In a creative writing class I did years ago, we did an exercise of coming back from a walk and writing down everything we saw. it would be impossible to do that in 14 lines for my five minute walk to the shops, but here’s a partial account.
November verse 16:A walk to the shops
Dotty silver snail trails, roses,
skittish skinks and lorikeets,
gardeners, leaf blowers, hoses,
cafe tables on the street,
three crossword collaborators
(quick, not cryptic), Uber waiters,
handless Lady of La Vang,
cloth monkey left to hang,
stroller, skateboard, backward trolley,
taxi revving at the rank,
homeless regular, eyes blank,
child who's spilled a bag of lollies,
in my ears Waleed and Scott
untie existential knots.
Maybe line 7 needs explanation. Here she is, in someone’s beautifully tended front garden:
November verse 15: An initial response to
Danie Mellor's A time of the world's making
Born on stolen Mamu Country
where the Johnstone River flows
(Robert Johnstone brought the guns, ey?),
where the cash crop sugar grows,
I loved that place, its rich volcanic
soil, the heat, and the titanic
rainfall – the rainforest too.
The place was old, and I was new.
I didn't hear its age-old stories.
Now tiny men, ropes, floating shell,
and women with their pile of skulls –
in crayon-blue, no dark green glory –
all alive, a dream unfurled:
is now a time to make the world?
Danie Mellor’s stunning work, A time of the world’s making, 2019, features in Real Worlds: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2020 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (next door to the huge Arthur Streeton exhibition on the same floor, and a floor below the Archibald).
Here’s a video walk-through of the Dobell with curator Ann Ryan. She talks about Danie Mellor’s two ‘landspaces’ from 11:16 to 12:58:
November verse 14:On waking from a dream of a friendwho has been dead for many years
You left a note and neatly folded
clothes beside the famous cliff;
left the life and loves you'd shouldered;
vanished. But you left a whiff
of disbelief, and time's a traitor:
someone found you decades later,
now not Damien but Bob,
in Tassie with a uni job.
No note this time, a rope your chosen
tool: your mother mourned you twice.
This time there was no artifice.
Yet last night to my dream, unfrozen,
fugitive from death you came,
with warnings not to say your name.
November verse 13: Maggie Thatcher's curtsey
Insiders know to give a little
bob (or bow if you're a man). It's just
that she's the queen, no need for fiddle-
faddle-flum – no need to bust
a gut. But this is some production:
a creaking almost-genuflexion,
shuttered eyes and head bent low,
lips pursed as if to kiss a toe.
Such obeissance for the monarch
speaks centuries of grocers' love
for rulers blessed by God above,
but also sounds a note sardonic:
This curtsey, queen of all we see,
is all you'll ever get from me.
This is of course prompted by the fourth season of The Crown, in which Gillian Anderson gives us a scarily believable, and loathsome, Margaret Thatcher. If you enjoyed that show, and maybe even more so if you didn’t, you might enjoy this brilliant set of impressions from British comedian Kieran Hodgson:
November verse 12: After a colonoscopy and gastroscopyas a public patient
Would this have sent Narcissus crazy –
sight no Ancient Greek has seen,
these gleaming tunnels, pink and mazy,
fleshy caves, mine, on a screen?
From uvula to pre-pylorus,
caecum down to anal torus,
contours of the GI wall:
the tiny camera sees all,
and it's all lovely. But aesthetics
aren't the reason we're all here.
Snip! Snip! Polyps disappear.
And all for free, no big dramatics.
Britons love their NHS.
It's Medicare that I will bless.
I couldn’t work this into the verse, but I learned the wonderful word dolichocolon, as in, ‘The colonoscopy was somewhat difficult due to [sic] dolichocolon.’ The word has nothing to do with chocolate, as I almost hoped, but signifies an abnormally long large intestine, which now we all know I have.
November verse 11: On the eve of a colonoscopy
Remember when examinations
meant you burned the midnight oil?
Tomorrow's test needs preparations
physical – not mental toil.
A liquid diet, no food that's solid,
and pico/glyco prep. The squalid
details of what happens next
I'll spare the reader of this text.
But I'm not spared. Today my body
puts its workings centre stage
and just won't tolerate delays.
I can't go out. I must be ready.
'Watery' just isn't it.
I'd die for a banana split.
Maybe this will turn out to be the first half of a story.
November verse 10: On a Painting
Look! Me at breakfast scrolling Twitter –
hashtags Covid, climate, race.
No, I'm the incidental sitter
who supplied arms, thumb, hair, face.
The artist's left her shining pages,
table scenes from other ages:
a child communing with a cat,
a woman lost in dreams or chat.
The artist stands, her drink neglected,
sees him absent in his phone.
The books behind hold all that's known.
His cup is empty, disconnected.
Reading too much into art?
That knife is pointing at his heart.
The Emerging Artist claims not to have deliberately done that with the knife, and I had to reassure her that, previous works to the contrary (as at this link), I didn’t read the image as signifying hostility, but as a subtle evocation of current dangers.
Incidentally, the Emerging Artist is part of Time Being, an exhibition opening in the Shop Gallery, Glebe, this week. There are Covid-safe Meet the Artists events on Saturdays 21 and 28 November. You can find details here.
November verse 9: Paraphrasing Proust
To dump or not to dump, or rather
when to dump my Albertine.
How boring is our life together
when I'm not jealous? Yet how keen
my pain when jealousy arouses.
Time has come to cut my losses.
The memory I want to keep
is of a parting moment's deep
and sweet vibration. Dramas
aren't the way to say we're done.
So do it sweet, but do it soon.
No repeat of when my mama
left me there, alone in bed
without a kiss to soothe my dread.
So much has happened in this month’s three-pages-of-Proust-a-day. The bourgeois Mme Verdurin wreaked her revenge on the Baron de Charlus by warning his beloved protégé Charlie that he had to cut the baron loose or his career would be ruined. There are huge all-night quarrels between the narrator and Albertine: he’s still obsessed with keeping her away from other women, especially but not exclusively from known Lesbians, and has decided to call an end to the relationship – but with characteristically convoluted reasoning, he’s going to wait until things are going well, so that he’ll be left feeling good about it all, rather than having a sour aftertaste. Among other twists and turns, he pretends to call it off, as a way of manipulating her to recommit to the relationship. It’s excruciating, and also – when you can remember to keep some perspective – hilarious.
There are, of course, moments that may or may not contribute to the story arc. The narrator gives Albertine a lecture about pervasive themes in the works of, among others, Dostoyevsky. They go on a day trip to Versailles where a very tall waitress rudely ignores Albertine. He ruminates on whether it’s right to think of Albertine as a work of art he has created – thankfully, he decides it isn’t. He acknowledges his double standard: he himself looks with lust at other women, while going to extraordinary lengths to stop Albertine from doing the same.
In the last few pages he wakes up one morning feeling at peace with the world and wanting to go off on adventures. The time is ripe to kick Albertine out. He rings for the servant Françoise, who (not really a spoiler, since the next book is Albertine disparue – literally Albertine the disappeared, and the Moncrieff English translation of this chapter has a spoilertastic chapter heading, ‘Flight of Albertine’) tells him that she has packed her bags and left that morning. He is astonished at his own distraught reaction to the news.
The wonderful Tegan Bennett Daylight was talking about something completely different on the ABC recently, when she mentioned that she had recently read Proust, and loved the way there is so much detail. She may be the first person I’ve heard talk about Proust while I’ve been reading him who seems to have read the same books as I am reading.
* Je sentais que ma vie avec Albertine n’était, pour une part, quand je n’étais pas jaloux, qu’ennui, pour l’autre part, quand j’étais jaloux, que souffrance. À supposer qu’il y eût du bonheur, il ne pouvait durer. … Seulement, maintenant encore, je m’imaginais que le souvenir que je garderais d’elle serait comme une sorte de vibration, prolongée par une pédale, de la dernière minute de notre séparation. Aussi je tenais à choisir une minute douce, afin que ce fût elle qui continuât à vibrer en moi. Il ne fallait pas être trop difficile, attendre trop, il fallait être sage. Et pourtant, ayant tant attendu, ce serait folie de ne pas attendre quelques jours de plus, jusqu’à ce qu’une minute acceptable se présentât, plutôt que de risquer de la voir partir avec cette même révolte que j’avais autrefois quand maman s’éloignait de mon lit sans me redire bonsoir … (page 1899)
November verse 8: From conversations with a person who is nearly three
Help! A dinosaur's behind us.
Hurry! Let's walk very fast!
The big bad wolf will try to find us.
Shut the door! We're safe at last.
I can do it by myself now,
walk down stairs without your help now.
One two three eight seven nine.
Sing Elsa, Let the storm rage on.
Bush wee! Whirl me! Baby's dummy!
Off to work now. Say bye bye!
No, not like that, you have to cry.
You have to say, I want my mummy.
This toy is mine, not yours. Say please,
and then I'll share. I want some cheese.
As I seem to have had an increase in hits from the USA recently, I should note that a dummy would be called a pacifier in the USA . I probably don’t need to say that a mummy would be called a mommy in the USA
November verse 7: Pick your myth
Trump's confidence is his Achilles'
heel? He's sulking in his tent.
Freud's Oedipus was doomed to kill his
dad. Camus' Sysiphe was meant
to be heureux. And Jeanette Winter-
son: will Atlas represent her?
Did those old poets know us all,
no life too big, no fate too small?
I dip into the well of fable,
ornament of childhood days,
and find Perseus in the maze.
With Ariadne's thread, he's able
to find his way. But I'm not sure
I'm ready for a minotaur.
Weight is Jeanette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s series The Myths. Other titles in the series include Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus, the Scoundrel Christ and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy.
Weight is a lively retelling of the Greek myth of Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders for eternity. This being Jeanette Winterson, there’s quite a lot of rhapsodic testifying as to the myth’s deeper meanings and its personal significance for the writer.
The retelling focuses on Atlas’s relationship with Heracles, who briefly relieves him of his burden. There’s a bit of rough humour at Heracles’ expense and reflections on their different kinds of strength: Atlas can hold still and Heracles is a man of action. Heracles comes close to stealing the limelight as the narrative follows him to his marriage to Deianeira and his horrible death in the burning shirt of Nessus. But Atlas has his quiet surprises as well, such as when Laika, the astronaut dog, comes into his life.
I confess I didn’t quite follow a lot of the meditation on the myth’s meaning. Something about boundaries and desire, fate and decision. It becomes personal. Jeanette Winterson finds in Atlas an echo of her own adoption story, her ignorance about her birthparents (this was written before Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, where she writes about her birth mother), and her rejection by her adopted mother:
Having no one to carry me, I learned to carry myself. My girlfriend says I have an Atlas complex.
The task she took on, first as a rejected child and then as a writer, was to create a world of the imagination, a world that she has had to carry as a great weight.
I generally read Jeanette Winterson’s writing with a mixture of irritation and exhilaration. This book was no different. I’m irritated by the (presumably deliberate) false version of the myth that Atlas held up whole the world, when it was the heavens that he had to hold up in the original story. I’m irritated by the crude dick humour around Heracles (though maybe it’s not meant as humour but, even more irritatingly, as a version of male sexuality). I’m irritated by the way the prose sometimes feels like revivalist preaching, whether the subject is scientific cosmology or the pain of not know who your parents are. I’m irritated by occasional lapses of logic. But – and this is why I kept reading and am glad I did – I’m exhilarated by the way the book yokes together a scientific understanding of the universe with images from Ancient Greek myth (Laika nestling in Atlas’ shoulder, for example) and, in the final pages, I’m exhilarated at the notion of Atlas (and so possibly Jeanette) laying down his (and possibly her) burden.
Bill Bryson's view of the Danes always ready for a cheerfully intoxicated good time doesn't apply here. It traces the lives of a number of people in the days before a terrorist attack and, presumably, after.
According to IMDB, this is the fourth of six projected seasons. This is the one where Diana Spencer makes her appearance. And Maggie Thatcher, who is presented in counterpoint to her. Is it wrong to want Jeffrey Epstein to have a cameo role?