One night this week, Monday perhaps, I had a dream which lingers only vaguely in memory. Indeed, I would not remember this dream at all if it wasn’t for the fact that aspects of it recurred in a second dream the following night – Tuesday I suppose. In this second dream a fragment from the first was re-presented, as it were. Then, on Wednesday, a fragment of that fragment came back to haunt me a third time. Evidently there was something there that some part of my mind wanted preserved. To re-iterate . . . in the first dream an interlocutor mentioned to me the title of a movie that I have not seen and recommended it to my attention. It was (is?) called Yellow Afternoon and is (was?) of Middle Eastern or possibly Mexican provenance. There was a poster, in predominant shades of bright yellow with flashes of red, which looked a little like one of the posters for those Clint Eastwood movies of the 1960s. A Fistful of Dollars, perhaps; A Few Dollars More. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. I had been looking at the paintings of Arthur Streeton and the palette resembled that of some of his pictures, too. I made an oneiric note to check out this movie then forgot all about it – until Tuesday’s dream reminded me. In that second iteration the poster made a fugitive return; in the third, the Wednesday dream, just the words of the title recurred: Yellow Afternoon. Next day I did a google search and came up with nothing much – a song from a record called Our Man in St Petersburg by a fellow from the town in Florida who calls himself Small Literature (or maybe it’s the other way round); a pic with obscure antecedents of a group of long riders in a desert, certainly Mexican, landscape; closer to home, a link to an exhibition, at Sydney’s Ginkgo Artspace, of the paintings of Neil Ernest Tomkins. One of the paintings in that 2012 show was called Yellow Afternoon and the image, off the web, is at the head of this post. It looks a little blurred to me; a touch under-resolved; I preferred other paintings from that show but what could I do? This was the one I was directed to – if I indeed was directed. Now I think it might have been otherwise; now I wonder if the poster wasn’t a precognition of a movie that has yet to be made; perhaps even a provocation towards the making of it. I feel, strangely, as if a plot might be forming in my mind, the lineaments of a story beginning to manifest; as if, while he in St Petersburg tinkles away at his jazz-inflected beats, the dust from the hooves of those long riders’ horses might be clouding my dream horizon, as they gallop some implacable doom towards that hazy, that blurred, yellow afternoon where destiny unfolds . . . I can’t, you might say, wait . . . to go back to sleep.
has been shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction in the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
I cannot now remember when I first heard about Rimbaud’s trunk: not the belted malle made of brown leather that is in the museum at Charlesville, the one into which he packed his cutlery (knife, fork and spoon) when he went home to die; nor the trompe of one of those elephants whose phantom ivory he tried, in his last letter, to dispatch to Cairo; but the suitcase full of manuscripts that was . . . discovered in Dire Dawa, just north of Harar, when Allied troops entered the town in 1942. And then lost again. If they were not of the Gideon Force then they would have been men of the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration, the OETA, mostly seconded from the Colonial Office or from British East African dependencies and more like looters than liberators: soldiers sailors embezzlers from ancient empires / deserters from strange legions . . . freeloaders and quislings . . . The OETA itself was pettifogging, perfidious, and penurious . . . rotten from top to bottom. It negotiated sweetheart deals with the politically suspect, continued fascist racial policies, organized courts and police forces, replaced the local legal tender with the East African shilling. We drove out one white man only to replace him with another, Ethiops complained. If this was the result of everything, then what was wrong with the Italians? All arms were requisitioned to stop them falling into the hands of the blacks. High ranking civil and military officers were deported to Kenya, many thousands of prisoners of war followed or were sent on to Uganda, Tanganyika and the Rhodesias to build roads and do public works. Others—mechanics, labourers, painters and the like—melted away into the countryside where the local people sheltered them. Guerrilla bands, for a while, contended. That same year, on 31 January 1942, Ethiopia was recognised by the British as a sovereign nation again and Ras Tafari Makonnen, His Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God, returned from exile the previous year, was proclaimed once more in his own country. He had left eight years before, May, 1936, via Djibouti by sea for Haifa and thence to Jerusalem where the royal family kept a house and where, as a direct lineal descendent of King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum, aka the Queen of Sheba, Ras Tafari had long antecedents. He continued by way of Gibraltar to Geneva to address the League of Nations which, however, imposed only the weakest of sanctions against El Duce’s bloody conquest of the ancient land. Haile Selassie spent the rest of his exile, somewhat improbably, in Bath, where he bought a residence called Fairfield House—later donated to the city and now an old people’s home. Early on the morning of 5 May 1941 the returning Emperor motored into the town of Entotto just out of Addis Ababa and paused to pray at the Orthodox Ethiopian Church of Mary. Today is the day on which we defeated our enemy, he said. Therefore, when we say let us rejoice with our hearts, let not our rejoicing be in any other way but in the spirit of Christ. Do not return evil for evil. Do not indulge in the atrocities which the enemy has been practicing . . . As he entered the northern suburbs of Addis rows of fascist soldiers and police stood along the road smart and armed, saluting. The Emperor’s own escort—from the Gideon force under Colonel Orde Wingate, amongst whose officers was Wilfred Thesiger—was a collection of battered, dusty vehicles, containing a number of khaki-clad figures, rankless and ribbonless . . . and not a weapon or a flag amongst it. The Italians gave way to a densely packed guard of Arbegnochs, Patriots, whose wives and daughters ululated in delirious welcome of their revenant monarch. Later the following year, on 27 August 1942, Haile Selassie abolished slavery throughout the empire and imposed severe penalties, including death, for slave trading.
Did Rimbaud traffic in slaves as well as guns? Even if he had not it is unlikely he could have existed, even flourished, for ten years as a trader in Africa without some degree of complicity: Although (he) never tried to profit directly from the slave trade, it is quite clear that no European could do business in Abyssinia without it. Does it matter? A more interesting question: What might have been in the trunk? Scholars would no doubt hope to find there that jewel beyond price, an autobiography; one that would settle, definitively, all those vexed questions of Rimbaldian studies: was the young voyant indeed raped by a group of drunken militiamen in the Caserne de Babylone during the Commune? Did he compose the Illuminations before or after, or both before and after, or before, during and after, Une Saison en Enfer? Why abandon poetry? Perhaps there might also have been therein an actual refutation of poetry, a disquisition upon the one word which is otherwise, in later life, his only known comment (with a snarl) upon the subject: rinçures. Which is cognate with English rinsings and can mean dishwater, slops or bad wine. All these putative works are so preposterous as to make their mention derisory. The trunk, if it existed, more likely contained notes from books whose titles we already know from the correspondence; and which are exclusively non-fiction and severely practical in intent: dictionaries, explorers’ journals, photographic manuals, works on hydrography, mineralogy, trigonometry; the latest annuaire of the Bureau de Longitude. Interleaved with filed correspondence and fastidiously kept account books that included lists of precise things: Cotton cloth, closely woven, warm, thick, with the strength of light sailcloth, striped lengthwise with red or blue bands 5 cm wide and 20 cm apart . . . 50 tassels of braided cotton, red or green . . . 20 metres of long carpet fringes, of the same colour and the same cotton, to hang in front of horses’ chests. His caravans set off for the coast, one of his biographers says, carrying ivory, hides, coffee, gold (in rings or ingots, ‘from very far away’), incense and musk of civet, priced according to the degree of adulteration; those that came up were like travelling warehouses: Indian cotton and Massachusetts shirting, knitted skirts and tunics, goatskin bags and string necklaces, flannel, merino, velvet, silk and damask, gold braid, novelty buttons and pearls . . . rice, sugar, butter, salt and flour; tobacco, quinine, oil and candles; scissors and rope; socks and sandals; guns and ammunition . . . saucepans, goblets, baking sheets and glass carafes made to my own design for drinking the mead called tedj. One included a bale containing fifteen packets of ruled notepaper, of which a colleague remarked selling notepads to people who can’t write and don’t even know the secret uses of such implements is really asking too much. He himself, the ex-poet, was observed always to be writing but what he wrote is unclear: letters and accounts, most likely; journals, perhaps, but they would be factual itineraries not intimate diaries. His Rapport Sur L’Ogadine that was read out to the Société de Geographie on February 1884 and published by them in Paris later that year; his 1887 letter, 5000 words long, written in the Hôtel d’Europe in Cairo, to Le Bosphore égyptien which was printed by that newspaper in August; his itinerary of his journey, with the French explorer Jules Borelli, from Entotto to Harar which was likewise read out before the Société de Geographie on 4 November 1887; the lost book on Abyssinia of which these three items were, perhaps, anticipatory, even contributory. The Abyssinian book, if found, would tell us many things we do not know but it would not tell us anything we might want to find out about its author. And why should we want to learn these things? They will not illuminate the works that we have nor will they solve the mystery of the man, whose cultivation of the art of obfuscation was as consummate as his trading activities were rigorous, profitable and ultimately enigmatic: what did happen to all the money he made? His authorship, if that word may be used, of the absurdist port city and environs of Djibouti is both contentious and ultimately persuasive; he was a colonialist par excellence, as the French say; he had comprehensively re-invented himself and the voyant was no longer even a memory. A fragment of literary conversation from Cairo, 1887, nevertheless survives; he says, perhaps to Jules Borelli’s brother Octave, editor of Le Bosphore égyptien, that the Villon-Baudelaire-Verlaine poetic lineage is defunct; the future is with prose and the really important work is being done post-Balzac, post-Flaubert. And after that? Nothing. Everything.
1. To Jenolan
From the Great Western Highway we could see a billboard advertising the Museum of Fire flickering and dancing in the incandescent heat haze of the early afternoon; as if the sign might stand for the thing itself—assuming fire is a thing, not an agent of transformation. After that, we climbed up the long and winding road from Emu Plains to the plateau; paused for lunch at Katoomba then continued on to the turn-off at Little Hartley, going via Good Forest, Anthill, Millionth Acre and Pardon’s Road all the way to Hampton Halfway, after which the descent to the caves begins. If you want to buy a farm, call Pat Bird, another billboard advised; the map suggested Fossicking but for what I do not know: gems, perhaps; crystals. Stones or bones. I had been here before, I remembered the strangeness of that steep road twisting down through humped wooded hills, the way it seems to slide vertiginously into what used to be called the bowels of the earth, the light-headedness of arrival in a place where you feel below you caverns of air opening out one into another all through those unplumbed depths. How many undiscovered caves are there? is a common question here, a guide told me, and despite its absurdity, and the evident non-sequitur, you can’t help wondering: it is indeed an as yet unthreaded labyrinth. This old groin in the hills, three ranges arching down to meet somewhere beneath Caves House; the sound of water falling endlessly, endlessly falling; that immense downward draught turning the walls to paper; the floors floating breathless away.
2. Nettle Cave
Nettle Cave was not open last time I was here. You could however, I think, still make your way through the Devil’s Coachhouse, so called, into McKeown Valley beyond. McKeown was an escaped convict who became the first European to find what were then called the Fish River Caves. He lived in a bark hut at the junction of two creeks and grew wheat in the hidden valley, changing nothing. It is said he knew the caves so well he could disappear and run right through the mountain. He was perhaps a simpleton; also a thief: from nearby towns and farms he took anything he could lay his hands upon, whether useful or not: bullock bows, hinge pins and, off the washing line at the Plough & Harrow, Mrs Roberts’ clothes; so that whatever was lost was said to have been stolen by McKeown. When Farmer Whalan and the rest of the posse tracked him to his hut he leaned his head out the window, wearing Mrs Roberts’ hat. There are the eponymous nettles growing beside the trail as, electronic aids in hand, we take the self-guided tour; even though I know their sting to be painful, I find it hard to resist touching the electric green, somehow baroque, plants; like something from the foreground of a Durer print. Maggie is in her own world, taking photographs. I listen, in a desultory fashion, to the commentary, hoping for illumination. I learn a new term: cave fantasies. That’s for our human habit of naming formations after some, usually exotic, object: The Jewel of the South, for instance, the White Altar and the Angel’s Wing; none of which are to be found in Nettle Cave. We see instead an ancient perch of the Sooty Owl, generations of which are said to have, for 16,000 years, used this same rocky ledge. Their dung and their regurgitated pellets of bone and skin and teeth excavated from the cave floor; their mournful screech, memorialized in the commentary, the origin of the name the Devil’s Coachhouse. Further on we are pointed (electronically) in the direction of lobster-backs, crayfish-backs, which are large, humped, have an unearthly wet blue-green sheen to them and are alleged by some authorities to be alive: stromatolites—a rare type of non-lake dwelling cyanobacteria living on the surface of the limestone, sustained by the calcium-rich dripping water, which allows them to grow first east, then west, toward the light filtering alternately in from the two open ends of the cave. Others, however, assert that they are merely limestone accretions like stalagmites, stalactites, helictites and other speleothems, formed into peculiar shapes by the winds wafting in from either end, that vary, in a precise and regular manner, the way the water drops fall. They look half alive to me but what do I know? And where, anyway, do you draw the line between what lives and what does not? Don’t crystals grow and even reproduce? We come out of Nettle Cave and cross the road to the Blue Lake which is man-made (there is a dam further down that supplies hydro-electricity to the hotel) but takes its colour from minerals picked up in the passage of water through the caves; it is a milky blue-green and there are platypus therein, which we do not see. The older story is that this complex system, which extends as far south as Wombeyan Caves, was formed during an epochal struggle between a Quoll-man called Mirrigan and an Eel/Lizard-man called Gurangatch; the one, naturally, was trying to catch and eat the other; and in their many battles they formed the caves: Mirrigan by piercing the ground on numerous occasions with his spear, Gurangatch in his sinuous, elusive, underground flights. There are ducks, mallards, idling on the still water and Japanese and Spanish tourists photographing each other at the weir which is, after JKB, passionate almost beyond bearing. I see a water dragon sun-bathing on a mossy concrete platform, its long, thin, whip-like tail curled behind and, almost involuntarily, say Gurangatch under my breath before going back the way we came.
3. The Orient
That night, after dinner, we go upstairs and find an old pool table covered in faded blue plush, torn here and there, with a ragged cush, and play a couple of games using a cue that has lost its tip. It must have been like that for a while because the white ball has all over it round abrasions from the sharp edges of the metal sheath that is meant to cradle the felt. There are pictures on the walls, mostly nineteenth century scenes of transport or celebration and including a few portraits. The lady at reception said the place is famous for its ghosts, sometimes the ABC come up and leave their cameras running in the darkened hallways and always end up capturing something: the keeper of the caves, perhaps, old Jeremiah Wilson, his head full of grandeur and doom, muttering prophecies. Or something else entirely. Maggie meets a honeymooning couple called Tony and Josephine, from the Levant although at first we think Egyptian. An older pair, the second marriage for both of them. He is silent, a smoker, with a long, sculpted head and very white false teeth. She, ebullient, irreverent, very happy. Which cave should we go to in the morning, she asks; the Orient or the Temple of Baal? We have booked already, the Orient. Baal, I say, was a Phoenician deity. The Lord of the Flies. Her dark almond-shaped eyes go enormous, filling her face, whether from mockery or alarm I cannot tell. Phoenician? she breathes and before us for a moment lies all antiquity. There is a locked green metal door in the cliff near where we sleep and here we gather next morning. About twenty of us, the larger portion of the party consisting of Hindu monks and their acolytes. Half a dozen men in orange robes, a dozen fellows in jeans and sneakers, all with bright red dots on their foreheads. I talk to one young man, he tells me these are living saints, from India, come for the inauguration of a new temple in Sydney; Blacktown perhaps, somewhere west anyway. They are very holy, he says. I seem to discern the acme of spiritual pride in their demeanour but that is perhaps unkind. The guide is a bluff fellow called Richard, he unlocks the door and shows us down a tunnel cut in the living rock. The floor’s awash and a couple of troglodytes, lights on their helmets, come out of the gloom in overalls and gumboots: agents of the weekly hosing. Another door is unlocked and we are in the Orient, its pinks and ambers, the tawny radiance of its impossible baroques. You are to touch nothing, the guide tells us, your sweat turns those delicate shades grease-black; decay in fact began with the first gasp of wonder and continues in the glow of the heat of our bodies. We go up and down and along the metal walkways, the precipitous steps, trying to hear his commentary above the chatter and giggle of the acolytes, who will not be quiet. I see a swami touch a stalactite: curiousity, incredulity, a sense of absolute entitlement. Is his touch uncontaminated? Even divine? I get the guide to myself for a moment and ask about the skeleton—the bones of a man found crystallized in the utter depths of the system. He was washed in by a flood, Richard says. All the way to River Cave. A gesture with a torch: Down there. We are standing as if before a rockfall. A cascade of jagged boulders, of misshapen speleothems. An awful sense of claustrophobic darkness beckoning. You can worm your way down through crevices and holes to where the bones lie; but the guides are instructed, out of respect for the indigenous dead, not to point them out anymore. I only talk about it now if someone sees them, he says. On the way back I linger behind the main group, in the shadow of a formation called the Mosque; when the light goes out I cannot see my hand in front of my face. From the antecedent dark, a cool dry wind blows; there is the sharp ammonia of bat shit. Dust of an ancient sea-bed, precipitate in a water droplet, plinks to the floor. They are, I think, they must be, the bones of Mirrigan.
4. To Rydal
Climbing out of the ground we blink in the harsh light flashing over the blue lake, vaporizing the sap in the grey-green trees to clouds of eucalypt mist over Mount Inspiration. There are fairy wrens pee-peeping in the brush, the bright blue feathers on the male like pieces of the sky; one alights for a moment on the windowsill of the room while I’m calling Antony to say we’re on our way. In the dunny at the car park, a black toilet skink slips away into the aged, aromatic pug behind the porcelain bowl. We could go to Rydal via Oberon, passing Norway, Edith, Mozart but despite the seduction of the names, the route through Hampton is quicker, more direct. Just as well: at the top of the long hill climb out the Toyota’s engine is boiling and there is a protracted and expensive detour via Lithgow, for repairs, before we get to Antony’s. He comes out from the darkness of his low house, hollow-cheeked, staring-eyed, thinner than when last I saw him—cadaverous, almost. My wife has left me, he says. On Saturday. This is Monday. He had driven her down to Ashfield to stay with her daughter and it wasn’t until he returned that he realized she had taken all her things, including household ornaments. It was, to use one of her own words, unexpectable. He takes us on the obligatory tour of the sculpture garden then we sit outside drinking red wine and smoking rollies while brightness falls from the air and the black cockatoos go creaking and yawping to their rest. The common outside Antony’s gate is Crown Land, allegedly, and he points proudly to the thick growth of native grasses around the here-and-there blackened trunks of the eucalypts. When the time is right, he confesses, I burn it—just like the Aborigines used to. Oh, yes, I do. He has larger plans; the land bordering the creek to the east, owned by some wealthy syndicate of Sydney-siders, also he feels needs burning; he has a plan, not to be divulged here. Why not, he continues; and if it goes to court, well, I will defend myself. I’m an old man, I wouldn’t mind going out in a blaze of glory. In that wealth of fiery dreams he has forgotten all about, as he puts it, the thing he can’t remember any more. We spend the night, as if on Cold Mountain, in the small hut adjoining his studio, with its smell of oil paint and its bushfire canvases, and in the morning he shows us his sketchbooks from Harbin, China, where Mary comes from: frozen octopedes, tai chi dancers, park singers, grotesque politburocrats as seen on TV, street life, bird life, fish life, human life. She used to practice her calligraphy for one hour every morning he says and then no more about her. Later, when we are back in Sydney, a letter comes; Antony is sitting in his studio with the fiery paintings all around him and, outside, rain dripping from the eaves: If I had drunk a bit less wine my tongue may not have turned so often to the collapse of civilization, he writes, for after all it surely is a subject of so little significance in the greater view of Eternity? From this studio window one views the astonishing growth of plants, visits of birds, movement of air and when I turn off the radio I hear the sound of air, actually the sound of time, the Earth.
head pic by Duncan Ball
Eternities, out now from Otoliths, can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/martin-edmond/eternities/paperback/product-20612650.html