Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On Keats

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. 

Miss Moran

I demanded.

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.  

(Thanks Mum.)



Monday, May 18, 2009

The fish in conversation


she said in a solemn tone

are going to have to wear steel capped boots in the workplace.

Do I really?

Surprised, I looked down at my shoes, then back up at her.

Is it required by Environmental Health and Safety?

Not yet,

she replied.

But if you continue to do ballet in my office

and crack your toe on my desk,

it will be.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

On Coming and Going

It’s eighteen months now, since I looked out over the beach, iridescent with early morning light, and saw helicopters suspended low in the sky, hovering.A drowning, I thought, then corrected myself, no, it must be a  spinal injury. I must have just missed it, for I was still wet and salty and just returned home. 

Someone has gone over one of those muscular waves and it has crushed their bones, their little spiny bones and now they will be strapped to a board and flown off.

But I had been right in the first instance, it was a drowning to which the helicopters  had been summoned.

The helicopters buzzed motionless in the air.  It wasn’t my ocean that claimed somebody's breath, though.  No. It was the rain. 

Rain in the shell-shaped paddling pool, into which baby Maia had fallen into, on her two year old legs. Down the back steps in a flash, to the little pool which had been empty the evening before, it was rain that filled her nose and mouth, and she, in those few seconds had been unable to lift her head free of the fallen sky. That puddle.

In an instant.

There was no more Maia playing in the rockpools, cupping sand in her small caramel-coloured hands.


Next day, standing in my kitchen, talking with my mother,  the world fell silent as I stared at a newspaper page which had blown onto the floor, and I looked at the couple in the picture, upside down.

It seemed to be a picture of me at 20, with my long hair and yellow dress, leaning forward, smiling into the camera in that guileless way I had,  the two of us all luminous smiles. How had the papers gotten this? I wondered. It didn’t make an ounce of sense? As I stood staring, puzzling, my mother continued talking

Oh, did you think that was you and X? I had to look twice myself…look, it’s that couple that lost their little girl.

And when I turned the picture right way up I saw that it was not me, but Sammi and Carlo, Maia’s parents, not a ghost of myself at all. This disturbed me, it seemed to be a warning, a strange emissary from the past

look what never happened to you, see what you escaped from...


Carlos and Sammi went away for some time. They visited their families overseas. They travelled.

They set to the business of loving, evidently: next time I saw Sammi, some months later, she was holding her belly in two hands, and it was full of baby.

Sammi grew and grew, until she was as brown and round and shiny as a walnut. She sat on the sand in the morning light, watching Carlo in the waves.


Last week as I was passing Carlo burst from the sea like a flying fish, a dancing dervish:

He is here, he is here! She had him  in the water, like a fish!

Baby Kai swam right out of Sammi, and Carlo caught him.

Today I got to see the baby, as I was standing in the sun by the sea. His darling little feet, his dear head with a whirl on the back, the packetty bottom. The sound of the waves. The sea whispering,

How could you think such ill of me?

But i did not answer. before me was beautiful fish boy, a beautiful boy. Beneath the endless blue of a vast Autumn sky.






He lived in Trenton, New Jersey.

We spoke of the low whistle of trains passing in the distance: we both liked the sound, and that which it evoked. We spoke of Bob Dylan, and his description of the venom and bliss of the New Jersey night.


He loved.

He spoke of the love he had for someone which could never be resolved. The love he had was so pure and unswerving that nany one of us would be privileged to have been the recipient of such a love. His small acts of  giving and caring were undertaken in such a spirit of unselfishness.

He loved his father so much. He loved how his father loved him too, he spoke of it often, with a sense of awe. He knew the power and beauty of such love.

He loved music, of all kinds.


He had a quirky sense of the absurd, and happily escalated the merest bit of nonsense into full-scale lunacy, which of course was fun: I too am guilty of lapses into complete stupidity at the smallest provocation. He downloaded a picture of me from my blog, and had it made into a t-shirt. So there in New Jersey, I was walking around on someones chest.

He emailed me long letters, talking about things, and yet in the face of all, he never sounded self pitying. He seemed to have been surprised, constantly, at the way the world was. At the way he was: lonely, locked away, so full of love.



He had a skin complaint which caused himself to hide away. It was painful , and made him believe he was repugnant to look at. But that’s the beauty of the internet: you can talk to people and it doesn’t matter of you look like a snake shedding its skin, or a fruzzy headed monster, or a bleary eyed old bag. In real life, I care not a jot what people look like, but in real life sometimes I don’t really feel like the scrutiny of others.  I’m sure he was the same.

There was a lot of pain, and recently, sadness and tiredness.



He passed away last Monday. He was 41 years old.

He must have finally boarded that midnight train, the one that had been calling him in the dark for so long now with its long, long faraway sound. I am trying to make sense of the way I feel, how I will miss a person that I never actually met, what it means to write this, to put this out there. Yes, I’ll miss him. I’ll miss him a lot. Bryan was my friend.

My friend.


Wherever he is now, I hope he is swimming through the sky, and that it is at least forty seven different shades

of the most beautiful blue.










Monday, May 4, 2009

In which the fish, upon hunting in the art cupboard for a cutting tool, happens upon an old Italian schoolbook and sits down to read it.

Girl in a pageant, near Assisi


Up near the roof of the Uffizi, it seems another storm is brewing over Fiesole: I can thus maintain an unbroken record of every single day that I have ever spent in Florence it has rained. It hangs just on the edges in an indigo bruise, and the bursts of violet push at the edges of the golden air.

Suddenly the campanile of Santa Maria del Fiori falls into shadow, yet the red Duomo still shines with its own light. Rumblings of thunder yet again.


I walk in a straight line through the halls of the Uffizi, all the painted faces looking as I pass, my heels making a satisfyingly solid clack on the parquetry, reminding me, I am here, I am here, I am really here. 

 Sitting down  just past Corregio I find myself looking at the Portinari Alterpiece. I am again struck by Margherita Portinari,  so small and pious.

Look at her hands, her pale eyelids. The Infant Jesus lying there so much like a naked chicken, she gazes on ith her grave and solemn face: serious business, as if she knows what is in store for Him. And it's so cold there in Brugges, unlike here in Florence. Such a good girl, so composed. her fingers must have frozen, held in prayer like that for so many hundreds of years.

I am smitten still with Margherita,

I draw her. I make etchings of her. Where are those etchings now? I can’t find a single one.


The Duomo is in shadow, now the Bargello, the storm creeps closer, closing off the light, everything in  its path falls into the violet shadow, slowly, slowly.


The Uffizi: how on earth do I say this? My hands would be paralysed if I were to write all the thoughts I have in this place. The cold, sickly light of Tintoretto giving way to the soft golden Venetian  light of Canaletto? The sudden cold pang in the chest of Mannerism, the Renaissance skies so full of secret yearning. The weird elongated grandeur of  Parmigiano, against the beauty of Titian. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Lucrezia. I love her more every time I see her. 

I speak to Caravaggio’s Bacchus his rudely pale body, his impudent face,

Tavern boy, I say, look at you, you pretty villain, here for ever for all the world to see, immortal here.

I wish to reach in and pinch his waxen flesh, see how quickly he might bruise, but I know how quickly I would need to dodge the slap from those dirty-nailed hands.

ponte vecchio, firenze


Drawing by the Arno with my back to some sunshine: I almost knock my pastels into the water. The river is olive green, the sun shines onto the chalks. Vermilion, violet, gold, green. I am leaning on the wall, looking all the way to the bridge in the moment before the golden light falls behind that burst of storm, I have olive green dust on my fingers.

 I remember the first time I came here: a polite Florentine boy informed us it wasn’t customary to drink cappuchinos in Florence after morning time: we laughed, and informed him that in Australia, it was customary to drink it whenever we pleased.



I go to the markets to look for a nice notebook, but end up buying a child's schoolbook.

As I look longingly at some leather bags, I hear  cultivated voices behind me, asking questions of the bagseller, and I can’t help but turn around and answer.

Next I am being asked to judge the merits of every leather bag on the stall, and instructed to choose three, which I do. They are duly purchased, and I wish desperately one was for me.

I find myself having coffee with this pair, John and Michael, painters from Melbourne. Having just had a sellout show, John is cashed up, he’s going completely apeshit in the markets. He says I have a lovely accent and that I am extremely  well spoken "for a Sydneysider"  I’m not sure whether to be puzzled or flattered. hmph.

As it happens, he is on his way to Arezzo to stay with Jeffery Smart, whom he describes as a “grand old queen”, who, he informs me would never tolerate my female presence. This amuses me, since John is so camp I had been thinking what a grand old queen he himself was. (I suppose any old queen would still buy bags for his three daughters.)

I wish badly to be invited to Arezzo. They ask to see my drawings, so I show them: John loves them, and gets rather excited about them, which of course I am pleased about. In fact I am so pleased that I decide I will have lunch with them and allow them to buy me lots of pizza.


I have arranged to go to Siena and San Gimignano with John and Michael. I like the company, and the flattery, and besides, John is hilarious. I am still trying to score an invite to Arezzo with no luck at all. If I was a boy, I could go.  I consider binding my breasts, but somehow I don’t think it would be successful, and the lack of breath might be a problem also.

While I am waiting for them by Santa Maria Novella, surrounded hy hoardes of dreadful old ogres selling holy cards, I am targeted by an American girl who says she hasn’t spoken English in three days and is about to go insane. (why do I attract these people?)


Thinking it would be mean not to invite her along, I secretly pray that she isn’t on the verge of a psychotic episode, and rely upon John’s good manners when I introduce her.

She is the source of much amusement to John: why is she here? What is she doing? She appears not to know anything about art but she is a very jolly smiley girl, he says.

A car! How novel.

We wind up and around San Miniato al Monte and head along the winding road to Siena. Green and gold, fields with great gashes of rich earth. (Burnt siena, how about that?) As if the ground is going to crack open at any moment. In a way it is hard to reconcile buildings such as Siena Cathedral, or Santa Maria de Fiori,  with this rustic landscape. And yet it seems so proportional, everything seems to be of the right scale in its own way.

landscape, Italy, near Assisi


Siena: I cannot even begin to take it in, let alone draw it. Voices fade away, the spires soar far and away into the sky, and  I just want to sit somewhere and draw.

John is cackling and gesticulating as he walks about: I am still miffed about not being invited to Jeffery Smart’s place, but John buys me the biggest fattest gelato, which I suppose , under the circumstances, will have to do.


Margherita Portinari’s face still stays with me. That cold northern landscape surrounding the Adoration is so distant from this, I wonder about the Portinari family, and what they must have made of Brugges, having left this place of golden light and purple storms. Perhaps that is why Margherita's face is so grave? I read somewhere that she is related the Beatrice so beloved by Dante. The real Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

Maria ( or Margherita ) Portinari
Detail from the side panel of the 
Portinari Triptych
Oil on Wood 253x141
c. 1477-1478

(pen and ink sketches of tuscany: present whereabouts unknown. Landscape and girl pictured were drawn in Umbria, Ponte Vecchio drawn in situ in Florence)