Thursday, January 19, 2012

Corrugated Iron

it transcends spaces;
dented by cricket balls in back yards everywhere,
rusted red as the sands of inland loneliness,
it flourishes alike in urban lanes
and the frayed edges of country towns.

it is roof and walls,
shed and shelter,
making tip-tilted dog kennels,
tipsy stables,
cow yards and churches,
homes and hopes.

And it's always the weather's instrument,
shrill penny-whistle for the wind
that swings like a boy on corner gutterings,
nags loose sheets into marking insistent time,
and runs glissando along roof-ridges,
playing wash-board and skiffle.
And it is xylophone for the rain's fingers,
when farmers tap arpeggios on the rungs of water tanks,
longing for a resonant answer,
sleeping easier when it comes.

Migrant once,
you could be forgiven for thinking it indigenous,
it has become as much part of landscape and legend
as ironbark, gidgee
myall and coolibah -
an enduring harmony of constant image
and endless song.


Anne Bell (b 1927) is an Australian poet I'm lucky to have befriended - we've known each other  since I worked on the NSW Department of Education's 'School Magazine' in the 1970s.  If you were a child at that time, and afterwards, it's likely you know some of Anne's poems. She's also a print-maker and painter - a nuggety country woman who is as practical as she is poetic.

I asked her to send me this poem on corrugated iron. I especially love the verse about its being 'the weather's instrument'. You perhaps need to have lived in the country (as I do) with a rainwater tank to know about tapping arpeggios on the rungs of water tanks, but anyone who has made an instrument with glasses of water knows that the sound changes with the level of the water.

I sometimes ask students in writing workshops to write about ordinary things they consider beautiful, that other people might consider ugly - corrugated iron is one of those things for me - and obviously for Anne.

(The 'pictures' on this corrugated iron wall have a clay 'frame' and contain wasps nests that were inadvertently fired in the kiln, and a piece of broken crockery that was found in the creek.)

There's so much corrugated iron at our place, I thought I'd show you some.

Top:  the wall outside our composting loo on the verandah, just above the sink.

Middle: The inside of the door in our workshop.

Bottom:  the walls of our compost heap

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The art of drystone walling and the Russian novel

We readers for whom books are almost everything think of books as one of the central foundations of our culture. Which culture? All cultures, as some books seem almost universal in their appeal and transcend time and place. They will always be relevant.

But what if civilisation has ended, and there is almost no connection between the world of the book and the world as we know it? What would we make of books then?

In Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx, civilisation ended 200 years before in an event known as The Blast, and Benedikt has a job transcribing old books so that they may be presented as the words of the new leader, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And Benedikt loves books; they are sacred, precious objects, even though he's puzzled about what some of the things in them may be.

...he knew that a book is a delicate friend, a white bird, an exquisite being, afraid of water.
Darling things! Afraid of water, of fire, they shiver in the wind. Clumsy, crude human fingers leave bruises on them that'll never fade! Never!
Some people touch books without washing their hands!
Some underline things in ink!
Some even tear pages out!

Books are only one aspect of this novel that is peppered with quotations from Russian writers, but they are a thread running all the way through. Words, and their staying power, their effect on people, are one of the few optimistic aspects of the dystopia Benedikt is living in, in a world that is pretty well bereft of beauty.

A rich man - that's who he was. Rich as rich could be! Benedikt thought about himself. I'm rich, he thought, and he laughed. He even yelped. I'm my own Murza! My own Sultan! Everyone's in the palm of my hand, in little letters: the bounty of boundless nature and the lives of countless people! Old-timers, youngsters, and indescribable beauties!

There was another good thing about books, he thought. The beauties rustling their dresses between the pages, peering from behind shutters and from under lace curtains, the beauties wringing their white hands and throwing themselves with loosened hair under the hooves of steeds, their eyes sparking fiercely - she's crying and her waist is the size of an hourglass - beauties who lounge on divans with pounding hearts, and leap up to cast a wild gaze around the room; who step fearfully, lowering their dark blue eyes; who dance fiery dances with roses in their hair - these beauties never have to answer nature's call, they never have to bend over to pick things up, they never get gas, no pimples pop up on their faces, and their backs never hurt. Their golden hair never has any dandruff and lice never nest or lay eggs in it, they leave them alone. And those golden curls - they curl for days on end, and no one ever says anything about these beauties spending half the day with bobbins in their hair. They don't chomp, sneeze or snore. Their cheeks don't squelch; no Isabelle or Caroline ever wakes up puffy with sleep; their jaws don't clack when they yawn, they wake refreshed and toss back the curtains.

What I love most about Tolstaya are her words. They remind me of bricks, each one set firmly and surely in its place. Some writers strew words like confetti; they land anywhere. Each one is nebulous - you feel they might easily have chosen another word. There's a sense of inexactitude.

No, Tolstaya's words are not like bricks, they're more like rocks in a drystone wall; each one different from the others, but selected with a sure hand that knows exactly where it will fit.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Portrait of the artist as an old woman

I don't know why, but I've been thinking about Gertrude Stein. Perhaps because, now that my hair is entirely grey, I'm thinking of cutting it really short.

Perhaps I might look like Gertrude Stein in old age. She strikes me as someone who looked her best as an old woman, as though this was the way she was meant to look.

She was born at the wrong time (1874)  to look right as a young woman. Those Victorian dresses and long hair didn't suit her.

Unlike Virginia Woolf (born 1882), for whom Victorian clothes (if not ideas) suited very well.

And then there's the famous portrait of Stein by Picasso.

The painting of this portrait is described in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

"Spring was coming and the sittings were coming to an end. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can't see you any longer when I look, he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that."

But later on he painted in the head very quickly, from memory.

And not long after, Stein cut off her long hair, so she no longer had the characteristic topknot.  I read somewhere that someone (Who? Stein herself?) said it didn't really look like her.

But it will, said Picasso.

He was obviously confident of his power as an image-maker.