There was a day, when I, if that was I, Surrendered lay beneath a burning sky, Where overhead the azure ached with heat, And many red fierce poppies splashed the wheat; Motion was dead, and silence was complete, And stains of red fierce poppies splashed the wheat,
And as I lay upon a scent-warm bank, I fell away, slipped back from earth, and sank, I lost the place of sky and field and tree, One covering face obscured the world for me, And for an hour I knew eternity, For one fixed face suspended Time for me.
O had those eyes in that extreme of bliss Shed one more wise and culminating kiss, My end had come, nor had I lived to quail, Frightened and dumb as things must do that fail, And in this last black devil-mocking gale, Battered and dumb to fight the dark and fail.
- J. C. Squire, An Anthology of Modern Verse, 1920 - 1940
Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s ‘The Day on Fire’, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.
Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans. Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could release by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminium. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and
One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewel weed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her
head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.
She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning — only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brain in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.
One warm Sunday afternoon we filled our backpacks with snacks and towels. We packed our car and set out to find a secret place we’d heard mention of sometime ago and thought we’d try to find
it ourselves. Once we arrived we walked a little while along the well-trodden track before stepping off it and scrambling through the bush to find a beautiful clearing with a secluded waterfall and a cave behind it.
We clambered up the wet stones in our underwear and holding our breath passed through the veil of water to reach the cave. Hard water pelted my skull and my whole body was tingling with sensations of water droplets breaking and rolling, dividing and joining on my back and
legs. Sodden and shivering on the other side of the waterfall we sat pressed close to one another, peering out through the watery sheet at a tangle of green ferns and trees. Our bare skin glistened as we sat nestled together, watching the water as it tumbled down and spattered noisily on the rocks below. The sounds reverberated against the walls of our cave causing a crashing racket around us.
A strange feeling came over me. I imagined the clattering, ear-splitting cascade was the sound of our life chaotically passing us by. The falling water was time passing us at full speed. I’m reminded how fleeting life really is. On this side of the veil of pelting water, the flow of time seemed to thicken and slow. In a life of continuous flux, endless torrents of shifting joys and sorrows, it feels as though you are my one sweet constant. Our little cave behind the waterfall felt like a small sanctuary from the commotion of life passing us by from all sides, even if it we could only stay there a short while. That little moment brimmed with beauty.
In the car on the way home I feel weary but very relaxed. I scribble down little drawings in my sketchbook, ideas for images and a large series. During the walk to the waterfall I had picked a leaf from a black-hearted sassafras and had been smelling it’s spicy, cinnamon-y deliciousness. I pull it out and smell it once more before pressing it in between the pages of my sketchbook. I know when I smell it next time I open my book my mind will wander back to this day, and to the secret place we found.
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
― Walter Benjamin, responding to a small ink print drawn by the artist Paul Klee. To me, this seems a perfect example of an extraordinary intellect responding to an artwork in a deeply personal, idiosyncratic manner. This is how to approach to art; with great freedom and imagination!
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.
This is me with my freshly printed-and-framed work ‘You Greet Her Ghost’- I’m delighted that it’s all ready to be exhibited as a finalist image in the 2016 RACT Tasmanian Portraiture Prize! The exhibition opens 17th September at the Long Gallery, Salamanca Place. If you are in Hobart between 17th September - 1st October please do come along to see some wonderful portraiture!
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realises how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.
A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music. Then the music was polished until it became the memory of a night in Venice when tears of the sea fell from the Bridge of Sighs, which in turn was polished until it ceased to be and in its place stood the empty home of a heart in trouble.
May passes by quickly. I’d been working a lot and had no time take photographs or write. Life feels colourless when I am not doing something creative. Unless my mind is lively with swirling images and words I fall into nothingness.
Sensing the awful emptiness beginning to set in, I make a solitary escape to a cabin on the east coast of Tasmania to spend a few nights. After driving for hours I arrive in the little town where I’d be staying. Entering my cabin, I delight intensely as I enclosed myself in my own little world. I unpacked and made myself a small nest filled with music, books and delicious food. Revelling in my space I’d wake up dawn to write and plan a photo series that I hoped to one day turn into a book. I began to feel wonderful little embers of creative passion glowing within me.
In the afternoons I’d go for walks in the nearby national park. I’d found a beautiful river bordered by cold blue stones and swaying, sighing eucalypts. One afternoon I spent hours in the fading afternoon light rock hopping along the riverbed collecting many splendid river-things; wet pebbles and colourful dying leaves. Away from human company I felt the liberty to behave like a child, marvelling at the simple, beautiful things that I’d collected.
Another afternoon was spent sitting on the stones by the water, studying the reflections. I cast my mind over the water like a net and caught the quietness of the place. The light became tangled and golden in the eucalypts, setting fire to the reflections that quavered on the surface like flames. I reached down and trailed my fingers through the trembling impressions on the water. As my finger cut through the reflections they closed again, as though I had never touched them. I imagined that this river, alight with a burning cacophony of colours and shapes, represented eternity and the arched trail of my fingers was my lifetime. Eternity closed so quickly over my little life. The joys and struggles that seem so immense to me were so tiny when compared to the largeness of time and space. The tiny moments of the sublime that occur in everyday life seem all the more fleeting and precious. I considered what the meaning of it all was.
A small rivulet burbled nearby and I noticed two golden ferns, clinging to a stone as the waters of the small cascade swept over them. Earthy, grimy, browning at their edges, the pair of ferns were entwined as they decomposed. They would become increasingly entangled as they decayed, until eventually they would be one and the same piece of blackened detritus. I thought it was exquisitely beautiful. I regarded the pair of ferns as Tom and I. What a wonderful thing it was, that in all of eternity we happened to be trailing our fingers at the same time. Together we would grow old and frail as cascades of time ruthlessly swept over us. We would fade until we were both no more than the same silt intermingled after spending a lifetime entwined by love. Fleeting and meaningless as our lives were to eternity, at least we were meaningful to one another. I took a photograph to serve as a reminder.
It was late summer. The air was heavy with heat and smoke. The sky was filled with haze and an unnatural orange colour. It was a bushfire sky. A frightening sky. About an hour’s drive away a small rural town had been burned to the ground. An uncontrolled bushfire had torn through at such a speed that the locals had no time to evacuate. They threw themselves into the river and crowded under the jetty for shelter. They could do nothing but watch on with tears and smoke stinging their eyes as the fire devoured their homes and left only cinders.
We had been listening to the reports on the radio as we moved our belongings into our new apartment by the sea. In the days prior, I’d been glowing with excitement at the thought of making a home with Tom. I was alight with the wonderful anticipation of creating our own space. Filling shelves with marvellous books, decorating walls with beautiful images, cooking delicious food and planting a small garden. The sentimentality of assembling a home and filling it with love had been burning so brightly in my mind that my heart was breaking for the people who’d had their homes snatched away by the fire.
All of the lifting and unpacking in the heat had left our clothes clinging to us. We went to the river at dusk to cool down. Beams of light angled through the canopy of tall trees lining the river bank. As the sun sank lower, the colours and shadows in the water intensified. We decide to slip out of our clothes and swim. The water embraces me, its cold caress feels incredible. I embrace the present moment, which is all that we ever truly have.
I recall the old saying that you can never step into the same river twice, for new waters are always sweeping all around you. I imagined that river surging was actually time passing. We will never again be the same young people laying together in the same river. The passing of time transforms us. Perhaps we are not the same people as we were, even in the moment just prior. A terrifying idea. I search for Tom’s hand to hold. The endless torrents of time will eventually age us and wear us away. It will sculpt us, smooth us and we will diminish. Over time, will we be smoothed and refined into the essence of who we are, like beautiful river stone? Or perhaps we will simply become smaller and more vulnerable to no particular end. It is difficult to navigate through life together when we are constantly metamorphosing such as this. To attempt to remain together is difficult and lovely and very human.
If I look up from my desk I can see the water and the valley beyond framed by the lower branches of the walnut tree. Its leaves reach out like seven-fingered hands to within a few feet of the studio window and its higher branches rustle and sway above the red tiles of the roof. Thirty feet from the doorway the silver-grey, deeply rutted trunk, which measures ten feet around its girth, rises only twelve feet above ground-level before spreading out in a fountain of great limbs. They writhe and twist sixty feet into the air and spread nearly seventy feet from side to side. It is magnificent. It makes me eternally grateful to those of our forebears who planned for future generations rather than for their own. It is certain that whoever planted the seed and tended the sapling did not live to see it reach maturity, but I have a feeling that he knew exactly what he was doing and enjoyed great satisfaction in doing it. When I look at the tree in the dark days of winter, its huge green-black skeleton silhouetted against the ashen sky, or hear its tracery seething in a westerly gale as I lie snug and warm in bed, I wonder who it was that planted this giant for so many generations to enjoy. And in the balmy days of summer when its leaves are overlaid like the breast feathers of a great bird to form high domes of rounded foliage, I wish I could call back this gentle spirit of the past and say: ‘This is your tree. Look at it now, for it is gracious beyond words.
This landscape is imbued with stories. The Indigenous Australians had no written words. Instead they recorded their history, shared their accumulated knowledge and their spirituality by telling Dreamtime stories. Told repeatedly, to every generation, since the beginning of time. I can’t pretend to understand the deep, cultural significance that these stories have to the Australia’s First People. However, visiting Central Australia, and reading quite a number of Dreamtime stories led me to consider the nature of stories and truth. I notice a phenomena to which stories, when told repeatedly, are often subject. Over time, a story attains a sort of symmetry which it certainly never had in the beginning. Each retelling buffed off a little of its irregularity. Each time it is told, it is polished a little smoother. I wonder if this refining makes a story less or more true. Whether in becoming less factual, it became more truthful. Whether, with irrelevancies sloughed away, what was left was, if not the actual truth then more the essence of the matter. Perhaps by whittling the story into a symmetrical shape the story has a greater chance of slotting into the pigeonholes of memory. These Dreamtime stories, told and retold for thousands of years, appeared to me as bright, gleaming globes. Perhaps the purest examples humans attempting to describe their existence I have every encountered. I collected them like jewels to store in my memory.
What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.
The Wind is ghosting around the house tonight and as I lean against the door of sleep I begin to think about the first person to dream, how quiet he must have seemed the next morning as the others stood around the fire draped in the skins of animals talking to each other only in vowels, for this was long before the invention of consonants. He might have gone off by himself to sit on a rock and look into the mist of a lake as he tried to tell himself what had happened, how he had gone somewhere without going, how he had put his arms around the neck of a beast that the others could touch only after they had killed it with stones, how he felt its breath on his bare neck. Then again, the first dream could have come to a woman, though she would behave, I suppose, much the same way, moving off by herself to be alone near water, except that the curve of her young shoulders and the tilt of her downcast head would make her appear to be terribly alone, and if you were there to notice this, you might have gone down as the first person to ever fall in love with the sadness of another.
Arthur Boyd’s Bride paintings were completed in Melbourne between 1957 and 1959. They were inspired by a journey he took to Central Australia in 1953. He undertook the journey with the intention to fill his sketchbook with aspects of the landscape that caught his attention, however he became increasingly drawn to the plight of Indigenous inhabitants. It was the first time he had witnessed the abject living conditions of the Aboriginal people, who had become dispossessed and detribalised by the inhumane assimilation policies of the 1930s. Their alienation struck a chord with the artist and he created this moving series of images about a about the marriage between a mixed-race Indigenous man and his betrothed, whose racial inheritance is left deliberately unclear. It is ultimately a poetic portrayal of persecuted lovers, suffering and loss. The painting Reflected Bride depicts an Indigenous man peering into a creek at night and seeing a ghostly vision of his bride in the water. The image was extremely moving to me. Arthur Boyd is one of my favourite artists.