Garland Makers

Emerging from my early morning train I follow the subterranean tunnel that will lead to a city lane and daylight. There by the stairway stands a figure in the dimness, a fiddle at her chin, a bow in her right hand. I catch a glimpse of a t-shirt emblazoned with a black skull on a ground of brilliant white. A musician is playing Bach in a catacomb in Melbourne.

 

 

The musician plays. Later she will answer my query: “It’s Bach, one of the minuets.” Like any commuter I hurry by. A piccolo latte later I return to the tunnel. I have, after all, ten minutes of leisure, ten minutes free from scampering from screen to screen. I stand at a remove where I watch the slow bowing of her right hand and the nimble darting fingers of her left.

 

 

The musician plays. I don’t recognise this music, something slow and languid; liquid sounds flowing, flowing, peak hour crowds hurrying, hurrying. The musician plays, the commuters exit and I stand and I listen. In my hands I hold ‘Review’ from the weekend paper. Between melodies I read a poem by Judith Beveridge. The poem, titled ‘To a Garland Maker’ starts:

 

 

‘It must be good to be a garland-maker –

Your daughters carrying water, working with you

Braiding feathers, shells, leaves…’

 

 

Somehow the poem clinches the moment for me. Some obscure connection takes place. Perhaps it’s simply the gladsome encounter, unexpected, with the beautiful. I drop a bank note into the musician’s empty violin case. Between pieces I approach: “Please forgive my enquiry… what else do you do? In music, I mean?”     

“I’m at the Conservatorium. I’m studying.”

     

 

I withdraw and the musician plays again. Once again sounds drawn by slow bowing to an unhurried tempo, once again sounds not of this century nor of the last. Is there perhaps defiance in her choice of the unfashionable, of the non-popular? Most mornings the busker in this tunnel is a singlet-clad Springsteen, twice this girl’s age. But his music is far younger. His guitar case fills quickly with coin and notes.

 

 

My ten minutes of slow pass quickly. I’ve been in reverie, prompted by the playing and the poem:

 

 

‘Daughters

who will adorn you at your funeral with blossoms

picked at dawn.’

 

 

 

Following the poet’s images of daughters and aged mothers a vision comes to me of this same girl, three score years in the future, her delicate face coarsened by years and care. As I walk away my mind takes me to an elderly lady I know. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and recovered all movement but her speech was affected. Now words tumble from her mouth in lively disorder. My friend knows what she wants to say but her brain plucks the wrong word from her lexicon. The old lady has much to tell but her speech trips her up. She lives alone in the old family home, her gaiety unquenched.

 

 

 

In my reverie I hear the fiddler with her slow music, I hold the poet’s images of garland-making daughters, of disfiguring time, and of an old lady who cannot talk straight. Yeats wrote of ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It is art I suppose, the access to beauty, that brings us to the sunlight.

Maranoa Writer

In the Maranoa I met Billy Dodd, author of ‘Broken Dreams’ (UQP). I met his life. I recount his story to an able-bodied listener, who recoils on hearing how, three days before Billy’s eighteenth birthday, he came to fracture his neck and became quadriplegic. It’s the sort of shiver we feel as we recognise ourselves. As a child I dived into unplumbed streams. It was a normal action, part of the exuberant membership of the mad organism of many limbs without a brain that is a group of boys at play. We dove, we surfaced, we swam, we shouted, we splashed. Everything worked. We never thought on it. 

But here in the singular house of Billy Dodd I do think on it. Alone of the houses in Ann Street in his Maranoa township, Billy’s is not a Queenslander. That is, the structure is not elevated above flood level; it squats, its threshold at street level, hospitable to a wheelchair. Billy is glad for my visit. Although he is the town’s literary celebrity the rhythms of his life are slow. His partner is devoted and admiring, her child attentive and respectful, but the days are many, the years long.

‘How old are you now, Billy?’

‘Thirty three.’ A smile moves across his face. His chest plays its rise and fall. Nothing else of him moves.

That’s fifteen years. Fifteen years to look back, so very many to look ahead.
From across the street Billy’s house looks small. From the corner of the parlour where he reclines in his motorised conveyance the quiet rooms yawn. The spaces feel too large.
‘I’ve started to write another book.’

‘Good on you, Billy. What’s it about?’

‘About my father, my family.’

‘How’s it going?’

‘Well, I’m taking a bit of a break…’
We talk about his family, about his father’s example, his standards. Billy’s admiration outlives the old man, who never reached oldness.
Billy’s partner speaks, ‘Tell him what else you create, Billy. The paintings.’ She fetches some paintings, done by mouth, like all of Billy’s acts and works. After only a few weeks the paintings do not stand clearly in memory.
‘A cup of tea?’ The lady – Billy’s wife, as I discover – smiles her offer. ‘No thanks, no. I’m on duty, just sneaked out of the hospital, due back now. But thanks…’

Awkward, uncomfortably conscious of advantage, of my spontaneous mobility, I feel some need to redeem the situation, to rescue the moment. I speak: ’ Where can I find a copy of your book, Billy?’

‘Take this one there, on the table, it belongs to the school across the road.’
I take the school’s copy and I take my leave, running away from Billy’s empty spaces. I liked him, I liked the woman and the child. Perhaps that’s why I ran.
I read the book that evening. A short book, written in unvarnished narrative fashion, a book of real energy, written with drive. The voice is young, it speaks of family and friends, of ordinary wildness. In his retrospect Billy marvels quietly at his own transmogrification, shedding few tears. The energy of the telling contrasts with the slowness of our meeting.
And yet there was energy in the house: the child, proud of his painter-writer-stepfather, loves him. The woman, large and kind, ordinary, extraordinary, loves him too.

The lack was my own. I alone felt heaviness, defeat.

The Rubaiyat of Zoltan Klein

A Book of Verses beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness –        And, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

I accepted the invitation to the launch event of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ without curiosity. But as the series of emails from the Event Manager mounted I sensed I should look a bit spiffy for the launch. So I wore my English Schoolboy Blazer. The addition of my backpack subtracted from the elegance of my outfit and together with my skullcap ensured I would look quite as odd as usual.

At the last moment I invited a friend, an art impresario held by all to be ineffably elegant.

The security man at the door, a gym giant in Armani, consulted a guest list longer than the Pentateuch. A show of expensive teeth: “Your names, gentlemen?”

“We are both Howard Goldenberg”, I said.

“Thank you sirs. Please take the elevator to the Second Floor.”

A disembodied voice from the rear of the elevator was heard: “Hi Howard”. It took a while to identify our host Yossi (also Zoltan Vinegar) Klein, obscured as he was by a cluster of tall, expensively draped women, mounted on very steep heels. Taller than all others in the lift a wide man with an interesting face stood next to Yossi. He did not speak.

The lift released us into the highly geometric womb of Cox Architecture, a space as inventive and unexpected in its proportions and planes and shapes as Federation Square. I had not previously heard of Cox, but I was given to understand its iconic condition.

Filling the space, throngs of elegant females and stylish males kissed a lot of air as they greeted each other with little shrieks and harmless hugs. I noted my companion and I were not the most expensively dressed persons present. Wine was sipped, quite exquisite looking entrees were served and everyone accepted a copy of ‘Bread, Wine and Thou.’

Eventually Zoltan took a microphone and spoke. For a time no-one noticed, for Yossi is, as his surname suggests, not tall. After a bit all fell silent. He spoke informally, disarmingly, unpretentiously. He said, “I wanted to create a literary magazine on the themes of food, wine and culture.” Those were precisely the words he used when he spoke to me a year earlier in ‘Batch’, the Kiwi coffee shop where he and I had sighted each other without speech over years. On that occasion Yossi said: “I’ve read your writing on Aboriginal Australia. I want you to write a piece on Aboriginal Cuisine for the first Number of ‘Bread, Wine & Thou.’ I can’t pay you.”

I accepted the commission and wrote something and turned up in my blazer and kippah and backpack. It must be clear from the harsh tone of my introductory remarks that I felt uncool, unfamous, outranked by the figures of beauty. But as Yossi spoke all that fell away. This man in his forties spoke of his dream and its fulfilment, the magazine – really a handsome book – that we held in our hands. Yossi opened with a joke about his Jewish mother. It was a good joke and we all laughed and Yossi relaxed. He thanked a legion of first names, burnishing each name with his deep appreciation. As Yossi spoke one hundred and fifty smart people from the uppermost echelons of food and wine stood, arrested. Cynicism and self-consciousness fell away. We were human together as Yossi stood, naked in his feeling. He said he was overcome. His voice cracked with emotion.

Later a Very Great Man accepted the microphone. He sat down and whispered, exercising the powers of greatness and of near-inaudibility over his audience. Just as Howard Goldenberg alone had never heard of Cox Architecture, neither had I recognised the Greatest Chef in the World, the tall wide man of the interesting features who rode the rising elevator at Yossi’s side.

  
The room worshipped. Upon completing his remarks the man folded Yossi in an embrace that hoisted him from the floor. Evading believers*, he strode from the room, disappearing into the night.

That this personage should have descended to Melbourne for Yossi was felt to be an enormous compliment to our host. As I listened to the chef speak of his career at length and in breadth I felt increasingly the greatness of Yossi. And when you read Yossi’s magazine I think you will feel the same.

Although ‘Bread, Wine & Thou’ is accessible on-line, I urge you, do not go for the virtual book; for modest moneys you can acquire the real volume. Collectors will treasure this, the first edition, a thing of truth and beauty.

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* I stole this lovely phrase whole from Les Murray’s ‘ A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’.

At the Hospital for Sick Children

A too large five year old fills a cot whose sides are raised. His limbs move unpredictably and without purpose. He plays with a six-month old’s bright rattle.

His Mum is Ebony, solid and calm, about thirty. She tells me some of the story of Simon, her boy, naming a heritable syndrome of faulty collagen that causes joints and bones to break or dislocate.

 

But Simon’s bigger problem is the stroke that affected him in utero. Ebony felt turbulent convulsive movements in her belly when she was 20 weeks pregnant. Her tummy had swelled excessively, a sign of polyhydramnios, a hint of underlying abnormality in her unborn child. An urgent MRI showed cysts in both sides of the baby’s brain. After Simon was born he suffered seizures. It took two years before the doctors found the right medications to control Simon’s fits.

 

Ebony tells me all this levelly, undramatically, without reflecting on the strain and the burden she bears for this child she loves. Somehow too, she shows me she is not denying that strain; simply this is Simon’s story; she, Ebony, is not the story.

 

Scanning the clinical notes I gather Simon and Ebony live alone. “What about Simon’s Dad, is he part of Simon’s life?” – I wonder.

“Yes. One day a week… he left six months after Simon was born. He said it was too much for him…he’s a social worker.” A smile, not bitter, but of learned knowing.

 

“I started studying Art while Simon was in Respite. My work is showing in Perth at the Biennale. I sold a picture!”

Another smile, this one of delighted pride.

“The man who bought it was a senior man in the government. When he discovered my opposition to our mandatory detention of refugee children he told me he wouldn’t have bought it if he’d known that.”

 

At my request, Ebony pulls out her portable picture gallery, a series of images on her phone. I lack the vocabulary for the power and originality, the life, in these electrifying images.

“I paint on paper in oils.” I can see from her phone how the oils give a vividness to Ebony’s pictures.

She continues: “I said to that government man, ‘You can have your money back if you want to return the picture.’ But he hung on to it.’” Another Ebony grin.

“And Mr. Morrison, the minister in charge of that cruel policy, he wanted one of my images for his Christmas cards. I said, ‘Sure. You can have the image free of charge. Just change your policy first.’ He sacked the man who took that message to him.”

 

I read Ebony my blog piece – “How We Killed Leo”. Ebony gasps when I read of Leo gifting his organs: “I knew Leo. Down Geelong way, we all did. We all loved him. Such a good person. I never knew about his organ donations. And now we’ve lost him.”

 

Two minds in unexpected harmony.

 

We look down at Simon who continues his sporadic horizontal calisthenics. His belly is large, oddly misshapen. As if it were filled with tumours. I ask Ebony some doctor questions. She shakes her head to all my questions until I ask about the boy’s bowel habit. “He hasn’t pooed for a week. Geelong Hospital sent me to the city because they know him here. They’ll do an enema here and then we’ll drive home.”

I make some calculations: nine hours from her door and back. Nine hours of time and waiting and caring. I look at Ebony and she smiles: “It’s a relief. As long as Simon’s alright…”

A Review of One Thousand Cuts, by Rod Moss

One Thousand Cuts by Rod Moss

One Thousand Cuts by Rod Moss

One Thousand Cuts: Life and Art in Central Australia

A book of the dead?

Yes, explicitly so.

Names are named, a violation of all norms, all practice in both whitefella and blackfella Australia.

Rod does this by virtue of trust, explicit consent, indeed the command of Rod’s friends.

Rod Moss’ singular role – to witness, to record and transmit.

Rod Moss grew up in the country. Well, in the 1950’s the Dandenong Ranges were country-ish. But he was never “in country” until some time well into his long apprenticeship under Edward Arranye Johnson, in and around Alice Springs.

Moss’ first book, “The Hard Light of Day” recounts that apprenticeship, which began with a spontaneous act of neighbourliness and evolved through friendship to become a connection of spiritual father to son. The building and the losing of that bond are the subjects of that first book, winner of the Prime Minister’s Award. It might sound like a large statement that the second book builds on and exceeds the first in its power. It does so by the swelling sorrow of loss after loss after loss, of the weight of pain.

The present volume is unique in the way it illuminates the experience of being “in country” – an opaque expression that whitefellers who work outback hear often from blackfellers. Subtly, delicately, in a characteristic Moss undertone, being ‘in country’ becomes luminous. The light is shed by Moss as he moves around Arranye’s hereditary domain as his named spiritual heir.

Moss gives us birdsong, birdflight as he walks beneath. He breathes the breezes and tempests that flutter or flatten foliage and carry mood or prophecy.

He names and describes the fauna – from grub to reptile to marsupial – that create the country.

Moss does all this in the same manner as in his painting. His colours are florid, his verbal sallies frequently outrageous, his attack fearless. But in all this bravura there’s nothing flash or glib, as Moss walks and paints and photographs the lands of his spiritual patrimony, bearing the loss of spiritual father (and of many brothers and sisters), accruing more and more losses until their weight becomes unbearable.

Most of the losses come abruptly. Each comes with the force of a thump to the solar plexus.

Moss, with his reader at his shoulder, absorbs blow after blow.

At this point we have Moss Agonistes, crying: “It rains in my heart. One drop at a time.”

Moss misses a much anticipated funeral: “I find myself crying on Saturday morning …Though I was sad at the gravesite, it has taken until now, opening the brochure and studying the commemorative words…for me to be sobbing.”

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Monanism

English: MONA - Hobart, Tasmania

English: MONA – Hobart, Tasmania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MONA is the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart.  All of its promotional materials are written with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. One such refers to Monanism, a play on Onanism. This in turn is named for Onan, a figure in Genesis whose wife had suffered bad luck with her previous husband: he went and died on her. Onan decided to prevent pregnancy. He did this by spilling his seed on the ground, at once giving rise to the eponym and leading to the naming, some three millennia later, of a parrot in the USA. (Onan the parrot belonged to Dorothy Parker, who named him thus because the bird too “spilled his seed upon the ground.”)

MONA is remarkable. Submerged in a hillside it is a museum without windows. Visitors are entombed for the duration of their visit. Dominant themes of the artworks are sex and death. All this might warn off a visitor, suggesting a visit will be a dark or morbid experience. This in turn is the museum’s little joke at its own expense, an instance of Monanism at play.

Cynics who view Hobart as Australia’s petrified forest – views that are themselves stale and petrified – simply feed into the joke and the pleasant surprise that is MONA.

We* visited MONA yesterday. It is fabulous. The entire experience is exciting, playful and confronting. To remark that the collection is eclectic is to discover how inadequate and weary is that term for artworks that range in date from antiquity to today, to tomorrow. And to some time well beyond tomorrow.

My two favourites are Arthur Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” and another work, commissioned for MONA and titled “Untitled”. This looks like a giant spud; it’s about the size and shape of a Morris Minor motor car, and like that vehicle, it has small windows through which you can peer into the interior. Here, red apples fall vertiginously from the grip of finger-like branches at eye level towards small wells, or open cupolas, containing water. The effect is enchanting, both magical and charming. And mysterious. I looked and felt as Moses might from a mountain peak in Moab: I could see but never hold a view of endless allure and promise.

(It should be obvious that I cannot recall the name of the artist; it’s an Armenian name. Like his work, he remains untitled…)

Boyd’s “Melbourne Burning” recalls a work by Breughel the Elder. It expresses the artist’s mixed up, unnamable and profoundly distressed reactions to WWII. In the painting life both destroys itself and asserts itself in grotesque and cruel ways. I have not been moved so strongly by a work about war since viewing Picasso’s “Guernica” in MOMA (no relation to MONA).

My mind exercised itself throughout the visit. Tracey Moffatt’s mixed painted and photographic work is as brilliant as anything there. This Aussie artist (of mixed extraction, including Aboriginal) stands as a peer alongside any of the ambiguists and tricksters at MONA. Her work, “Something More”, seeks to confuse meanings – particularly of cultural identity – by emphasizing its own ‘fakeness’. (Wikipedia)

In my experience, culture is very hard on the feet: a trip to an art museum always leaves me footscore. Not so at MONA.  The experience set my mind to dancing. But my feet feel fine. [Unlike old Onan, who, soon after his marriage, left his bride a widow once again (See Genesis, 38, vv 1-10).]

*This blog has a spouse who accompanied me to MONA.

City of the Slow Kiss

Auguste Rodin's The Kiss, at the National Muse...

Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buenos Aires in the silver land
Dreaming couples hand in hand
On the sidewalk, dreaming stand
Face sucking face,
They race no race.

Body in body
Folded entwined –
Lip lipping lip,
Hip hard on hip,
Two in one embrace combined,
Passers-by pass –
Are given no mind.

In the land of silver there’s little to spare:
Lovers up early going nowhere –
Nowhere to go,
No privacy, so
They kiss, on their feet.
They kiss, bees that suck
This sip of oblivion,
This slow sweet nectar
Of loving attenuated,
This tango of tongues,
This kiss without end
This slow loving
Helps transcend
Hard living.

O La Boca, warm mouth
Swallow up
Regret and sorrow,
Forget tomorrow,
Tomorrow too will pass:

Look, that’s dew
Silvering the grass!