It was nightfall when we arrived at Cape Farewell, only to find it being torn apart by angry winds. Trees trembled and lashed at the dark like jet-black ribbons. We hurried into the cabin and quickly set about making a warm nest of cushions and blankets. Soon we were content. Tom was playing solitaire by the fire and I was sipping steaming cups of green tea with lemon. I was reading an old anthology of poetry that I’d found earlier that day, in a curious shop in a small town. Inside the front cover there was a handwritten note, it read ‘Dear Eva, with love from John. Cairo, Feb. 1943.’ I found my mind suddenly brimful with curiosity about Eva and John. Had they been lovers? What was John doing in Cairo in 1943? How had this book made its way from Cairo to a tiny shop on the other side of the world nearly seventy-five years later? How was it that this book had been transfigured from a gesture of love between two people to an inexpensive commodity hidden in a dim corner of a small town? Did Eva love poetry? Which of these poems would have touched her most deeply, living in the time that she did? Was it commonplace back then for lovers to exchange books of poetry as gifts? What is different about the lovers of today? Reading on pitifully in search of clues I knew to be absent, my mind reeled with questions like a spinning-top until it teetered and eventually toppled in the late hour. I drifted into sleep.
We woke before dawn. The seething winds had fled. We dressed in a daze and set out for Wharariki Beach where I hoped to photograph some sea arches in the early morning light. When we arrived at the beach it was dark and deserted. A cycloptic moon stared down at us, unblinking. Rocks, kelp swept ashore in stacks and our own figures were flattened black shapes, voids, cut out of deep blue. Amplified in the dim light, there were sounds of waves reaching their prying arms low across the sand into the recesses of sonorous caves. This repeating rumble was cut every so often by the cry of seabirds wheeling overhead. Ever timid, I began to feel unnerved in this isolated place. Tom, braver than I, quickly dematerialised into darkness in an excited search for seal pups. I stood solitary, blinking in the wind as I looked out over water and there, not far off shore, stood an imposing sea arch. It rose as a vast dark form, indistinct at its edges. All crag and weight, it gave the impression of such immense mass that the earth beneath almost seemed to hum, some low and formidable moan. I thought then of a story I read once about the poet William Wordsworth as a young man. Taken by a flight of fancy late one summer night, he ‘borrowed’ a small boat and rowed out onto a lake. At first he was embraced by pleasures; the moonlight, the sound of oars slicing calm water. Then, suddenly, a darkened mountain peak nearby, with which he was familiar, did something horrifying. It perceived him. It seemed to lurch forward, lean down over the water. Terrified, he began to row hard, fleeing back across the lake while the mountain pursued him. The experience altered his thinking thereafter. Ever devoted to the beauty and harmony of nature, he became aware of the world’s power and mystery, the machinations that lay beyond our understanding. The world emits radiance and terror in equal measure. I like to think I had come upon a rather similar eerie feeling standing there. Not that the arch was lurching forwards so much as a strange sense that, in its own way, it perceived me. It must do, to loom over me with such a forbidding presence. I shuddered and looked about for Tom, but he was nowhere.
The sun was rising. Rods of golden light sieved through clouds banded low, catching on the crevices of rocks, sharpening edges. Tom reappeared to help me take photographs. We darted about wild and excited, watching deep blue blush into hues of rose and mauve. A transitory rim of crimson was burnt onto on the horizon. Tom, silhouetted before my lens, would take on the appearance of a figure made of smoke, or wispy black cinders. In the frame he looked as though he were walking into fiery light, disappearing. My previous trepidation receded with the night and I began to feel a deep joy. It had been a long time since I had paid close attention to the dawn this way. I felt happy in a similar way to when I was a child, I would go out onto the lawn and I could see all of the crawlers between the stalks. The least journey into the world becomes a most grand adventure when you are attentive like this. Happiness emerges as a sort of gentle excavating, a serene tapping away at the substrate of life and then delighting (to myself, mostly) at what is brought to light.
The sun rose further still, opening a fan of blunt triangles skyward. It was light enough now that, if I bent down, the shallows accepted my hand as a white star, glimmering beneath a shifting surface. Whatever the soul is, I felt it billow out suddenly like silk in a breeze. Waves of sky blue - steel blue - crystalline blue would spill themselves in quick skirts on the beach then withdraw, leaving behind sinking pools of light and reflections. I would move hastily towards them to examine disappearing inverted worlds. There is something about the repetition of waves, the manner in which they inhale and exhale, again and again, for all of time. It proffers a glimpse of what your final hour looks like to a continuing world; it is the same. But I would have it all still, life. The pointless, shifting joys and sorrows.
The sun had risen fully. We were silent as we made our way back to the car through damp, phosphorescent grass. Whenever I extended hand toward a dew-laden blade it would arch to my touch. We had eloped a few days prior, Tom and I. Just before we got on a plane to elope I had left my job as a nurse, to start at art school and pursue my passion after years of convincing myself that I couldn’t. Our time at Cape Farewell had felt like an blissful interlude, a small pause between one life and another in which everything had been rendered more vivid. I tried to grasp at that luminous feeling, to seize disappearing and hold it clear. Like everything else, I felt it escaping, but right then it was BEAUTIFUL.
WHO MADE THE SKY? I adore that limitless, yawning space. Clouds pass through it like a soul through its age; darkening now then fading, becoming a clear form here and there later shifting back into formlessness. I don’t know (not really) what a prayer is. What I do know is how to pay attention. How to walk through fields, look up and be blessed. And what then, is flight? I imagine it is a little like sorrow subdued, not by the weaponry of reason, but instead surrender.
Sometimes she would allow herself to float and feel the depth; the enormous weight of the water beneath her. She would imagine the planet, hanging in space, herself lying slightly curved on the blue line that is the very outside of it. She could be vertical, the water behind her, facing straight out into space. Always then, the planet would begin to tip, tilting over until she was the pole, the pin-point at the very bottom of the earth, holding on with her back, face turned downwards. It felt as if at any moment, gravity would simply let go, and she would drown in the deluge, in the weight of all the water behind her pouring off the face of the earth.
- Danielle Wood, The Alphabet of Light and Dark
On the frigid face of the heath-hemmed pond
There shaped the half-grown moon:
Winged whiffs from the north with a husky croon
Blew over and beyond.
And the wind flapped the moon in its float on the pool,
And stretched it to oval form;
Then corkscrewed it like a wriggling worm;
Then wanned it weariful.
And I cared not for conning the sky above
Where hung the substant thing,
For my thought was earthward sojourning
On the scene I had vision of.
Since there it was once, in a secret year,
I had called a woman to me
From across this water, ardently—
And practised to keep her near;
Till the last weak love-words had been said,
And ended was her time,
And blurred the bloomage of her prime,
And white the earlier red.
And the troubled orb in the pond’s sad shine
Was her very wraith, as scanned
When she withdrew thence, mirrored, and
Her days dropped out of mine.
- Thomas Hardy
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
- Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems Vol. One
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 art; with great freedom and imagination!
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
- Ted Hughes
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.
- J. D. Salinger, Catcher In The Rye.
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.
- Adam Phillips
Spire of sorrow,
Slender and tense you have risen,
You have taken your flight easily
From this bitter ground;
Loosed by a desperate bowman
You have soared truthfully,
Dire grey arrow;
You have pinned sorrow to heaven
Stolen peace at a still bound.
- Lillian Bowes Lyon, A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920-1940.
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.
- Mark Strand, The Everyday Enchantment of Music.
‘We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.’
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Exhilaration is the Breeze
We soberly descend,
- Emily Dickinson
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.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
- Mary Oliver
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.
- Norman Thelwell, 1978
This landscape is imbued with stories. The Indigenous Australians recorded their history, shared their accumulated knowledge and their spirituality by telling 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 stories from Australia’s First People, 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 ever encountered. I collected them like precious objects to store in my memory.
Emblem of a little life that didn’t need all of the love in the world.
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.
- Annie Dillard.