Ambivalence

For years now I’ve hesitated between here and there. Usually anything I wrote here I linked to there; but I’ve never, until  now, thought of linking here to there. Duh. Because people who read there probably don’t read here, I assumed people who read here don’t read there. Well maybe I was wrong. So here is a link to there. Here and there.

 

 

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The Tree’s Human

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There’s a big eucalypt growing in the street outside my place. I live on the second floor, like Luka of sacred memory, facing west, so my windows look directly out into its foliage. Its birds and bees. Its nests: currawongs one year, magpies the next. Just about to flower now, with creamy white blossoms bursting from the buds. Then making woody seeds. Last Thursday I was out the front talking to a friend when a fellow he knew stopped and joined the conversation. He was an aborist. I asked him if I should ask the council to trim the tree, as they did the other day to the one outside the building next door. He looked at the tree. It’s a Tallowwood, he said. Eucalyptus microcorys. Then he said, yes, probably, it looks like it has a problem in the crown. I didn’t see it then but I did later. A rather large branch had become detached from the trunk, high up, and fallen into the lower branches. It looked precarious. It looked like it might cause some damage when – not if – it fell to the ground. It could kill someone. It could bring down the wires feeding electricity to my building. It could damage a car. At 8.30 next morning I rang the council. The recently amalgamated Inner West Council, a behemoth that has replaced our local Ashfield Council, of fondest memory. I used to know the ex-Mayor. You could go for a walk around the neighbourhood with him. Not sure if we even have a Mayor any more. Anyway, the woman at the other end of the line took down the details and said she’d pass them on. I was out for the middle part of the day. When I came back, around 3.30, the branch was still poised precariously above the footpath and the road, the service wires. I rang them again. Friday afternoon: what could happen? This is Australia. Nothing much. Second verse, same as the first. Saturday I voted. Not for the clowns who currently run the place, for some other clowns. A fellow called Tom Kat (I kid you not, or only a little: it’s Kiat). Monday, nada. The neighbours on both sides had noticed that Damoclean branch by now and they had rung up too. Nothing happened. Tuesday neither – except they were cleaning the gutters for the first time in months so I went out and spoke to a fellow with a shovel who was clearing the dirt around the tree. As soon as he saw the branch he got on to his phone and called the council. Apparently someone came out later on that day to have a look and pronounced it ‘stable’. Yeah, right. Today’s Wednesday. It’s hot, windy: nor-easters. 32 degrees. There’ll be a southerly change later on tonight. When I came back from my walk I saw the branch had shifted. I rang the State Emergency Services. They have a depot in Haberfield, just over the other side of Parramatta Road. They gave me instant attention. She took my number and, minutes later, a guy called Alex rang up. I told him the story again: I knew it by heart by now. I was watching the branch, out the window, the whole time we were talking. It was moving in the wind. Alex said he’d call the council. Half an hour later, a ute pulled up and a bloke in a fluoro vest got out. He was clearly here about the branch. I turned down the element that was heating the beef bisque I was having, with buttered toast, for lunch and went out to talk to him. He was on the phone. Stop right there, he said. There’s danger. I know, I said. I stopped. He was talking to an aborist and, while we stood there, facing each other, about three metres apart, the branch fell. With a sound like a sigh. Didn’t bring the wires down, didn’t hit a pedestrian, did scrape the side of the florist’s van. Lucy’s. Their son does the markets every morning and leaves his grey Hyundai outside my place. A minor scrape, but still. I heard the bloke say to the aborist: it’s down, don’t worry, see you, and then he hung up. We had a chat and he shook my hand. That was nice. Like I’d done my duty as a citizen. A good outcome, I guess: no-one was hurt. This arvo I went down to the florist to tell the woman there what happened. They’re Chinese. He’s a nice guy but kind of non compos. She runs the business. I guess she’s Lucy. Not a great command of English. Turned out the clean-up guys had come down and asked her to shift the van; but no-one told her it was damaged. She said she couldn’t shift it because her son had the keys and he was elsewhere. I gave her my card. I said: I’m a witness. I said: the council has to pay for the repairs on your van. The bastards. Their chainsaws and their leaf blowers ruined my afternoon. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about a line from a Tom Waits song. About how the cops always stop for coffee on the way to the scene of the crime. It was a bit like that. They could do the clean-up, quick smart, but they couldn’t avert the disaster. But still. It wasn’t really a disaster. No-one got hurt. The branch is down. I will always remember the moment when it fell between us, me and the bloke, he was called Mike, with a sound much like a sigh. Tallowwood. They can grow to be very large trees indeed. 70 metres high, if the soil beneath is deep enough. The name comes from a greasiness in the wood. Much used for fine work. Cabinet making and so forth. But not such a good suburban tree, because it needs those deep roots to grow tall and who knows what’s underneath us here. The complications of drainage. The underworld. Mostly sand, probably, originally. Black sand. Tallowwood flowers are beloved of apiarists; therefore, of bees. Leaves a koala can eat; if only. Koalas in Summer Hill!? The Latin name, microcorys, small helmet, refers I think to the nuts that will form after the creamy flowers are done. This very year! While I still live here! While I am still alive! I love this tree. I think of it as my tree. But, actually, I belong to it. I’m the tree’s human.

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Albert Namatjira’s Copyright

22. Albert drinking

I had a request for this piece on Friday night, wrote it over the weekend, finessed it with a lawyer on Monday, and with the editor last night and this morning: and here it now is. 

image: Albert in a bar in Alice Springs c. 1958

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The Secret Sharer

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There was an alarm going off all night long. Eighty electronic pulses followed by about twenty beats of silence. I’m estimating, obviously. The noise was faint, far away, but once I had locked onto it, I couldn’t help but listen. At first I noticed that I tended to fall into a doze during the periods of silence then wake when the beeps resumed; but after a while, it was the other way round; and I’d re-surface when the silence began again. It was odd not knowing where the alarm was coming from; odd, too, that its battery never ran down. As a means of occupying my mind with something other than listening for its pauses and resumptions, I decided to see if I could remember the names of Joseph Conrad’s ships. I knew there were eighteen of them: could I count them all? The Mont-Blanc, the Saint-Antoine, the Tremolino, the Mavis, the Skimmer of the Sea, the Duke of Sutherland, the Europa, the Loch Etive, the Palestine, the Riversdale, the Narcissus, the Highland Forest, the Vidar, the Otago, the Roi des Belges, the Torrens, the Adowa. I counted them up on my fingers. Seventeen. There was one missing. A chronological list, so where was the gap? I thought and thought and then I remembered reading some letters the young officer wrote from a berth in Calcutta to a Polish friend in Cardiff. What was that ship called? It returned to Dundee with a load of jute. (Another sentence came to mind: ‘It was jute that made Dundee.’) Ah yes, I had it now: the Tilkhurst. After the Narcissus and before the Highland Forest. So there were the eighteen. I rehearsed the sea routes that they followed and, where known, the cargoes that they carried. Jute, coal, teak, sugar, wool, wheat, linseed, horns and bones. General cargo, which could mean anything. The Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific. The South China Sea. The Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov. The Western Ocean the only one he never sailed. Never a passage to North America, unless you count the crossing he made, as a passenger, very late in life, to be feted in New York in 1923. I must have drifted off on speculations such as these and then Joseph Conrad came to me in a dream. Not for the first time. On the other occasion he was a grizzled old sea captain lying back in a big bed in some inland town, perhaps South American, smoking a cigar. Disinclined to speak, unless in riddles. Now he was a younger man, alert and charming and talkative. But I cannot remember our conversation, only that it continued for quite some time. Or was it like the writing I do sometimes in dreams, which does not really exist but is a dream of writing? Anyway, I remember the last exchange. He was sitting opposite me, at a small table. My bookshelves were behind me and from them I plucked a volume with a yellow cover and gave it to him. ‘Here is a book to read,’ I said. The yellow was a pale jasmine, a pale lemon colour, the colour of a Light 15 Citroën I was lucky enough once to own. At the top, the letters of a title: The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad’s face was a wonder to behold: amusement, consternation, incredulity, dismay. ‘But I wrote this,’ he said. ‘You have given me a copy of one of my own books!’ Indeed I had. He was not annoyed. Surprised, rather. I woke up. The Secret Sharer! Was I, or rather was my mind, trying to saying something to the figment it had entertained? That he and I were secret sharers? The tale came out in 1909, I think, during an interlude in the writing of Under Western Eyes. (Just as, nearly a decade before, Heart of Darkness came out during an interlude in the writing of Lord Jim.) It is based upon a true story. The bucko mate on the Cutty Sark struck and killed an insubordinate seaman, a black man with whom he had argued, and fought, before. His captain, rather than taking him into port to face the courts in Singapore, probably, (they were near the entrance to the Java Sea) let him go over the side and swim to another ship. That captain himself went over the side four days later, a suicide, unable to reconcile himself with what he had done. The mate escaped but was picked up, years later, in London, tried and punished. In Conrad’s story a mate who has killed a man arrives at the side of a young captain’s first command near the mouth of the river that leads south from the port of Bangkok; and the captain allows him aboard. The man’s name is Leggatt. The captain, who is never named (‘I’), conceals him in his cabin, conceals him from the captain of Leggatt’s own ship, the Sephora, when he comes looking for him, conceals him from his crew during a voyage down the Gulf of Siam; until, off the rocky island of Koh-Ring, he takes his (also unnamed) ship so close to shore it is at risk of wrecking, that his secret sharer may slip over the side and swim to safety. We never learn his fate; but the young captain is somehow, mysteriously, through his illegal act and his compassion for a fugitive, confirmed in his vocation. It’s clearly a doppelgänger tale and perhaps that is why I chose it in my dream: because to have the temerity write about another author, especially one as esteemed and, as it were, untouchable as Joseph Conrad, is to claim him as a double? Is that why? When I woke up after the dream and lay there rehearsing it in my mind, the alarm was still beeping in the distance of the night but I could already see, faintly, at the window, the first grey light of the coming dawn seeping, like arcane knowledge, or even  inspiration, through the ochre curtains.

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images: the Queen opening the restored Cutty Sark to the public, Greenwich, 1957; Unknown man and his doppelgänger.

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Départ

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Departure, yes, from the illusions of life to the essential realities that lie hidden beyond.

Max Beckmann, 1932

Right

We leave everything behind. And take it all with us too. How could it be otherwise? My beloved holds a lamp in her right hand, while the German dwarf ties the last of his bonds tight around her calves and my arms, which are crossed behind my back. The doorman in his blue uniform stands next to us, holding a fish. Blind-folded, so as not to see where we are going. As if he didn’t already know. I am the upside down man, did you know that? In my green coat of wind. We are both bound, and bound one to another, by the ties of fate. Soul and body, body and soul. The accoutrements are classical, the falling down world. Friezes, columns, reliefs. Staircases, scaffolds. Gods. All fall down. The man with the drum, a cadaverous cataleptic wearing a peaked cap, beats on. Marching out of the picture, marching into the past. Or the future, whichever comes first. We felt the whole thing in our bones; or, if not in our bones, in our blood. In our heads. The strange history play in which we found ourselves acting. All five of us; and the fish makes six. You cannot ask if we were willing; it is the wrong question. You will notice that she has one breast free and in that gift, if it is a gift, is all the hope we can carry. We left everything behind and took it all with us as well. Could it have been otherwise? Her face, indomitable.

Left

This was the cost. She was bound again and made to kneel half–naked before the globe: a crystal ball? Our blue planet? Or something else, a palantír perhaps. She will be violated if that has not already occurred. Who is doing this? I cannot tell. Where was I? Bound too, both my hands amputated, the marbled flesh like some atrocious echo of antiquity. Or the other fellow, pink-shirted, turned away, his hands intact but also bound and standing in a barrel—like Diogenes? All three of us bound and no-one left to paint the bulbous still life, the pear, the apple, the grapes, on the table top, itself upon some kind of plinth. It seems we are still in ancient times. The green curtains, the toppling columns. Or in some theatre of the absurd. I do not know why the man in the striped blue and black shirt holds high, like a mattock, a bag from which a fish’s head protrudes. A tail too. He looks as if he might be about to chop down the tree of life. Or is it an axe against the frozen sea within? Maybe he is just landing his catch. Again we are six: add the green-beaked bird, before the draperies, swallowing its own red eye. There remains the goddess, her marbled flesh, bound and looking down into the globe wherein may be found other departures, or all departures. And that strangely concave board she kneels upon, with its drawing of trees: are there other ways out of this hell?

Centre

Who is doing this? Who is speaking? Painters do not speak, we paint; and paint is silent. Our language is blue. The ocean and the sky are neither sky nor ocean, they are blue. The robe the crowned figure wears slung over his shoulder, turning away, his hand raised, is blue. If that is me I am pleased to see the rosy tint returning to my flesh. The pink behind my hand. Our flesh. My clothed Queen, holding the golden-headed child. A sturdy boy. He is staring behind her at the ancient of days: look again, do you see that antique profile? Odysseus? We are again six, and one of us is again a fish. Held, now, in the hands of that flaxen-haired Viking with his helmet, no less than his hair, obscuring his face. His one cyclopean eye. Or am I wrong, is he the father of the child? Are we both fathering the child? Who fathers the child? It is every child, antiquity’s child, Odysseus’ child, the child of Theseus. Why is she looking at that helmeted man, with the gold bands upon his arm, with his abnegation, his inscrutability, his fish. Is it a challenge; or in recognition? I know that we will never know. You will notice that I have a casual hand upon the net wherein the jewelled fish are caught. You see the oar that kisses the surface of a blue which is different from the blue of the sky. The blue, the green and the white of the landed fish. The golden scuppers of our ship. It is like heaven, all gold and blue, apart from the red of that Viking’s robe. His blue mouth. Always my eye returns to that profile, he who is hardly there at all, he whom without whom we would have no destination. The king that in the caves of history dreams. Yes that is exactly what I mean. Our ship has no prow and no stern. We drift upon the endless blue. Sky and sea, and sea again. If we are going nowhere, it is because we have already arrived. If we are going everywhere, then so be it. If anywhere, then anywhere will do.

 

 

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Rattling Spears

A review of Ian McLean’s excellent account of Indigenous art in Australia since 1770.

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Home

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I have an essay in this fine collection, edited by Thom Conroy, from Massey University Press; and here’s a link to a radio review of same.

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