“The strangest architecture: a review of Ian Maleney’s ‘Minor Monuments’”, by Fiona Murphy

 
Tramp Press

Tramp Press

 
 

SPACES

 

In Satellite Landscapes the artist Jenny Odell painstakingly erased the earth from Google maps, and in doing so, left the architecture of industry exposed. In one image a power plant, a huge sprawling construction, looks like an octopus with tentacles stretched out in every direction. In another landscape, row after row of idling cars are no longer connected to bitumen, and so, look as though they are levitating. These edited maps are mesmerizing. The scale of industry is made so obvious the images are almost shocking. And yet, most days, when we navigate the world using Google maps our eyes slide over the earth and industrial estates, and rest instead on shopping centres, fast food outlets, office blocks, places of convenience and ‘purpose’. With Satellite Landscapes Odell sought to bring “the strangest architecture” into sharp relief: “These mammoth devices unblinkingly process our waste, accept our trash, distribute our electricity. They are our protheses. They keep us alive and able…our total biological dependence on a series of machines, wires, and tubes, humming loudly in some far-off place.”

Ian Maleney’s debut collection of essays Minor Monuments also takes stock of overlooked landscapes, including the bog next to his family’s small farm in the Irish Midlands, a region that he describes as “flyover country”. In the opening essay, ‘and the wind it tremendously blew’, even Maleney admits that the bog is “not much of a destination, but it’s about the only place you can go if you want to get out of the house”. And when locating the reader, he describes the family home as: “The last stop on a narrow road to nowhere, the last house before the wastes of the bog.” The wastes. Bogs have long been considered barren tracts of land, soggy and inhospitable. They are an accumulation of dead plant material, including fossilised woodlands, packed down in soft concentrated form.

I first learnt about the ancient qualities of bogs when I was studying for my final school exams. My high school, located in Western Sydney, had selected the poems of Seamus Heaney as our main text. According to our teacher few schools looked at Heaney and this would allow us to stand out. With “less competition” we would hopefully gain more marks. We worked through his poems slowly, tripping over the dense language, consulting dictionaries for unfamiliar words, which often didn’t seem to exist. The module was tedious. Heaney’s poems seemed to be about soggy fields. Our sports oval was balding and sun beaten. The people he wrote about were worn to the wick, whereas our faces carried the high sheen of youth. He wrote about the ancient rituals and sombre incantations that accompanied death. We wrote essays in response to these poems guided by the marking rubric. We were heavy handed with words like juxtaposition, postmodernism, synecdoche, intertextuality et cetera. Large, monumental words that we hoped would hide our lack of understanding.

It was some months into the school year before I thought about asking my parents if they knew Seamus Heaney. It felt like an act of desperation, as neither of them ever read for pleasure, which was partly practical as they were exhausted from manual labour and shift work. But it was also a reflection on what they described as “a lack of proper education” – they had grown up in rural Ireland in a time when classrooms were heaving with students and governed by teachers who preferred corporeal punishment to correcting spelling mistakes. They had never considered reading a leisure activity. And they had never heard of Heaney. So I asked them: could you at least tell me what a bog is?

They read Heaney’s poems and quickly translated the language, most of which wasn’t poetic so much as a plain, hard heeled language of rural practicalities. A language that felt true and familiar and represented an Ireland that they knew. This in turn started a conversation that has now spanned almost fifteen years; my parents, having realised how little I know about their childhoods, now talk at length about the skills and realities of living on the land. The seasonal routines of saving hay, fattening cattle and cutting turf. Routines that are still performed by their brothers and sisters, my aunties and uncles.

Heaney, I realise now, had a firm, understated approach to describing bogland (“The ground itself is kind, butter black / Melting and opening underfoot, / Missing its last definition / By millions of years”). Maleney’s essay collection is inspired by Heaney’s approach: “The feeling was similar to that of my first exposure to Heaney’s poems, which suggested that the kind of place I came from could be the stuff of poetry and not just a blank and backward wilderness from which to escape.” In an attempt to fill in this blank pocket of earth with clear and specific detail, Maleney begins to spend hours at the bog, an experience that is informed by his training as a sound engineer. Standing “in all kinds of weather out on the high bank with my recorder aloft”, accumulating “hours and hours of recorded emptiness”, this process slowly and unexpectedly alters his relationship with sound.



 

SOUNDSCAPES

 

I used to always say that music sounded so much better live: fuller, thicker, more enveloping. I used to say that a mark of a good gig would be when I could no longer listen to the band’s album as the recordings had been ruined and now sounded so thin, so dull, in comparison. It’s only recently that I discovered that most mixes of songs are divided into layers—bass, vocals, drums—and are funnelled into either ear, thereby creating a sense of surround sound. And so, being profoundly deaf in my left ear, I’ve been listening to skimmed back versions of songs, not fully cognisant of the gaps and spaces and voids.

Before becoming a sound engineer, Maleney spent his teenage years recording music in a small cattle shed. The recording studio was a homespun conversion: a single naked lightbulb, bare block walls, squares of salvaged carpet covering the concrete floors, and “a pen for sick or calving animals”. When he leaves the farm for college, he is keen to learn the trade of creating perfectly composed and considered tracks. And then, as is often the case, life intervenes. After graduating college, he reads the work of English musician David Toop, who writes about music should be a generative process, rather than engineered for balance and precision. After having spent fifteen years learning about the technical aspects of recording sound, from microphone placement to testing cables, Maleney begins to consider how “music might more accurately reflect our experiences as people in the world, blurring the distinctions between the musical and the non-musical”. An insight that triggers his curiosity to document life as it unfolds noisily, messily and unexpectedly. In short, Maleney learns how “to listen”. Night after night he attempts to capture the church bells he hears from his flat in Dublin. This task becomes at once complex, as these field recordings aren’t an accurate rendering of what feels true:

I balanced my portable recorder on the sill inside the window, which was open just a crack, hoping to capture something of the atmosphere. I failed every time. Sometimes sound is essentially a function of the light, inseparable from the colour of the air it passes through. The bells permeated a deep, watery blue with a texture like rough paper. Without the light, the sounds became thin and distant, lacking completely the starting sense of proximity they possessed in real time. Sitting on my bed, lit only by the blue glow from the window, it felt like I was draped in that sound, shrouded in that light.

I read this passage again and again. It’s the first time I’ve read anything that comes close to articulating sound in a way that makes sense to me as a Deaf woman. Sound as being something more than just noise, but consisting of colour and texture, as well as, in my experience, something that has taste and mouthfeel.

Not long after these night-time experiments, Maleney loses faith in capturing “the perfect take”, and so, to borrow Odell’s phrase, he begins to visit the bog and seeking to understand “the strangest architecture” of this soundscape: silence.

In English, there are is a small vocabulary for silence. Beyond the word ‘quiet’ other synonyms include: still, calm, and dead. All of which indicate a sort of stasis, as if things stop and allow silence to occur. And so, other words used to indicate the silence—gap, pause, negative space—imply that silence is on the margins of sound, used to create an outline, but it is never the focal point. Sound engineers typically use the phrase ‘dead air’ to describe silence.

A doctor once described my left ear as dead. Even now, years on, my memory of this causes my body to clench. It is an oblique and troubling feeling to have part of your body declared as deceased. Though my experience is far from unique. The original meaning of the word deaf in Proto-Germanic indicates, a wider, all-encompassing state of being “empty, barren”. These sentiments continue to seep into the discourse around deafness, with hearing loss widely considered to be incompatible with living a complete and worthwhile life.

And so, it feels like a relief to read essays that consider silence in a generative manner. Maleney doesn’t parade his technical knowledge about sound engineering, instead he reaches for the Irish language as a way of articulating the bog’s soundscape: “Tost is a silence that implies its own interruption, a silence which makes sense of that which surrounds it. Silence, tost suggests, does not happen solely in the present – it retains an awareness of what has come before, and what is yet to come.”

The recorder acts as a means of alerting Maleney to the possibility that something can occur at any moment: “When the small red light is on, I hold my breath and feel every breeze, every raindrop, and every insect against my skin.” It becomes a way of tuning in to the very energy, the very potential of the landscape. These visits to the farm coincide with his grandfather’s decline with Alzheimer’s disease. Their conversations increasingly acquire gaps and spaces and voids.

 

 

SLIPPAGES

  

While training to become a physiotherapist I studied anatomy via cadavers that reeked of formaldehyde. During these tutorials we looked at brains that had been thinly dissected and pressed between Perspex. Slowly we learnt how to read these slides like topographical maps. And unlike the defined architecture of bone or the ropy strength of muscles, the brain looked lumpy and completely underwhelming.

Even though the brain has been so thoroughly researched, it continues to be the least understood organ in the body. We cannot see it in full flight, twitching with thinking-ness. And so, we reach for metaphors and storytelling to fill in our gaps of understanding. There is a physicality to the way we talk about thinking: we can get lost or be deep in thought, as if thinking is a process of journeying or burrowing, requiring a kind of momentum. Thinking can also figuratively involve teeth and tongue and hands, as we ruminate, chew, digest and gather our thoughts. Equally, the retrieval of memories takes on spatial qualities: the word will come to me, it was on the tip of my tongue, it flew out of my head, just let me find it. And if someone loses the capacity to source memories, this brings a new set of metaphors, which are more urgent in their sense of disorientation and dislocation. Dementia is often talked about as a person lost in time, the word itself comes from the Latin de mentis, which literally means being ‘out of the mind’. The ways in which we talk about dementia continue to upend and expel the individual from their body.

In writing about his grandfather’s experience of Alzheimer’s disease, Maleney leans heavily on seafaring metaphors to demonstrate how John Joe is becoming increasingly unmoored. In the essay, ‘a kind of closing cadence’, John Joe is likened to being “a boat in a storm” and as his cognition decreases, “this buffeting was disorientating and frightening. In that kind of environment, it is natural to seek out anchors to steady us, life jackets that will keep a head above water…John Joe’s reliance on Nana was absolute; she was the most important anchor, so she bore the majority of the strain.” So even while landlocked on the family farm, dementia has seemingly unearthed John Joe from his body. Maleney goes on to say, “As his life faded away, he belonged only to the house and to her. Only dying could return him to the world.” This sweeping statement comes at the midpoint of the collection and stands apart from Maleney’s otherwise carefully hedged musings about rural life, urbanisation and sound ecology. Its grand certainty might be aiming for a tender poetic flourish to round out the essay, but it also reveals how Maleney, and more generally society, tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease as a condition that robs a person of their very personhood.

After studying the metaphors used in popular culture to describe Alzheimer’s disease, researcher Hannah Zeilig found that the condition “is so persistently associated with crisis, war, uncontrollable natural disaster, and death, [it] has become synonymous with a general sense of calamity”. Zeilig suggests that “The language of medical science is not neutral, and it is echoed by the wider cultural stories that we tell about dementia.” The most common metaphor that has seeped from medical literature into popular culture—including into Maleney’s book—is likening people with Alzheimer’s disease to zombies.

In descriptions of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the zombie trope often manifests as: exaggerated descriptions of bodies (a lurching gait and vacant stare); likening the condition to a plague; implying that the condition is cannibalistic nature with ‘victims’ that are ‘consumed’; and suggesting that death is preferable to this state of ‘unliving’.

And while Maleney attempts to unpack the language surrounding Alzheimer’s disease in the essay ‘machine learning’, including making reference to Susan Sontag’s seminal work ‘Illness as a metaphor’, he seems oblivious to his own brute use of metaphor. For instance, in the essay ‘a deathly thing’, he writes:

Death is never a single end, but a collection of terminations ordinarily bound so tightly together in time that they coalesce, as single and colourless as light, into a unified experience. Alzheimer’s disease undoes that unity by extending death, by drawing it backwards into life from its final closure. This dying process may take several years to reach its conclusion and, in this time, we can observe death’s interlocking components, and follow its immaculate, pitiless logic.

We have been conditioned to think of the mind and body being two separate entities, or rather a hierarchical structure with mind presiding over matter. As a result, people losing their cognitive capabilities can easily be objectified or othered or pre-emptively mourned when they are still very much alive. Zeilig argues that “metaphors have a dual relevance when considering dementia because they are innate to linguistic expression and they also influence the way our thoughts are patterned”, and by extension these patterns inform our actions and interactions. This othering can lead to a complacency of care. And while, this is not the case for John Joe, as he was deeply and tenderly cared for by his family, I still found it difficult to read when Maleney suggests that death is the only way of restoring John Joe.

Maleney is a fine writer, who is attentive to detail and driven by curiosity, but perhaps his use of metaphor was unavoidable? The zombie trope is so entrenched within discourse about Alzheimer’s disease that researcher Susan Behuniak admits “as negative as the zombie trope is, it is difficult to fight or to resist…it continues to resonate with scholars, care-givers and even people with Alzheimer’s disease”. Behuniak recognises that ‘dependency’ is a “contested term that implies burdensomeness, a lack of agency and an inferior position of power”, a perspective that erases the essential nature of what it means to be human. She suggests that “it is in recognising the power of this zombie trope that its negative impact can be actively resisted through an emphasis of connectedness, commonality, and inter-dependency”. And while Maleney’s descriptions of Alzheimer’s disease evoke every aspect the zombie trope, he eventually reaches a strikingly similar conclusion. In the final essay, Maleney suggests community and co-dependency should be valued and cherished. He concludes that to care for someone requires listening—deep, attentive listening—like the red light of a recorder switching on, even when there are gaps and spaces and voids. ◆



Fiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in The Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, amongst others. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about Deafness.

'How to Never Ever Ride A Goat' by Dan Hogan

1.
To all whom it may concern: I died in 1934. But not before painting 18 images of anthropomorphised dogs for a series of advertisements.

2.
To all whom it may concern: be it known that I have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Processes for Taking Photographs; and do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawings and to the letters of reference marked thereon, making a part of this specification.

3.
How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called?

4.
They are designed to procure photographic memories as visitors poke their heads through the empty faces. A window with a comic foreground.

5.
The dogs were engaged in the following activities:

  • Dogs reading the mail and smoking cigars
  • Dogs playing poker and smoking cigars
  • Dogs testifying in court and smoking cigars
  • Dogs fixing their broken car and smoking cigars
  • Dogs camping and smoking cigars
  • Dogs playing baseball and smoking cigars
  • Dogs ballroom dancing and smoking cigars
  • A blindfolded dog riding a goat as part of a free mason initiation ceremony while a crowd of masonic dogs look on, smoking cigars

6.
Faceless wooden cut-outs of nineteenth century white children have disappeared from the Goose Lake Prairie State Park.

7.
I am aware that a process for ornamenting the circle or halo of a picture or photograph by the employment of a diaphragm provided with a central opening, through which the person or subject is represented to the camera, when said opening is surrounded by ornament or embellishment for producing a portrait or picture with an ornamental or embellished border, is not new; hence, I disclaim such as being any part of my invention.

8.
Faces-in-holes?

9.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge?

10.
Face cut-outs?

11.
Photo cut-out boards?

12.
Head through the hole photo booths? I mean, how do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called?

13.
Those things you stick your head through and it is like your head is on a different person or an animal. The French call these wooden cut-out fixtures passe-têtes.

14.
The process described, of producing caricature photographic pictures by means of a board or card of stiff material having a miniature body or other design thereon, the same being held up close to the person or subject to be photographed, arranged so as to present a complete, although disproportioned, figure on the negative, as herein set forth. In testimony that I claim the foregoing I have here unto set my hand this 22d day of December, 1873. Signed, CASSIUS M. COOLIDGE.

15.
On Saturday 27 July 2002, Grundy County Crime Stoppers offers a $1000 reward for information leading to an arrest related to the theft of the faceless cut-outs.

16.
I was born at an early age?

17.
A wooden cut-out of a faceless family? A passe-tête presenting reproduction as an organic and vital tenant of a morally thriving community? Poke your head through?

18.
The burgeoning root of an old gidgee tree (referred to locally as the ‘stinking wattle’) ruptured the concrete and the passe-tête of a faceless family fell over. Behind the cut-out, a large homogenous blob oozed neoliberalism, revealing reproduction as the replication of labour for the purpose of ensuring the survival of the free market. ‘To raise kids is to raise the productivity index and procure jobs and growth, jobs and faces in holes, and so on and so forth,’ the blob hissed before trickling into the cracks in the concrete.

19.
The website DogsPlayingPoker.org offers a quote from an ‘Unknown Mason’ whom offers their perspective on Coolidge’s painting of the anthropomorphised dogs engaged in a freemason ceremony.

20.
I think I might be a digger of holes in the land of holes? How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called?

21.
Skeeter Maudrell collected rocks. During his time as caretaker of a property 70 kilometres south of Cunnanulla in western Queensland, he collected hundreds of geological specimens.

22.
In the image, a blindfolded dog is forced by a bipedal pipe-smoking dog clad in a cape and conical hat to ride a goat. The scene is framed around what appears to be either a court proceeding or an unnerving depiction of institutionalised bastardisation. An ‘Unknown Mason’ offers the following commentary:

The Cassius Coolidge dog picture of ‘Riding the Goat’ is Masonic in nature and yes it is sometimes used as a joke between members and potential members. It depicts one of the first three principal degrees of Freemasonry.
 The dog riding the goat is wearing a blindfold. The blindfold is an important part of the first three degrees of Freemasonry and has a specific and symbolic meaning in each degree. The rope around his neck is called a cable toe and it too has a particular, significant and symbolic meaning in the particular degree this picture represents.
 The three dogs sitting to the left at the desk indicate the three principal officers of any Masonic Lodge and on the necklace type collars they are wearing are the jewels of their office (each jewel being of a different shape and having it own significant meaning).
 The dog to the right of the three at the desk is wearing a red cap. In Scottish Rite Masonry this cap is the emblem of a KCCH mason. A couple of the dogs are wearing blue caps. This too has a particular meaning in Scottish Rite Masonry. It is symbol that represents a fifty-year mason (meaning he was initiated fifty or more years ago). So as you can see, there are things in the picture that any Mason can clearly see.

23.
For every church in San Remo there was a roundabout. And for every roundabout there was a doctor. This all to say there was no doctors in San Remo. Statistically, San Remo had the highest population in the state living without local access to a GP. My hometown of San Remo is a working class suburb defined by lack. It is the kind of place middle and upper class people would refer to as ‘bogan’.

24.
On Friday 20 November 2015 at 1320 hours, Liz Abram of Little Mountain, Queensland, found a rock behind the couch. Cupping the rock in her hands, the rock felt unusually warm. Looking up at the ceiling, Liz was surprised to see the sky. A meteorite had torn a portal through the roof before crashing into the floor, shattering a tile. Abram’s landlord later sought possession of the space rock. Under Queensland’s mineral and fossicking laws, meteorites are not defined as objects. The landlord did not pursue custody of the meteorite upon learning there was no case to be made unless the lease agreement specifically contained a clause relating to celestial bodies that show up on the property and enter the possession of tenants. The landlord, however, was found responsible for paying the damages, coughing up repairs for the shredded colorbond, insulation, plasterboard ceiling, and damaged tile.

25.
That’s when the forgetting begins. The achievable numbness. Clinking glasses with oblivion in the severe hope that a bit of well-intentioned self-destruction will also destroy the internalised passe-tête.

26.
Throughout the eight-month court process, Maudrell feared the stony object would be replaced with a replica. ‘Our little town is dying ... if I can give something to the town that I was born and bred in, why not give it to them?’ he said.

27.
What do you call an escapism that is almost mocking its own invitation for interaction?

28.
Purple C-54. If you were in Narrabeen RSL Club on Saturday 23 December 1967 and holding raffle ticket purple C-54 you would be my nan. The club was raffling off what it called ‘jumbo-size’ turkeys. The raffle was popular amongst the working class families of the area and my nan’s number had come up. She had six mouths to feed and a jumbo-size Christmas turkey was going to do the trick. When my mum retells the story at Christmas, she extends her arms to proclaim the bird was ‘as big as the entire inside of the oven’. Just before New Year ’s Eve 1967, a Narrabeen fisherman was arrested for poaching pelicans. He had been plucking, preparing, and packing the enormous birds like poultry and selling them to local RSL Clubs to raffle off.

29.
A spiritually exhausted working class commands submissive obedience without the act of submission. It is a shortcut. A window of opportunity.

30.
In hospital, the doctors had to use a miniature crane-like device to lift me from the bed so they could change the sheets. My back was broken in four places. One nurse particularly had it in for me. To him, I was just another bogan from San Remo who got injured while doing bogan things. ‘No brain, no pain’ he said to another nurse as they exited the room.

31.
Proximity to threat is where the common Australian cicada places its song. The bugs’ choral is optimised to rage in the face of Exeirus, a ground-dwelling wasp also known as The Australian Cicada Killer. We might call this organisation of community a severe optimisation of hope. We might also call it an unnerving and unrelenting projection of an auditory passe-tête designed to deflect the exeirus’ hunt.

32.
The court heard Skeeter Maudrell was using the meteorite as a doorstop when he was arrested and the extraterrestrial stone was seized by police.

33.
Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 49,724, dated April 14, 1874; application filed January 12, 1874.

34.

Attribution: Attribution: Cassius Marcellus Coolidge,
1874, Patent US149724A [Public domain]

35.
‘I'm not driving out to Cunnamulla for a rock,’ said Frank Heath on being forced to travel to Cunnamulla Magistrates Court for legal proceedings relating to a meteorite found by someone else on his jointly-owned land, which he claims is rightfully his property. The court is located 839 kilometres west of Brisbane, Queensland.

36.
Every morning Mr Rafferty strode through our handball game, announcing himself as ‘interference’. He always smelled of grass clippings as he came to school straight from mowing lawns to supplement his teaching income. Despite Mr Rafferty’s constant disruption, I felt warm towards his eccentricities as my dad mowed lawns for a living. Mr Rafferty carried his eyes in his head like an impact crater might carry a meteorite; burned up and buried deep, small but dense with a rusty twinkle suggestive of a high iron and strangeness. Mr Rafferty also noticed my eyes. Stopping our handball game one day to comment that my eyes looked ‘glassy’. He made a hand signal indicative of smoking a bong. I called ‘interference’ and he went away. Later that day, during PE, he asked the class to separate into boys and girls. I instinctively walked over to the girl’s line. Mr Rafferty called ‘interference’ and asked what I was doing in the wrong line. Not realising I was supposed to be in the ‘boys’ line, I shot back with ‘too many bongs, sir’ and everyone laughed. My nickname for the remainder of the game was ‘interference’. I mean, how do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called?

37.
When moving in circles outside of San Remo you learn to betray yourself in small myriad ways—you learn to avoid being perceived as a ‘bogan’. You better fake it ‘til you make it. You put on a different voice, avoid certain words. Wear different clothes. Nod along approvingly, pretend, pretend, pretend, or else be on the wrong side of the bourgeoisie’s similarity bias.

38.
In the accompanying drawing, A represents the head, and B the body of the person whose picture is to be taken. C represents a sketch or drawing of a miniature body of any desired form or shape, and with or without any additions. This sketch or drawing is held up in front of the person in proper position, so that when the picture is taken the head A will appear as forming part of or belonging to the miniature body, the large head and small body being taken at one time.

39.
The meteorite was escorted in and out of the courtroom by police officers throughout legal proceedings. During recesses the rock would be stored in a secret location known only to authorities. Stationed in the centre of the court, the 25 kilogram space rock never strayed from the watchful eyes of several police sergeants whom were commissioned for extra security at Cunnamulla Magistrates Court.

40.
On this day 3.8 billion years ago, a blob in the ocean was the first living thing to react to light. Thank you, blob. You were cool.

41.
I was working as a human answering machine. It was a voicemail service offered by one of the big Australian telecom companies. In lieu of callers being directed to a recording, the service offered a live human being reading your desired message to the missed caller. A call would drop in my ear, the client’s desired missed call message would pop-up on the computer screen, I’d read it into the phone, and then the person the other end would usually say something like ‘am I talking to a real person or a recording?’ I would then transcribe word-for-word what the caller said and send it to the client in a text message.

42.
The accumulative impact of codeswitching manifests a kind of internalised faceless cut-out. Like my hometown of San Remo, my sense of identity was defined by lack, absence, instability at an early age. How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called?

43.
Sometime in November 2009, Skeeter Maudrell stopped for a rest in the shade of a gidgee tree while out inspecting a grazing paddock. It was here, nestled between the exposed roots of a gidgee tree that Maudrell set eyes on the strangest rock he’d ever seen. Suffering a bad back, Maudrell called in help from some mates who lifted the heavy stone onto their ute and transported the rock to Maudrell’s home.

44.
Just how many years the greengrocer (the Australian cicada, Cyclochila australasiae) remains underground is unknown.

45.
During my time as a human answering machine, I took over 10,000 calls. During the day shift, there wasn’t so much as a second downtime between calls. Night shift was different. It was paid better and the calls were infrequent. Sometimes an email would circulate in the afternoon offering a night shift and I’d always take it.

46.
How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called? Pray for meteorites and UFOs? When I was a kid I’d sit at my bedroom window at night and pray for a hail of spack rocks and extraterrestrial vehicles to crash land in San Remo. Interplay between the physical and non-physical situatedness of memory is a fertile site for remembering, re-remembering, misremembering, and re-misremembering. A fallible depository in which material is subject to replication, appropriation, aberration, non-linear progeny; an ecosystem of fluid artifice that moves and mutates, constantly. Send me meteorites, a prayer for an un-identity.

47.
I’m profoundly uninterested in supernatural events as a matter of realness or unrealness. What’s real is resistance as the desire to witness something not of this world—the ultimate craving for an un-identity and the unravelling of class. The bourgeoisie passe-tête falling over like a vending machine in an earthquake. A prayer for meteorites.

48.
The nightshift team were a delight. I’d struck up a friendship with a middle-aged man named Owen who had an uncanny resemblance to my dad. We chatted about some of the strangest calls we had received. Turned out Owen had been transcribing calls from the serial caller known amongst day shifters as ‘Daphne the time traveller’ for years. Daphne the time traveller called at all hours and her message was always the same, word-for-word, and included the GPS coordinates for Perth.

49.
As the electricity rolls out of its antennae, the cicada closes its eyes and thinks only of loud noises.

50.
Been sent back 50 years by the United Nations. 33.8688 degrees south, 151.2093 degrees east. Being sent back another 50. Call back. Back burning is starting early this year. 31.9505 degrees south, 115.8605 degrees east. Daphne.

51.
How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called? When I resisted codeswitching or stopped performing the gender I was assigned at birth, my inner passe-tête collapsed. I got sick.

52.
The desire to fully materialise but only as the result of an astronomical reconfiguration?

53.
Is this what hope looks like when it is severely optimised?

54.
I learned of Owen’s murder from reading the news while on my way to working day shift.

55.
I would always finish my prayer for meteorites by opening my bedroom window to let in the cicada song. On these nights I always slept without dreams.

56.
The faceless wooden cut-outs of nineteenth century white children that were stolen from Goose Park were never recovered. While police have ceased the search, the case still remains open. Replicas of the original passe-têtes have since been installed at the site.

57.
Maudrell was let go from Cunnamulla police station without charge. However, the suspected meteorite remained in custody. A complex property dispute had broken out. Skeeter Maudrell claimed he owned the space rock because ‘finders keepers’; the drivers of the ute who removed the stone from the gidgee tree and transported it in their ute also claimed they had a right to owning it. The arrest was provoked by Frank Heath, the owner of the property where the rock was found. However, the Lawrence family were launching counter-action against Heath to take possession of the rock as they were midway in the process of obtaining the property’s assets from Heath in a mutual agreement. The Queensland Museum also joined the legal pile-on arguing the rock should go to them due to its scientific significance.

58.
For the cicada, to exist is to scream. The loud bugs assemble in the garden to soundtrack Summer, screaming in unison all night every night until the heat fades. Their unabating wail, as if my magic or malfunction, is a performance designed to scare predators.

59.
For what San Remo lacked, it made up for in makeshift time capsules made from children’s lunchboxes and entombing discarded cicada exoskeletons.

60.
On Monday 8 June 2010 at 1210 hours, two men used a rock to steal another rock. The thieves used a terrestrial stone to smash a window belonging to the Crystal Caves museum in far north Queensland. Within minutes they had stolen a meteorite. The object was donated by a collector who had found the 4 billion year-old space rock in a 300,000 year-old crater at Wolfe Creek in Western Australia. The museum’s director urged people with information to come forward in a timely manner as he feared it wouldn’t take long for the meteorite to be broken into pieces and circulated on the black market. He told the Sunshine Coast Daily that while he couldn’t prove the existence of such an underworld economy, he was positive it existed as the meteorite came ‘from a place between Mars and Jupiter and if you ever wanted a pristine piece of a planet like the earth, this is where you go.’

61.
How do you find something when you don’t know what it’s called? Healing is not a soft thing. One day in my late 20s, and without ceremony, I found a blog about non-binary identities and bodies. I was able to finally materialise as a non-binary agender bogan. My absence of gender identity was not the result of a personal fault, it was normal. The passe-tête fell over in the tall grass.

62.
The greengrocer cicada raises a turret before emerging from the ground en masse. Detecting safety, they infiltrating nearby foliage. The bugs scream as they freeze themselves to leaves and branches to begin the moulting process. First a split peels open lengthways down the cicada’s back. The cicada’s face hardens and becomes translucent like a mask while another head emerges within the cranial cavity. The bug works at widening the split, pushing and pulling and squirming. The bug emerges in its final form: winged, wet, and louder than ever.

63.
On Thursday 17 June 2010 magistrate Greg Strofield ruled that Frank and Elle Heath possess lawful ownership of the meteorite. Maudrell conceded, but asserted his wish for the rock to find its place in a museum in Cunnamulla. Researchers from Queensland Museum expressed interest in obtaining the stone as they hoped to unlock the secrets of how the Earth was formed from mergers of molten rock 4 billion years ago. Frank Heath said he was unsure what to do with the intergalactic doorstop. ‘The family is going to look at it and then we will decide,’ he said.

64.
In primary school we used to go around collecting the googly-eyed exoskeletons of cicadas we found stuck to tree trunks. We stored the hollow monsters in secret lunchboxes under a demountable classroom at the edge of the playground. When one lunchbox was filled, we started on another. It would take a good month to fill one up. This went on for at least three years. Our collective gained operatives with every passing Summer. At some point in 1998 our parents started putting our lunch in plastic bags, effectively ending our operation. We redirected our efforts to playing handball instead. Beneath the classroom is where the lunchboxes remained, hidden and hurtling toward the new millennium.



Dan Hogan is a writer and teacher from San Remo. More of Dan’s work can be found at www.2dan2hogan.com. They tweet @packetofchips. Dan is the director of Subbed In.

'Mamas and their stuff and our consequential stuff: a conversation with Jean Bachoura/Flatwhite Damascus', by Lujayn Hourani

Mama owns a buttload of clothes and loves a bargain. Mama takes two large suitcases with her anywhere she goes. She has spent the past thirty years accumulating Stuff: auctioned sets of china; Bedouin bangles from flea markets; beads and stones from Mecca turned into custom-made jewellery; Balouchi, Heriz, Isfahan, and Tabriz rugs. All of which have moved with her from house to house. Mama is currently living in interim. She has moved the majority of her things to a house in Cyprus where she hopes to retire, and in the meantime has relocated to a one-bedroom in Dubai, where her and baba will stay until they do.

Mama says to me, I miss my Stuff. I don’t know who I am without them. They are home. Her sentiment is stored in the material but that is in no way superficial. It’s a mechanism for dealing with trauma and I think it’s one of the only ones she knows. It’s from her that I’ve learned to hammer kilograms of weight and importance to the inanimate. I am meeting with Jean Bachoura and we are interrupted by a FaceTime call from his mum. I say hello. She is wearing a yellow 100% silk dress that she got at Myer on sale when she was visiting Melbourne. She is showing Jean how it looks on.

Because of our mums, we are always looking for bargains. We are always conscious of quality. We are always using superficiality to tell ourselves; we are fine. Look how fine we are! Would someone who is not fine do this?

My mum is currently visiting Melbourne and will not stop buying Stuff. She buys an all-white suit, new crockery, towels for the bathroom, a second-hand ball-claw chair, all because they are cheap. She buys me lunch. I compliment her shirt, jumper, pants, and she tells me, take it! Please take it! On god’s life take it! I swear to god I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t take it. I compliment her mother-of-pearl pendant and she tells me, take it! It’s actually yours. Please take it! And I do.

Stuff is a language for intimacy and we use it to talk others but we also use it to talk to ourselves.

LUJAYN: What was your best ever bargain? Was it material? Was it spiritual? Was it a conversation where you said nothing but, yeah, wow, and right and got back raw emotion you hadn’t even asked for?

 
 

As the title of the winning piece from the 2019 Prize for Experimental Nonfiction would suggest, ‘TRETINOIN’ is anchored by skincare, and when I meet with Jean/Flatwhite to talk through what made the piece a winner, we instead talk through our dads and their senility, our mums and their (war) trauma, and how to acquire a relationship with your GP good enough for a Tretinoin script. I also get a free skincare consultation, a tube of UV Double Cut sunscreen, samples for La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Sensitive Moisturiser and QV Intensive with Ceramides Light Moisturising Cream, and a Tony Moly TImeless Ferment Snail Eye Mask.

LUJAYN: During our meeting, you stopped talking and took a moment to reapply sunscreen. Is that the most annoying part of skincare? Having to follow such a strict routine?

FLATWHITE:   اي والله

Flatwhite Damascus is Jean’s alter-ego and skincare is Flatwhite Damascus’s Stuff.

‘TRETINOIN’ digs holes shallow enough for us to jump into and instantly climb back out of in a way that mimics reading under late capitalism. We read a paragraph; we put the book down; we reply to a text; we read a paragraph; we put the book down; we check Instagram; we read a paragraph; we put the book down; we look out the tram window. ‘TRETINOIN’ already administers these tangents to us. ‘TRETINOIN’ is a suitcase crammed with Stuff. It’s telling us, take it! Please take it! On god’s life take it! I swear to god I’ll be heartbroken if you don’t take it.

LUJAYN: What are you trying to give us through this Stuff? Is this what you call a gift? A Facebook post from some white guy who thinks we solicit our trauma? 

FLATWHITE: What I love about my piece ‘TRETINOIN’ is just how relatable it is, especially to us Australians. We are no strangers to how interconnected trauma and self-care is. Australia has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita, in the world. It’s obviously a cry for help. Being a coloniser is really traumatic. Like, it’s not easy being aware that in the Northern Territory, Indigenous infant mortality is like, 4 times higher than the national rate. So why not inject a bit of JUVÉDERM®?  I’m sure there’s a direct correlation in there somewhere.

Jean talks about the intensity of sound. He explains the importance of his digital recordings in ‘TRETINOIN’. He talks about the way soundwaves are denoted and about how a bomb going off can look so structurally similar to a bird chirping. Beauty rings just as loud as trauma and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  

FLATWHITE: I think we can all agree – war is bad; peace is good; snail mucin is amazing.

This article has been brought to you by Flatwhite Damascus Rose Water – only $23.99, available nowhere.


You can read Jean Bachoura/Flatwhite Damascus's prize-winning piece 'TRETINOIN' in Issue 43 of The Lifted Brow, out now and available in our online shop.


Lujayn Hourani is Online co-Editor at The Lifted Brow and uses little stories to ask and answer big questions. They have been published in Voiceworks, Djed Press, Going Down Swinging, and Overland.


 
 

Excerpt: ‘The Stag' by Sam Pink

 
Art by Casey Jarman

Art by Casey Jarman

 

I live in a small town in Michigan, close to a reception hall where I work weddings.

My apartment is on the outskirts of town, by a large field of lavender, which has just begun to die.

Behind that, it’s woods and wet-lands, with fallen trees, small areas of marsh, signs about poison ivy, and some random work-out stations made of wood and metal.

I’m there now, doing pull ups before work.

The sunlight is golden on the trees, leaves changing color, air beginning to cool.

Tonight I have to work a 300-person wedding.

But that’s tonight.

For now, I’m free.

I hop up and grab the pull up bar and do ten pull ups, hop back down.

Blood is moving through my body.

I look out across the large, bright field.

A rustling reveals a family of deer running away, into the clearing.

A large one and three smaller ones.

Boo!

They disappear.

They go somewhere else.

They’re gone.

***

I arrive at the reception hall two hours before the guests.

‘Hey hey,’ I say to my boss, in the main room.

He’s straightening the place settings at long wooden tables.

He says hi, looking very tired.

‘What’s goin’ on, lavender man?’ I say, referencing his lavender-colored shirt. ‘Check out lavender man, everybody.’

My coworkers laugh.

My boss smiles.

I tie a black apron over my black button up shirt, and black dress pants.

All black.

The point of all black, in addition to just being the uniform, is to remove me/us as much as possible.

In the dimly lit hall, wearing all black makes me, basically, a shadow.

Designed to create the illusion that the environment is serving them.

That I’m not really there.

Just hands in the air.

My bootstok tok in the large empty hall as I take a look around the room.

A rug and a couch off to the side of the main table, the main table lined up in the middle of the room.

There’s an antique dresser behind the head table.

‘Nice, very nice,’ I say.

The event planner runs around with various candles and plants.

Boxes of glass things.

Gold cursive cards to mark tables.

Hanging glass orbs with electronic candles in them.

Chandeliers.

People on ladders hanging a big banner of ivy with lights in it, over an arch.

There?

Right there.

I help my coworkers place silverware.

Steak knife then butter knife on right, salad fork then dinner fork on left.

Order.

A process.

The silverware is spotty.

Everyone’s tired.

Bartenders set up glasses, mixers, ice, wine bottles, and cases of beer.

Photographers survey the room.

The DJ sets up speakers.

We move tables just slightly.

Huge, heavy tables built by Amish people in neighboring towns.

Chairs, stacking and unstacking.

I look outside at a silo, around which are chairs and a small tent thing from yesterday’s ceremony.

Emptychairs on green grass beneath blue sky and white clouds.

Yesterday’s ceremony is today’s task.

‘Two families will become one tonight,’ I say, in an evil voice, to my coworkers.

They laugh.

‘Who’s on “Living Ottoman” duty tonight,’ one says.

It’s a joke we made up.

Living Ottoman.

I right-side water glasses and polish them, base then rim.

‘No, but, I just hope everyone enjoys themselves tonight,’ I say. ‘That’s what I’m here for.’

My boss smiles, straightening some knives. ‘I can never tell if he’s being serious or not.’

‘I’m being serious right now, Lavender Man. It’s our job to help aid in this union. If that’s not what you’re here for, you get the hell out right now.’

I continue polishing glasses.

Looking out the window, there’s a few crows.

They’re waiting to fly me back to the woods.

You’re so beautiful, I think.

Boo!

***

In the kitchen, everyone hustles.

It’s steamy.

‘Wuddup Shane!’ I yell, to the dish-washer. ‘You doing good?! You doing fucking good?!’

The dishwasher smiles. ‘Shit, you see very well I’m on top of it. Rogue agent.’

At some point he’d begun referring to us as ‘rogue agents.’

And at first, I didn’t understand.

But then, I did, and I think he did too.

Rogue agents.

Sometimes he’d say it while putting his back against mine, doing a two handed/guns up motion.

I liked Shane.

He had gray teeth and looked anorexic.

He lived in the trailer park by my apartment complex.

Same look on his face always, only his mouth moved.

He listened to music through a portable speaker.

Some type of music I’d never heard.

Sounded like music for a videogame, with an eastern/dance tone.

Like, unless you were riding a horse made of shadows, through a forest in Romania, on the way to kill a werewolf out of revenge, holding an emeralds word—your eyes red and lightning filled—I’m not sure it was appropriate.

But that’s what rogue agents do.

Live outside the rules.

‘Rogue agents,’ Shane says, nodding.

We bump elbows.

‘Rogue agents,’ I say.

Shane smiles.

‘Bro, if they don’t sort the knives tonight bro,’ he says, suddenly serious, ‘I’m gonna snap, man. I mean it.’

Sometimes people forgot to sort the sharp knives from the other silverware.

And Shane has been stabbed many times.

He has survived many, extremely-minor stabbings.

He often displays the bandaids on his hands to prove it.

‘Shane, I’m gonna tell those mother-fuckers what to do, and they’re gonna do it. They will all submit. I can’t have an injured rogue agent.’

He holds up both hands, fingers splayed. ‘Bro I got stabbed so many times, I’m gonna snap.’

And he’s serious.

He’s totally serious.

‘Don’t snap,’ I say.

‘Bro, I’m gonna have ta snap. I’m serious. Fuck it though. Tomorrow’s my mom’s birthday,’ he says, lifting up his backwards hat and lowering it again.

Says he’s taking her out.

‘Nice, I hope you have a good time.Tell your mom happy birthday.’

He says theywill have a good time, and tells me about a deal happening at the place they’re going.

‘That’s a hell of a deal,’ I say, raising my eyebrows. ‘I wish I was going with.’ Then I stare off for a second. ‘Alright, you ready for this shit man?! You ready for this?!’

‘I’m ready!’

More servers show up.

We stand around listening to the plan from the lead server, who has written an itinerary on a whiteboard.

Strategies for the evening.

The process.

Guests come in at.

Ceremony at.

Cocktail hour at.

Speeches at.

Dinner served at.

Dancing at.

Last call at.

Sparkler send-off at.

Guests out at.

Vendors out at.

Done.

Victory.

Sleep.

‘Gonna be a long one, kids,’ says the lead server. ‘Pain death murder kill, et cetera.’

‘But to aid in eternal love, what is pain?’ I say to the group.

Sandy laughs.


This above is an excerpt of a piece from Issue 43 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here!

Sam Pink is the writer of The Garbage Times/White Ibis (Soft Skull Press, 2018). His forthcoming collection The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories will be published by Soft Skull Press in winter 2020.

Casey Jarman has served as an editor at the Willamette Week and The Believer in San Francisco, written for Nylon, Next American City and Reed Magazine and provided illustrations for Portland Mobthly and Lucky Peach.

“‘These are amazing’ – a review of Sophie Cunningham’s City of Trees”’, by Alexander Wells

 
Text Publishing

Text Publishing

 

“What kind of times are these”, asked Bertolt Brecht in 1939, “when / To talk about trees is almost a crime / Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

Trees have long, in the West, been an icon of escape from all emergency – a site for distraction, transcendence, renewal. To walk among them means losing oneself in nature’s fullness, the trees themselves standing for a retreat from crisis, for a place to convalesce far from the moment’s corrupting urgencies. When Thoreau went to the trees, he went to live deliberately, to deal with only the essentials. In Brecht’s poem, as elsewhere, trees represent the artful world, the sphere of goodness and wisdom and beauty that is no longer his to savour.  

Like Brecht, we live in times of emergency – but, unlike 1939, the moral and political crisis now places trees right on the frontline. Climate change is proceeding at a maddening speed, threatening truly apocalyptic outcomes for life on earth. In Australia, deforestation and land clearing continue to devastate native tree systems and animal habitats, not to mention the trauma visited on the land’s traditional owners and ongoing custodians. Sydney and Melbourne, their tree coverage dwindling, face an accelerating urban heat island effect, to which planting can only be part of the solution. Literary critics are already talking of the “post-natural” in nature writing; psychologists have identified “ecological grief” as a pervasive, collective anxiety.

What does it mean, now, to go to the trees? Nature lovers today face a curious double bind. What used to mean comfort and enchantment now stands for disaster as well. But so much is lost when we give up that enchantment, especially when hearts and minds need winning over. (David Attenborough has been criticised for downplaying the impacts of global climate change for the sake of charm and beauty – but then how many children were inspired to love and then defend the forests by reading George Monbiot’s Guardian columns?) To write trees now requires new vision, and a deep rethinking of ourselves as we relate to them. Trees may indeed connect us to our past, but all is changing – and we had better change as well.

***

In City of Trees: Essays on Life, Death and the Need for a Forest, Sophie Cunningham—an experienced essayist and devoted tree-lover—commits herself fully to the project of going to the trees, of bearing witness to what is taking place. In twenty-one essays she records a series of encounters with significant trees, mingling her personal experience of grief with the broader environmental crisis. These typically incorporate walking, a practice that the author dearly believes in; the essays, too, are mobile, associative, peripatetic in style. Whether in the US, Iceland or Australia, they tend to follow certain paths and then leave them – being out on a walk is a means of engaging with both the present and the past. In Melbourne, for instance, she writes:

For me these excursions were a walking meditation. I set an intention, but didn’t overthink it. I was finding my way home, I was staying with the trouble. I was thinking about the way my settler ancestors took up land in this country...I chased a history that shimmered, a force field of trauma, through the landscape of my homeland.

Cunningham is particularly interested in old trees, not just for ecological reasons but also for the sense of time that they represent: “the history they’ve eaten”, in one of her memorable phrases. Bearing witness, for her, means facing up to the past, including Australia’s colonial history. It also means experimenting with new ways of looking, ways of telling, ways of being.

Later in that Melbourne essay, she follows the walk of William Buckley, the escaped convict who fled on foot from Sullivan’s Bay (Sorrento) and eventually lived on and off with Wathaurong there. Cunningham also follows part of the trail of Burke and Wills, but in Buckley she finds a counterpoint to those explorers’ imperial hubris: a certain fluidity of identity, and openness to change. Quoting Barry Hill’s Ghosting William Buckley—"With each step we make / history on unthinking feet”—Cunningham muses on the stakes of our man-made emergency: “Unthinking. Unlearning. Unwriting”, she writes. “These are the word that make sense to me as I get older”.            

Unthinking is a powerful idea in this context. It might mean being thoughtless – but then it might mean taking back the way you think, like by having certain thoughts and then un-thinking them. Either way (or both), Cunningham finds herself walking among gorgeous coastal moonah at Dromana, on the path of William Buckley, with her friends: “Our unthinking feet walk a vanishing beachscape, a porous and sandy place: the past, the future bleed.”    

***

At the heart of City of Trees is the walk. Cunningham walks in California, in Puglia, in rural Victoria; she and her group tread the length of Brooklyn’s longest avenue. Recognising the walk as a literary device, she adapts its conventions, applies its associative power – and then moves on. Her essays make their own way, incorporating one or more literal walks into something larger that moves across time and place, and past and present. This kind of walking is an exercise in presence, a renewal of attention:

We walk to get from one place to another, but in doing so we insist that what lies between our point of departure and our destination is important. We create connection. We pay attention to detail, and these details plant us firmly in the day, in the present. They bond us to place, to people. Walking opens our hearts.

To walk means acknowledging privilege; it is a path to fellow-feeling. “Walkers stay with the trouble”, Cunningham states. In putting herself about, the walker shows that she is interested – inter plus est, in Latin, literally to be among or between. A way of knowing that puts the self on the line.

“Paths”, writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, “are the habit of a landscape”. Like W.G. Sebald, Cunningham traverses a landscape of the past, walking against vanishment and loss. “As you move through history”, she writes, “history moves into you, more surely than if you read it”. This entails facing inconvenient truths – about Australia’s brutal neglect of its environment, about White Australia’s ghastly record of dispossession and violence.

Walking is also, in these essays, a way to access a deeper sense of time, one that transcends our daily habits of consumption and destruction. Call this tree time. And it is old trees that Cunningham takes to the most. Faced with one historic river gum, she writes: “To understand Melbourne, its history, our environment, I need to know this tree.” Old-growth forests, such as the mountain ash, are ecologically of the utmost importance – slowing down fires, providing homes for native fauna. They also hold the past, a great long history of death and change and adaptation.

“Trees have witnessed a lot”, Cunningham writes, “and, notwithstanding the way we abuse and exploit them, that gives them cultural cachet”. One famous coolibah stands on Yandruwandha country, on the path of Burke and Wills’ expedition – it was carved with instructions to find some buried supplies. All the tree’s scars, except the word Dig, have been repairing themselves. A history-eating tree that says Dig: an appropriate emblem for these knowledge-hungry essays.

***

In her recent memoir Understory, Inga Simpson records her years spent living on a piece of Queensland bush. She records, in intimate detail, how her familiarity with each tree there brings her closer to them. “Some days, I feel part tree – or at least, I prefer their company”, she confesses. “Yet the closer I get, the more inadequate my words”.

Compared to Simpson, Cunningham’s relationship with individual trees is rather transient, conducted via literal and imaginative travel. Every day she posts a tree on Instagram under the handle @sophtreeofday. She is eager, in her own admittedly peripatetic way, to be amongst the trees, to communicate with them, to hear what they might have to say to us. While wary of anthropomorphising, she responds sincerely to her “genuine sense, when spending time among trees, that trees have personality”.

Cunningham’s essays are eminently sociable – they are led by conversations and interviews, they are appreciative of kindness, and they are driven by her interest in togetherness. She posits forests as a kind of society, as a model for companionship even. “Trees need strategic thinking in these difficult times”, Cunningham reasons, “and they also need friends”.

In the spirit of both friendship and activism, she travels to visit Ada, a mountain ash that (who) is the largest tree in Victoria:

I stood before her; leaned forward, tentative, as if to touch her, then spread my arms out to get some perspective on her girth. I’m sure if you had been an outsider watching me you’d have thought I was about to embrace her.

It is a strange kind of friendship between humans and trees. Whereas trees may well communicate amongst themselves, they do not speak to us in any tongue we understand (“It is in their indifference that they are comforting”, wrote Virginia Woolf.) We know so little of their private lives – the genius of trees is what takes place when we go out to them. Cunningham is at peace with their reticence. As in John Ashbery’s shyly intimate Some Trees, it might be that their (and our) “merely being there / Means something”. To love and respect beings that cannot justify themselves in our language – this is the book’s radical imperative, its need for a forest that includes and transcends us.

***

“This forest isn’t what it was”, Inga Simpson wrote about her tract of mongrel bush, “but then, who of us is”. If trees suggest a sense of togetherness, then they can also bring to bear what we have lost – and stand to lose. Bearing witness to the natural world means growing aware of an unfathomable tragedy, a grief without precedent or scale. How lonely humanity stands to become, how bereft of the companionship of animals and plants.

In City of Trees, both of Cunningham’s fathers pass away. She loses each of them to dementia first – the gradual loss of identity, the creation of absence in somebody familiar. At the same time, she is exploring the stakes of ecological destruction, what a loss like that might feel like. “You can listen”, she writes, “if you are brave enough, to the final chittering of the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat as it calls, searching for others of its kind. It received no reciprocal call and was never heard from again”. 

These twin griefs are knotted together in the book. While walking the likely path of Ranee, an Indian Elephant brought alone to Melbourne’s zoo in 1862, Cunningham meditates on personal and ecological grief. “Going about your day as you once did is difficult”, she observes. “The very idea of self feels like a narrative fallacy, the kind of fallacy that makes you consider Ranee’s disarticulated skeleton as a metaphor, before you realise using her like that makes you feel physically ill”. The essays are experiments in facing down loss. Nature must be grieved, like a loved one – but it must also be defended, since that fight, at least, is far from over.

Cunningham is aware of the risk of egotism when it comes to producing a tree memoir, now, in this climate. Her personality suffuses the book, and her experience gives it its sense – yet these essays successfully transcend her, just as they contain but outgrow her individual walks. Her personal narrative inhabits the natural world without imposing her needs on it. Within the essays’ walking logic, personal and ecological matters are presented side-by-side, connected as if by semicolons rather than colons. Cunningham is interested in patterns, in what she calls the “not-difference” between things, but she is determined to resist grand metaphors and the “siren song” of narrative resolution. Her essays do not prescribe; instead, they try out ways to build communion, ways to go out to the trees while staying open and attentive. The author herself is offered up as an instance – self-ironical, self-scrutinising.

The final note of the book sees her stand in front of Ada with arms held wide: just the kind of sentimentalist, she admits, that scientists warn about. “I honour you”, she tells Ada, “I pledge allegiance to you, to this city – to our planet – of trees”. Faced with the age, size and beauty of this giant, Cunningham closes on a gesture of deference, of something like self-abnegation, performed across the boundaries of speech and understanding.

***

Ultimately, this is a book about change, good and bad – about the urgent need for change, especially among non-Indigenous Australians, and how this might be achieved. The essay ‘Biyala Stories’, on river red gums, follows the trees into a difficult colonial history that includes the disastrous management of water landscapes around what is now Melbourne. In these old trees—known as Biyala in Yorta Yorta—ecologists can see the traces left by waterways long past, as well as the ways that they have adapted to continual change.

As trees connect us to the past, so too they come with complicated baggage. But trees are nothing if not adaptive. For Cunningham, the river gum is full of narrative both real and potential: “We need its stories”, she argues, as we build towards a new understanding of nature, a process that must also foreground the voices of First Nations peoples. (“there are nights when we meet voiceless”, writes Evelyn Araluen, “in the shadow of oncewas gum”.)

Michel de Certeau has argued that walking, like every spatial practice, is a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place: it “affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc.” Cunningham’s walking essays perform a new kind of way-finding – they seek to reconstitute our relation to place by unthinking, unlearning, unwriting, in the hope that the self, too, might change under the influence of trees, and in their company. “Our survival is linked to theirs”, she concludes. “If the river red gum can find a way to regenerate successfully then maybe, just maybe, so can we”.



Alexander Wells is a writer and history researcher based in Sydney. He has written for Australian Book Review, the Mekong Review, Overland, and the Harvard Advocate, where he was editor. His Twitter handle is @ajbwells.

Issue 43 of The Lifted Brow Out Today!

 
TLB issue 43_8.jpg
 
 
 

Check your mailboxes, check this link, or check the shelves and counters in all good bookstores for the bursting colours on Power Paola’s cover for Issue 43, because it’s officially out today!

We’re stoked you can all finally read the wonderful winning pieces of both the Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction and the inaugural Liminal Fiction Prize inside Issue 43. These accompany a fresh spread of thoughtful essays, fiction, translations, commentary, criticism, poetry, and so many pages of comics and illustrated work.

 
 

Here’s what’s inside Issue 43:

  • the winning piece from our 2019 Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction, ‘TRETINOIN’ by Jean Bachoura and Flatwhite Demascus;

  • the winning piece from the inaugural Liminal Fiction Prize, ‘Bad Weather’ by Bryant Apolonio;

  • Alison Whittaker and Nayuka Gorrie talk literary prizes and the responsibility of being black writers;

  • Jordy Rosenberg in conversation with Stella Maynard and Eilish Fitzpatrick about Confessions of the Fox, the history of trans surveillance, and the pleasure of being read to;

  • Ana Maria Gomides considers race, queerness, and personal histories through the careful lens of seeing and being seen;

  • Maddee Clark discusses architecture and urban spaces in the context of First Nations sovereignty;

  • memoir by Sydnye Allen about Albury–Wodonga, casual racism and our concepts of borders;

  • Paula Abul on queer desire, race, and the joy of drag king performance;

  • brand new realist fiction from Sam Pink that follows the mundane duties and acerbic conversations of a caterer at a wedding, revealing the unexpected beauty in our most trivial and consequential moments;

  • vinegary short fiction by Victoria Manifold that delights in its insalubrity;

  • arresting fiction from Aude, translated by Cristy Stiles, on the pursuit of silence;

  • new poetry from Saaro Umar, Eunice Andrada and Elyas Alavi;

  • columns: Antonia Pont’s ‘Thinking Feeling’ column about the ethics of the trigger and how to deal with triggeredness, Michael Dulaney’s ‘Environment’ column about the solidarity to be found the Whyalla steel industry and the wonders of the cuttlefish, Aimee Knight explores the traumatic heart of dark tourism in her 'Pop Culture' column, and Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny’s ‘Law School’ sex+relationships advice column;

  • a special ‘By Numbers’ feature using numerical data to investigate pet ownership in Australia;

  • and new comics and visual art by Miles Howard-Wilks, Margot Ferrick, Han Teng, Antoine Orand, Matty Kaye, Thu Tran, Rebecca Scibilia, Arts Project Australia, Haein Kim, Nadia Ingrid, Casey Jarman, Ilana Bodenstein, Meg O'Shea, April Phillips, Lizzie Nagy, and Shae San Sim.

 

A big thanks to our incredible contributors, columnists, editors and all the staff and interns at The Lifted Brow for making this issue come together. And, of course, a warm thank-you and ENJOY to our wonderful readers and subscribers. You complete us. ◆

Issue 43 of The Lifted Brow out next week!

 
 
 

A very exciting new issue of The Lifted Brow is out imminently. How imminently, you ask? Next Monday. Why is it exciting? There will be not one but two prize-winning pieces available to the public to read for the first time inside.

‘TRETINOIN’, the winner of The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction, by Jean Bachoura and Flatwhite Damascus will feature in Issue 43, as well as the inaugural winner of the Liminal Fiction Prize, Bad Weather’, by Bryant Apolonio.

 
 

We’ve just got the first copies back from the printers today, and Power Paola’s cover art is even more vibrant and beautiful in person. Inside the cover of Issue 43, you’ll also find:

  • Alison Whittaker and Nayuka Gorrie talk literary prizes and the responsibility of being black writers;

  • Jordy Rosenberg in conversation with Stella Maynard and Eilish Fitzpatrick about Confessions of the Fox, the history of trans surveillance, and the pleasure of being read to;

  • Ana Maria Gomides considers race, queerness, and personal histories through the careful lens of seeing and being seen;

  • Paula Abul on queer desire, race, and the joy of drag king performance;

  • Maddee Clark discusses architecture and urban spaces in the context of First Nations sovereignty;

  • memoir by Sydnye Allen about Albury–Wodonga, casual racism and our concepts of borders;

  • brand new realist fiction from Sam Pink that follows the mundane duties and acerbic conversations of a caterer at a wedding, revealing the unexpected beauty in our most trivial and consequential moments;

  • vinegary short fiction by Victoria Manifold that delights in its insalubrity;

  • arresting fiction from Aude, translated by Cristy Stiles, on the pursuit of silence;

  • new poetry from Saaro Umar, Eunice Andrada and Elyas Alavi;

  • columns: Antonia Pont’s ‘Thinking Feeling’ column about the ethics of the trigger and how to deal with triggeredness, Michael Dulaney’s ‘Environment’ column about the solidarity to be found the Whyalla steel industry and the wonders of the cuttlefish, Aimee Knight explores the traumatic heart of dark tourism in her 'Pop Culture' column, and Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny’s ‘Law School’ sex+relationships advice column;

  • a special ‘By Numbers’ feature using numerical data to investigate pet ownership in Australia;

  • and new comics and visual art by Miles Howard-Wilks, Margot Ferrick, Han Teng, Antoine Orand, Matty Kaye, Thu Tran, Rebecca Scibilia, Arts Project Australia, Haein Kim, Nadia Ingrid, Casey Jarman, Ilana Bodenstein, Meg O'Shea, April Phillips, Lizzie Nagy, and Shae San Sim.

Lucky subscribers will be the first to receive their copies in the mail. As always, Issue 43 will also be available in all good bookstores from September 2nd. Or you can pre-order through us! ◆

“Girl talk: a review of Amanda Montell’s ‘Wordslut’”, by Clare Millar

 
Wordslut (online)_0.jpg
 




When I’m at home and it’s just me and my partner—indeed a man and myself a woman—I don’t notice my gender. Home is where it doesn’t matter, where I can shed that woman I am seen as outside. When I leave the house, gender—and the way it is expressed with language—is everywhere. For the most part, it is what is placed upon me; an ill-fitting frock. I am reminded of philosopher Denise Riley’s musings on being a woman in the world, on the street: “You have indeed been seen ‘as a woman’, and violently reminded that your passage alone can spark off such random sexual attraction-cum-contempt, that you can be a spectacle when the last thing on your mind is your own embodiness.”

~

We can’t escape the perception of gender. We can’t avoid language. These two phenomena collide endlessly in our lives. In Wordslut, Amanda Montell demonstrates the ways in which English (and of course almost every language across the world) can be used, both intentionally and unintentionally, to portray the biases we carry around inside us.

~

Leaving the Arts Centre carpark after a brilliant performance of The Lady in the Van, a man in a car with its windows down yells out “hot mama” as we pass each other at the boom gates.

~

Montell’s book covers a variety of gendered experiences of language: catcalling, swearing, gay lisps, but most importantly, it’s filled with personal examples, because how can we talk about women’s language without talking about our own experiences? Wordslut is a book that shows us, forces us to see, how language conveys misogyny and just how much the world is set up to favour the language of men. So long as women (and nonbinary people) are hated, considered weaker and worse versions of men, there will be language to exploit that view.

~

In a job as an educational publishing assistant, I was told my emails came across too harshly. A few men had responded – how dare I tell them what to do. I’d ask for documents signed and scanned, for writers to take on board constructive feedback from independent reviewers. I was never rude, and I had stuck to the form emails that my (male) colleague had used the year before. After being asked to complete the task to his contract, one man shouted at me over the phone; another would not make the required changes to his work. I had to rewrite my emails, hyper-polite: “it would be great if you would be able to”, “would you mind”. My male colleagues’ emails remained to the point.

~

From the moment I was told I needed to change the way I wrote my emails, I knew it was gendered. But it wasn’t until reading Wordslut that I saw it play out across the double-bind:

She could phrase her email with a straightforward tone and no-frills punctuation—“The project needs to be done by tomorrow at 3 p.m. Thanks.”—but, because we have certain expectations of how women are supposed to communicate (politely, indirectly), that might earn her a reputation as a cold bitch. On the other hand, she could pepper her email with hedges, exclamation points, and emoji—If you could possibly have the project finished by tomorrow at 3 p.m., that’d be AMAZING. Thank you so much!! :)”—but, because we have certain expectations of how bosses are supposed to communicate (bluntly, directly), that might make her seem jumpy and unfit to lead. 

But what is the solution? Others have suggested we need to rebuild English (and any other language that is male-centred, which is most) to better reflect women’s discourse. But that is of course, an impossible task, and one that is wrongly directed. Forcing language change alone would not necessarily change attitudes about women – and would perhaps only make those attitudes more disguised. However, listening to how language is currently used to judge women or to express that sexism is the necessary first step that Montell offers her readers.    

~

On Christmas Eve last year, working in a bookshop, an older man asks me why I am not helping customers, as that this is my only job. In fact, in that moment, my job was to check in with a colleague about a transaction. He stands tall over me with his stack of books he wants wrapped, protruding into my space. I leave to de-escalate. Another colleague refers to the way this man was looking at me: predatorily. He had assumed authority over me, in my workplace. Later, my boss tells me I can always ask people to leave, a reassurance I haven’t had before. Over the next few months, I dream new versions of this scene: men buying feminist books but refusing to listen to the women in the precarious space that is retail.

~

Montell says, “Think about policing women’s voices—their intonation, their syntax, their word choice—in the same way we think about policing women’s appearance”, and it makes sense. Policing women is the job of the patriarchy. That means appearance, language, opinions—if we get to voice them—reproduction, work. Language was meant to be men’s language, to be about themselves.

Analysing the cliff wife meme (in which a man recorded his wife tumbling down a hill, saying that “your whole world can change in a matter of seconds”) in the Guardian, Naaman Zhou states that in “any wife guy story, it is somehow the guy who becomes the real focus, not his wife”. But is this not always the case under patriarchy? That anything we do as women comes up against men, who’d rather record our failures than help us succeed.

“What did you do before you became a wife?” a solar panel specialist recently asked my mum. She was an engineer, then a careers counsellor, and is now training to be a family mediator.

~

Perhaps because my mum was a careers counsellor, I grew up knowing I could do anything I wanted, with the understanding that there are many pathways into any career, and that most people don’t know what they want to do, least of all when they leave school. When I was five, I wanted to be an author and a cat breeder. I’ve since realised adopting pets is far more ethical, but I’m working on the writing part. That’s never changed. I don’t recall, however, a sense that work was gendered. I know my mother works hard to dispel this idea. In all the careers aptitude assessments I did, both at home and at school, never did I consider my femaleness a component of a job or career, nor did I think it would inhibit any choice I could make. Writing, publishing and bookselling—my current work—are overwhelmingly female, however. When I hear Jane Caro saying that Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workforces in the world, I know we still have a long way to go.

Perhaps one of the most pertinent arguments in Wordslut is that everything is individual to women. Some women like feminised suffixes for career titles, others do not. Should we say comedienne? Should I specify that I saw a female doctor, or did I just see a doctor? Am I a writer or a female writer? Even when we allow for gender neutral or all-encompassing terms such as chairperson, firefighter and police officer, these terms are more likely to be interpreted as indicating a woman, with the male terms still in use for men. Twitter user @ThaJawn posted a gender-neutral guide: fireman = firefighter; policeman = policefighter; mailman = mailfighter; fisherman = fisherfighter. And indeed, aren’t we all fighting the patriarchy?  

~

When I open mail addressed to Miss Clare Millar, it feels like it’s not for me. It feels like someone addressing the child—the girl—I was long ago. It’s from someone refusing to accept me as an adult. Often, to change to Ms is quite easy. But for my phone bills, I have to go to a store in person, like I couldn’t possibly be an adult woman without someone verifying, someone seeing.

~

There are many parts to linguistics. Syntax (the rules of language, grammar) and phonetics (sounds and how they are produced) are two major elements. There are also many different ways of working as a linguist: many are academics, some of whom work in anthropology departments; some work with the law as forensic linguists; some might work on dictionaries; some might become speech therapists. Montell is something a little different – she is a sociolinguistist. This combines how people use language with what it tells us about people. Wordslut is a book that draws together many high-profile sociolinguists and draws out what we’ve suspected all along: that English is a language warped by the sexism of those who use it.

“The noun form of female is almost never used in a positive context”, Montell states. For a long time, I had thought that female was grammatically correct as an adjective, as opposed to woman, thinking of woman artist, woman lawyer (and that we would tend to say male nurse rather than man nurse). But through research with Deborah Cameron, Montell shows that female is general to all animals and refers to sex – the chromosomes and genitalia, method of reproduction. Woman, however, is only for humans. When female is flung about instead of woman, it is because the speaker is suggesting the woman’s biology is responsible for her (supposed) failings as an intellectual being.

~

I started an aerial circus class last week. A woman in the class mentioned that another woman from a different class had just proposed to her boyfriend. My male instructor said, “I don’t like that”. I keep quiet about my own engagement.

 ~

French philosopher, psychoanalyst, feminist and linguist Luce Irigaray argues that there is a “perpetually unrecognised law [that] regulates all operations carried out in language(s), all production of discourse, and all constitution of language according to the necessities of one perspective, one point of view, and one economy: that of men, who supposedly represent the human race”. Men’s voices are considered the universal voice; the only view that matters. It is this that we challenge when we want fair pay, childcare, access to abortion, even just to be taken seriously as women. There is something so strikingly confident in the man’s voice that tells me women shouldn’t propose, women shouldn’t have control over bringing about marriage. A confidence that keeps me quiet, even when I loudly disagree.  

Australian feminist Dale Spender argued in the 1980s that “it is that both language and material resources have been used by the dominant group to structure women’s oppression”. It was never about just language, or just access to education or reproductive healthcare. It’s everything together. When men use language, it reinforces their own power, often at the silencing of women. As Spender says, “in a society where women are devalued it is not surprising that their language should be devalued”.  

“Young women’s periods can be painful. It’s normal,” a GP once said to me, after I disclosed my symptoms and family history of disease. A few months later I was diagnosed with endometriosis. Research on endometriosis shows that it takes an average of seven-to-ten years for diagnosis. I was luckier, if only because I was assertive. Montell quotes Beth A. Quinn, showing that for men to perform masculinity—to project that strength into the world —they must disregard a woman’s pain. Empathy is seen to be a feminine trait, and “men’s moral stance vis-à-vis women is attenuated by this lack of empathy”.

~

Young women are innovators of language. Teen girls are mocked for their speech: for saying like too much (even though, as Montell discovers, there are many different meanings to this and those objecting to it are unaware of its complexities); using vocal fry (creaky voice, which used to be a desirable trait in men’s speech); and uptalk (ending sentences with a rising intonation, like a question). And yet, none of these actually demonstrate any linguistic or intellectual failings in today’s teens. Instead, Montell finds that “young women use the linguistic features that they do, not as mindless affectations, but as power tools for establishing and strengthening relationships”.

It is of course not just young women and teen girls who speak with these features. But it is again the double bind that Montell presents so frequently. Women are told to be more professional, to stop speaking like girls and get rid of all those likes, but once that happens, along comes criticism of being too harsh, too bossy, too cold. Speaking as we wish leads to the deep irritation that we aren’t sounding like men who know what they’re talking about – that we aren’t men.

~

For Mother’s Day in 2019, Michael Hill Jewellers ran an ad suggesting that men should “celebrate all [their] mums”. The ad on the back of a bus, with a pink background, shows a man in the middle of two women, one labelled as his mum, the other his ‘work mum’.

~

Early in 2019, a company surfaced producing men’s make up. Only it couldn’t be called that; instead it was ‘War Paint’. Once something becomes associated with women, it can no longer be good or strong. Montell demonstrates this as a process called ‘pejoration’, where words “eventually devolve into something negative”, and it is often a positive term becoming a sexualised slur for women. Madam, mistress, sissy and pussy are all examples of words that have changed over time to inherit negative qualities: that of women.  

In Man Made Language, Dale Spender argues that names also experience this divide between male-good, female-bad. Once a name shifts towards being given to girls, it does not go back. Names such as Ashley, Gale, Kelly, Kim, Lesley, Madison are just a few that have moved to almost 100% female in birth records of the twenty-first century. Even my own name, Clare, used to be a male name.  

These examples, of products and names, are of course not the most egregious things happening to women across the world, or even Australia. But the fascinating thing that Montell does in Wordslut is to show us how language works to carry all of this information, both of being the medium of sexism and misogyny, and one of the endless ways that women are judged in this world. She hopes Wordslut is a book that people interested in feminism but not linguistics will pick up, and people interested in linguistics but not feminism would read too.

Women, and every gender other than male, carry the burden of a world that dislikes us, that talks down to us, that tries to take away our strength by saying we speak too high-pitched, with too many likes, and simply too much. But there is nothing wrong with how we speak, and wordsluts like Montell are, like, here to show us that.



Clare Millar is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and bookseller. She edits poetry for Voiceworks and is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn. She has been published in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and Books+Publishing. She is completing a Bachelor of Arts (Professional) at Swinburne University. She tweets @claresmillar.

'To Un Fold A Body of Small Talks' by jessie berry-porter

This piece was joint second runner-up in The Lifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Prize for 2018. It was also published in Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. Get your copy here.

Content warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions of bodily harm.


 
Leonie Brialey

Leonie Brialey

 
 
 

Note:

If a person bitten by a mad dog looks in the mirror, they will see the animal’s image reflected there. These are not my words, they are Paul the Silentiary’s words. A silentiary is an advocate for silence: did Paul occupy a quiet body? I wonder this now but not often. When I imagine his words and his mirror, I assume a loud body, something collapsing. Either way, it does not matter. I only need to write the body down for it to remember itself.

1.

First there is a spider but it starts with an orange. Don’t remember the day, remember the knife and this counts. No, don’t remember the knife, remember strain in hand. Cutting an orange should not bruise finger but hand persists because mouth is hungry and hungry people are enduring people. Strain. Pain bites. Cut it open anyway. Snap it. Two and then four. Feel strong but only briefly. Cut it again. Turn it to eight. Eight is a balanced number and balanced numbers bring good luck. See the spider when it sounds. Tiny naked body wedged between two segments. Think it looks brand new but don’t know how. Think it is a cruel trick, never asked for it. Pick up eight segments and throw them into the pool. Spend twenty minutes watching the orange drown. Sit on the water’s edge and think of ratios: there is more orange than spider, it is not the orange’s fault. But it is too late for this kind of thought. The body is now the bridge between spider and orange. To remove association requires a removal of self. Cry for three hours because: just not there yet. Body is found by father squashed against the kitchen wall. He tries to unpack it. Maybe he tries three times? He hates unpacking. Tell him what was seen and he says I don’t believe you the last time I encountered an orange inside a spider was in September 1967. Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken. He says he stopped eating oranges after his mother was strapped to a bed and fed too much electricity. It was the oranges that killed her. He says you should switch to apples, and fast. When mentioning incident years later he throws an insane look shared with mother. How does a spider eat an orange? Shake head and say no no no you are mistaken.

2.

Stare at the pile of potato and say the white is more of a grey isn’t it. Look to father and father says you do not surprise me I know what this is. Put down fork, rest it with knife in its right place. Small relief. Order gaze and look to plate, apply each eye there. Go deep to get away. Watch a tiny moth hatch from inside a cherry tomato. Watch it drag its body out before spilling across and turning into a nostalgic thing. It dies beside the green beans. Figure it is for the best and cover it with a lettuce leaf. Hear mother fork two tomatoes and chew hard. She says are you crying don’t cry if you don’t want to eat the cooked food eat the tomato. Her body sits across but her voice hangs above. Try to tilt self up. Try to break the surface, meet her gaze and say no no no. But it doesn’t work. Remain under. Drop the moth inside pants. It is warm or familiar against skin maybe both. Stand now. Pick up the plate and throw it against the wall. The crash sounds silent but suspect it isn’t. A slice of beetroot drips down the white wallpaper trailing red. Say the tomato does not want to be eaten. Catch Luce’s eye. A small death she says, swallowing a bite. A small death is no death at all. Turn to father. Notice him watching and lock down both eyes. Make his gaze into a steady thing. Find reflection inside pupils and watch it smile. Touch mouth, try and locate grin. Stare harder and say do you think it is broken? His mouth is a fist of cucumber.

3.

Bodily contamination becomes real through observation. Observation becomes meaningful through language. Or: a sick body is recognised once it is named, it is not made. Say this to doctor but only after the fact.

4.

Two quiet thoughts stick and become loud. Thought one: a falling body is a stagnant body. Thought two: what you risk reveals what you value. Not revelatory but fifteen and tired. Eyes look to body. See body as the arena through which all future tension is rectified.

Pulse dips on Tuesday and rises on Wednesday, arbitrary measures. Body is taken to hospital because mouth refuses what it shouldn’t. Body is given usual fluid drip. Mouth tastes of miscarriage. Body comes to around lunchtime. Time is barely there but still it hangs and bites. Father is there, sits in armchair, coffee in hand, reading the newspaper because he is his own boss and mother isn’t and must work Wednesdays. He looks. Laughs. Throws across comic page because comics are for children. He says if you want it bad enough you just make it happen.

5.

Think of skyscrapers and the ocean, think of hanging rocks. Thought three: the pull to jump is the pull to feel more present. A falling thing will wake quick and all bodies want to wake quick but don’t risk jumping in fear of only falling. Sigh a tragedy, another thought to hang neck on. Allow left eye to roll one tear onto cheek. Nurse hands over tissue and says now now don’t cry even acute oedema can be treated. Blink away dream. Move off edge and into room. Mother shakes inside chair, takes tissue, blows nose, says something about timelines. Nurse says there is fluid around organs. There is a risk of heart attack. Look to nurse now. Stare down nurse now. Say oedema is for the bulimic does face look puffy? Laugh and tug at veins around wrist. Pick and pull at finger- nails now. Allocate soft spot underneath thumbnail. Unravel blue thread and think there is more than last time. Nurse de-wrinkles skirt. Nurse says you need to be hospitalised you require urgent re-feeding. Shake head now. Say mouth does not consume moving foods. Nurse says food doesn’t move. Say mine does.

6.

Rectangular table but the girls sit in circles. Each body circles the other body. It is not communion it is desperation, it is waiting together. The hospital body demands attention through removal: she looks to her to see herself slowly leaving. It is a backwards gaze into nothing. And before that, a backwards gaze into something desiring nothing. Mother’s body slips around it. Tug on mother’s wrist and say what a dangerous crowd to keep for company. Mother nods yes but understands in the wrong way. She leaves body here and takes all of herself with her.

The first meal is a white bread cheese and tomato sandwich to be consumed in less than twenty minutes. Seated at the dining table is the head nurse and fifteen bodies drawn into one. Think a secret reunion or a welcoming? It doesn’t matter. Look to head nurse with ironed face and timer in hand. Timer drips backwards for practical reasons but only feels symbolic now. Nurse’s edges define her body inside space without cutting surrounding air. A quiet body, lacking echo. Nurse is not bothered with space. Nurse looks to the sandwich and does not see the potential of the empty plate, table, chair, room. Her lips look ready to shape and throw a stupid sound: there are worse things in life than losing a hemline inside a dimpled thigh haha. Unstick eyes from nurse. Do not think of food or timer. Think of mother. Mother hates this body. Says it is a found body not a true body. No point saying: felt it at seven before finding it at fifteen. No point saying: felt it move and unpack years before it ripped off the excess. Mother sent the found body here. Only to kill it. If mother were to look at the table she’d see one sharp rectangle. The bodies hiding peas inside collarbones would not feel like an extension of her. No use saying this though, her focus remains fixed on what is on the plate: the sandwich.

Observe its elements. Assign all else to the periphery. There are three components to spread out, gradually ignore. First, peel bread from cheese. Feel it seep into fingertips. Think there is more space than body, in a body anything can get in. Notice holes. Holes in bread in cheese in tomato. Holes to breathe into and out of. Touch cheese with finger. Feel it move underneath skin trying to merge. Feel its desire. Lift finger off cheese and see small blister above nail not yet bleeding: almost-externalised internal, lucky. Throw finger into a mug of hot tea to kill it before it hatches. Nurse sees and says self-harm is not permitted in front of the others. Girl sitting across the table lifts face and smiles in surprise, says oh a newbie. She stashes potato pieces inside her sweater sleeve and says I’m inpatient forty-four. Nod and settle outside of her smile. Lift finger from tea and inspect from appropriate distance. Wrap tight in napkin. Tilt eyes towards teacup. One small spider floats on surface, grins without drowning and grows larger the harder both eyes look. Soon spider body will fill cup. Peel eyes away and turn back to plate. Look deep into it. Realise each hole is an egg and each egg is a spider and each spider exists for a reason outside of itself. Throw up nothing beside chair.

7.

Inpatient forty-four says all her dreams start with a loaf of white bread chasing her wanting to eat her, and by the end of the day the white bread gets exactly what it wants. Sucking on a strawberry Fortisip she throws out words only to float them. She ushers them into high-up spaces because no witnessing body would let them land. The dining room is filled with inpatient forty-four’s unclaimed stories. At breakfast she says: so I was standing in front of the mirror trying to love myself but my skin kept peeling backwards until all that was left to love was the wall behind me was the wall in front of me the wall inside me. These words hang above the dining room window. Look there now but not to claim them. Think it is either dark or very bright outside, cannot be sure. Daylight is starting to run backwards but doctor says it is normal for people here to feel this. Stare into far corner of thought and ponder over time: the surface of a thing is required to measure the depth of a thing. Daytime is the surface of nighttime. Turn to inpatient forty-four with question on tongue: if the day cracks open and submerges itself, how does a body navigate the evening? She grins and says the body becomes whole through breaking don’t you attend DBT, CBT it is rule number one. Let her words sink in and decide to repeat to self when feeling spilt when feeling unhinged, even if it is a lie to hang neck on before neck hangs itself. Inform doctor of these thoughts and doctor says words about depression. Always considered depression to be the space that follows the fight to be here and never the fight. Father says depression is waiting. A body waits unaware of what it waits for. Maybe it is the same thing. Tell doctor no: body is too alive to be depressed.

8.

Each morning before feeding and before therapy doctor weighs body and says things like: my wife no longer accompanies me to India because she is a HSP and poverty makes her ill. Sounds of this kind fill the room until doctor directs the typical morning question: did you dream? He knows there is only ever one dream but asks anyway. Tell him: a small body exists inside a belly of water, pressed there against its will. There is a tube connected to the body feeding the body. Inside the tube are millions of pink eggs. Each egg is made alive through the body. Each egg turns the body into a heavy thing. To be heavy is to be hateful. The small body knows this and tries curling neck under tube to break connection, tries over and over. Tube resists. Neck and tube are made stronger through the fight. Small body’s hatred inverts. Turns to dismay turns to resignation.

9.

Tube feeds nose first feeds oesophagus second, falls into stomach last. Falls and feeds for eight hours. Tube hosts body, turns body into parasite. Tubed body is sick body is disquieted body. Prior identifiers slip around it because language fails to reflect it. Even so, doctor and therapist write the body down, turn it to a comprehensible thing. Doctor looks to books swallowed to voice the right words to reassure mother that nothing is broken something is just not quite right, right now. Right now is always in motion but doctor does not see tube as written into the body before birth. On the first tube feeding body screams but scream skirts most ears, only inpatient forty-four hears. Storming in from the TV room she says stop yelling I’m trying to learn how to stir-fry. Doctor gives a blank stare as inpatient forty-four’s tubes walk her body back out. Look to bag next to bed attached to tube running into body, full of pink liquid. Father says it is the colour of bad sailing weather. Therapist says to ignore father at all times starting now because father is new-found reason body is in a state of removal. Say it is easy to suppose this but no matter the route from there to here, body would always end up here. Therapist says father is a determinist so theory doesn’t count. Overhear doctor tell mother brain is cognitively impaired: she lacks the ability to comprehend her surroundings but confusion is expected with malnutrition soon to be reversed with feeding. Mother says do what you need to do which means sedatives are pushed into mouth to quieten body. Watch room empty itself and turn eyes to television.

Daytime infomercial. An orange man is selling workouts to fat bodies desiring to be thin bodies. Workout involves standing still first and being electrocuted second. Watch a fat body press two feet into a machine. Orange man pushes button pulls lever. Fat body is projected across room into a nearby wall a hard dismantlement. Close up of fallen face: skin hangs blood pours mouth froths throws up. Think an externalised internal: where is the body now? A retching noise sounds behind camera and someone says oh fuck. Orange man laughs and says some bodies are too stuck in their ways to change don’t be one of those bodies haha.

Turn off television. Remove bobby pin from hair and rip off fat gel end, reveal point. Needle small incision into tube. Plastic pops. Let one pink drop fall onto ring finger. Pink hardens upon touching skin. Turns into egg. Crush it between fingers. Lift hand to nose. Pull at tube. Feel it stick somewhere inside. Pull again. Pink liquid trails down nose onto lips, wipe away. Pull again. Use both hands. Tube unsticks from stomach wall, hatches from under tissue. Taste blood before it rises inside mouth. Dig fingernails into tube for great finale. Tube rips through body, separates like baby tooth. Choke as tube unravels in hands. Feel crawling sensation inside chest and bend over bed. Cough up stomach but crawling sensation stays down.

10.

To be given a room is to be given a number and by then it is too late: to enter is to leave. Sickness asserts identity. Say to doctor: how does hospital body develop agency when identity only takes shape in front of others? Doctor frowns, says diagnosis is not reductive it is beneficial it allows for a more authentic expression of self. Doctor cannot comprehend the question because he has never felt the limitations of the word. Has not felt the strain of grasping for identity through removal of a name.

Some inpatient bodies are renamed through electricity. This body resists treatment and resists remission, or: her affective state names her. No two short-circuits are the same but electricity makes it so. Chosen body is walked into a small room pressed into a small bed and plugged into a power adaptor. Mouth is filled with a plastic protector in case teeth attack tongue, it is precaution. Doctor dials up machine to dial up body. Dialled-up body screams loud. It sounds of a dying-thing but doctor says it is the talk of a second wind. Treatment is what diagnosis determines. Sometimes the pressure is turned too high and the plates in the skull shift shape and make a new face for the body to wear. It is a permanent side effect but the doctor says the results make it worthwhile, in the majority of cases. Electricity strips the body of identifiers. Leaves it unable to gauge parameters, unable to separate the external from the internal. Doctor names this state a blank slate and says a blank slate holds potential. The hospital brims with potential.

Inpatient forty-four is reset after six years of failed treatment. One morning after feeding time her body is walked into the small room. Days later she consumes white bread without self-harming without Valium sedation without forced Fortisip. Ask doctor why her face looks changed and he says maybe you are looking at it in the wrong way. Do you mean the old way? Doctor shrugs, says what’s the difference? Within the month she is eating three meals plus two snacks per day and no longer requires a two-week tube feeding, it is a revelation. She is moved from the eating disorder table to the catatonic table reserved for reset bodies that remain blank slates. Sits wedged between two and consumes plate after plate of white food until she becomes an extension of her surroundings. Her mother visits on Tuesdays and cries in the same way but for different reasons. Inpatient forty-four does not speak. Time no longer hurries her. Suspect it is because her limbs no longer move in unison: when she walks she flails. She spends her days sitting and when she sits she eats. Two months into treatment she tries to eat a teacup. She swallows the china handle before the doctor sees, restrains and sedates, sedates with the same medication given to the other catatonic bodies because: diagnosis determines treatment. The day before her twenty-third birthday she is found shoving fistfuls of hair down her throat. Doctor names the hair a threat and shaves it away. Doctor blames erratic behaviour on a perverted feeding function induced by starvation. Does not view her behaviour as suicidal until she hangs herself during a home visit. Ask him how he copes with news and he says there is no use thinking about what you cannot change: to become emotional is to risk becoming stuck and I have no time for stagnancy. He turns away and says something about life going on. Doctor has never found himself on a violent edge with nowhere to go but off.

11.

Father says a thin body lets the light in and the fastest way to attain meaning is through bodily transcendence. He says to consider the coffin before consumption because an open coffin should not be made worse than it already is: always keep in mind the proceedings following a body’s demise. How do you want to be remembered? The first time he says this is before second grade swim practice. He says it is a secret and not to be shared with mother or sister: they will not understand in the right way. Feel special and say okay. Swallow down words and let them make a home within body. Organise body around these words. Apply appropriate methods: do what it takes to let the light in. When mentioning this incident to father years later he throws same insane look shared with mother, demands what light.

12.

Look to father sitting in hospital chair next to hospital bed reading the daily newspaper. Father’s body is a prison, but because he has named the surrounding bars something else his affliction is holy. He looks to the hospital bed and sees a job well done. He is unaware that this body was created only to cancel his out.

13.

Outside body is made by the doctor but worn for mother. It is a transitory body without echo, blown up extending out, soon to deflate and resume true self. Think: far too crowded to be a reliable thing and still, mother waves her Fluoxetine prescription and locates lost joy inside the curvature of its hips. Sighing and joyful she embraces body, no longer ostracised or bled by its edges. When body walks alongside other bodies her eyes glass over and say: it was like she was never any different. Was she? Hugs are given each hour and each hug says: how beautiful it is to finally feel you. The wheezing of limbs is not heard. Mother figures a tangible thing is a true thing: to measure is to make real and now body is real.

Transitory body’s first relapse comes within two weeks: how can fifty-five drop to forty-seven it has only been thirteen days. By the third relapse mother straddles doorways without entering. She is afraid of catching the hysteria pocketed underneath the clavicle. Decide it is not personal, just pathological. Mother stops looking for joy outside of pill organiser. By the sixth relapse nobody panics though some energetic types feign shock to be polite. By the eighth relapse say to doctor: there is a hunger for that which exists outside of the bodily experience. Say to doctor: the body is both arena and instrument through which inner conflict is resolved do you understand? Doctor is red-faced and round. The smaller body shrinks, the bigger his grows. Doctor nods and says this feeling is an emergency it requires a blue room and tight sheets. Say: there exists a desire. He says go on. A desire to cut the fat off space. He yells no. Or maybe he laughs? No matter: take it slow. A slow process is violent, a quick rip is easy. To tend to the former is to really want it. Learnt this from watching father. Twenty-two years of numbered foods ironed out nurses and nothing changes. Mother still visits with self-affirming placards to pin to the mirror. There has only been one true thought: tubed body continues to die. Could cry about it but laughing burns fat faster so haha.

14.

Doctor sits body down and says now is a good time to address the aetiology of illness: to understand previous trauma is to prevent future trauma is to solidify present direction. Doctor believes the body prior to sickness is accessible and that it is desired. Look to doctor and do not say: only tread water because don’t know what body stands for outside of illness. Do not say: the anorectic body never recovers, it stays in purgatory if it stays at all. Do not say: nature never stops and this is the nature of this body. Do not say: the scale rebalanced but nothing else ever did. Instead, humour him: the body no longer feels uneasy it feels comfortable. And: food no longer tastes fearful it no longer tastes possessive. Press body back into chair, smile: the recent combination of medication is working it feels balanced. Doctor nods yes, makes a note on notepad. Doctor feels gaze lifts face and says I have a book for you. Doctor removes hardcover from bookshelf and hands it over: there is a study on body dysmorphia in chapter three I think you’ll find of interest.

Read chapter after session: a young girl rips open her jugular during a botched home surgery. She is trying to remove the fat from underneath her chin. The girl dies from blood loss. Digest words and recognise the taste. Later, ask doctor why he thought story in chapter three would help make sense of right now. He puzzles and says what do you mean, what story? He looks to the book and says this is not my book I never gave you this book. He opens it, flicks through pages, hands it back: this is your journal. And: there is nothing here. ◆

 
 

 

jessie berry-porter writes lyric essays and other things. She is currently doing her Masters in Publishing and Writing and a Post-Diploma in Psychology. She is interested in exploring the relationship between the body and pathology.

Leonie Brialey is a cartoonist living in Naarm / Melbourne.

'The Critic in the Episode "Mother Country"' by Jana Perković

 
Art by Isabella Meagher

Art by Isabella Meagher

 

1. in which we are living in end times

“In the 1960s and ’70s I grew up on a sheep farm in north-eastern Victoria,” said choreographer Rosalind Crisp in a very plain voice, somewhere at the start of her lecture-performance DIRtywork. Crisp had spent more than a decade dancing and choreographing in France; she only returned a few years ago. She continued, “My parents, my three siblings, myself and our dogs and cats ate sheep nearly every day.”

“In 1797 my great, great, great grandfather arrived in Australia. He was Irish, transported for anti- government activities.

“The same year, the first six merino sheep arrived in Australia, four ewes and two rams.

“By 1880 there were 106 million sheep in Australia.”

It was a peaceful, sunny afternoon in late summer/early autumn, an insufficiently appreciated Melbourne season. They were at Dancehouse, in the gym-like Upstairs Studio, and the sun was hitting the blond floorboards at a golden angle. Some sat on the seatless seating bank, others sprawled on the floor. It was a one-off, not a performance but a showing. Crisp stood up, ageing but limber, slim and dressed head to toe in black.

“A lot of my practice nowadays is about trying to understand how to dance in the midst of this ongoing destruction.”


2. in which deeds are recognised

“I wanted to say hi,” Rosalind said after the show. “You wrote about my work a few years ago for one of the newspapers, and you said I should be made a dame. Did you knowsomeone must have heard yousix months after that review, I was actually given a damehood.”

“No!” the Critic didn’t know. That was an astounding thing to say. Those were Tony Abbott’s times.

That line in the review was a direct reference to Abbott re-establishing the institution of knighthood, and promptly giving one to Prince Phillip.

“I was made the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. So basically, I’m a dame in France.”

“Oh, wow,” the Critic went from baffled to less baffled, then picked herself up. “Congratulations! Congratulations! That’s amazing!” Rosalind Crisp is one of Australia’s best living choreographers. Of course she should be a dame. Somewhere, at least.

“She should be a dame in Australia!” Liz slammed her vino on the massive table. They were in one of those faux-Mediterranean Rathdowne Street bars, I forget which one.

“Should she? Really?” June looked up quizzically, but as she did so, her eyes rolled just a little bit.

“Yes, she should. Australian artists have to go to Europe if they want to get any kind of recognition, it’s an age-old story and it repeats in every generation.” Liz sighed, a little theatrically, the way Dr Phil sighs just before delivering some frank words to a Midwestern 40-year-old man still living with his parents. “I’ve seen a whole generation of theatre artists decimated in the nineties. The best ones leaveBarrie, Benno, Simonand we’ll never,” she took a breath, “never, get them back again. The others get discouraged, beaten down, and they stop. And what a loss.”

“Look, I think it’s great that she’s a dame anywhere.” the Critic said. “She’s a choreographer! No-one ever gives a shit about dance...” This was part making light, and part honesty: truly no-one ever gives a shit about contemporary dance...

“Does the world need more knights? Does Australia need any knights?” June was pushing back; it was such a relief to no longer be living under Tony Abbott.

But Liz had ten years and a tenure track on them and would not be dissuaded. “We produce artists and thinkers as good asand I would venture to say often betterthan anything Europe has to offer. Yet we’re constantly kowtowing to foreign artists! We think a choreographer visiting from New York must be a genius, instead of appreciating the talent in our own backyard. Who will appreciate them, if not us?”

“Well, the French Order of Arts and Letters...”

“Our artists punch well above their weight! They create work with little or no funding, limited audiences, in a hostile climate, and they’re telling our stories! We’re not Europe! We live on a different land, under a different sky, what can their art say to us? We need to support our own artists that speak about our country, that express our Australian identity and our values and preoccupations...!”

Liz was on her second wine and it showed: she was becoming loud, the way Anglo-Australians tend to. The Critic looked down. The clientele in the bar were mostly Dancehouse patrons having a nightcap; it was Dance Massive and performances were going late into the night. At the table next to them was a group of dance presenters from some smaller Southeast Asian countries, in Melbourne as guests of the festival. She had seen them at other shows and had had some very interesting conversations about contemporary dance in postcolonial nations. They were now looking towards her.

Liz continued, hotly. “We need to appreciate our own artists, not always put foreign art on a pedestal! Our artists already compete against huge marketing machinery overseas! We’re up against massive economies of scale when it comes to touring, and we defund our native-bred artists every few years to slush some more funds into European elite arts like opera! It’s incredible that our artists manage not only to survive, but to thrive in these conditions.” She made a well-measured pause, before rising to a crescendo. “But every few years another shock comes, and I wonder which will be the deathblow!”

None of this was necessarily incorrect, but the Critic caught the eye of a Malaysian woman at the other table, who was looking slightly scared. Her cheeks burned red.

“You should come to Malaysia and do a critical residency with our centre.” Bilqis had said a few days earlier. “It would be great to have an international perspective on our new generation of artiststhey’re not great yet, but they’re coming up with some good stuff!”

The Critic smiled at the offer. “I’ve always wanted to know, is there a Malaysian traditional dance?” she asked. “Something similar to the Thai Khon?”

“There isn’t one,” Bilqis rolled her eyes. “I mean, the patriots would like there to be one, particularly something as refined as Khon, but there isn’t anything at that level, not really. There’s just a lot of invented faux-old dances that people pretend are important. Most kids prefer hip-hop.”

“But what technique is the national dance curriculum based on?”

“Ballet!” she laughed. “Come visit some time! It would be interesting to know what you make of it.”

This was an issue the world over: a culture either had a completely impenetrable, bone-breaking, feet-deforming dance tradition, or it imported or invented one. There was something humorous about how tangled up dance and nationalism were. On a good day, that is; on a day when we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

But now Liz was banging her fist on the table. The Critic felt the rising dread that, any moment now, her tirade would turn towards the Chinese spying on ‘us’ through Huawei or invading ‘our’ real estate market. She wanted to apologise to Bilqis and the other guests. This particular narrative of Australian victimhood, of how no-one cared about Australia, was something felt only by white Australians. She had yet to hear an Aboriginal or POC artist make that claim, and it seemed somehow fundamentally connected to the white settler identity, to some perception of an astronaut-like distance from the centre. At another time, the Critic would have pondered this, but now the rising shame was too great. It was obvious to all the fine-diners present that they were in a singularly prosperous and untroubled land. There was no need for this outburst of imaginary victimhood; it diminished them all. She wanted to apologise for her friend, whose ancestors had been living on this land for little more than a blink, yet who seemed to believe that her people’s experience of the world was of some fundamental importance to the whole bar, to the whole world. She wanted to stand up, in this bar serving tapas and European cheese, and reassure everyone that their countries were allowed to knight any Australian artist, or their own, it was fine, the world was a connected place...

"Liz, tell me about your trip,” she said instead. “You were on holiday in Ljubljana?”

Liz paused for breath.


This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full series alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.

Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on http://guerrillasemiotics.com.

Isabella Meagher is a Sydney based illustrator and animator. You can see more of her scribbles @kovvu on Instagram.