,’ I said, and heard her gather breath for a retort.
I said, ‘I’m going back to bed,’ and left.
I was woken in the morning by Suzy’s two housemates barging in to leave their bags – now that more people had arrived, they would be taking this room while I, a single person, got booted to the bunk room. People were crashing around and calling to each other in the house.
The bathroom was occupied, so I went to the kitchen. All the seats were taken by either people or bags. My housemates were all there, unpacking things.
‘Hello, you,’ one said. ‘We’ve invaded!’
‘You sure have!’ I said, and ducked out the back door.
In the backyard, Suzy’s girlfriend, Tracy, was doing lunges in white leggings with a pink handprint design on the bum. Suzy lay on the grass, theatrically ogling her. Tracy looked down at her, shaking her head.
I took a swift detour and made for the gate at the side of the house.
The latch was rusted shut.
‘What are you doing, mate?’ Suzy called.
‘Uh,’ I said cheerily, ‘there’s people everywhere and I can’t even get in to pee. I don’t even know, really.’
‘You can pee here,’ Suzy leered. ‘We don’t mind.’
Tracy laughed and booted her in the side with her runner. Suzy made a show of coughing.
The latch came unstuck. I dashed through the gate and shoved it closed behind me.
The side fence only came halfway up the property line. I was essentially out on the street.
‘G’day, love,’ said an elderly man in shorts and thongs who was checking the next door’s mailbox.
‘G’day,’ I said, conscious of my boobs in my pyjama top, and let myself back in the front door.
I had walked a cigarette butt in on my bare feet. I picked it off.
I peered down the hall – the bathroom door was open at last. I dashed for it.
Showered and dressed, I made my escape quietly out the front door and scarpered to the beach.
I climbed onto the rocks at the end of the sand. As soon as there was no one in sight, I began to cry. I lurched from rock to rock, sobbing – one good sob to each rock. The light off the water clattered like a sack of new nails.
Eventually I dried my face in the wind and came back up to the street.
The squinty morning made things offensively present: a rubbish bin with its palings falling off; a jumble of Jim Beam cans on a picnic table, gathering ants. I sat down and watched the water froth and bash, shunting the seaweed back and forth.
A man’s voice, very ocker, was shouting for a woman with the same name as me. My neck prickled.
Provoked, I chanced a look. A figure stepped out from the fenced yard at the side of the pub, waving. It was Chris from last night.
I got up and crossed the sandy street. ‘Allo-allo! I was like, who’s this hoon shouting at?’
‘Ha. Come and have a drink?’
‘Geez, you blokes start early.’ I followed him into a runner-grass and sand beer garden.
Two men and a woman sat before a row of Bacardi Breezers at a picnic table. Chris pulled me up a plastic lawn chair to sit on the end, beside him.
The men were Chris’s brother, his mate, and his mate’s sister. ‘G’day,’ they all said.
‘G’day,’ I said.
I had expended my You blokes start early line prematurely. If I’d saved it till I’d sat down, it could have been an opener. Now I had nothing.
They all leaned forward, waiting for me to perform. When it became clear I had missed my cue, they waited a few, polite seconds longer to see if I would recover. I did not. As one, with the complete ease and indifference of siblings in each other’s company, they turned away and went back to talking among themselves.
‘Get the lady a drink, mate!’ Chris shouted at someone inside.
‘Nah, nah!’ I said.
‘Come on!’ he cried, rather too loudly, making a rousing gesture to the rest of the table. The chorus of support he must have hoped for did not arise.
‘I could go a lemon squash,’ I conceded. He waddled inside in the crabwalk of a bulky tradesman.
I smiled up the table at the mate’s sister. She looked me over mildly and sucked her fag.
‘Here y’are,’ Chris said, putting down my lemon squash.
‘Ta,’ I said.
He sat down. ‘You alright? You look a bit…’
‘It’s just the wind on the beach.’
He was dressed as if from a rag bag, in a mis-buttoned chambray shirt and some ancient board-shorts with torn hems – a lot like my dad on the weekends.
‘It’s depressing, actually,’ I said. ‘I’m staying in this holiday house with all these couples, and my girlfriend broke up with me a while ago, and… yeah.’ My voice had gone reedy.
‘Oh. That’s no good,’ he replied with an echoing, embarrassed quaver.
‘And, like. We were friends with the same people and so now I don’t even have any fucking friends, you know. So I’ve taken up with these people I don’t even get along with. And it’s just… fucked.’ I could hear myself: an unkind parody of a sooking woman.
‘Yeah, nah. That’s no good,’ Chris said again.
‘What about your mate from last night? She seemed alright,’ he said, rallying.
‘Don’t even fucking ask, mate. Just don’t even fucking ask.’ My voice was steadying.
‘Is that right? Sounds like a story.’
‘You do not want to know.’
‘How do you know what I want to know?’
‘Just imagine…’ I said. ‘Just imagine the most sordid possible situation you can imagine, and that’s about the size of it.’
‘Aw!’ he squawked. ‘I wish you’d tell me, but.’
‘Just think,’ I said, ‘how much you didn’t want to hear it when I dumped all that shit on you a minute ago. And look at us now!’
‘It’s not that I didn’t want to hear it, precisely.’
Later, on the beach, I balanced on a concrete bollard and jiggled from foot to foot. I had been talked into a Malibu-and-pineapple at the pub, and it was warm in the sun, and I had cried so much earlier, I was sure there was nothing left in the tank. It seemed quite safe to call Steph.
I had rung her a lot in the early days and hung up just as she answered, or hung up in the middle of the voicemail message. I would start out feeling that I was finally going to tell her – finally going to stick it to her. Then the second I realised it was really happening and now was the time to speak, it was like I had woken up from sleep-walking with one foot over a cliff. My scalp would try to leap off my head. Once when the phone screen wouldn’t wake up fast enough to let me press end call, I tore the battery off the back and threw it across the room.
Now I felt I was just an observer. I was just calling to see what would happen.
Four rings passed. I braced myself to get the voicemail.
‘Hello,’ Steph said, picking up. Then, cautiously, she said my name.
‘Hi. I’m just ringing to say hi.’
‘Oh, hi. How have you been?’
‘Yeah, pretty good. I’m actually down at Damboon – on the east coast? – with my housemates. And some bogans in a pub just talked me into a Malibu-and-coconut at, like, eleven thirty in the morning. So I’m like, whee!’
‘That sounds cool. Not too much is different with me. Still the same job. Still living in the old house.’
‘Well, nothing wrong with that,’ I said.
‘You should come and see us all at the pub one Friday. People have been saying they haven’t seen you for ages.’
They had not said this to me. Not a one of them had called me since the breakup.
‘Yeah, um, maybe,’ I said. ‘I’ll think about it.’
‘You totally should!’ she said.
‘I’ll think about it.’
It struck me that they were all a pack of dicks. Just a complete pack of dicks. Luckily, it didn’t seem to have much to do with me.
Back at the house, someone was hiding under the one tea tree in the front yard. It was the no-carb housemate, with the baggy-thighed jeans and the mumsy, short-back-and-sides hair. She was wiping under her eyes with the pad of her middle finger.
‘Hey,’ I said.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Just… too many people.’
‘You don’t even like it when people sit on the couch cushions wrong at home, and now there’s this whole house full of lunatics running around.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I feel like an idiot, because I organised the whole bloody thing.’
‘Never mind. They’re all having a good time.’
‘You did alright, anyway,’ she laughed. ‘You did a runner hours ago.’
‘Yeah. I’ve been having a cry myself, down the beach. Can’t cope either.’
‘Would have been a good idea.’ She sniffed.
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I’m going to go for a drive to the point. There’s a building out there and I want to see what it is. Do you want to come?’
I held my finger to my lips and made for the car in a cartoon-cat-burglar stalk. She shook her head in her school-teacherly way and followed.
A couple of bends of the highway out of town and we were in the national park. The trees closed in overhead: tiger-barked eucalypts draped in their own debris.
I started to talk. ‘There was this bloke in the pub last night, when Suzy and I were there. Just some country bloke. But he liked me. And I suddenly thought, I could have sex with him, and then I would be normal again and everything would be easy.’
A car whooshed past in the other direction.
‘Sometimes I think that, too,’ she said.
I looked at her. She looked almost exactly like a member of a nineties boy-band on a casual day. ‘That wasn’t what I was expecting you to say.’
‘What?’ she laughed. ‘You think I came out of the womb in a flannie?’
We were out of the national park, and there was a tin-shed servo coming up. ‘Do you want to get a Chiko Roll?’ I said.
‘I’ll have a peanut,’ she said.
‘What, one peanut?’
‘I’d take a packet in a pinch,’ she said, patient.
Out towards the point was a turn-off to a dirt road, which we followed to a clearing. Here was the boatshed I’d seen from the beach, attached to a long jetty leading out onto a reedy mud flat. There was a wretched stink of fish guts and tidal swamp cooking in the sun.
The smell improved out on the jetty. A wide, shallow river mouth stretched away behind the point. Beyond it on the coast was opaque greenery right down to the shore, except for one tiny beach, a pale toenail of sand.
A man in a khaki hat was fishing on the end of the jetty. We stopped near him and nodded.
‘Wonder how you get out there,’ the housemate said to me, looking at the beach.
‘Yeah,’ I said.
The man spoke up. ‘Gotta take a dingy out at high tide.’
‘Christ,’ the housemate said, broad and low, ‘it’s alright for some.’
I’d forgotten she was from Queensland. I’d heard that broad version of her voice when I’d first rung up about the room for rent – when she’d said, tactfully but emphatically, like a person accustomed to breaking unwelcome news, ‘So, we’re all gay.’ It had been clear she was a good egg.
‘You get out there and there’s not a single footprint in the sand but yours,’ the man said.
‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be a person who has a dingy,’ I said. ‘But that’s alright. The idea’s probably better than the practice.’
‘Don’t be so sure,’ the man said.
‘I’ve got an uncle with a dingy,’ the housemate said. ‘He goes out with his mates and a slab of beer, and they’re all old fellers, and they fall asleep and the dingy drifts onto a sandbar. Has to get towed off.’
‘Good on him,’ the man said.
We looked out at the beach, desiring the place we could not go.
Belinda Rule is a Melbourne writer of poetry and fiction. Residencies and fellowships include Varuna, Bundanon Trust and Squaw Valley Community of Writers, USA. Her work has appeared extensively in journals and anthologies including Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Westerly, Island, Cordite Poetry Review, The London Magazine and Best Australian Poems.
Worlds away in the grey
harbour of St Nazaire
my second cousin reveals
railway tracks encased inside
shipyard walls — an over-engineered
defence of resolute rust;
the only steadfast structure
predating the city around it.
Years later at airports we’d discover
that grand-père also wore medals
embedded in his chest.
Having out-stared him, this gaping
and twisted maw of mid-scream metal
now locks eyes with me.
Have I interrupted like Medusa?
Does the war rage on?
But I am not my grand-père.
Home is a shore far from here:
another invaded country
with a history for covering up
conflict, carpeting the dust.
It’s me who is immobilised.
Fixed to the stones of a place where
horror is a head of snake-steel
gnawing its way out of concrete
into collective memory —
not even a train line to
Miguel Jacq is a French-Australian poet from Melbourne. In 2016 he won the Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award, and was shortlisted for the New Shoots Poetry Prize. You can read more of Miguel’s poetry on his blog.
The Mother Load: Consolation and Happiness in Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums and Lucy Williams’ internal weather
These two books from Walleah Press explore our intimate familial relationships in ways that prize domestic security while interrogating the many things that would threaten it, including death and bereavement, the separation of parents, and pedophilia. These collections are as beautiful and nourishing as they are searching and defiant.
Lucy Williams opens her book, internal weather, with the poem ‘born’. This poem has such long unpunctuated lines that its run-on of words seems to concertina in-and-out, provoking the reader to anticipate those unmarked clausal breaks and creating a sense of the glorious ill-discipline of a life overtaken by events and forever enriched in the process. Like most of the poems in this collection, this one revels in a type of powerful stripped-down lyricism that is both direct and full of questions. So ‘born’ reads:
time has caught you switching planets your eyes
blinking off my tented skin like dust the real bluestone
gaze searching for an honest love after so many months
we separate like lovers both of us missing familiarity your new
soul my old heart stunned after battle and warm with the
blood of your arrival I held the day like a grudge and couldn’t
let it go my body a suitcase tagged for returning careful as
a hypnotist to tap the root of any small memory did you
know me then my slack my slack stomach like gift-wrap all my old
clothes fitting your mother at twenty-nine feeling eighteen a
head jammed with promises things I’d always/never do too
shocked to move we knelt like statues in a park while the
world admired us like a late night summer carnival all cool air
colour and smell you are smooth as a river stone my sunken
navel set like a diamond this thin brown belly line deliberate
as a tattoo for the courage it took me to grow around you like
ivy is the courage I get to keep time has caught you switching
planets your hologram eyes blinking off my tented skin like
There is a remarkable subtlety here in the way Williams controls the rhythm of these plastic lines that celebrate the moment of childbirth with such naturalistic realism. And the allusion to Judith Wright, with the image of baby and mother being ‘separate[d] like lovers’, is a clever tribute to the way in which Wright pioneered the exploration of these subjects in poetry.
Williams continues to explore this bond between mother and baby, broken in childbirth, in ‘magnolia’ which begins:
the after-birth is a test a memory frozen five months the
day thawed it out like a hard frost its ghost moves inside
me again as though my heart has fallen and bled my body in
the mirror remembers you before we met your blind faith
knocking a closed fist under ribs we plant the tree before rain
your father turns the earth free I am both surgeon and spirit
the grey plait of your umbilical is a broken dream what can
it tell me about us? (3)
Partly, of course, it tells us that parents will do all, almost, anything to protect their children — especially when they already know loss. So ‘miscarriage’ concludes with:
I’m sorry you will never learn
about the human heart — unbuttoned
like a giant pocket
and all the things that spill
every time we trip
and all the things that stay (4)
The ‘human heart’ can ‘learn’ loss and it can also adapt to domestic uncertainties as ‘almost six’ concedes. This poem opens:
Almost six you have already learnt
that love can end and be replaced
and never without sadness
you divide yourself between your father’s house and mine
and when you are gone my heart
floats out above me, ungraspable.
It aches like some phantom limb I read about. (12)
This exploration continues in ‘house’ that begins:
When you moved it was out of exile
the house that held you in let go
and your expatriate thoughts found home
the same suburb but a softer breeze.
Your husband stayed on, stenographer of all your motives
Guilt like spoiled fruit between you.
In the new house a timely dust settled and was wiped off
every room contained a piece of your jigsaw heart.
Your daughter philosophised about her two lives
and screamed on the street
caught between her mother and father
like a lucky find that neither one could keep. (19)
While ‘house’ and ‘almost six’ are a little more prosaic than ‘born’ and ‘magnolia’, as though Williams does not quite know how to get the most out of these shorter punctuated lines, they do confront bravely the guilt felt by many parents who fear the damage they may do to their children. In the very moving poem, ‘to my parents on the death of their son’, these roles are reversed as the grown child now strives to protect their parents:
after his body had been removed from the house
in the zippered bag you did not look at
like a crime scene on the small screen
had somebody left the television on?
you felt like the watchers of a foreign grief
that poor mother and father
your luck like a charm warm
at the base of your throat
your six children scattered but tight
in all those years loss had swept through
and left everybody standing
and now this
after his body had been removed
too warm a night to leave it
the empty room stood as though
it had never held him (54)
This poem captures so intimately the empathy that draws parent and child together. And it concludes with such unsentimental, yet startling, simplicity:
after his body had been removed
you sat at the kitchen table
and closed your eyes
thought of the son you loved
how quickly he left the body on the bed
shook off the disease like sweat
and walked quietly with his dog
into the bush (55)
Williams reads these emotionally fraught interior states — this ‘internal weather’ — as stories of birth, childhood, love and death. To these fundamentals of existence Williams ‘throws open every door to our hearts and walks in’ (5).
Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums shares the preoccupations, and many of the poetic techniques, of Williams. This collection opens with ‘Mothers – 1957’ and its celebration of breastfeeding, and the love of a grandmother. This poem, however, is a little predictable and prosaic and is not as memorable as the powerful, ‘Bones’, which follows. This poem juxtaposes childbirth and the fierceness of maternal love with imagery of the random destructiveness of war:
this comes back in dreams
face down in sour black earth
where are they a mother’s fingers
dig rumble of tanks the crack of
sniper’s gun echo in her ribcage
ear to ground she thinks about
continental drift feels the plates
trembling below shifting scarred
with age and repeated collision
she would move mountains
in the darkness a memory nursing
a newborn its sweet brain pulsing
flash of bayonet the walls too thin
too thin her fingers rake the soil
where are the bones (7)
This poem so cleverly uses the space between words to capture those uncertainties and fears of being a mother amidst a world at war. And if the world is a precarious place for a nursing mother and her newborn, it is also damaging in other ways, for a girl sent by Child Welfare to live with her aunty and uncle. ‘Games’ and ‘Night Fishing’ are frightening in the way they so directly broach the devastation caused by pedophilia. ‘Night Fishing’ reads:
It’s not my idea, going off with the men.
First time for everything my aunt insists,
pressing a torch in my hand and so I find
myself in uncle’s boat, the oars creaking
like tired bedsprings. My uncle is a born
hunter, his friends say, with a taste for
the kill. I know other things about him,
things he warned me not to mention.
When the moon pushes through cloud
uncle gets busy, as he calls it, bending,
feeding lines into the dark. If he went
overboard, his oil-skinned bulk snagged
by weed, who would try to save him?
His mate can’t swim and I could drown
myself. Uncle is excited. You beauty!
A long-finned eel! Its fleshy lips
remind me of someone. I shudder as
he aims a knife at the head, missing
the eye. Turning away I flick the torch
on and off on and off and on. (10)
There is so much bravery in the way McGuigan confronts these criminal episodes, rendering them with such visually dramatic language, and while clearly allocating blame, also establishing the qualities of great artistry. So much of the dread is created by what is left unsaid and that final image of the torchlight flickering like a distress beacon is so cruelly open-ended — it brilliantly encapsulates the powerlessness of the child trapped in this relationship.
Not all of the poetry in Blood Plums, however, is as powerful as ‘Bones’ and ‘Night Fishing’. McGuigan tackles many subjects and sometimes earnestness trumps technique. She writes about the homeless in Melbourne and about refugees, and there are poems that respond to works of fine art and to favourite writers such as Billy Collins and Pablo Neruda. Like Williams she also writes of the loss of an unborn baby through miscarriage in ‘Birthdays’ (14). Amidst the unevenness, though, there are many highlights. In ‘Scars’ (15-17) she writes a beautiful narrative poem celebrating the love between mother and daughter, again exploring a mother’s instinct to protect against the inevitability of hard knocks. And there are a series of poems that in a directly intimate way commemorate the life of her partner, Kevin. Poems such as ‘December Morning’, ‘The Viewing’, ‘Milk’, ‘Snapshot’ and ‘Nandina Cottage’ are unforgettable in the way they so simply evoke a poetics of grief. As McGuigan tells us in ‘The Viewing’, a poem that remembers a day shared at the beach with Kevin:
They walk into
shallows as warm as a rockpool,
tide tugging at their feet. Somewhere
a sandbar is about to collapse.
In ‘Blood Plums’ McGuigan writes:
Returning after the treatment
they talk of making jam, wonder
if they still have time.
The ancient tree is shedding
its burden; on the ground plums
shrinking, turning deeply into
themselves. Stepping over
the fallen they tug at limbs
discover fruit spared by birds.
He looks tired. Lips bleeding
juice she presses her mouth to his
stamps him with the inedible
taste of her. He offers a magenta smile.
Slow dissolve of light this humid
afternoon but all too soon
winter dark, nights touching zero.
And in their bed the giving
the receiving of warmth
old flesh picking up a memory,
scent of desire. While outside
stripped bare, the tree hangs on. (59)
I find the simplicity of this language and imagism, and the subtle way McGuigan allows line division to cut-across her grammar, thus corralling her grief, deeply moving.
In this writing, as in the poetry of Lucy Williams, there is something deeply satisfying and nourishing. Both poets celebrate the way our lives find meaning in parenthood and domesticity while at the same time keeping a saddened and defiant eye on life’s many frailties and losses. This is a poetics of suburbia that challenges us not to retreat but to accept that it is in this world, with all its brokenness, that we must find solace, or not at all.
Walleah Press, 2014
81 pages, $20.
Walleah Press, 2014
64 pages, $20.
Phillip Hall is a poet, reviewer and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s Emerging Indigenous Writers Project and as a poetry reader at Overland. From 2011 to 2015 he lived in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he ran sport and camp programs designed to re-engage and foster emotional resilience, cooperative group learning and safe decision-making. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates First Australians in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Phillip now lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.
I become ‘treatment-resistant’ to drugs.
They advise me I would be better served with other recreational pursuits.
They are talking up the effectiveness of brain damage.
I recall a child I knew in my street who could nose bleed on the spot.
I see the colour red.
Two of them sit in the room with me, the door is on the other side of their intentions.
They are common, persistent, and significant people
that I will see for the rest of my life.
I am considered ‘an excellent candidate for ECT.’ I am thrilled.
My arts degree has come to something after all.
I hold off calling my mother and friends.
The drip is your arm. You watch the way even water can be taken from rain.
When faced with the truth it is better to focus on symptoms.
A tiny prick then a hot blooded war.
I state that I was not harmed. This is part of the process.
I keep repeating this as I walk round the house trying to find where I live.
The next day I feel like a seedless watermelon.
Opponents claim that this apparent improvement is an example of post-concussion euphoria. The effects are short-lived, soon dark seeds return to the pink fruit.
Remission rates are encouraging.
I sit in the waiting room with my name on my wrist in case I forget what names are for.
Your name is not yours once it’s in their mouth.
There is a growing body of survivors. I hear them shake during the threat of summer storms, in the sudden lightning that strikes the least resistant tree.
They administer the Mini Mental Status Exam before treatment.
No one shows you what you score, or what rich rewards high scores will bring.
The nurse in front of me tells me they rarely find ‘significant and persistent deficits’
in memory for autobiographical events. Later, I rewrite this woman out of the scene.
Asking for help does a good deal of damage.
Any diagnosis has the trappings of science. When I say efficacy they say efficiency.
I am told that there are people out there who are unscientific deniers.
They tell me that the earth is flat. I act shocked that my earth is now flat.
Then they shock me too.
Looking at the night sky, I believe that a rotating and revolving rock is not merely a fiction of faith. I stop crying.
I kiss you and my lips tingle. The slight but significant risk of death.
I will not dismiss the rigorous evidence. I know I am not okay, even if it is inconvenient. If I let them take me to their quarters, who will wake up?
Cherry picks her evidence. Cherry is a fictional character.
Our love is a moral and spiritual document. I study it while you sleep, knowing I can catch up. The nature of her physical universe demands it.
I cling tenaciously to the belief that I am wrong in the right hands.
I am relieved to be informed that the memory loss was all in my head.
It works the same way any assault works. You shouldn’t have worn that dress.
I write down a report for their superiority.
Given another antipsychotic. Unsteady decline.
Treated aggressively with five new drugs.
Reporting side and/or adverse effects are solid proof of my escalating mental illness.
I stand still once the blood is spinning.
My partner is told by the team I am considered ‘high risk’. She stays with me as she knew that when we met. When I become ‘low risk’ she will leave, and I will go to bed on their terms.
Too many labels to be listed here. It’s like shopping for milk.
Someone wakes me. I am informed of the requirement for maintenance ECT for the rest of my life and drugs for the rest of my life. Every time they say life, I say “file”.
Feeling old. Not making old memories.
Continue to have tremors in my legs. The dog walks by, unsettled.
The nurse tells me that my compliance justifies the use of force.
Follow-up periods after the end of treatment will be determined by how fast I run.
I am relieved to find they will only target existing (consolidated) memory. I think of all of my favourite scenes from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Can’t remember if I’ve seen it but it’s a great film.
Last night the dream. Then I wake. Boys hanging, dead.
There is another doctor looming over my bed. He/she is holding a clipboard.
They loom further, the clipboard is now in my/their hand.
“Are you consenting or should we force you?” I consent to be forced.
I go to my doctor and tell him I want to be beaten over the head until I collapse.
The doctor sends me to another doctor who tells me I am very unwell in the head,
at the point of mental collapse. They prescribe regular doses of closed head trauma behind closed doors. I no longer want to be beaten over the head until I collapse.
Anaesthesia is poison. We are rats in a nursery, sleeping while they gnaw at our head.
The chemical imbalance lie.
If you can walk along the line, it doesn’t mean the line is there.
DIY. One day I will buy a Taser and do it myself.
I function with a wall of sticky-note reminders.
One of the notes helps me recall there is a wall.
I stay up all night, trying to lift my spirits out of the drink.
I saw the doctor who prescribed me drugs. He was high, reminiscing about the good old
days, when staff used the phrase ‘old is gold’ when using a 30-year-old machine mended with sticking plaster. I stick a bandaid on my ear.
When I open my eyes they tell my I have beautiful eyes.
I can’t see anything, just the white wash, and their black stones.
I don’t remember my grandmother’s funeral. I wasn’t there.
Since my family prefers me damaged, I commence psychiatric treatment.
I invoke the conspiracy argument that all doctors are failed dentists.
The Committee of Truth gathers round and concludes my teeth won’t come out.
‘The fracture or dislocation of the long bones’ is long behind us.
Head to head comparisons. Mine is still on their shoulders.
I have days where I feel I am in my own body.
Then it passes, and I am back in this body.
Pancakes. I flip words a lot. To see what people are really saying.
I am an assistant in my assisted suicide. I put on the gown willingly and ascend the
throne. My blood pressure is taken. They ask me why am I here and I say “Because I
am not there”. The trolley bed is pushed uneasily through hall after hall after hall, tight
corners and all. Then we are there, and they surround me with their theatre.
A lot of people blame it for Hemingway’s suicide. To shoot yourself in the temple with a double-barrelled twelve-gauge shotgun, the same gun your father used. I know he begged his wife not to send him back again. If you cheat too many times, your boxing ring will become a concrete swimming pool, and you will be sent back into the toaster. He wrote his weight daily on the bathroom wall. We are heavy on their scales. Every time he got a divorce, he left for another country. The doctors hold our passports in case they need to identify a body, having never seen our face.
I wake up on the roof. By the time I got down, I was asleep.
I am released into the care of the one person who cares.
He’s much happier they say. They smile when they say it.
Not that they see him these days.
Some people have cats. Some people have dogs.
Some people have their own unique brain injury, which strays.
I was told it was my only hope. People around me crossed my fingers.
My unmasked bipolar disorder becomes unmasked.
They give me multiple-choice. Am I:
1. an option that a person might want to be
2. there remains no such option
This one is paternalistic, warm hands, assuring me I won’t mess myself.
I try my hardest to shit the bed but instead I smile and tell him I love my son.
I tried very hard to answer them, doubly incontinent.
To improve the body. A gangrenous thought may be removed to save a life.
I get ghost pains where my ghosts once roamed free.
In 1938 Cerletti visited the Rome abattoir where electric shocks were used to render pigs comatose prior to slaughter. Inspired by the fact that the pigs were not actually killed by a voltage of 125 volts driving an electric current through the head for a few tenths of a second.
Inspired, I give up bacon as a precursor.
I’m in danger of having a pretty thin time of it.
I spontaneously and miraculously recover from all diagnoses and labels.
They tell me this is a sure sign of relapse. The new label sticks.
Mood collapses again, like a bridge taking cars down into the water.
Case notes. You have the right to apply for access to information held in your health
records. Having watched them writing several first drafts I tell them
I know a good editor. Characterisation is hard if you don’t study people.
Certifiable. The admin nurse tells me I will need to provide a certified copy of all documents. If they smile at you at the front desk they know less than you.
Headaches are not caused by trauma to one’s head.
Long-term effects have been reported by the deceased.
I continue this love affair with pills.
No further improvement is noted in the notes.
David Stavanger is a poet, performer and cultural producer. In 2013 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the release of The Special (UQP), his first full-length collection of poetry which was also awarded the 2015 Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize. David is the Co-Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. His recent prose-poem ‘The Electric Journal’ was a finalist of the 2016 Newcastle Poetry prize. At the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards he received a Queensland Writing Fellowship. He is also sometimes known as pioneering Green Room-nominated ‘spoken weird’ artist Ghostboy, winning the 2005 Nimbin Performance Poetry World Cup and establishing poetry slam in QLD via his work with the State Library and Woodford Folk Festival.
The terms of our
arrangement are revised
every three days. You
trace my bones, protruding
through my skin, as we
recap the clauses, their causes,
and intended effects. Let’s
press together the bodies we live in,
and, in doing so, express a great deal.
Let’s let in a modicum of wildness.
Let’s select for each other new monikers,
and mine our histories. Let’s act out
attentiveness to language, small acts
of understanding, setting all else aside
to erect a shelter under each other’s
smells, each other’s sounds.
All we want
to this night, this bed,
these woven fingers.
Charlotte Guest is a Western Australian writer and Publishing Officer at UWA Publishing. Her writing has appeared in Griffith Review, Overland, Westerly, Voiceworks, Cordite, Writ Poetry Review and elsewhere.
The world is on the edge of great catastrophe; Trump and Colonial xenophobia have already come after many, and though it is a time to pull closer to love and intersectional solidarity, let’s not overlook the vast importance of celebrating commercial, heteronormative expressions of class-based solvency. For tis the season for female-read* people to be berated into working harder at pretending they aren’t putting effort into their appearance, while simultaneously making sure to cover up their alienation and eye circles so as to secure a man-date for the upcoming day where we observe the holy communion that is chocolate wrappers and the supremacy of the prison that is monogamy. Because showing a hint of your minority stress and human anxiety isn’t cute and fuckable and we all know what a woman’s primary goal in life should be.
CAPRICORN (Dec 22 – Jan 19):
Expect an apology from your ex-lover around Valentine’s Day. But if he’s really sorry, he’ll be stripped bare, covered in shit and on all fours crawling towards you obsequiously with a bunch of black roses in his mouth. Don’t accept anything less.
AQUARIUS (Jan 20 – Feb 18):
You’re high from the elation of developing your pussy eating skills and swearing off cis, straight men forever. Your plaid, masculine, lesbro look has you very much off the MENu, and cackling all the way to the gay bars. Alas, you’re finding you still need some kind of deterrent for those Chucks and Lory’s who nevertheless find you fuckable and are therefore convinced you’re available, no matter how many times you yell over the dank electro, ‘I’m SUPER gay!’ It might be time to try out some kind of badge that says ‘I’m gay, but not the type of “gay” that sucks your cis, het dick. Sorry-not-sorry, Fella’.
PISCES (Feb 19 – March 20):
You and your pals would never do anything to exclude or make First Nations people feel uncomfortable. You said so yourself. You obviously deserve a pumpkin sticker! You did happen to mention that Aboriginal groups need to ‘let go’ of what white people did because your generation didn’t steal their children, take their land, or make them slaves and outcasts. You might not be joining the KKK Becky, but you and your white logic are about two steps away from voting for Pauline Hanson and supporting a wall on the Mexican-American border.
ARIES (March 21 – April 19):
If the polite arts scene makes you want to shave all your hair off and never wear a 50’s dress again, that’s understandable. Shun the crowds of clean girls who communicate all too loudly with their cream ballet flats: ‘I’m totally quirky and offbeat because I have a blunt fringe and wear chunky knit cardigans over my willowy frame. My five year goal is to get married, have 1.5 kids and cash in on my white privilege.’
TAURUS (April 20 – May 20):
Your uncle’s suggestion that you go on a juice fast and pick up meditation again were meant well, but maybe your ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression, including regular flare ups in suicidal ideation, aren’t a consequence of the acidity levels of your blood. Perhaps it’s rooted in the government driving you to self immolation through the pointless humiliation of work for the dole, the Centrelink benefits that are below the poverty line and the defunding of the arts that can no longer afford to offer you work. Or, maybe it’s the senselessly high housing prices that are getting you down, which means you face sharing a house in your forties, still yelling at teenage turds to clean their cum off the Persian rugs. Yeah, maybe it’s not the acidity levels of your blood.
GEMINI (May 21 – June 20):
Buddy, you’re all about supporting your LGBTQI+ friends, especially supporting your now firmly lesbian ex and her new girlfriend get on your cock. It doesn’t take a mystic to see you’re hungry for the fairytale lesbians who are flattered by your attempts to creep all up inside them. For some incomprehensible reason they’re aggressively offended by your shoddy industrial goth-boy company and friendly desire to initiate them into ginger butt plugs and veined dildos. It shouldn’t take the wisdom of the zodiac to figure out why.
CANCER (June 21 – July 22):
Oh honey, you’re in gross trouble if you’re mocking The Purity Myth and think it’s okay to ignore your friends every time your bf is up from Brisbane. You’ve ditched your older and wiser girlfriends, and though they’re clicking their tongues, you better believe they’re also chilling a pink martini in readiness for the day when you come crawling back after 6 years of gaslighting, casual sexism, economic abuse, suffocating cohabitation, diet pills and doing all the laundry. They’ll be ready with tissues, a moon cup and the ghastly truth about cis, white, straight men that you didn’t want to hear about the first time round. You won’t be making fun of Everyday Sexism then, darling.
LEO (July 23 – Aug 22):
You’re a young libertine who denounces property ownership and the fascist obsession with mowing the lawn. Marvellous! What’s that though? You’re not interested in reading female writers, not even Virginia Woolf, and it’s clear from your swagger and black, tight jeans that you strive to emulate the general distaste expressed towards women by Byron and Henry Miller. What a terrific rebel you are! No man ever has shaken off his class oppression but remained committed to misogyny and the maintenance of his power through female subjugation. You’re a fucking gem!
VIRGO (Aug 23 – Sept 22):
While you’re playing devil’s advocate and ‘fair mindedly’ having a chuckle about admiring Trump’s ability to at least create press for himself, all those who aren’t middle class, straight, white, cis men, are wondering whether they’ll have their few tenuous rights whipped away from them within the year. Whether they’ll have to use a coat hanger to give their rights tangibility, be kicked out of the country, or how they’ll survive the gunshots and daily threats from victoriously enraged, Neo Nazi beefcakes who yell, ‘We won! American belongs to men! Go back to Africa!’ But please, don’t think twice about your balanced and scaled, whitewashed polemic – of course Trump voters aren’t bigoted, they just didn’t trust a woman or a Jew to run their country.
LIBRA (Sept 23 – Oct 22):
Honey, no one is being fooled by you super weak, super ‘progressive’ I’m an equalist talk. It’s common knowledge that it’s a made-up term only used by white people drinking white wine, in loudly slurred tones in super mod kitchens. Nice try, but you’re becoming increasingly recognised as a cafe crusader and a heteronormativity apologist. But with the full moon in Leo coming up you better watch out for a brutally malignant awakening that’s going to have you returning to yoga classes as well as realising your male friends are the kinds of blokes who get called ‘nice guys’ but regularly sexually harass women.
SCORPIO (Oct 23 – Nov 21):
Conceivably, you’re not so much attracted to bratty Subs because they’re your preferred ‘submissive’, but because you need a 19 yr old wearing clip-in cat ears to shape the play date, you loafing grog-Dom. You’ve got all the sexual creativity of a white boy who’s grown up over-consuming one entitled man/two faux lesbians porn. Having no desire to learn the subtle art of domination while wanting to get sucked off on command isn’t a ‘kink’. That’s called being a sexually selfish simian and thinking you’re an uber Dom because you put on a body harness and have a scrotum.
SAGITTARIUS (Nov 22 – Dec 21):
The world is in vaster turmoil than usual. The result of which you hope will be a leftist backlash of seventies, cyber punk proportions. But remember, you can take a break from advocacy and activism so as to look after yourself. You aren’t one of those all too common femme-phobic fucks; the plodding, previous decade feminists who see frills, bows and ‘girly’ things as demeaning or for the intellectually frail. So get stuck into some self care and get cosy in the restorative world of cat cafes, Japanese selfie filters and Shoujo manga. Just because you shop for Gothic Lolita bonnets online doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Yaoi with an emphasis on tender emotions and anal torture. Nor does any of this preclude you from dismantling Trumpland and breaking the hands of those that try and re-enact his pussy grabbing fanaticism. You can get back to being a loud and proud Nasty Woman tomorrow.
* ‘female-read’ is the act of the ‘female’ gender being attributed to individuals who may or may not identity as women. A cisgender woman, non-binary individual, a-gender person, or trans man etc may be read and assumed to be female by others based on appearances. In this context, ‘read’ is used as a verb.
Gender attribution, whereby an observer decides which gender they believe another person to be, is linked to the default assumption that everyone ascribes to a binary gender identity which is tangible to anyone who observes another’s physicality, mannerisms and way of dress. This is furthermore linked to the monolithic idea that biology, certain genitals, body types, behaviour, interests and hair styles, for example, are inherent indicators of gender – as if the shape and texture of someone’s meat prison can and should lead to a static, causal assumption about that person.
Rachael Nielsen has a Bachelor of Writing from the University of Canberra and has studied literature at Oxford University and the Australian National University. Rachael has interned at the M16 Artspace, the National Library and at the ANU Press. Currently she is one of the Content co-Coordinators at Scissors Paper Pen and Assistant Editor for Grapple Publishing, as well as penning nasty little predictions for Verity La as part of her work writing The Stars. When she isn’t pouring her latent bile into The Stars she is writing about feminist issues and is fixated on short stories. Her work has been published by Curio, Woroni, Lip, Vegan ACT, the ACT Writers Centre, the ANU Women’s Department and Feminartsy. You can follow her ramblings about being an emerging writer and editor on Twitter @rachaelandjane.
Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT, Lucy is a writer and editor who has plied her trades in both Australia and Cambodia, where she lived for several years. Her abiding love for Southeast Asia is evident in her editing work, which focuses on English language translations of the region’s folk tales and modern narrative forms. In 2012 she won the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for her first novel, The Things We Tell Ourselves, and went on to be awarded a Varuna Publisher Fellowship for the same work in 2013. Her second novel, Salt Creek, was published to critical acclaim. It won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction, the Dobbie Literary Award, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. The ample success of Treloar’s writing originates from her fascination with the world; this interview attempts to explore that fascination.
Interviewer: Stephen Samuel
I’d like to start off by discussing the title of your recently published novel. What importance does the physical landscape of Salt Creek have on you as a writer, on the story and on the characters?
I often fret over titles, but it was different with Salt Creek. I came across the name while travelling the backblocks of the Coorong, a wild and still fairly remote wetland region on the coast of South Australia – a few years ago now. Again and again I came across road signs to the small town of Salt Creek, and much like the grand melancholy of the landscape that I was exploring, those words hit with a sort of psychological blow. It sounded like some place on the edge of the world, like hope gone bad, and for some reason I found that very compelling.
I’d always known of the Coorong through fragmentary family tales (an ancestor was the first European to colonise the area) and in a distant sort of way had seen its possibilities for a fiction. But it was being there, experiencing it as a place rather than as an idea, that jumpstarted everything. It was something like an electric shock.
We kayaked up the thin ribbon of water known as the lagoon that separates the mainland from the windswept peninsula and roamed the peninsula’s vast dunes to the site of the old family homestead, finally emerging onto the roar of the Southern Ocean. Immediately, I began making notes of my observations, desperate to explore more of that desolate world, to put my quickly developing ideas into words, and terrified that someone else would have had the idea first. I know now that place and my feelings about place are more important to me than any idea or plot and close to being as important as character; then, I only knew wild elation and a drive to get started.
Every part of Salt Creek is saturated with landscape. It creates the social and geographic isolation that leads to all the events that unfold in the book. It is key to plot in terms of travel, farming practices and their effects on Indigenous lands and people, as well as in terms of social constraints and possibilities. And beyond this literal level, the ruination of landscape is a metaphor for the loss of family fortunes, the fragmenting of family, and the erosion or mutation of personal principle in various characters. I wanted the grand melancholy of the Coorong to permeate everything. It changes characters as much as it does events, tempering some, while destroying or even killing others. Through the pressures it applies, I aimed for characters to reveal their truest selves, both weaknesses and strengths.
I can see these things now, the layered significance of landscape, but while writing each day it was my feelings about that world – a strange combination of sadness, wonderment, shame – and the memory of my first visit that helped to sustain the book’s tone. The metaphorical resonances only became fully apparent to me after the book came out. I am always fascinated by the work that the unconscious self does.
Can you describe the process of creating the characters that would inhabit this literal and metaphorical landscape? Was there an ‘electric shock’ moment as there was with the landscape?
Characters and how they come into being on the page are an ongoing mystery to me, each derived from strange combinations of ideas, niggling doubts, observation, research, brainwaves, serendipitous events, and idle wondering. There’s no pattern to it. In some ways it’s more like discovering than creating them. But there is very often a moment – something like the ‘shock’ I feel when connecting with landscape – when the character leaps to life in my mind. Instantly, their way forward in the narrative feels more certain, and the material coheres around them.
At first there are the bare bones of characters, the place that I start with them. For instance, with Tully, the Ngarrindjeri youth who eventually comes to live with the Finch family, I had in mind fragmentary family stories: of the ‘mixed race’ son of an Indigenous stockman who lived with my forebears, and of my great-great grandmother, Annie (the model for Addie Finch), who it was said ‘ran wild with the blacks’. There was also an historical Indigenous figure who interested me: Dick Cubadji, a charismatic Waramungal man and ‘cultural broker’ who took Adelaide by storm in the 1880s. In my mind, Tully was a little like him – a bridge between Indigenous and European cultures. But it was writing a scene in which Tully was walking a track of the Coorong observed by Addie, and understanding what Addie was noticing, and imagining the two parallel and contradictory worlds that they occupied, that made me see them both suddenly, and their trajectory in the world of Salt Creek.
The narrator of Salt Creek, Hester Finch, was a little different. She evolved slowly for quite a while. The letter of a distant forebear of the 1850s was a huge help with her voice, but Hester became more angry, determined, and intelligent, pulled between independence and duty, loving people and resenting them. Strangely, the moment that really unlocked her was finding her true name (she had been Emily Back). She leapt to life for me in that moment. In fact, finding her name was a turning point for the book as a whole. It clarified everything, and was incredibly exciting.
Of course, sometimes characters seem to have their own ideas about who they are. I had no idea that Fred, Hester’s younger brother, would turn out to be gay – quite a surprise when I connected the dots! And I wanted Papa (Hester’s father) to be a Captain Ahab-type figure in a domestic setting. But again and again he resisted my attempts to amp him up into some more dramatic person – someone who shouted and rampaged. It just wasn’t him. His menace is of a quiet sort: pleasantness and reason contrasted with hypocrisy, self-righteousness and implacable will. No shocking moment of recognition with him, just him having his way, as he does throughout the book.
Can you describe the writing process of Salt Creek? It seems like there is a lot going on, steps forward and then back again as the characters developed into their roles.
Now that I’m working on my second book I find myself wondering – often – how I ever finished Salt Creek. The pain’s receded a little, but it was something like this: I start with handwriting – first thing in the morning or last thing at night – in a dimly lit and very quiet place. This material is the jumping off point for working on the computer in my office (blinds pulled down to minimise distraction), where I stay until I have written at least one thousand words. More is good, but no less. With Salt Creek I was trialing something different, writing wherever I felt energy and connection with the world of the book. I didn’t care about plot or sequence of events, though I had some major plot points that I always knew would be part of the story. Most of the book was written out of sequence.
The first two chapters of the book are the origins of the structure. What is now the second chapter was initially the first, but the book just seemed to whimper its way into existence, so I thought of Hester recalling her time on the Coorong from some way into an opaque future in England. It made her adult perspective and nostalgic tone come from somewhere real, and that set a number of other structural elements, such as the dual time frame, in motion. I wrote a few more chapters set in England without any clear idea of how they’d fit. The second draft was made from all the components of the first draft – building blocks, quilting squares: choose your metaphor – which I shifted around to create something pleasing, that had narrative traction. I did it by feel more than anything, though I used a couple of different tables to keep events, dates and character development working together at this stage.
It occurred to me later that I structured the book to read in the way that I read. I pick up a book, read from the beginning, then the last page and a little before, a bit from the middle, then back to the beginning. I’m not much interested in plot, resent intrusive authorial manipulations (books like Gone Girl really annoy me) and approach everything by following character and thinking about how they’re growing and changing over time, and how they respond to and act on events. The major structural change during editing was the removal of Fred as occasional first person narrator, which meant I had to rewrite some action from Hester’s point of view. The third and final draft related to strengthening motivation and tension in a scene near the end. (I don’t like being upset, and I had tried to spare my characters to the book’s detriment.) The first draft was fairly gruelling to write, but I really enjoyed the engagement with the editing phase – such a pleasure working with the publishers on this.
Were you nervous about writing an Indigenous character into a colonising story?
Nervous is a massive understatement. I existed in a state of acute anxiety over the issue throughout writing, editing and well into the post-publication phase. I was desperately aware of the pitfalls, and the more research I did, the more the problems seemed to expand. Very early, I pulled back from my original conception of having a fictional non-fiction strand running through the book, intended to document a little of the richness of Ngarrindjeri culture (though its ghostly remains appear here and there, such as in a description of how to cook duck) and proceeded with the Ngarrindjeri at a greater distance. Having a first person narrator helped with this, creating a blinker that limited what could be observed.
It’s incredibly problematic working in this area. I had no confidence that I could get an authentic understanding of the Indigenous perspective, and was very uneasy about trying to portray it. Tully’s thinking and motivations are fairly concealed from the reader – a deliberate decision. Research threw up so many things I would love to have explored further, but in the end I left it at hinting at a few of them, and leaving the rest. I would love to read a book about that time and that world from an Indigenous perspective, but really felt, and still feel, that the story was not mine to tell. I’ve had only positive feedback about Indigenous representation in the book from Indigenous readers, which has reduced my worries a little.
I think you have received only positive feedback for Salt Creek, including being shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. Does this affirmation of your writing propel you easily into your current project?
It’s a funny thing being published. None of it was what I’d expected. I think I was anticipating a sense of having ‘arrived’ in some way. But almost the moment the book came out, the goal posts began to shift. There’s always another thing to hope for, or to feel a sense of failure at not having achieved. I began to see that the positive critical response only matters up to a point. It’s lovely when a critic understands what I was trying to do and say (as well as noting things that were not part of my thinking at all), and I’m really happy for my publisher, but I can’t help being aware of shortcomings in the book and thinking of Samuel Beckett’s advice: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.
On a practical level, the reception of Salt Creek has made signing a contract for a new book easier, and it’s led to me getting an Arts Council grant that will cover a few of next year’s expenses: not insignificant factors in smoothing the path to writing. Now I’m facing the slight panic of early work on the next book: uneven quality, uncertain direction, vaporous characters, wooden voices. (I came across a really horrible early draft section from Salt Creek a few days ago and found it reassuring. Turns out comparing first draft material with a published book isn’t a good idea.) In the end though, like any writer, I’m sitting in my quiet room, calming my fear of failure and my busy mind for long enough to create something that feels true.
In a way it’s harder now, because I have some idea of the sustained commitment that’s needed. But it’s exhilarating too. The big thing I learned while writing Salt Creek, which I couldn’t know at the time, is that true engagement in the work of creation is the best part of the whole process (at least, for me), as hard as it sometimes seems. All of my thinking seems to circle back to the book, and my reading shapes around it. I start leaving little notes around the house from when I’ve had an idea. It’s when I feel most at peace.
Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek is available from Pan Macmillan
Stephen Samuel’s first novel, Strange Eventful History, won the Varuna Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript. His short fiction has appeared in Tincture, SoftCopy and Dark Edifice.