Aside

I’m really thrilled and humbled to see this post, a response to ‘Light Dance’, over at the A WineDark Sea blog: a heartfelt thank you, Sarah! I ‘met’ Sarah after stumbling across her blog a few years ago. A wide continent separates us, but I hope to meet her one day IRL.

One of my first ever posts was about how having work published can sometimes feel like writing into the void, given the distance in space and time between writer and reader (incidentally, I don’t feel this distance so much as a reader). I posted about how maybe the best aspect of blogging is that it puts writer and reader in the same virtual space, allowing for interaction, feedback, further conversation.

This is one of those moments when that speculation is proven and I go: Yep, blogging, love it.

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain,

index… which was written during the closing years of WWII but wasn’t published until 1977, is making me restless to go hiking again.

This, for example:

The inaccessibility of this loch is part of its power. Silence belongs to it. If jeeps find it out, or a funicular railway disfigures it, part of its meaning will be gone. The good of the greatest number is not here relevant. It is necessary to be sometimes exclusive, not on behalf of rank or wealth, but of those human qualities that can apprehend loneliness. (14)

Or this:

The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insects (an intricacy that has its astonishing moments, as when sundew and butterwort eat the insects), the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery. Scientists tell me that the alpine flora of the Scottish mountains is Arctic in origin — that these small scattered plants have outlived the Glacial period and are the only vegetable life in our country that is older than the Ice Age. But that doesn’t explain them. It only adds time to the equation and gives it a new dimension. I find I have a naïve faith in my scientist friends — they are such jolly people, they wouldn’t fib to me unnecessarily, and their stories make the world so interesting. But my imagination boggles at this. I can imagine the antiquity of rock, but the antiquity of a living flower — that is harder. It means that these toughs of the mountain top, with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age. The scientists have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know how it has been done. (59)

‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery’ — that’s what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t, but there is a way of writing about facts that does dispel mystery, that turns the unknown into the known and, in doing so, makes it mundane. Such writing, of course, has its place. But if I think of what happens when I read my favourite essayists, the process goes something like this: the more I learn from them about the topics they explore, the more I am filled with a sense of awe and mystery. This, I think, is something to aim for in writing. How to explore a topic so that, as its layers and intricacies open ever up, it becomes more mysterious?

I have also been reading about, in art, objects of recognition (these serve as vehicles for the already known) versus objects of fundamental encounter (these force us to think; they produce something new in themselves). The latter enact some kind of disruption of the given. It’s a good way of thinking about the kind of writing that interrupts convention, that offers up something brave and new and startling. It’s not about discarding what has come before, but knowing it enough to see a way through and beyond it.

And it’s such a different thought process as a reader, isn’t it, the encounter with an object of recognition (the following the  clues, the ticking off the boxes, the relating this thing before you with the meanings it gestures towards) when compared with the confusion, the sometimes indignant feelings when confronted with a fundamental encounter: how to understand this? It’s harder work, and it’s confronting, and frustrating (why am I not equipped with the tools to unlock this meaning?) but, in the end, it’s much more rewarding because it involves, eventually, some kind of shift.

 

My piece at Seizure

lightdance-banner

Image by David Henley

I have a piece up today at Seizure, and you can read it even if you don’t have a subscription (though I highly recommend you nab one; at only $30 a year, it’s a bargain!).

It’s called ‘Light Dance’ and is a riff on W. G. Sebald’s ‘On every new thing lies the shadow of annihilation’.

I wanted to write a memoir piece with, instead of scenes linked through the ‘I’ of the narrator, the personal and the historical linked through images and thematic echoes. Some of the things that are touched on are dancing plagues, white dwarfs and death by butterflies.

You might remember I mentioned in August last year that I was off to Alice Springs for Australia’s No. 1 Truckie’s ReUnion. Well, an essay didn’t exactly come out of it, but that trip does make an appearance here.

If you get a chance to read it, many thanks x

Calvary: a review

CalvaryI have been impatient with movies for months — restless while watching them, and then frustrated at the end that I’ve ‘wasted’ a few hours. The movie that has just broken this drought of mine is  writer-director John Michael McDonagh‘s Calvary, which is about a priest in a parish on Ireland’s west coast. I got back from Peru yesterday, and today I haven’t been able to sleep since 2 am (it’s now 6 am). Part of that sleeplessness has come from my thoughts being unable to stop circling the movie after I saw it with M and my brother last night.

Father James Lavelle, in the opening scene, is listening to a confronting confession. The confessor, after a shocking opening line with multiple interpretive possibilities, states that he was sexually abused by a priest every other day from the age of seven. Because the abuser is dead, he thinks revenge would be much sweeter if he killed a good priest: he will give Father James a week to put his house in order before killing him the following Sunday. Father James knows who the confessor is, he reveals when seeking counsel from the bishop, but he doesn’t disclose his identity. It’s a highly effective omission because the audience is kept guessing, throughout, as to who the potential killer might be. Continue reading

My piece ‘An Uneasy Alliance’ published in Kill Your Darlings

KYD18-3D-HighResolution-741x1024Issue 18 of Kill Your Darlings is now online and available in bookstores, and includes an essay by yours truly. I’ve really got my geek on in this one! The piece’s premise is that ancient murals and myths, tool-toting chimpanzees and a science-fiction motif are all trying to tell us something (cue paranoid music score).

It was a tough one to write, I suspect because it’s more ideas based than what I’ve written previously. It touches on the fields of archaeology, history, cinema studies and geo-engineering. Thanks to Jacob and Imogen for their feedback on early drafts of this one, and to Jenna for giving me a kick-on to get the first draft down.

Here is an extract:

My heart sped with the thrill of discovery and the delicious undergrad naiveté that whispers Maybe, just maybe I’ve made a…but I quickly came down to earth as, scurrying through the books, I realised that others had noticed the same correlation.

Connections have also been drawn even further afield, with the Mayas and their Popol Vuh. There it is written that early humans were spoken to by their maize grinders, cooking griddles, plates, pots and grinding stones, which, in revenge for the way humans had treated them, crushed their owners’ faces, ground up their flesh, landed on their heads and flattened their bodies. The correspondences across time and space suggest that this Revolt of the Objects, as it is usually called, is an ancient American myth.

I contemplated the reproduction of the Moche mural: headdresses, clubs and weapons sprouted arms and legs and chased after people, attacked them and dragged them by their hair. Chaos reigned on the walls as humans were domesticated by the tools they had created: one man grimaced in pain, another stumbled as a shield attacked him. The militaristic Moche were thrust to the bottom of the food chain by the technologies responsible for their regional dominance – their most important tools – just as the Huarochirí informants and the Maya had imagined their ancestors were.

I closed the book and leaned back in my chair. The neon lights were casting a clinical sheen across the desk and there were murmurs drifting from the stacks. Sometimes a piece of the past flies through time at just the right angle to cast new light on the present. Images from a steady diet of pop-culture rose in my mind: cool, terrifying robots, humans in farms and the planet a wasteland. It seemed that the modern, Western imagination to which I was subject wasn’t so different from this ancient American one.

Read the rest at Kill Your Darlings.

 

 

 

Back on the language wagon

I spent this morning practicing the pronunciation of the following sounds:

ch, chh and ch';

k, kh and k';

p, ph and p';

q, qh and q'; and

t, th and t’.

The first ones (except for the ‘q’ and ‘t’) sound much as they do in English, the second ones are aspirated (just as the ‘ph’ in ‘uphill’ is aspirated) and the third ones are glottalised (a short popping sound). The difference is important: according to my teacher, while tanta means meeting, thanta means rubbish and t’hanta means bread. For me, the p’ requires particular effort; the t’ took me a little figuring out in terms of which part of the roof of the mouth the tongue pops against (it’s further back than the t in Spanish; moving the tongue even just a little forward changes the sound completely). If you want to know what Qheswasimi (also known as Kechwa/Quechua/Runasimi) sounds like, start this video at 1:00.

I know I won’t be able to learn much in ten lessons, but I can feel the rusty language cogs slowly kicking into gear, and it feels good, the effort, especially the slow struggle that is recall, the process of transforming what my brain interprets as ‘sound’ into something it recognises as ‘word’.

There are actually no irregular verbs in Qheswasimi (yippee!) because it is an agglutinative language. But agglutination has its own challenges. To form words, you add affixes to the stem (which never changes). So in Qheswasimi you take a word stem, and to it you add suffixes that mean, for example, ‘plural’, ‘past tense’, ‘diminutive’, ‘limitative’ (i.e. ‘only’), ‘place of origin indicator’, ‘knowledge through hearsay’ and/or ‘knowledge through personal experience’, among others (see more here).

The kind of Quechua I’m learning is the southern variant — Quechua isn’t a language but a language family, with variations among its languages that are not quite as different as those among the Romance language family (which takes in Romanian, French, Italian, Catalonian, Portuguese, etc.), but are comparable to those among the Slavic language family (Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Macedonia, Bulgarian, etc.).

Tupananchiskama!

 

Notes on Quito, etcetera

A ponche vendor whose face cracks into wrinkles when he hands me the plastic cup, and who slaps P on the shoulder and throws his head back, laughing, after P attaches a miniature stuffed koala to his trolley door. Quietness, stillness, respect. Elderly men seated beside each other in the Plaza Grande, one with parasol extended above him and his friends, and, elsewhere in the historical centre, a barber in his seventies whose shop houses studded pedestal chairs with gold curlicue footrests, an aftershave atomiser bottle and framed black-and-white photos that sit skewiff on the discoloured walls. His customer is as old as he and has just arrived by way of a bow-legged gait. He leaned on his daughter’s proffered crooked arm as his adolescent grandson loped ahead, ear buds in place.

Listening to M, who is the reason we are here, with the feeling of wanting to sit, cross-legged, at her feet. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in Spain, and still this feeling. Trying to express myself on her topics of gender and feminism and how these intersect with environment management, about identity and perspectives and cultural difference — and the constant hovering of frustration, of falling short. About obstetrical violence, and the high maternal mortality rate in hospitals here, about the exorbitant cost of giving birth in a private hospital, especially if there are complications, which has her worried (she touches her stomach). About trying not to swear here, and failing. The missing home desperately. About offering therapy, often free, because she knows her clients don’t have the money (never mind that she doesn’t, either, that this is why she has moved half way across the world). My wanting to stay right here, to have time warp and stretch so that I might.

Watching Ecuador draw 0-0 against France, in a plaza, all the TV screens of the bars turned out to the street. The swell of the yellow-clad crowd every time Ecuador comes close to kicking a goal. The man with a white, yellow-sunglasses-sporting hare draped languidly across his right shoulder; it looks down its nose, front paws dangling neatly down its human’s shirt front. A woman at the plaza drawing close; Could she join us for a little while? She can’t find her friends; there are so many people; she is alone. The anxiety lifting off her, soon eased by her flutter of conversation and her animation, the effort at extroversion a bid to caer bien. Police with German Shepherds. Their expressions a constant frown. They nod the once, slowly, when members of the crowd approach and ask to pat the dogs.

Leaving at dawn.

~     ~     ~

Now, nearing the end of our second day in Arequipa for, let me count it now, the sixth time in ten years, a confusing flatness, a still-waking-at-3 am maladjustment and a looking around and thinking, Oh yes, this. Opening up Brian Castro’s Stepper (1997) and falling headlong into it:

It was a long flight from Sydney and my heart is beating strangely…the plane shuddering too much and I, drifting in and out of bad movies thinking about Victor Stepper. In the Narita terminal, yellow chrysanthemums cascade between the escalators. Rub my shoe against the back of my trousers. A return was always a loss.

That last line, hitting me between the eyes.