2 images from Tarquinia

Still life with jug and paintbrushes, Philip Clairmont, 1977 (Fletcher Challenge collection)


committing to memory

The last post was a transcription of a dream, made just after I woke up yesterday, although I didn't wake from the dream - that happened sometime in the night, when I did that thing you seem to have to do with dreams, committed it to memory.


And yet ... that isn't really the dream: for instance there was a bit I've omitted before we left the palazzo that came, I think, from the film version of The Comfort of Strangers, which means it was in Venice, where I have never been. Plus who was we? When 'we' were sitting on the beach watching the people eat out of spider-silk stockings, I was with my eldest sister, and it was our younger sisters coming from the north. And they were very well dressed. And the beach looked like the coast south from Wellington.


The sea shells on the other beach - and by this time it was certainly the west coast of Italy, north from Rome, where I have never been either - looked very much like one of the vessels Philip Clairmont was so fond of painting. A vase, perhaps. Their colours were his colours, but I wrote Etruscan because of where the dream was set and because I love the word.


And because I have a little book of Tarquinia frescoes that was somehow mixed up with the Clairmont-esque images of the sea shells. Which themselves resembled ornate, open-topped cinerariums.


As for the lapis lazuli, that wasn't actually in the dream at all, it came from a documentary about the Sumerians in which a pile of greyish stone, looking a bit like schist, lay against a wall while a man sluiced water over it and that startling deep blue colour appeared as if by magic. But the gleam of olivine that I've called peridot ... that was really in the dream, though half indistinct and perhaps the stones were not as large as boulders.


Also, when I went to the restaurant with the sea shells, I actually went to the bathroom first, to have a crap, and it was while I was doing that that the little boy came in and peed on the rocky fountain thing at the other end of the small room. It was later, after I came out of there, that I saw him with his hoop and stick. And the hoop was tiny and perhaps square, with paint flaking off it.


The woman who spoke at the end, the one to whom I tried to give back the stone, was there for the whole of the dream: at the palazzo in the beginning as much as at the gate at the end. She was the hostess of the dream, its mistress, perhaps, or ciccerone. You could even say it was her dream, she was entertaining me in it. I didn't describe her because I have no visual memory of her, she was a presence not an image. A voice.


And besides all that, and more, the plain fact is that as soon as you commit a dream to memory, it changes from what it was into a version; and when subsequently you write down what you have memorised, it changes again and you have a third version.


And yet, strangest of all, the original dream survives in, and persists apart from, its versions. For me, the reason for writing down a dream is precisely this: so that its persistence as itself may be recalled from the imperfect versions of it, both the one in memory and the one in writing.


Luogo di Pietra

In the portico of the palazzo I pick up a stone the size of small egg, it is made of red chalcedony, there is a face carved into it, a fish perhaps, or a bird. A fish, it has lips. We go out onto the shore, we are waiting for the tide, we will go swimming. Here the people bring their food wrapped in dense white silks spun by spiders and afterwards leave them on the sand where hermit crabs find and crawl into them. The grey-brown sea sluices in among the black rocks, I see flashes of green and purple as the crabs drag their silks deeper into crevices or bury themselves in the sand. Tides are brief and violent on this coast, no sooner am I down among the bathers in the bottom pool than the water begins to recede; but instead of heading back to shore we stamp our feet, we move our bodies, we dance. I see my sisters coming from the north, picking their way towards us among the gleaming outcrops. This must be an island, now we are on the other side, another shore, here are intricate, upstanding, tubular seashells in Etruscan colours, yellows and reds and browns, they are shaped like a kind of pasta, they are everywhere. I see in the light falling across the sand that there are many precious stones here too, feldspar, chrysoprase, beryl and more, some are antique, they have been worked long ago and then abandoned to lie upon this shore. A crook of amber with silver intaglio. A pile of lapis lazuli, mined in Bactria, that reveals an ineffable blue when water pours over it. Polished boulders of peridot, that green olivine. I pick up some of the shellfish and take them to the restaurant to ask if they are edible? Of course, the man says, and when you are tired of them, you can go further south and you will find other kinds of food, just as good, but different. A small boy with a stick and a hoop is playing across the tesserae of the courtyard. Later, as we are leaving, paying a small tariff for the privilege of being here, I show my hostess the egg-like stone I have carried all through this dream, I want to return it to her but she smiles, ever gracious and says no, keep it, we have so much, goodbye ... I wake with my hand curled around a stone and begin immediately to work upon it, carving the vulvine lips just as I remember them, the crooked eyes, the slight ridge at the back that might be a forehead or might simply be a mark left there yet despite aeons of rolling in the sea.


Forest of Signs

Transom is one word, truss another, span a third. As if building a bridge across an abyss that has one side only, the shivery bank I start from. The bridge is on gaseous Jupiter, consecrated by a poet: Dead men naked they shall be one, he wrote. With the man in the wind and the west moon. The other side is an unknown, it is not yet within reach, I cannot even imagine what is there, nor how to construct a foundation that will support the throws I dream towards it. I saw my dead father last night, my younger son sickening in his arms: I wanted to reach out and take one from the other, the other from the one. And yet both perhaps are one. Or other. I am the same age now that my father was when his third daughter died. The great red spot is a swirl in the heart, it revolves on an eight hour period, it bleeds constantly, it has been going on since the seventeenth century; the small red spot is hope, it appeared late in the last millennium, it is quick and vicious, it may be salvation. From what? From having to choose between the love that kills and killing yourself. Not as hard as it sounds. I am lost in a forest of signs and I wander. The forest is made of names, I survive there by telling. The first tell: When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone / They shall have stars at elbow and foot. Afterwards, I see the path their dying light made, I breath in the air of their longing, and I sing.


... in a manner less visible ...

This phrase from a French documentary about the Indus Valley civilization that screened Sunday night. Quite a large slice of the program concerned a site at Dholavira in Gujarat, now a virtual island with the Arabian Sea to the west and the two marshy arms of the evocatively named Rann of Kutch to the north- and south-east. Dholavira is remarkable for its stone constructions of vast reservoirs which may have been public baths; indeed, according to this view, the Indus Valley civilization was 'about' water. The French film makers characterized the people as democratic, egalitarian, peaceable, game-playing, ecologically aware ... noble antiques, perhaps.

It twigged something in my mind and, today, I went back to some books I've owned since the mid-sixties: Leonard Cottrell's 2 volume Penguin Book of Lost Worlds (1966). I had some vague memory of a completely different take on the Harappans, as they're sometimes also known, after one of their main cities. Cottrell writes: Part of its fascination lies in the grim fact that it appears to have foreshadowed some of the economic features of the totalitarian state ... the barrack-like buildings, the huge granaries, and the raised platforms on which rows of workmen pounded grain all suggest a life of controlled communal activity. Cottrell hedges this rather large claim about with many qualifications but you can still tell that he thinks it's probably more or less true.

It's a bit like the debate about the even earlier city states in Turkey, which some archaeologists have characterized as insect like cellular structures full of terrified humans propitiating strange gods, and others as idyllic shrines to the great Mother Goddess. Goddess worship has also been alleged in the Indus Valley; and at Dholivera was found a large sign (13 characters) that was once fixed over one of the gates to the city, which suggested that there might be enough in it to begin the decipherment of their mysterious script - but alas, no. The writing, if that's what it is, remains, like Cretan Linear A, unreadable. The brilliant English linguist Michael Ventris was said to be about to tackle the Indus Valley signs when he died in a car accident in the early 1950s. Since then, no-one has come close.

But one thing leads to another and wandering in cyberspace I found an article in The Hindu about a recent find in the south of India. It's a celt, an ancient worked stone tool, with four of the signs carved into it. The first of these has been tentatively translated as the name of the god Murukun and this is further held, by some, as proof that the language of the Indus Valley was an early form of Dravidian. The Indus Valley fascists/lotus-eaters' civilization disappeared about the time of the Aryan invasions from the north in the second millennium BC. Again, the experts are split: some say that the people of the Rig Veda put the Indus people to the sword, others that it was more a case of accommodation and assimilation than of conquest.

I like better what the Frenchman said: the people began to live in a manner less visible to archaeology.


The Revenge of the Wild Mouse

Don't want to turn into my own agony aunt, but some stories seem to need to be told ... about this time last year I took my sons to Luna Park. They had a ball, as you'd expect, except that Liamh, the younger one, when he had a go at steering the Dodgem we were in, received a whack on the face when he cannoned into the wheel.

And I completely freaked out when I accompanied him (he's too small to go on his own) on the Wild Mouse - which is the roller coaster there. I also lost my glasses but, by refusing to leave until they'd looked properly for them, got them back when one of the guys went into the bottom of the superstructure and discovered them lying unbroken in the fairy floss dust down there.

So when, a few weeks ago, they announced they wanted to go again, I was dubious. I suggested that they save up their pocket money, thinking the idea would probably fade in the face of a real financial commitment. Well, I was wrong. In no time at all they'd accumulated enough to make it impossible for me to refuse them a visit; but I made one condition. I said I wouldn't under any circumstances be going again on the Wild Mouse.

On Friday night, off we went. All the fun of the fair. The Laughing Clowns. The Fun House. Coney Island. The Dodgems. The Spider. The Ferris Wheel ... when we took a break for a Coke and a Fanta, Jesse, who'd earlier said he wanted to go off on his own for a bit, left us. But before he did, I asked him where he was going? To the Wild Mouse, of course. He'd gone on it 7 times on the previous visit. Liamh didn't make a murmur, so I figured he'd accepted we wouldn't be doing that this time.

But, much later in the evening, after our second visit to the Fun House, he looked imploringly up at me and asked, quite quietly, if we couldn't after all go on the Wild Mouse? Please? And I just didn't know how to say no.

Once we were strapped into our little metal car and had been pushed around the corner to where the conveyor belt that whips you round the track begins, we found ourselves face to face with the vaguely malevolent vaudevillian whom Liamh had enjoyed taunting earlier during our Ferris Wheel ride. He snickered and leered, holding us back for a few seconds then launching us viciously into the abyss.

The Wild Mouse is a typical Sydney experience: nasty, brutal and short. It's over in about two minutes but for that two minutes you think you're going to die. I decided to cope with it this time by not looking ahead to those abrupt ninety degree turns over the void; instead, I concentrated on the structure itself, letting my eyes play across the abstract mass of rivets and steel, as if roaming across a Léger painting perhaps.

And it worked a treat ... until we came out of the last bend, into the last dip, before the end. I'm not sure how or why it happened. Perhaps I relaxed slightly, knowing it was almost over. There was one last massive jolt and Liamh, who was sitting in front and between my legs, cannoned back into my chest. His head hit me just below my heart. There was an intense jab of pain. Afterwards, I could barely get out of the car.

It's a rib injury - a crack of bone or tear of cartilage, I'm not sure which. It's at its worst when I lie down, of course. Can only find one position - huddled on my right side - in which to sleep. After six hours of sitting last night in the cab, I felt like my entire chest had caved in. Laughing is a mistake that I can't remedy. Otherwise, I'd weep. And through it all, I keep seeing the ri jaune of the vaudevillian and hearing, faintly, the maniacal mechanical cackle of the Wild Mouse.


they want my shit in tasmania

Yesterday, during the distraction hour, which is what I call the lead up to going to work, when I can neither do or not do anything, I heard the postie's bike down in the street. Went out to see if there was anything - bills, junk - in the box. Sitting on the stairs was a bulky white envelope. Had the Australian Government Emu/Kangaroo logo on it in blue, and I glimpsed my name through the cellophane window: Dear Martin Edmond, it said. O god, I thought, too shaken even to pick it up, it's the Tax Dept, they've got me. But, on the way back, natch, I did. Brought it inside, ripped it open with trembling fingers, swearing to myself, my delinquent stupidity that always catches up with me ... but it wasn't the Tax Dept. It was something much more gruesome: a Bowel Cancer Testing Kit. From Tasmania.

I'm someone who's never really had health issues. A few broken bones here and there when I was young, a bout of meningitis when I was twenty something, and that's about it. I've generally acted as if I'm going to live forever or, at least, suffer no serious damage getting there. I've drunk, smoked, snorted, ingested, even (once only, I don't like needles) injected whatever I wanted to whenever I wanted to. My heart is good, I'm not over-weight, my kidneys are ok, my liver's holding up, there must be tar in my lungs but I can easily swim a kilometre at the pool without feeling strange afterwards. But, for the last month, and really, if I'm honest, for the two and a bit years before that, I haven't been quite right.

It's vertigo, a mild form, but persistent, which means the world whoomps and blurs each time I turn my head. Can't unblock my ears, haven't been able to for ages. This condition comes and goes, sometimes it's almost imperceptible, at others, so bad I can't hardly get out of bed and have to hobble round with a stick. The Doc I saw in Darwin when it first came on, said he didn't know what it was. My GP here murmured Menières Syndrome and gave me some pills, which did absolutely nothing. Now I'm booked to see a specialist next week ... if it is Menières, another Doc in the cab told me this week, it's incurable but can be 'managed', whatever that means. Basically it's a malfunction ... at least I don't have the tinnitus that's sometimes associated with it.

It's well known that healthy people handle illness badly and I'm no exception. Perhaps that's why the Bowel Cancer Testing Kit fills me with horror. But, my maternal grandfather died of that disease so I guess I'd be stupid not to take it. What you have to do is so revolting I won't even start to try to describe it. It's going to take me a while to work up to that. Meanwhile, the White Envelope sits on the bathroom floor, under the washbasin, waiting. I'm beginning to wish it was from the Tax Dept. And then there's another question I can't help asking: Exactly whose tax dollars are paying for this? Surely not mine ...


The Transit of Venus

Venus slips behind the steeple, looking silvery as a lost love. Bigger than yesterday. A downward trajectory. It takes minutes. I don't understand the universe. Last year it was Saturn, yellowy and insouciant, ringed with desire. The year before that, Jupiter, reddish, baleful, gargantuan, whirling fate into strange corridors of time. How do several bodies take up the same space of sky? It isn't the universe I don't understand, just the solar system. Or my mind. Why do these signs seem sometimes so hopeful then at others deliver a doom I cannot help but bend my neck to receive? Being a protestant means your conscience will never be assuaged, never quieted, never quiet; yet you'll always find a way, this side of the grave, to say that what you did wasn't really wrong, only misunderstood. I have no use for a god who misunderstands, do you? Does anyone? Have a use for god. Point. Shriek. Query ... Venus has gone, she's slipped behind the spire, leaving a ghost of silvery longing. I'll turn my head away, I'll bare my neck some other time. All the hairs standing up there. The nightsweet swirls in the night, the planet sets. Somewhere between my age and death, she said, and laughed. I won't see her again.


Was mildly alarmed the other day to realise that the titles of the two books I'm trying to urge out of chrysalis state and into imago-hood both abbreviate to ... WC. Hell ... ! What can this mean?

Waimarino County (& other excursions) is a collection of shorter prose pieces that I put together last year because, well, perhaps because the exigencies of taxi driving made (make) it impossible to write longer works. Impossible for me I mean, there are others who probably don't suffer from the kind of uni-focus I do. Waimarino means something like calm waters and the County is the one I lived in until age ten. In the central North Island of New Zealand. It's also the title of the first piece in the collection, which was written after I went back there in 1980 looking for ... clues. This book is fairly well advanced, it's about to go to print I think and will be published by my New Zealand publishers, Auckland University Press, towards mid-year.

The other WC is White City which is, for want of a better term, a novel. Except ... is it? I'm really not sure. A work of fiction, then? Yes, maybe. I like the way W G Sebald used to describe his books: prose works of indeterminate form, he said. White City is in fact an autobiography, but it's not my autobiography, it's someone else's. Although I, indisputably, wrote it. How can that be? Well, it's the autobiography of a fiction. And that's all I'm going to say about it at this point. The ms has been turned down by one publisher already not, they said, for any intrinsic defects but because they are non-fiction publishers and this is a non-non-fiction book. It was given to another (fiction) publisher last week and, who knows, she might even be reading it this weekend.

WC ... I can't believe I've done this. It is, of course, a word that used to be used for the loo. Water Closet was the euphemism, then it was abbreviated. You still came across it sometimes when I was younger, you hardly ever do now. Now ... is that the sound of flushing I hear?


colloquy with a seven year old

Me: Well, you might as well make the most of it, you only live once.

Liamh: No, you don't, you have heaps of lives.

Me: Huh?

Liamh: Yeah! I've been all sorts of things. I used to be a giraffe.



The insomniac moon at 4.04 am hangs rust red in the west. Torn clouds circle an earth that is sliding, right now, in front of the rising sun. My lids are rolled in grains of sand, my head is scoured by thoughts I do not wish to have, my body jumps and twitches under the interrogation of the hours: why offer love where no love is? There were sunspots blazing in your hair. Your eyes were jet. Something immemorial on the planes of your face. Suffering and joy, poised equally before the possibilities of the world. Impossibilities. I never noticed before the slight out-thrust of the lower lip of that unkissable mouth. When I write world it should perhaps be eternity. When I write eternity it should be nothing. Or everything. Flares burn out thousands of kilometres into space and here on earth we contort, we genuflect, we dance, we bend in sorrow before strange gods. The meaning of the planets is in their conjunctions so far beyond our comprehension as to be meaningless. This is how astrologers talk of love. It is a sound of mourning cast upon the air, the silence in which a flame destroys the night. It is the equipoise of those celestial bodies passing each other, the unthought consummation that may consume a soul. While the body endures, out on the balcony, at 4.07 am, watching the shadow of the earth prevent the sun's light, for a moment, forever, illumining the moon.


A Few Volumes More

Something about this process of recalling old books seems to require revision &/or addition. I remember The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling as an enduring fascination in my childhood. A red, clothbound hardback that, like its companion The Jungle Book, was serially falling apart, which was intriguing in itself. The stories were illustrated by the author & there were curious embellishments to the drawings & to the texts themselves. A sort of extravagance that had nothing insistent or overbearing about it. Wonderful tales, all of them, but the ones about the invention of writing impressed me above all. And the runes themselves, reproduced somewhere therein.

When I was about eleven I read J R R Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings in a three volume hardback edition with a burning eye on the olive green dust jacket cover of each. It blew my mind. But, here's the rub, when I re-read it, which I did quite soon after & then several, or many, times more, it wasn't the same book! Nor did the movie(s) ever approach anywhere near that first imagining, which I’ve never found again … after a while I gave up on it & the last time I picked up a copy, was filled with ennui. Two lessons, I guess - you can exhaust a book; & you can never quite recover the thrill of a first reading.

Going over in my mind some of the prose works I read in the 1970s, one that left an indelible mark was Pablo Neruda's Memoirs, which I don't own a copy of & never have. It was revelatory in the way that, say, Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude was. Except, & this was crucial for me, Neruda was using that magic realist prose not in the service of a fiction but for a description of his life. It was impressive that a life could be so poetic - that was how I understood it. I did not know this before reading that book. It is also interesting, in retrospect, to think that I would prefer to re-read that book to any of Neruda's poetry. An autobiography, then, can cancel a life's work as much as it can cancel a life - though only, I am sure, for some readers. The prosaic among us, perhaps.

I was going to go on & write about Lytton Strachey's Life of Queen Victoria, & Frenchman Philippe Jullian's biography of Oscar Wilde, but, somewhat to my dismay, neither is on my shelves any longer. Where can they have gone?

Something else is on my mind however. Among our books at home was a yellow hardcover written by Enid Blyton. Name is lost, but it was a sombre illustrated version of The Pilgrims' Progress in which the sins committed by the wayfarers were expressed physically as burdens lashed to their backs. If they could make their way to the Celestial City then the implacable ropes tying these loathsome bundles to their backs would be loosed & they would be set free. I remember particularly an episode in which one of the pilgrims over-balanced & fell backwards, no doubt into the Slough of Despond, & was dragged under by the weight of his sins. I often wish I'd never read this horrible book which left a lifelong impression, like a muddy stain, on my soul.

At this point I should be reaching for my copy of Carl Jung's Dreams, Memories, Reflections, except I no longer have it either. Or, for another kind of consolation, Flaubert's Salammbô. But that too I never owned, having read a small blue hardback from some library or other, in another time, in some city of the past.