A ghostly white rabbit floating above the earth

The Dingo’s Noctuary (Judith Nangala Crispin)

Verity La Arrests of Attention, New, Poetry

Vision 2 (from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
The Mongrels

I have no memory of waking. An awareness slowly formed in the dark — scratching acacia, the strum of powerlines in wind. There had been a voice.

I throw open the bedroom window, admit the calligraphic night. Saturn and Mars are spiders on the edge of black. The Milky Way, a curving string. Somewhere beyond sight, Cassini is dropping through Saturn’s rings like a jewel.

Judith.

Wake up.

I surface outside, the way someone drowning strikes upward toward a lit line of air. My feet sink in lawn, breeze tugs at my pyjamas.

Something is wrong with the sky.

Behind the house, black cypress pines should lift the mountain’s shoulder, in starwort and bitter pea, until fire trails tumble the leeslope down to the airforce base below. But tonight’s sky does not disapear behind the mountain. Stars fall to a flat line, a plataeu, spinifex grasslands thinning to clay. Wind-thrashed salt lakes, opaline as cataracts on the desert’s eye. And horizon to horizon, low ridges snake out like lines in the Martian dust.

Along the skysill, mares’ tail clouds distort the constellations. Stars appear and vanish over sleeping creeks. A handspan in front of my face, the air is displaced. An owlet nightjar drops in blackness, open-beaked and quickened in the bones that hold her. She hisses and is gone — a flung shadow on the gulf of Magellan’s aerial lakes.

And I saw them then, low on the starfields — a night mirage. A noctilucent shape, dividing itself into figures. I count five, immense and dingo-headed, striding out in the direction of deserts. Purposeful as thunderheads, their bodies are wild and dark. Starry. They camouflage themselves against night’s shifting hollows. Constellations rise and set in their organs. Their arteries are zodiacal light. A satellite circles a thigh. And always their anatomy morphs and shifts — sparking cells become galaxies become electricity, branching out into the sky like lightning.

A caravan of star mongrels walk a horizon that can’t exist. They vanish in cloud, reappear against the brightest falls of stars. A dream. A vision so strong the world breaks beside it.

I want to call out — but the half-formed word catches in my throat like a burr. How can I speak to Country in a language it can’t understand? In the tongue of slave ships, in this murderous tongue. After all these years, the miracle arrives on my front lawn, all burning hair electric, and finds me voiceless.

The vision is fading. Dawn returns the mountain, this yard with its hills hoist and mimosa. The caravan passes west with the first fingers of sun. They’ll be gone in seconds. In the last breath before waking, I saw one turn back its canine head, like acknowledgement.

It is morning. The dog sleeps on his snowman and yeti print blanket. Pedalling his legs, he chases dream brumbies. On the water tank, pied butcherbirds lift up their voices, gifting this fledgling day their cascading brilliance. Soon the daily news cycle, the ordinary pressures of email and work. But something is different. I am different.

Because I know they are out there, somewhere in the north-west. They will trigger floodlights in the mines and joint military facilities. They will withdraw, following starlines until the vanishing of roads. Where shale gives rise to bloodwoods, the great sentinels of desert. Starswarm of leaves and torsos thrumming with owls.

They withdraw to older places — speargrass and comets. The cordon will not hold. Bombing ranges tattoo strange geometries on the heat-fused clay. In the empty communities, nightjars surrender their hymns– in a time of weapons and of wind, in the last age of dingoes.

A white ghostly crow floating over mountains in the outback

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Lily manifests as a crow over the West MacDonnell Ranges’. Lumachrome glass print, cliché verre. Double Exposure. Roadkill crow, blood, mud, resin, wax, seeds, sticks and maggots on fibre paper. 1st exposure 24 hours, 2nd exposure 12 hours in the back of a ute. moonlight and full sun.

A ghostly bird floating in the night sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Ben sometimes felt he carried his artist girlfriend a lot, but she painted him stars while he slept’. Lumachrome glass print, cliché verre. Double exposure. Roadkill magpie, seeds and ash on fibre paper. First exposure, 12 hours under marked glass in the back of a ute. Second exposure, 12 hours with additional seeds and dirt. Winter light.

A Honeyeater bird with its beak open ascending into the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Honeyeaters know there is a special place after death for birds who have the courage to leave this world singing. Those are the bird warriors. Not fighters, but the ones who look death in the eye and sing.’ Lumachrome glass print. Honeyeater fallen to old age, household chemicals, mud and maggots on fibre paper. Exposed 31 hours under perspex in spring light

Noctuary Entry 23, January 3, 2017
(from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
Language of the Birds

for Robert Adamson

Land breathes slowly here­ —
Insects in the mulga.

Termite mounds, antumbral
against the sun’s white centre.

In a dry river, a camel rots
with its face turned to the sky.

A willy willy takes a dancer’s form,
red dust spinning from its arms.

I watch hunting fires unfold
idle lightning. Smoke

lifts to orbits of firehawks,
their bodies sparking inside cloud

like cranial nerves.
Rain brings oracular birds.

Parabolas of thornbills
and zebra finches.

By the rockholes, bloodwoods
wear pardalotes on their sleeves.

In our history, there have always been those
who understood the language of birds —

St Francis, Olivier Messiaen, my poet friend Bob,
and others whose names you would not recognise,­

who turned the mercurial eye of a bowerbird,
and became confidants

on matters of stones and wild figs,
the precise shade of shells or bones for bowers.

In a moonsoon dusk, you don’t notice the floodwater,
only stars arching above and below:

Ursa minor, the Pleiades.
Land conceals herself in mirrored lakes.

And maybe language is like that too —
world-creating.

For the one who speaks bird tongues, perhaps
a willy wagtail might drop its avian form —

become the mountain and its weight,
the force that crushes stone to ochre,

and the rain will carry its colours down
in currents strong enough to lift a rotting camel.

The wedgetail, balanced on its back, stoops
to pick out an eye — it doesn’t matter.

Country has many eyes.

And maybe learning to speak is as simple
as noticing the angle, when light,

refracted through a fairy-wren’s wings,
will turn its blue feathers black.

But I have seen the miracle of a lorikeet banking
into storm its plummage

the colour of saplings exploding in fire,
while beneath it, waterchannels glimmer and still.

If you could see this from space
it would resemble a nervous system.

What I have lived in dreams,
I told the lorikeet, is etched in me —

and she answered, Don’t you realise?
A bird is a shadow of what stands behind it.

Something, standing in the light,
casts a bird.

A Song-lark bird superimposed inside a leaf skeleton, ascending into the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘No-one really dies, she told me, you’ll find me again, in a trace of leaf or stone, in the quiet hieroglyphs of Country’. Lumachrome glass print with chemigram and cliche-verre. Roadkill Brown Songlark, skeleton leaf, daisies, grass and chemicals on fibre paper. 24 hours under perspex in full summer light.

Two ghostly Kookaburras ascending into the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Otto and Astrid leaving the Tanami Desert. Some love stories are stronger than death.’ Lumachrome glass print, cliche-verre, chemigram. Two roadkill Kookaburras, soil, wax, resin and ochres on fibre paper, 32 hours in sand storm conditions and varied light.

Ghostly Eastern Water Dragon ascending into the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘In the afterlife, Rudolf struggled to say goodbye to gorges and riverstones, the oyster-coloured light of deserts, and so he lingered’. Lumachrome glass print and chemigram. Roadkill Eastern Water Dragon, painted in selenium, and exposed 32 hours under marked perspex in full summer light and high humidity.

Vision 1 (from The Dingo’s Noctuary)
Fitzroy Crossing

I wake in the heavy scent of mimosa, certain someone hissed my name from a corner of the room. Outside, a motion-activated light floods the bedroom window sulphur. Fern and seeded wattle vibrate stillness through glass — and the light switches off, imprinting my retina until the star until the star until the star.

Something clatters in the yard.

I unfold, snake strike along the corridor to a wild open door, black and diamond bulging in from outside — and beyond, the ice-gravel way. It is cool. Saturn and Mars spider-squat in the west. Centaurus drapes pointers in the treeline. Moonless.

Stars so bright they cast shadows — fence stripes, a woman’s legs impossibly elongated.

In the garden, the recycling bin has tipped over. Between tumbled bottles, a bush stone curlew stalks, python-throated, and dark against the lawn. She sprawls out her wings

and lifts yammering into the calligraphy of night. And I know what it means to hear that creaked call in the middle of the night — like a dead weight turning a leather belt, in a tree near Fitzroy Crossing.

September 23rd 2016, the night Cassini slipped, north to south, through Saturn’s rings, grazing a moon. In 18 months the boy will hang himself, but now he balances a cigarette between fingers, his gaze drifting with the smoke over Wolfe Creek Crater, kilometres of dust-cloaked mesas reshaping themselves in wind.

These are the liminal hours of milkweed and Sturts desert rose, of sandhills oyster in thunderhead light. The crater’s lip softened by gravel and extraterrestrial stones. First stars ease through the veil. The boy ashes his cigarette and turns. There are forces, he tells me,

moving under this landscape like snakes, and they are so lonely — they are so lonely you can hardly bear it.

Tonight his voice returns to me with the curlew. It shrieks again and sheers away. I want to reach back through all the months of paracetamol and grog, the Facebook rants no one knew how to answer, and tell him, Alfy — there is still light, there is still time.

They will burn his football shirts in Sorry Camp. Smoke will spiral dark-winged insects out into the Tanami — past burned cars, the uranium deposit at Browns Range, and south. Until the crater opens its eye onto Martian geometries of salt, and all that loneliness leeching up through the sand.

A ghostly coiled snake with fangs open floating in the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Melissa singing from inside the storm, over Brown Mountain, lulling white eucalypts to sleep’. Lumachrome Glass Print, Cliche Verre, Chemigram. Roadkill Eastern Brown snake, sticks, dried leaves, shed python skin, and clay on fibre paper. 32 hours in full summer light.

A ghostly coiled snake oozing blood and guts floating in the sky

Judith Nangala Crispin, ‘Agnes was born in rain, and to rain she returned– a single drop falls into the Murrumbidgee River, into her mother’s body, and disappears’. Lumachrome glass print, chemigram, cliche-verre. Baby brown snake from Helen’s garden, seeds and clay on fibre paper. 33 hours under marked perspex in very bright summer light, starlight and storm-light.

Artist’s Statement
These images and poems belong to a verse novel entitled The Dingo’s Noctuary (in progress). They are the culmination of a two decade search for my family’s lost Bpangerang ancestry, and eighteen years of friendship with remote Warlpiri women. In the most literal sense, I consider them to be collaborations with Country. The images — Lumachrome glass prints — use cadavers, ochres, sticks, grass and light as printing objects. Exposed in natural light over many hours, these images honour native animals and birds killed on our roads. Poems in The Dingo’s Noctuary explore the idea of a connection with Country — what kind of connection is possible for someone with lost Aboriginal ancestry, no Aboriginal ancestry, or someone born overseas? How can we make sense of this now, when contemporary custodians might not have the lineage of those who preceded them? Is my desire to connect with Country legitimised by finding my Great-Grandfather’s people? What if I had never found them? At what point is my relationship with nature determined by my actions, not just my skin? Talk to Country, my Warlpiri friends urge me, and the Country will talk back. If I assume the sentience of Country (and I do), what kind of language could possibly be used to communicate? All my present creative work is focused on this question — the question of finding a shared syntax, not something handed down in families or tribes, not the abstracted language of academics who have often never set foot on Country — but a genuine act of communication between an individual and the land which holds them. 
 

Judith Nangala Crispin leaning on a tree in the Australian bush

Photo by Jason Blake

Judith Nangala Crispin is an artist and poet living near Lake George, New South Wales. Her visual arts practice is centred around Lumachrome glass printing, a combination of lumen printing, chemigram and cliché verre techniques. Judith has published a collection of poetry, The Myrrh-Bearers (Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015), and a book of images and poems, The Lumen Seed (New York: Daylight Books, 2017). Her illustrated verse novel, The Dingo’s Noctuary, will be published with Daylight Books in 2020. Her Lumachrome glass prints will be exhibited at The Other Art Fair in Sydney from March 14, 2019.