Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two Thirty Thinking

Insomnia night ... I have no idea exactly why it is.
Perhaps it is the unseasonal warm wind, the failure to wriggle my toes enough,
the thought of being alone and how much longer I can bear it,
or my visions of recent hatched, matched and dispatched.
Maybe it is the building plans spinning in my head,
wondering how The Girl is going,
the aeroplane I'm getting on, to deliver a paper to a roomful of historians
(can you imagine a tougher crowd?)
or that this week my whole world shifted a bit
when a publisher said they'd take a punt on my book.

Perhaps it is just Bob's house. He was an insomniac.
About an hour ago, the trucks began coming in from Perth. When their gears begin shifting down to turn into the freight depot, I know it's going to be a while - of forklifts and reversing beeps and something that sounds like gas cylinders being thrown around inside a concrete shed. Bob told me once about a sleepless night. The trucks arrived and the forklifts began. He wandered down the hill in his dressing gown and dirty glasses and I'll bet his hair was doing that mad scientist thing. He asked them to keep the noise down as he was having trouble sleeping.
They stopped and stared at him. Those guys had been driving for five hours and probably had to do the return trip after they unloaded. They told him to fuck off.

A few years ago, instead of a screen and a qwerty, I would have curled up with my pen and my journal
as was my wont,
scrawled pages of black angst, then shut the covers ...
and now I'm blogging my insomnia.
Heh heh, sorry guys. Service will be resumed soon.
There's another truck. Now where is my tartan dressing gown and dirty glasses?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Irwin Reflections by Catherine Gordon

Catherine Gordon has been exhibiting her paintings and drawings in WA for 20 years. Now based in Albany, her current paintings are inspired by the Irwin Inlet, Denmark and its surrounds, where the landscape closes in with the half-light of dusk until the dark steals it away.

Her work is held by Artbank, Curtin University, Grove Securities,  Holmes’ a Court Collection, Perth College, Royal Perth Hospital Collection,  and the University of Western Australia.

Gallery East, North Fremantle, 1 - 24th July.

Rooia Weed, by Catherine Gordon

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Moon Tunes

Are you going to watch the lunar eclipse tonight? Apparently it begins at 1.15 am in West Australia and ends just before breakfast. Here is a good website to check up on what the moon will be up to in your neighbourhood.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Seining for Gardies

As the sun went down a chill wind blew. Old Salt and I pulled the seine net onto the little dinghy. The wind crept through my woollies. Sand from the nets blew into my eyes, so I finished loading with my sunglasses in the half dark. Then I lost the bung while bailing rainwater out of the boat. Then Old Salt lost the padlock key - in the same patch of grass as the now invisible bung!
By then I was thinking, it's gonna be a shit shot. Everything's gone bad. Oh well. There's been shit shots before and there will be again. The last bad one, the net found a submerged rock and couldn't stay away from it.
We went inside the shack and made a cup of tea, waiting for the night to come on.

Down at The Pool, around the corner from Foul Bay, the wind died. It felt almost warm. Old Salt backed the trailer down to the water. We launched the boat and he rowed off into the night with me standing on the shore and holding the end of the seine net.

A beautiful night, glassed off, with the green  harbour markers flashing and bobbing in the water. By the time he pulled the boat back to shore two hundred metres along the beach and stumbled overboard, I'd nearly walked my end of the net up to where the truck was parked. Every so often, I shone the torch over the water, to find the buoy in the centre of the net.
'Start pullin that lead line in!'
'Keep pullin that lead line in!'
'Where's the bunt?' (The middle buoy.)
'Get that lead line under. Get that pocket happening!'

Running up and down the shoreline to grab more floats and get the net in brought up a bit of a sweat. Old Salt just ambled along until he was near the car too, then we both pulled the thrashing pocket of fish into the lacy water's edge.

A huge, brown stingray floundered, all elegance lost in the net and the sand. He was swiftly flipped out and slid into the sea. I kept wary eyes on the eel tails of cobbler. Blowies began rolling around the ebb like spiky footballs. Gardies, herring, whiting, all shining in the torchlight. A beautiful night.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kurungabaa and the Shack at Foul Bay

What amazing cover art!
Kurungabaa has a new issue out and one of my yarns about Selkies and Sealers is in there.

Tonight, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am sitting in my swag at the Foul Bay shack and blogging about Kurungabaa. The ocean is roaring here and will roar all night long, only settling for the moment of dawn before the wind rises again. But in the shack it is warm with hardwood burning in the big old stove.

Normally I am out of telephone range and off the internet for days at a time while we camp in huts and fish the more remote inlets. I'm not sure all this connectivity will keep me enamoured forever but right now, it feels pretty cool.
I just drove down to the beach and turned the car's headlights on to the water, saw all the pretty silver garfish leaping about ... seine shot tomorrow ...

The June O'Clock News

Asylum seekers will be sent overseas from Australia to be processed.
Cattle will no longer be sent overseas from Australia to be processed.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Antipodean Mirror of the Tiger's Wife

From the magnificent The Tiger's Wife, there is one paragraph that I will reprint on A WineDark Sea because it reminds me of two characters I know so well ...

"Then Barba put his crates in the boat and I helped him push it out, even though he waved me off. 
Bis was already in the boat, wagging his tail so hard his hips and whole rear end were swinging manically from left to right. Then Barba Ivan climbed into the boat and , eighty years old if he was a day, rowed himself out to the motorboat he kept moored to the breakwater, switched vessels, lifted Bis out of the skiff and into the motorboat, and then, with the dog standing on the wet prow like a masthead, the two of them set off down the coast, cutting the still morning water. Every hundred yards or so, Bis would launch backward out of the boat, his jowls flapping into an insane grin of canine pleasure and disappear under the waves; Barba Ivan would kill the motor and drift until the dog caught up, or turn the boat around and go back for him."

Seadogs will slide off the bow of every skiff, into every sea in the world, to be hauled up by familiar hands, grabbing for their collar.

T'ea Obreht 
The Tiger's Wife
Orion Publishing Group, Great Britain, 2011, p. 125.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Boots Full of Blood: Cormac McCarthy and The Roving Party

Rohan Wilson has won the 2011 Vogel prize for his stunning historical novel The Roving Party.  In the story, John Batman, who later founded the settlement that became Melbourne, hires an Aboriginal man called Black Bill, some Dharug trackers and a ragtag, shoeless mob of convict assignees and sets out across Tasmania to track down and kill the ‘witch’ Manalargena. This is set within the context of the Black Line; an 1830s attempt to, if not systematically exterminate, then at least ‘round up’ and exile the Pallawah peoples of Van Diemen’s Land.

Tasmania seems conducive to historical fiction. Whether it is the Black Line, the penal settlement of Port Arthur, the extinction of the Thylacine or the more contemporary environmental battles, Tasmania has a geographical and historical intensity that lends itself to fantastical narratives built around history’s bones.

I sat up and took notice of this year’s Vogel prize winner when I read that Rohan Wilson’s winning work was partly inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Later, on reading The Roving Party, I could feel McCarthy, sitting there like some gargoyle ancestor under the text. Wilson covers the same kind of territory as McCarthy’s recurring themes – it’s there again in All the Pretty Horses, The Road and No Country for Old Men:  inexperienced men often led by a steely pragmatist moving across large swathes of country, hunting Apaches/corrupt Mexican captains/freedom. There is always a boy who, out of no choice or alternative future, joins the mob, his fast-fading youth granting juxtaposition to the jaded men’s ill deeds.

Then there is the syntax. My initial experience of reading McCarthy was akin to discovering Dorothy Porter’s verse novels. All the bells went off in my head when I realised that McCarthy had effectively wrangled himself a new genre. He reinvents the sentence to accommodate the rolling, travelling rhythm of a horseback narrative. They followed the trampled ground left by the warparty and in the afternoon they came upon a mule that had failed and been lanced and left dead and then they came upon another. (p.60) 

McCarthy is spare with his commas and heavy with ‘ands’. My high school English teachers told me never to do that. Reading his work feels like wagging school for the first time. McCarthy puts together long paragraphs, piling up the gore with carnivalesque violence. I am breathless and realise there hasn’t been a full stop for a page or two. Then he will slam the whole scene to a halt with a few choked out words from an inarticulate mercenary.

In The Roving Party, the rolling horseback rhythm is shortened to a weary footsore beat but the violence remains amoral, often without consequence. Costumery, in both books, is essential to the delivery of violence and a nod to the human body as history.
McCarthy on the Apaches warriors:

 A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in head gear of crane feathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeon-tailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armour of a Spanish conquistador, the breast plate and pauldrons deeply dented with blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust ... (McCarthy, p. 55)
This sentence continues on and is all the more terrifying and beautiful for its piled-up history, its visual, visceral assault on colonisation and invasion. Rohan Wilson describes, with less bombast, the dispossessed Pallawah people and their costume for ongoing war against the colonisers. Manalargena’s warriors are first introduced as a kind of 1830’s pastiche of the old world and the new:

They watched him across the mists, gripping clusters of spears like long slender needles. Kangaroo mantles hung loosely off their frames to hide the costume pieces beneath, trousers old and torn and black with the blood of game they had taken and looted cotton shirts gone to rags. One of their number was got up in an infantryman’s crosswebbing and another was fitted out in a fine worsted coat as if dressed for dinner. Their breath bled in the cold. Not a cast of relics come out of the grasslands where their forebears had walked but men remade in ways peculiar to this new world. As he watched those figures from the doorway the Vandemonian felt for the knife he kept rigged between his shoulderblades. (Wilson, p. 2)

Women’s voices are absent in Blood Meridian. The strong woman who bathed the drooling idiot in the river, burnt his cage and dressed him, is a rare example of a female character. Women are scenic victims but they don’t speak, only reprimand, bemoan, wail and grieve.
And sex scenes are distasteful in this man’s world, it seems. Even the softness of flesh against flesh during the rape of a woman is too soft for the hardness of this book. Little girls go missing whenever the Judge is around. Rape is not described but assumed; from the judge’s murderous paedophilia to the mass rape of murder victims, to the whorehouse, the captive Indian girls and the lieutenants’ wives. In Blood Meridian, intimacy and the sexual act scream its absence. 

Sex and death are closely aligned in our universal mythologies, so this contradiction in stories always puzzles me. The Roman amphitheatres were lined with brothels and horny noble women; acknowledgement of the highly charged sexual environment of gladiatorial combat. Yet the movie Gladiator does not have a single sex scene and Blood Meridian runs with this same contradiction. The only physical intimacy is violence. 

Wilson’s depiction of women and intimacy is quite different. There is still no sex but this absence is not noticeable because The Roving Party’s scenes with Black Bill and his longhaired wife of few words are refuges of gentleness. Their quiet bond allows a breather from the story’s chaos of attacks by hoards of painted dogs, the kidnapping of indigenous children and point blank executions of old lawmen. Wilson gives the Aboriginal woman a dignity and humanity that is denied to Batman’s white womenfolk in the narrative. The roving party happens upon an elderly clanswoman of high standing, wearing a mantle of white kangaroo skin and cicatrix of power across her limbs. Her eyes are terrifying. She unsettles everyone. 

Watch it. She has a waddy.
She no trouble. Are you, missus? (Wilson, p. 196)

Blood Meridian may have informed and inspired Wilson. However his lucid rendering of Dharug, Pallawah, convict and settler dialogue reads as beautifully authentic. Violent depictions of colonial and frontier conflicts within the same era will lend themselves to McCarthyesque language but Wilson has moved on from Blood Meridian rhythm and made his own story; a Vandemonian story. 

As to the title of this review? In every Cormac McCarthy book I’ve read, there is a scene where the main character’s boots fill with blood, usually due to being shot, stabbed, or gored by a bull. In The Roving Party, Black Bill finally gets his boots filled, thanks to the witch Manalargena.

Rohan Wilson, The Roving Party, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2011, 282pp.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Picador, London, 2010, (1985), 355pp.