words on maps (for peter baka)

The map is (not) the journey. The journey is (not) the map.

I once walked all the way from Gad’s Hill along the Hope Range to look out, off Middle Head, over Broken Bay. From Gad to Hope to Middle to Broken: I saw no names along the way, just rocks and trees and birds and the great river running into the sea.

No matter what you call a place – hill, valley, swamp, river-mouth, beach, headland – it will still be there after the name is forgotten.

A map of forgotten names is the country of another time. If you know the names you can call back the country. Sometimes you can hear the country saying its names so that you can learn how to call it back. These voices rise at unexpected times in lonely places. You have to listen tenderly and move your lips slowly. Even so, you will make mistakes.

Every mistake is an absence that cannot be recalled. Each forgotten name is a hole in the sky. But the nameless land endures.

A map is a palimpsest: writing on the land which is rubbed out and overwritten, names obscuring other older names, which themselves hide even older ones, like tattoo fading under tattoo under tattoo. You cannot excavate names, but you cannot wholly obscure them either: fragments will always show through, like skin showing through under a tattoo.

Land is skin; map is tattoo.

You can sometimes walk off a known map into an older time, when the names were different to what they are now. How do you know when you have strayed? By the way the names have changed - from those which are known to those which are unknown. The unknown names are strange, and they afflict you with strangeness: you become a stranger to a place you thought you knew, and you wander. It is possible to be lost like this even when you are walking from one known place to another. Your return to the familiar map is accompanied by feelings of relief mixed with sadness for the unknown country you have strayed into and are now leaving behind, perhaps forever.

You do not need to know the name of a place to go there; but, having been, you are sure to call it by some name or other, adding it to the map of your wanderings.

When I was younger I used sometimes to imagine my life as a tangle of journeys mapping all the places I had ever been, erasing themselves each time they were repeated. You can do the same thing with a day: picture it as a drawing on a map of where you have been. Some days I do not leave the house; yet still leave a snarl of paths.

The map of names. The names of maps. The names are (not) the map.


yellow tailed blacks

A couple of weeks ago I noticed some black cockatoos flying north west in the clear evening sky over Summer Hill. In contrast to the smaller, more raucous and far commoner white sulphur-crested cockatoos, the blacks have a remote and leisurely presence, perfectly expressed in their long loping wing beats and slow alterations of flight trajectory. They seem contemplative birds, with all the time in the world to do what they do, go where they go. I was quite surprised to see these ones in an urban area and wondered where they might be grazing. The three red-tailed blacks who live at Pearl Beach fed in the sheoak trees and, like these ones at Summer Hill, used to flap slowly to their roosts at the crespuscular hour. It was beautiful to spend time beneath one of the sheoaks where they ruminated over the hard cones ... gentle susurrus of beak on wood and a shower of shaved fragments falling softly onto the needle carpet under the tree. And then the loud feathery kerfuffle as one moved to another branch. Anyway, today as I was going into the pool for a swim I heard bird calls from the trees around Leichhardt Oval, a strange, reedy, keee-oww sound, one I had not come across before. I immediately thought bats, but then cancelled that option - bats? in trees? at 10.30 am? No way. Just then about half a dozen black cockatoos flew out of the tree tops, making that call to each other. They were not red-tailed blacks, which anyway have a different, more plaintive, creakier cry, but seemed to have white bars under their tails. However, on consulting the web, I learned that the white-tailed black is found only in south western Australia, and that these ones must have been yellow-tailed blacks. It's odd though - a feature of the yellow-tailed black is a prominent cheek spot, also yellow, and I did not notice that on any of these birds. They could have been young males, which have a smaller spot and lighter barred tails ... they are a bird which has adapted well to exotic plantings, being particularly fond of pine cones. In the Blue Mountains they are accused of spreading pinus radiata because of their habit of carrying half mumbled cones away from the tree then letting them fall to seed elsewhere. Well, what price purity? These ones circled above the pool for a couple of minutes, calling as they organised themselves into a flotilla, then flew away north across the Parramatta River. I went in to do my laps with their cry lingering in my ear, their slow, loping flight marking the rhythm of my strokes.


2 footnotes


Oxyrhynchus is named after the fish that ate the penis of Osiris.

Epitaph for the SoQ

When Robert Lowell … was found dead in the back of a Manhattan taxi in 1977, his fingers were clutching a parcel containing a Lucian Freud painting. It was a portrait of Lowell's wife, and Freud's former wife, Caroline Blackwood. That afternoon, Lowell's heart had given out while being driven along the Van Wyck Expressway from JFK. He had just flown from Dublin after himself splitting up with Blackwood, a woman by then ravaged by years of booze, chain-smoking and personal tragedy. Lowell had brought the painting of his wife to New York not for reasons of nostalgia, but for valuation.

John Cornwell. TimesOnline, May 22, 2005



Couple of weeks ago the owner of this flat decided to have it valued. Does this means she wants to sell? I asked the real estate agent, who just shrugged and said Maybe. The speed with which they repaired a couple of things I pointed out in the damage report when I moved in six months ago, suggested more than maybe. She - the agent - called up a week or so later to say yes, the owner was selling and would I like to move out immediately? No, thanks, I said. I'll wait and see. A few days silence and then I get a knock on the Other Door, the one I never use. It's the guy from the rival real estate agent who was, coincidentally, the first person to show me a house when I decided to move into the area last year. Course he'd forgotten. Anyway, it turns out the other agency asked too much ($5000.00) for advertising so the owner gave the job to this guy's firm. He seemed surprised at how co-operative I was, as if expecting sullen resistance. My attitude is more (I hope) one of gracious resignation. Emboldened, he asked if he could go and get his camera, take a couple of shots? Sure, I said. I guess I imagined these pictures appearing in some brochure I would never see. I certainly didn't expect what in fact happened: last Friday morning a bloke in a truck came round and erected an enormous sign on the front lawn. The picture on this sign is a picture of my sitting room. Kind of blurry, like a blow-up of a frame from a video, but instantly recognisable, at least to me. There's the twin red velvet armchairs, the blue couch with the blue satin star cushion on it; there's William Watson's The Last of the Templars (a superb novel, by the way) open, face down, on the arm of one of the chairs, the large Allen Maddox drawing, the small oil of Lion Island Peter Baka painted ... and so on. When I saw this image for the first time I felt a sense of utter breach of privacy that lasted all of five seconds; then I laughed. Inside had become outside in a perhaps exemplary manner but, I realised, the violation of my interiority was apparent, not real. Still, it's oddly disconcerting when people stop, look and comment. I heard a kid the other day say: That's a nice house, Daddy! I also feel it's ironic that my way of inhabiting this place should become a selling point for someone who might well then evict me. On the other hand, it is quite as likely that the apartment will be bought as an investment by a rentier who will want me to stay on ... probably, however, with an increased tariff. I like this flat but I'm not wedded to it. And if I do have to move, I'm thinking, I might be able to find somewhere that has advantages this one lacks. I might find a place with a bath.



One of the glories of Sydney is its pools - pronounced purls - I mean swimming pearls. Almost every metropolitan beach has a concrete pool in the rocks at its southern or northern end, sometimes at both ends; every suburb, just about, has its municipal pool; when you fly into Sydney on a clear day it can seem that likewise there is an oblong or crescent of aqua in every backyard.

I grew up swimming in rivers and I still think river swimming is better than any other kind ... the softness of the water, the mysteries of depth and flow, the allure of the other bank ... but I love the sea too, particularly beaches where you can body surf. As kids we used to go to the baths a lot, especially when in the mid-sixties we moved to Greytown in the Wairarapa, where there was a strong swimming culture. One of my sisters became a national champion and we all attended the weekly swimming competitions held on Tuesday nights, not just for the excitement of racing but also because you could sit up the back under a blanket with whoever you wanted to so long as she wanted to sit with you.

After I left school I didn't swim, except very occasionally at the beach, for about twelve years. Just forgot all about it. Spent my time in pubs and theatres and nightclubs, abandoning all forms of exercise, all sport too, which I'd once been passionate about. Until I got to Sydney. Part of it was realising what a twisted wreck my body was becoming, how clotted with tar my lungs were, how sludgy in mind I felt; but a bigger part was my friend Lud. He was the one who inducted me into the Sydney swimming culture, partly by example, partly by subtle exhortation.

In those days he used to swim at the Sydney University pool and told me how to go about getting a badge for myself. Can't remember now how we worked this. Neither of us had any formal connection with the place, apart from the casual work I sometimes did as a stagehand at the Seymour Centre. Anyway, Lud's habit was to start the day with a smoke, usually of black putty, the Afghani hash that was so plentiful then, after which he'd go up to the pool and swim oh, I don't know, 60 laps? A lap is 50 metres, so 60 is what, 3 kilometres? He had a beautiful, languid, powerful stroke and could go, it seemed, for ever. I learned lap-swimming in imitation of him.

We used to speculate on the possibility that the Afghani hash was opiated; what isn't in doubt is that, after about 20 (Lud always said for him it was during the 17th) laps of an Olympic pool, you will get a rush of the body's natural opiate, endorphin. This, along with the near complete aeration of muscular tissue, will have you walking away from the pool after your swim feeling like one of the blessed: ambling across the rocking ground as over a deck above gentle seas, heart pumping large and slow, the sights and smells and sounds of the day entering your senses with a kind of velvety insinuation that is intensely pleasurable.

I got to know other Sydney pools: The Boy Charlton in Woolloomooloo, part salt, part fresh, where all the Gays (used to?) go, the North Sydney pool with its elaborate stucco murals of crustaceans and dolphins and the big face of Luna Park peering over the top, were probably my favourites. Later on, I used to go out to Shark Bay in Neilson Park and swim around the inside perimeter of the shark net there. Once we moved up to Pearl Beach, I became a committed sea swimmer.

Then I lost it ... to me, tobacco and swimming are alternative lung uses and, while I'm doing one, I won't generally be doing the other. And since last year in Auckland, when I became addicted to cigars and then, later, up in S.E. Asia, replaced that addiction with addiction to the kretek, the Indonesian clove cigarette, it's been tobacco tobacco tobacco ... until today. Today I finally dragged myself off to the Leichhardt Aquatic Centre and managed 13 rather halting laps of the Olympic pool there. Not enough to get an endorphin high, but enough to feel physically about 100 percent better. Mentally too perhaps ... I don't know.

Beautiful pool ... might describe it another day. Course it's brought Lud strongly back into my mind. He had one of the best intellects I ever encountered. His bent was philosophic, I guess; multi-talented, he was curiously without ambition. He was a hedonist, though not in any frivolous sense. Formidable chess player. Loved his Scotch. Born in Scotland, raised in the Pacific Islands - Fiji, Samoa, Papua Nuigini - educated in New Zealand, he sometimes seemed like a hybrid pakeha-polynesian. He had a special feeling for the works of Malcolm Lowry. And a vast medical and scientific knowledge gathered from his reading. Was fascinated with how things worked: he used to like taking his cameras and pushbikes apart and putting them back together again. For a brief season he painted, producing rainbow coloured abstracts; then stopped. The last few years of his working life he repaired photocopiers and then fax machines. He made me a fax machine out of bits and pieces cannibalised along the way. If he'd lived he would probably have gone further into computer technology.

Lud was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease about, what, five years ago? Maybe more. He died from it late in 2002, in Byron Bay. MND is a cruel disease. It affects all muscular tissues in the body but leaves the mind, the vision and the sexual function intact. The last time I saw Lud, the disease was so advanced he had trouble enunciating. Nevertheless, he was re-reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and was acute enough to correct me when I said presbyoptia instead of presbyopia, a word I learned from him. The night he slipped away the big abstract of his I have, inside a heavy wooden map frame he scored from the GPO while working there, came crashing down off the wall in the hallway.

There's no remedy for the early death of a friend, no answer to the questions you ask about what they might have done if things had turned out differently, or what you might have done differently in the time you had with them. In the face of existential angst, hedonism, at least the way Lud practised it, does have one advantage: it means the life you live, evanescent as it is, is full of pleasures fully indulged. That part of pleasure which invokes memory is perhaps denied the dead, along with all other pleasures; but only once you are dead. Until then, you can lap your way into an endorphin daze as often as you like; and, after today, I intend to do just that.


Rain Dance

It's raining in Sydney, Eastern Standard Time 19.43. It's raining! Rain! Il Pleut ... etcetera. Commuters run home from the station without umbrellas. The sky lours. There's a smell of mould as the long dried spores in the gutters are released into the air. Maybe that patch of scarlet-pink sick that's been glued for weeks to the pavement two doors down in Morris Street will shift? But already the shower is fading ...

On the nightly weather bulletin maps it is usually the case that Australia, the 'island continent', is surrounded by cloud masses, most days it rains over parts (many parts of island Asia, over New Guinea, over the archipelagos of Melanesia, over New Zealand; most days it doesn't rain here, we are as if sequestered behind a cordon sanitaire so far as precipitation is concerned.

That was last night. It didn't rain much after all though the patch of sick has gone. I don't know why thinking about these things makes me wonder if we shouldn't rewrite Australasia as Asiaustralia? Something to do perhaps, not just with the weather, but with our skewed relationship with our near neighbours. The Big Dry can seem emotional as much as meterological ... Australia is like a dessicated fruit, with a green rind and nothing much except dust within.

Now it's a few days later, and it's still raining, off and on. 18th May. The anniversary of my first arrival in Sydney, way back in 1981, full of rock 'n' roll dreams, looking for the way to movie heaven. I couldn't believe how drab were the streets you drive through from the airport into town. We stayed at the Springfield Lodge, a residential hotel in Kings Cross, with a view west over the City. It rained for ten days solid, the red and blue neon appearing and disappearing in the murk, the ragged banners of cloud rent and torn on the towers, the incessant gurgle and laughter of the gutters ...

I had imagined a land of blue and gold, celestial colours, not the dreary wet bedraggled streets through which I walked each day to the taxi training school in Paddington. Now, it is different: I long for rain like I have longed for it in other places I've lived, even San Francisco, not such a dry city, but where it did not rain for the first I don't know how many months I lived there. Are we living on the banks of an extinct river?

The promotion of Asiaustralia as an alternative designation for this part of the world might then be seen as a kind of sympathetic magic, a way of bringing the wet our way, a way out of the dryness of our present state, our Age of Beige. We are as if choking on dust: dust of detention, dust of rationalism, economic or otherwise, dust of the deserts within. Oh, the water ... let it run all over me ...



A completed book will never compensate me for what I destroyed in writing it: namely that experience which if preserved throughout the years of my life might have helped me compose my last book, and which in fact was sufficient only to write the first.

So ends the 1964 preface Italo Calvino wrote for his first book, The Path to the Spider's Nest (1947). The paradox contained in this sentence resonates particularly with me today, the twenty-first anniversary of the death of the artist Philip Clairmont. I spent a greater part of the 1990s trying to reproduce a generous selection of his paintings, prints and drawings within the covers of a book ... to no avail. Ultimately I was thwarted by copyright issues, exacerbated by bureaucratic meddling which was itself rooted in the petty malice which so often inflects small (and larger) art scenes. To this day most of Philip's work remains unrepresented apart from its sheer physical existence, which is in many cases threatened by his deliberate use of fugitive pigments and supports afflicted with inherent vice. The book I did publish sometimes seems to me to have obscured the ouevre it was meant to represent in the same way that Calvino feels his novel of the Resistance destroyed his experience of fighting in the Resistance. Yet my memory of the ouevre remains strong and the catalogue of works I assembled, while incomplete and out of date, does exist as probably the most complete record of what he made during his brief career. Whether Philip's work as a whole will ever get the representation it deserves is most likely out of my hands now, though I would still do everything I could to achieve such a goal. His son, Orlando, is presently putting together a documentary about his father and has further plans for a proper archive and perhaps even a somewhere to house it and the works that remain in the family. I guess time will tell. As to the paradox that ... the minute it (experience) gives shape to a work of literature it withers and dies. The writer, after writing, finds that he is the poorest of men ... there's not much I or anyone else can do about that. Every book both contains and obscures the ghost of the book it might have been; every screen that we compose upon is covered with erasures; every page marked with words that are not the words we wanted to write. Whether or not this is also true of paintings I don't know; it may be. Anyway, enfin, in commemoration of this day, here's an image.



This is about a painting. Of my sister. Rachel. She died by her own hand in 1975. She was 21. In the early 90s I tried to prepare her diaries for publication. My mother and sisters did not think the plan was appropriate and nor did the one publisher who looked at the manuscript. That was fine, I accepted the decision. In the meantime, a friend, Lexia Murrell, who'd known Rachel in her youth, offered to do a painting for the cover. I gave Lexie some photos to work from. She chose to conflate two images, one the last photo of Rachel, taken a few days before she died, the other, a childhood picture of her with a friend, Sue Brierley, outside on the Brierley's farm in the backblocks of Ohakune sometime in the 1950s. The landscape from the one, the portrait from the other. Our youngest sister, Katherine, just 16, took the photo. Rachel is laughing so hard her eyes are closed, she's just washed her hair which looks kind of fuzzy ... the shot is a little out of focus. No matter. The painting is beautiful, there are bits in it like Monet water-lilies, it has symbolic force too - the stain of red around the shed window, the twiggy branch that makes a Y - but I've always found it hard to look at. And then, about ten years later, it was leaning against a wall in my room, gathering dust, when a painter came to paint the ceiling. John was his name, a decent, kindly, older man, a tradesman of the old fashioned kind. I covered everything with cloths but somehow the cloth over Rachel slipped or was dislodged and some flecks of white paint specked the canvas. This only made me feel worse. I turned it guiltily to the wall. However, when I moved in here, I hung it again, above the table in the sitting room. Often, without thinking, I find myself standing absently before it, as if in mute communciation. The image is life-size, just head and shoulders, her long black hair, her red collar, a sprig of jasmine on her lapel. The dark and light hills behind. The stones before. The shed. The sky. I've never been able to look at John's specks, until tonight. There are seven of them, like tears - I mean tear-shaped, droplet-shaped, rain on a window pane. One fell just below the dark line of the furthest range. Another below the light flushed horizon of the second range. A tiny speck beneath that, between ghostly fence posts. Three together on the clouds over the Y and one more in the blue sky above the shed with its bloody window. Suddenly they make perfect sense, I can see them, serendipitious as they are, as part of the composition. I feel, not so much that the painting has come back, but that it has arrrived.



They lunched on a beach with the odour of dead birds in their nostrils, an equivocal relish to the soft white Vienna loaf, browning avocado, vintage tasty cheese and quartered hard green apple. Drinking water flavoured with rose geranium leaves. Shoals of tiny crimson spiral shells lay in drifts in sand hollows. Pellucid water, a desultory surf, waves overlapping like the passing minutes. In the tide wrack, the keel of a shearwater, the carapace of a crab. Thirteen godwits flew across the sea: nine adults, four young, landing to graze the beach among piles of weed while they ate, slapping at the stinging flies and feeding them to a golden-flanked lizard. At Wreck Bay, in the odour of dead birds.

+ + +

In the Botanic Gardens they circumambulated a purple lake, in whose darker depths the long-necked lizard lives. A fringe of sand the colour of white ash, specked with black detritus. Red carnivorous plants grew in amongst the cropped grass of lawns where a plaque was set in a boulder. The farm had belonged to a maker of pianos. He had visited only rarely. Stock languished, pasture withered, men ran away into the bush until only an illiterate boy named Riley was left, whose fate is not otherwise recorded. On gravelled paths, sprays of water from circling sprinklers spotted their clothes. They chose their moment and ran laughing through the spangling light. In the pavilion, the ghost of a house they would never live in built itself around them. Outside time, at ease, they watched the agitation of wind in an horizon of trees across the lake, as if on every other evening of their lives together in this place.

+ + +

Another afternoon they parked the car at the end of a road and walked through tunnels of scrub to the ruined lighthouse. The echo of the tower falling still hung in the air. The stones immemorial in their disarray. It had fallen out toward the sea, the highest point landing just inside the cliff-edge fence. A snake coiled in the shade of the keystone. What light had shone in the dome, who tended the fire, who brought the fuel? At the apex of the pile they took turns looking through binoculars at the opposite headland where another lighthouse stood, flashing its beacon at intervals of five-five-five … fifteen … five-five-five … fifteen when shadows turned blue on the moon-coloured sand. A sea eagle passed over the roofless ruin, the graffiti-ed walls, the fire-blackened grate, as if over a temple from which the goddess had departed.

+ + +

Again the odour of dead bird. Surf curling between crumbled headlands, pale lilies sticky with nectar at the margins of the yellow sand, cuttlefish transparent under the hammer of the sun. Sculpted mauve plants in a rock pool, iridescent blue lichens, cockabullies speckled into the camouflage bottom. From one end of the half moon they turned to see a man on the rocks at the other make of his body a Y. The horizon a turbulence of distant swell on salt-scoured eyes. He hurled himself shoreward on a long exhalation of the ocean, roaring, blind, an arrow of flesh up the tremendous beach. While she sat mute in shade near the broken albatross, lily flowers in the black band of her sun hat.

+ + +

At night the walls of the tent were shaken by wind. Rain a faint braille on the nylon. Asleep in the air bed, they built a labyrinth of dreams. In lost corners sand drifted, the shells of days whitened. They heard the tongues of lizards speak a language in which each word was a pebble, each pause the pulse of a heartbeat under scaly skin. The cries of birds skirled halfway round the world to vibrate the delicate bones of their ears. Stars circled and blazed, an intaglio of light on the black. When they found each other, he placed his hands on her neck where the gills had been, feeling her blood sigh within. Her mouth made an O, she bent her head until her lips touched skin. Salt dissolving in saliva, a taste of smoke, eucalypt and dust. It was to remember these things that they had come. Waking, they drifted up into the waters of another day.


pandora's box

The National Library of Australia, now in collaboration with nine other libraries and cultural collecting organisations, has since 1996 been collecting and archiving Australian online publications. Not everything, like in some parts of Scandinavia, but a lot. The name of the project, PANDORA, is an acronym: Preserving and Accessing Networked Documentary Resources of Australia. You can find out more about this enterprise here.


... favourite Dylan songs? Tardy I know but how hard is it to choose? Like excerpting from the soundtrack of our unconscious, we of a certain age. Earlier (much earlier I recall nominating Blind Willie McTell as perhaps his greatest song. But favourite ... ? I've played Time out of Mind so many times the sprockets have all fallen out of the inside of the CD case. Other favourite albums ... World Gone Wrong, Oh Mercy, Blood on the Tracks, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, John Wesley Harding, Highway 61 Revisited. Like a Rolling Stone is the greatest whatever of all time I read the other day. Maybe it is a song off that record, maybe It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, not just for the title, for the groove. And the words ... well, perhaps not. Boots of Spanish Leather? Visions of Joanna? Shelter from the Storm? How's about ... hell, I don't know. So many of his songs recall other songs, so many of his lines are actually from other songs, that's probably why we feel like they're common property.

Anyway, tonight, when I'm feeling melancholy and it's VE day, my parents' wedding anniversary, and the Salvation Army Band is playing down at the Summer Hill shops, it's this I remember:

He hears the ticking of the clocks
Walks along with a parrot that talks
Hunts her down by the waterfront docks
Where the sailors all come in
Maybe she'll pick him out again
How long must he wait
Once more for a simple twist of fate ...


prosa on verso/verso on prosa

So what is the connection between prosody and prose? In terms of etymology, apparently none at all. Prose comes from Latin prosa (straightforward), usually coupled with oratio (discourse); an earlier form of the word is prorus (direct). So, plain speaking. Prosody is from Latin prosodia (accent), derived from Greek pros(oidia), in other words, towards an ode. No real convergence of meaning there. If you look up poetry and fiction, however, you do find a common thread. Fiction is from fictio, to fashion, while poetry, as everyone knows, has its root in a Greek word for maker. Fictio survives in another word, fictile, meaning made of earth or clay by a potter. Could non-fiction then be taken to mean not made?

Meanwhile I've been searching the Complete Posthumous Poems of César Vallejo for a line I remembered last night ... it comes from a poem he wrote foretelling his own death, the great Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca, which is worth quoting in full:

Me moriré en Paris con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en Paris—y no me corro—
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy me he vuelto
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos ...

This is a much translated poem but the only version in which the line I remembered appears is that by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia:

Black Stone On a White Stone

I will die in Paris with a sudden shower
on a day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don't budge—
maybe a Thursday, like today is, in autumn.

Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, when I prose
these poems, the humeri I have put on
by force and, never like today, have I turned,
with all my road, to see myself alone.

César Vallejo has died, they beat him
everyone, without him doing anything to them;
they gave it to him hard with a stick and hard

also with a rope; witnesses are
the Thursdays days and the humerus bones,
the loneliness, the rain, the roads . . .

He wrote this in 1929 I think; and died on April 15th, 1938, in Paris, just as the Fascist army swept down the Ebro valley to the Mediterranean, cutting Loyalist Spain in half. His last words, spoken in delirium, were I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain! Although he had fallen into unconsciousness the day before, the 14th, a Thursday, the 15th was in fact Good Friday: not autumn in that latitude, but spring. And I do not know if it was raining. Not that it matters particularly.

I also found these lines, which I like a lot, from Guitarra:

Vales más que mi número, hombre solo,
y valen más que todo el diccionario,
con su prosa en verso,
con su verso en prosa,
tu función águila,
tu mecanismo tigre, blando prójimo ...

which might be rendered:

You are worthier than my number, man alone,
and worthier than all the dictionary
with its prose in poetry
with its poetry in prose
your eagle function,
your tiger mechanism, bland fellow man ...



In another of a number of generous and encouraging pieces about my endeavours Mark Young has posted at Pelican Dreaming, he stumbles - and admits he stumbles - over how the kind of writing I do may be described. He uses creative prose then revises that to speculative prose, which I like better though it still doesn't sound quite right. I considered imaginative prose but that has too much of a mid-twentieth century English Department feel to it. So, what? I'm self-taught as a writer and the path of my learning leads from school and university essays through occasional art criticism, writing for the theatre, marginally more successful screenplay writing, to (speculative?) prose writing. But my real education came over about two and a half decades of almost totally unproductive (in terms of finished works) attempts to write poems. Though I abandoned this practice about ten years ago, it was, along with the reading of other's poetry, which I still do a lot of, the single most important influence upon how I work now. One of the questions that is never asked of poetry is its status in the fiction/non-fiction opposition that haunts prose writing. The most that might be ventured is the suggestion that such and such a poem may be autobiographical. Otherwise, poetry is left to be what it is or is not in a kind of fire free zone. This is not the case with prose. How many times have I said, in answer to a well-intentioned query, that I'm writing a book, only to see the person's eyes light up as they say: A novel? and then sadly dim when I shake my head and say: No, non-fiction.? Non-fiction is so ... non. It is a huge field, naturally, stretching all the way from technical manuals to, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and includes in its almost limitless bounds many literary forms: history, biography, criticism, essay, memoir and more. They are all defined, more or less, by their fidelity to fact, or at least to how real things (as opposed perhaps to imaginary things) may be represented in words. But my books do not fit within any of these literary forms, though they do tend to stray in and out of traditional subject matters and approaches to the subject matter of those forms. I feel increasingly impatient with the fiction/non-fiction divide. I wonder why it is acceptable for a novel to include autobiographical material when the inclusion of fictional elements is proscribed from extended prose works which are not presented as novels. I'm aware that it has to do with perceptions of truth-telling but, in a world of liars in public places, I have suspicions about the veracity of our idea of truth. I suppose what I'm saying is that while I don't necessarily want to write novels, I do want the freedom to make things up if I feel like it - and not be called a liar for doing so. I have a perhaps scandalous sympathy for literary fraudsters and art forgers, precisely because they call into question that allegedly absolute line drawn between the 'true' and the 'false', the fictional and factual. But much of this is already familiar ground and does not solve the problem of nomenclature. This, however, might. It is from an interview with Italo Calvino published in Paese sera on January 7, 1978, called The Situation in 1978. The interviewer was Daniele del Giudice and I quote both the last question and Calvino's answer in full:

Calvino, I will not ask you what you are writing. I'll ask you what you will not write any more.

If you mean will I never write again what I have already written, there is nothing that I reject in any of my writing. Of course, some roads do close. What I keep open is fiction, a storytelling that is lively and inventive, as well as the more reflective kind of writing in which narrative and essay become one.


you must remember this ...

A few weeks ago I joined the Ashfield Library. It is another surprisingly good suburban library, as good, in its way, as the Umina Library I used on the Central Coast. At Ashfield there are no poetry books apart from a few anthologies and no section devoted to literatures not written in English, as there are at Umina; but these lacks or omissions are more than compensated for by excellent selections of fiction and biography. Last week I read Saramago's 'All the Names'; this week Ismail Kadare's 'The Palace of Dreams' is on my bedside table. And, in the biographies, I found a collection of autobiographical writings by Italo Calvino, which is fascinating. I haven't read a lot of Calvino's fiction, though 'Invisible Cities' remains for me one of the great books of the later 20th century, an inspired re-telling of Marco Polo's adventures on the premise that in some sense that epochal journey took place entirely within the city of Venice; and I knew nothing about his life. I did not know he fought in the Resistance, nor that he spent five years after the War in daily contact with his mentor and friend, Cesare Pavese, nor that his engagement in practical politics and in publishing was life-long. He can seem, in his fiction, the most impersonal of writers; but this volume reveals an engaging, intelligent, amusing, above all civilized man of the world. Most compelling for me so far is the 'American Diary, 1959-60'. Calvino went to the States on a grant from the Ford Foundation. His account is not really diary, rather it is excerpts from letters he wrote back to his colleagues at the Turin publishing house, Einaudi, where he worked. These excerpts were going to be published as a book called 'An Optimist in America' but at the last moment Calvino decided not to go ahead with it because he felt 'it was too slight as a work of literature and not original enough as a work of journalistic reportage.' Well, that may be so; but as autobiography it is wonderful. The writings perhaps have a particular force for me because they recalled in detail my own experiences of travelling to the States in the late 1970s, the first time I went overseas. Calvino went to many of the same cities I visited: New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, Montgomery ... and spent time, as I did, in Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Although twenty years separated our visits, and he was primarily involved with literary publishing and politics on his trip, while I was travelling with a fairly eclectic, almost totally obscure band of actors and musicians, some of his observations are uncannily reminiscent of things I remember noticing at the time. I don't mean to put myself in the same company as him; it is just that his extremely astute insights into a timeless, not a contemporary, America, did remind me of the place I saw with innocent eyes in my mid-twenties. I guess I mean to say they took me back in a way encapsulated in what Calvino writes in another part of the book: 'One sees one's past more and more clearly as time goes by.' I have a scrapbook of my travels in 1978-80 but not much else; Calvino's Diary made me long to recover the almost mythological flavour of those times in the San Francisco of the assassinated Harvey Milk and George Mosconi, of the Jonestown Suicides; of New York in the shadow of the meltdown at Three Mile Island; of the high mesa beyond Taos where the young Rio Grande flowed and where you could see the lights of Los Alamos reflected in the night sky; most of all, perhaps, of the extraordinary community of fellow performers met in the small bars and theatres where we blithely played in a world that seemed utterly removed from the perturbations of a doomed geopolitic.