18. You and I—blackout
They put a tube into me yesterday and sedated me with an
injection of temazepam, a tricyclical hypnotic. They cut polyps out
of my colon using an electrical current. Last night I fell into
waking nightmares. The horrors of the past were reawakened; this
morning I feel like I'm coming down from a binge of narcotics and
hallucinogens. I know where I don't want to be. I'm glad I'm here
and not there. Those periods that are totally lost—the
blackouts—still haunt me.
You're visiting Bob Adamson in Balmain. You've brought a friend from
Perth, Jason, who has been sleeping on the floor of your room in the
Cross. He is sick of you and your girlfriend fucking while he's in the
room. You tell them they're all bastards and that you're going to leave
for Queensland. You run out into and crash out in a park. Your girlfriend
finds you and takes you back to Bob's. He gives you Serepax and says:
that'll help calm him down. Now, it's years later and you're going through
withdrawals and have been up at the white bunker on the Hawkesbury. You've
been up all night reading poetry and are strung out. Bob gives you a
packet of Serepax. You go back to your place in the Cross and eat the
whole packet. You lose two days, and when you eventually come to, it's in
a ditch, bleeding. You phone Bob and Juno, and Juno asks if you've had a
chance to speak with Don Walker, the brother of a close friend. You can't
remember, and know you've just got to get on a plane back to Perth.
You're touring outback New South Wales with another poet. You've just
done a photo shoot for a local newspaper, a radio session for the ABC, and
a reading for the Wagga Wagga Writers Writers. That's their name. You're
back in your room after drinking heavily and turning down the offer of a
threesome. You eat a handful of valium and pass out and your poet friend
tells you the following day that he rang the hospital. You fly out of
Wagga and gradually make your way back to Perth. The dams like holes into
parallel universes. The countryside so familiar and yet different. Western
Australia is a different country and you know this now.
As a child you went with the family mushrooming in the horse paddock
every year. Back then the mushrooms grew to the size of dinner plates.
This was either said or was how you saw them. They were rich and abundant
and you wondered why more weren't damaged by the horses. Sitting on the
back of the saddle, holding onto your oldest cousin around the waist, you
imagined he was mentally connected with the horse, side-stepping the
silvery caps of the mushrooms. Over the years the yields diminished.
People would say, quietly, that it was the spray. The search area widened
and the mushrooms were picked soon after erupting from the earth—it was as
if the air decayed them faster than before. Still, knives in hand, we'd
cut the stems and fill the buckets. Down at Happy Valley my brother and I
would collect sacks full. This is grazing land and the filament structures
below the ground tend to remain intact. Rhizomic empires. You're cold and
poor, so a thick mushroom soup boosts you for days. Every second bite
crunches with grit from gills and caps.
"Out there..." out there where sheep dung
collates and top-dressed soil exudes
decomposing nitrogen, where under-rings
filigree networks of sensitivity
uneasy as roundup drifts from firebreaks
and first rains stimulate filaments;
where THE LAND does its urge thing,
conscious of literary precedent,
all that nudge and mystery
and primal aching: clair de lune,
the push-button radio astronomy
with calling occupants precision
in the blur of the between-seasons
evening—and yes, I'm afraid they DO believe it;
and yes, pink and grey and loud despite
a chill setting in: you know what we've
been reading. So, mushrooms
stem-severed and bagged, gills riddled
with field krill, rise to the less-pressured
waters, that is, out of the light-starved
trenches, rotting in sacks already bruised.
The disc plough wastes no time
before cutting in, breaking systems
of mycelium, night growth and industry.
Decay feeds and is bled: the freelancing
narratology of marketing boards.
There are many Cambridges. The gown Cambridge which is all
decoration—the rituals that keep it together and maintain its public
profile are only a diversion. Its intactness remains because there is a
town which it is not. There are the estates, there is Mill Road, there are
the homeless shelters. The horse-chestnut trees have been introduced. The
place is a construct. In College, with the surveillance cameras and
mock-monastic social structure, you can feel safe. What was before is no
longer relevant. You can bury yourself in work. A steady stream of
visitors comes through—reading, lecturing, performing. You interact with
them and then retreat. Both sides feel intact. It's about intactness.
X's and Y's house was an island. Of retreat, of Doctor Moreau. You'd
get marooned there for days. You'd maroon yourself. The run out into the
outer suburbs to score, the retreat into a space where every drug victim
in town would end up, at least once a week. The narrative threads moved in
and out of each other. Like clockwork, but only if you accept that time is
programmatic randomness. A death, a new face. All part of it. X was a
Calvinistic pagan. He accepted his lot, there was no changing it. "You see
people who spend their whole lives saving and saving and the end of it
they've lost the lot. Not this guy, it's all gone up my arm and is safe.
It's who I am." You cook vegan pizza for the family and the drop-ins. They
like it. The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" pumps out of the stereo in the
background. People talk about it as critics would talk about a rendition
of Alkan. In the end though, it's all about profit and loss. Here, the
market economy is at its most effective. People come and go...
The plough sticks in the heavy earth. The top paddock has a long run
from east to west. You follow the fence lines by the top bush, keeping the
plough guide wheel in its rut. The sun is bright and cold. The pitch of
the tractor's engine varies with the density of the soil. The disks cut
and cast the chunk ribbons of earth aside at an angle. A wedge-tailed
eagle settles on a wandoo. They're rare now. You recall one being shot
when you were a child. It's illegal to shoot them now.
I am part of everything I've written. I cannot hide behind text. You
cannot hide. And yet I am nothing to the reader. I am not relevant. The
text is not me nor does it belong to me. This is the contradiction that
keeps me writing. Death is everywhere in my work and yet I celebrate life.
I have chosen to live. My pastorals are dark because the occupation and
consumption of the environment is a dark practice. The wells are poisoned
because the act of making them is violent. An old man waiting to go into
the endoscopy unit says that he can understand why people are protesting
against the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation.
Why people in Seattle and London are saying enough is enough. "It's all
for the rich," he says—and you can tell he's not hard up. Accent is an
investment in Britain. "Problem is that you get one or two anarchists in
the mix and the whole thing turns into something else. It gets violent.
They make chaos." But I'm an anarchist and deplore violence. I deplore the
power that arises out of apportioning money, out of "doing the right
thing" by those who have less than we do. In the Guardian yesterday
a group of anarchists were interviewed about television via an anarchist
homepage on the web. One of them said: "I don't like a lot of the
programmes that are on at the moment. This Who Wants To Be A
Millionaire seems to have got the nation stunned, but I think it's
lame; very tired and quite depressing. I had a theory—only famous people
should apply to be on it. The nation would be in uproar—the rich getting
richer—and it would show up the programme for what it was."
Where is home now? If they stopped the pumps the fens would flood. If
the work of the Dutch drainage engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden had never
been, this might be a wilderness of ducks and eels and water. The fen
people would still retain their dialect and ways. Or maybe not. Maybe
change would have come internally, left to itself. The wetlands of Perth
are disappearing, Nyoongahs fight for urban space and are thwarted at
every turn. Every government agency is racist, no matter what they say.
On the goldfields of Kookynie, my grandmother would wait for her dad to
come home from the South Champion Mine. The house they lived in had
earthen floors and white-washed hessian walls. At night they'd hear the
dingoes howl and sometimes the Afghans would come into town with their
camel trains, carting water from Niagara dam. There was a pub on every
corner and the Salvation Army did Christmas picnics and sing-alongs. My
grandmother's mother had come from Gaffney's Creek in Victoria, and her
family from Scotland via New Zealand. They were from strongly Protestant
stock. My grandmother's father would die of miner's disease in Wooroloo
sanatorium. I reviewed Frieda Hughes's book Wooroloo earlier this
year. Her art studio burnt down and she saw foxes in the fields. For her
it's a place where family physically disconnects though it lives in the
shadows, in swirls of paints, in words. For me it is a place where old men
died slow deaths, where my grandmother visited and retold as memory. She
remembered particular things—the shutters, the smells, a pack of cards on
the corner of a table. Before she dies she tells me stories of Kookynie.
She remembers her childhood in detail. I am convinced she remembers every
hour. Every plant—the rare flowerings, the geranium grown against the
For years after they'd left
turnips would appear—
each season the townsfolk
heading down for the woody
harvest. For a while
it was as if the town
had one up on the desert,
but the lineage weakened,
likes the mines failing,
the hotels drying up,
the creek thinning,
the gardeners leaving town
and the desert
You plant a cutting
the dry red soil
with all the water
you can spare.
In the shade
it grows with the heat.
As if it's too good to be true,
you become anxious—
it to finish,
to have spent
its time—as it would
even in a perfect climate,
a variety of species.
in a dry place
The long dam
they used for races,
the Salvation Army
picnicking with the children
and clapping hands,
kicking up a din,
smothering the shrieks
as Mr Cram dived
and jammed his head
between the rocks,
his blood spreading
out into the dead calm
of the dam, the heat.
They named it in hope
that it would yield the greatest
of riches. The name was not
a metaphor for gold.
It signified the huge
shift of water
over the Falls.
But it wasn't to be,
and water remained brackish
the town's wealth siphoned off—
the mines crackling
underfoot like parched
My grandmother remembered the Irish on the goldfields. Catholics were
people who wouldn't go into her church. "If she won't come into my church
I'll be damned if I'll go into hers." Her daughter—my mother—would marry a
man from an Irish family, one in which the Catholic and Protestant were
constantly at odds. They left Ireland because of "strife". In me lives all
of this. I am married to a Catholic. My daughter goes to both churches. I
believe in everything and nothing.
My grandfather was a teetotaller. Back in London, his father, drunk,
had thrown himself under a train in front of his small son. He'd been an
artist. Great Aunt Minnie sang at La Scala. My grandfather won a gold
medal for violin, left England at the age of twelve with his mother and
sister, and arrived in Perth to become a signwriter, and life member of
the East Perth Football Club.
The landscapes of Wheatlands and Happy Valley have become mixed in my
mind with the grounds surrounding Churchill College. The fields, the
mushrooms. Just behind the observatory, animal research is in full swing.
You can smell slaughter days. And Cambridge is the heart of the biotech
industries. It's a place of potential patents. As the drums of chemicals
roll off the trucks and railway carriages back in Western Australia, the
word profit floats high into the atmosphere and lodges in what's
left of the ozone layer. Somebody shoots a dugite out in the middle of
nowhere because its relative might bite someone in their backyard on the
edge of the city. The borders are confused and yet the surveyors return
again and again to make sure things are in the right place.
This is the longest I've been in one place since I was a kid.