To feel forever its soft fall and swell
It is early November:
I am sitting at my desk, wondering whether I can get away with taking off my shoes. My hair, plaited and hanging down my back, is stuck to my skull from the heat, and the backs of my legs are plastered to the chair: when I stand I will have to peel myself away.
Like most summer days, today you can almost see the air: hot, silver, and riven with the raucous vibrations of a million cicadas all crying out for love. The heat rises from the rooftops in waves, it bleaches the leaves of the eucalypts. It hardens the earth between the sad tussocky grass scuffed by our dusty feet. In the distance someone revs a motorbike up the hill, and the muted roar travels all the way into my second floor window. There is only one way out of this suburban inferno, and it lies somewhere to the east, where the land ends and the ocean begins. I think constantly of it.
We are doing poetry.
By the end of the hour the shrill hot screaming has long disappeared, because I am silenced,
I am In Love.
I am no longer in the top English class, even though I won the prize last year. No.
I have been demoted because of my ongoing feud with Miss Moran. Enraged by her insistence on sitting out the front reading Chaucer in Chaucerian English with no explanation, and never being the sort of person to hide my feelings adequately, I have been asked to join the next class down.
How dare someone obfuscate the joys of Chaucer? My eyes have the ability to turn the object of my gaze to stone.
I do not know Olde English. Shall we be translating any of this?
After she had recovered from her stoniness she requested I be put into another class and I huffed off. Miss Moran later suffered some kind of mental breakdown, as it happens, but certainly none of it was at my hands. Perhaps her refusal to speak in anything other than Chaucerian was an indicator of this, but I was provoked to rage rather than sympathy because I was precluded from knowing, from participating in, what was evidently a wondrous tale.
So here I am in this hot classroom, feeling mildly superior, like I am doing everyone a favour just by being among them. The front wall is painted, helpfully, in bright orange, no doubt to stimulate some kind of academic thought, but it merely makes me feel hot and ill. At least Miss Moran's walls were a civilised white, and overlooked the sports field, kept quite green by the endless ejaculations of two large sprinklers. I now have Miss Whiteley, and we are reading John Keats "Ode on Melancholy":
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Inside my head burst forth a beautiful cloud, a shower of rain like a curtain, and flowers, real ones of all kinds in some kind of fantastic place, where the grass is green and velvety. I can see the flowers, I know all flowers in the world, because my mother takes me to Open gardens and names them all in some kind of reverent litany. I know each and every flower in the universe, though some are from the books she keeps upon her shelf. Aster, Hippeastrum, Delphinium, Lavender, Hydrangea, Primula, Salvia: all theseshe tries to coax from our hard baked soil, with little success.
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
I am suddenly yanked from my reverie, from Keats achingly gentle world by a dreadful sound:
Miss Whitely says peeny.
I shudder involuntarily at the image formed by the sound of this word.
Miss Whitely, I raise my hand.
That is not the correct pronunciation of Peony. It’s Pee-ony.
Miss Whitely laughs, good naturedly: after all she has been warned about me by the long-suffering Miss Moran, and gushed over by my Old English teacher, Miss Apps, who loved me and sent my short stories off to magazines.
No, its peeny, she insists.
I’m disturbed. I ask her if she knows what a peony is. It’s a flower, I tell her. I want to tell her just how beautiful and impossible a peony is. The whole idea of one, especially when they have those streaks of raspberry traveling through their pale ruffled petals, how in real life they are even more beautiful than Chinese and japanese paintings of them, but I do not. An unfamiliar restraint takes hold.
Perhaps it is the very moment that I Grow Up, because I let it go. I stop arguing.
I do, however, put my fingers in my ears when she reads, and whisper to myself the words from the poem, returning to the soft, achingly beautiful place from which I had been so rudely jolted. My heart actually hurts. I can hear, courtesy of the fingers jammed into my ears, both my slow breathing and the beating of my heart as I whisper the poem to myself.
She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu;
and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips
When one is young and beautiful it never occurs to you that anything will ever change, and all of us, when young, are beautiful indeed. We just don’t know it at the time. And perhaps because I was poised upon the brink of that great aching pleasure, so close that I could see it coming, each and every word of Keats seemed to embed themselves upon my very psyche. The notion of the binary nature of both pleasure and sorrow, the slipperiness of temporality, the whole world of word made into sense, the power of mere words to bloom forth into the incensed petals of flowers I had barely ever glimpsed. That language could blossom so.
From nothing but a page.
I had not really thought how much feeling I had retained of this, how I clasped Keats to me and never let him go, despite the fact that never ever again was I ever to be somewhere to talk about it, or indeed write about it. I never had a context, and far less any understanding of where this poetry fitted into the great grand scheme of things. I dwelt too resolutely in a different world. A world of lacklustre teaching and blinding skies: Romanticism? What’s that? Grecian urns were, for me, at that time, an undiscovered treasure: I was not to know that I would learn archaeological drawing by sketching the collection of greek vases of a wonderful professor. I'd not even dreamed of that. I had no idea of the world, not really. Just of salt and light, hard prickly grass that stuck into my arse if I sat on the ground, and what I read in books.
I had not known Keats died in his twenties.
As I write this, I remember something. I walk over to my shelf, and find my schoolbook. Here is where I wrote out that poem for the first time: I’m actually holding it. It reminds me how some pigments are indelible, they stain the page, some colours, and you cannot wash out: Indigo, crimson, violet, viridian. The stains are largely unseen, until such times as you are prompted to examine why you feel a certain way, why peonies bloom at the sound of a currawong calling, why I might feel a crushed rose against my face and mouth at the dull roar of cicadas, why driving along a motorway in summer calls up some disembodied feeling of fruit, of flowers, of curtains of unseen rain.
Sometimes I forget that Keats belongs to everybody and not just me, because my experience of this poetry has been so silent, so private. I wrote silently as a schoolgirl, thought silently as an adult, barely conscious that I was even doing so. But I have revisited all this because of all people in the world, Jane Campion has made a film about Keats, named after his poem, Bright Star, which I remember as having an oceanic swell within it. Perhaps even then, I glimpsed through some kind of shifting light to distant days and nights in thrall of the ocean, to finding the end of this thread where the sixteen year old girl sleeps at last in the embrace of this poetry, in ways she could not have ever guessed. Like someone held out their hand from somewhere very, very far away.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art---
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors---
No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever---or else swoon in death.
John Keats, 1819
Pen and ink drawings of my lost garden,
from a notebook made for My Grandmother,
who never got to see it.
All flowers labelled with all their correct scientific names.