Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where have all the nooks and crannies gone?

It’s a relief to get to today, after last night’s party. Fifty or sixty fifteen and sixteen year olds celebrating a joint birthday for my youngest daughter and one of her girlfriends. As it turned out they were all well behaved. No one drank too much, though they seemed to drink quite a bit, only one girl crying in the bathroom and that towards the end of the night and something to do with her feeling snubbed by a boyfriend rather than through too much to drink. For all my anxiety.

I have been so anxious of late. It comes across in waves. I can usually locate its source: last night the party, at other times anything to do with my professional association, but it seems to wash over me more frequently these days. I worry incessantly about the dog’s well being. I long for a front screen door to reduce the possibility that someone might inadvertently leave the front door open and the dog will take off down the street, onto the road and under a car. I worry still that he might be able to scale the fence. He has not done it yet, so it is unlikely he can, but still I worry. I worry I worry I worry.

The backyard is a mess, empty drink cans, bottles, caps, shards of broken glass and cigarette butts everywhere. Although I had set up the rubbish bin strategically in one corner of the garden, it seems no one paid it attention. They dropped their cans as they stood. A few of my daughter’s friends have stayed overnight. She and they can tidy up later. I shall resist the temptation myself. For once, acknowledging that it’s not my mess and that it will be good for the girls, for my daughter and her visitors, to take responsibility for the aftermath of their party.

In two weeks time and one weekend I will be traveling to the Blue Mountains for a week of writing at Varuna, self funded. I did not apply for a mentorship, I simply decided that I needed time to do nothing but write. It does not happen here and even though I am a master at distracting myself, it is the demands of others that make it worse, not just my work and family but the other little things that crop up daily.

I also have to stop blogging as obsessively as I have been for the last few weeks. It takes up too much time and too much head space. I get into these conversations and tap away response after response. I scroll down and read other people’s blogs and other people’s comments. I love it. Such companionship, however virtual, but it takes away the nooks and crannies of time I would otherwise have used for research and reading, for emails.

Lately everything I write and everything that I read over that I have written in the past seems stale, like dry bread. Inedible. I am not happy with this. I do not feel able to engage with new ideas.

Perhaps it is the solipsistic nature of my preoccupation with all things autobiographical that leads me to this impasse. Occasionally on my blog I hear from the odd person who is critical of my interest in autobiography.

In academia there are many people who like to study autobiography from a theoretical perspective, the Sidonie Smiths and Julia Watsons of the literary world, but few of these people embark upon their own autobiographical writing, instead they examine the memoirs of others.

It seems a safer bet, I suspect. The theorists can analyse and think through ideas. They can question the memoirist’s perspectives and motives, they can challenge the level of truthfulness and otherwise, consider the extent to which the writer may have abided by or broken Paul John Eakin’s rules for life writing. They might even offer a personal reflection on their own experience of reading this other person’s personal account of their journey, but they do not offer their own journey, their own story, their travels or thoughts about their own lives. They leave that to us the autobiographers.

All of this makes it sound as though I have written a memoir. I have, but it remains unfinished? I use bits of it from time to time as a way of reinforcing my essays, the ones I write on theoretical aspects related to autobiography, to theories on life writing, the nature of shame and trauma, to the thorny old divide between fact and fiction, but I do not seek to complete this work. I am unhappy with it. I wrote it when I started again to write in my late thirties and it is clumsy in places. It does not sing to me.

I need to do more research, but for now I prefer to write and read other people's blogs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A question on autobiographical poetry

It seems I have developed a reputation as an autobiographer and theorist of autobiography, whatever that means.

As a consequence, an academic has asked me a question to which I do not know the answer. Perhaps you out there, my fellow bloggers and poets, will know more than me and I can pass on the information to the good person who is conducting research on the issue.

She asks the question:
What's the best introduction to autobiographical poetry?

Again does such a thing exist? I can only think of poets who write autobiographically and that pretty well covers all of you, but maybe some are more obvious about it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I remember you.

I have a partial denture, not all of my teeth are my own. I write these words and the thought floats around the back of my mind. Not for publication this, not for the audience. I don’t want anyone to know. I am too ashamed.

A while ago my mother visited. She came with her much younger cousin Jo and Jo’s husband Arnold. They’d been out for lunch and my mother decided, or so she told me over the telephone when she made arrangements for the visit that it would be good for Josephine and Arnold to meet some of their younger relatives in Australia. They emigrated here a couple of years ago.
‘I’m an old lady, my mother said, what would they want to spend time with me for?’
I thought it was also a pretext to spend time with me.

I suggested my mother come after four as I had a dentist appointment earlier that day.
‘Oh, I remember you.' She said. 'You were so frightened for the dentist. You had to have an anesthetic.’
‘I was only little,’ I said. I was about seven and they needed to take out several teeth.’
What do I remember of that day?

My mother and I sit on a long wooden bench in a room that reminds me of a church for all its austerity, but there are magazines on a pile in one corner and no crosses to be seen. We are in the Dental Hospital and I am alone with my mother. In so many memories of my mother I am alone. She is sitting very close to me. I can feel the mold of her hip against mine even through the thick layers of her woolen skirt and coat. I am wearing my older brother's black duffel coat. One of the wooden buttons is loose so the coat gapes in the middle.

I have come for extractions. I do not want to think too much about this word but my mother says I will not feel a thing. I will be put to sleep and when I wake up it will all be over.

I look down at my feet. I am wearing my first Holy Communion black patents. I have worn them for a long time now, every Sunday, and they are beginning to wear out. There are holes in the middle of the soles of each shoe, but no one can see this, no one knows but me. Only when I kneel down for Holy Communion at the front of the church do I worry that other people will see the holes in my shoes. Then I try very hard to curl my toes up while I’m kneeling to keep as much of the heel concealed as possible.

My black patent shoes shine. My mother has told me I must not worry. I do not want to think about why I should worry, but the smell of chemicals, the smell of toilet cleaner, the mothball smell of this place makes my stomach hurt. I try to breathe through my mouth and I run my tongue over my teeth. They are scratchy to feel.

‘Seven baby teeth have to go.’ I hear the dentist tell my mother as his big hands prod my mouth open. He scrapes against my teeth with a sharp metal stick.
‘Normally we await till they fall out of their own accord,’ he says ‘ but these seven are too far gone.’
She’s not doing a good job of brushing her teeth, is she?’ he asks my mother as though I am not there.
‘I tell her to brush them every day,' my mother says.

It’s true. My mother tells me every night when I go into the lounge to say good night to my father and he brushes my forehead with his yellow thumb, his thumb that is yellow from smoking, He brushes my forehead in a sign of the cross and my mother calls out after me, after us, my sister and I, ‘Brush your teeth now.’

My sister goes to the bathroom and brushes her teeth. I go to the bedroom and get ready for bed. When I am in bed, I remember to brush my teeth but I cannot be bothered. Later when my mother comes to say good night she asks again.
‘Did you brush your teeth?’
I say ‘Yes’. And she is happy. Easy as that.

My teeth feel furry most of the time. But not today. Today they have a shiny feel in the places where they are not broken. They have a shiny feel because I brushed and brushed them because I know the dentist will look at my teeth and he must not know that I have not told the truth.

I tell the truth in confession. Every week I tell the priest that I have been telling lies once. Telling lies. He never asks what lies. Telling lies once, stealing once, he never asks what I have stolen. And being disobedient, I add. That one feels like a lie because I am never disobedient.

Not brushing my teeth when my mother tells me cannot be a sin of disobedience because I have included it in my telling lies. A sin only counts once. At least for me it does. Though my mother tells me that my grandmother suffered from scruples. She went to the priest and confessed her sins and even after he gave her absolution and said she could go off and say a prayer she was not happy. She came back to the same pries again and again. ‘
You do not understand, Father’ she said. “You do not understand how badly I have sinned.’

I know it’s easy to wash your soul clean. One visit to confession and everything is washed away and my soul, which is just under my stomach right down close to my bottom is clean and white again. I know my soul is near my bottom because it is harder to keep it clean there when it is so close to all the poo in my body. I know this because the nuns tells us about the soul within and how hard we must work to keep it clean and spotless.

But my teeth are not spotless. They are full of holes, ‘cavities’ the dentist says. A nurse in a white uniform with a tight bun on top of her head calls out my name and my mother and I walk into a cubicle where my mother helps me take off all my clothes. Then she dresses me in a thin white dress which has big holes for sleeves and no buttons. My mother ties the cords all the way up the back but the hospital gown gapes even worse than my coat and I am scared that people will see my bottom. But as soon as I am out of the cubicle the nurse tells me to lie down on a long bed with metal sides and she pushes me through slamming doors that snap shut behind, down a long corridor of bright lights.

I am lying on top of this trolley bed like a dead person. I feel numb the way I think a dead person feels but my mind is still ticking over. My hands are cold. My stomach aches from the smell. A man in a mask leans over my arm and sticks in a needle. I watch the silver shine of the needle as it pierces my skin and the feeling of sharpness that comes with it is not my feeling anymore and then I am really dead.

When I wake up my mouth is full of the metal taste of blood. I try to spit it out. I am too scared to run my tongue along my teeth. My mouth has become a bloody hole. I can see myself in a mirror on one of the walls and I have shrunk. I do not look the same as I remember me. My face is white, and flat as a plate. My lips are bright red.

My mother and I stand outside the big green dental hospital and wait for my father. He pulls the grey Holden into the curb and my mother bundles me into the back. Her hands are gentle as they brush back my fringe from my forehead.

My soul feels black today as though all the times of not brushing my teeth have been lined up together for punishment.
‘You can have some ice cream when we get home,’ my mother says. My father pulls the car into the traffic. I have never been in a car alone with my parents ever. Where are my sisters and brothers? Where are the others? I hope my mother has not told them. I hope they will never know about my teeth, the holes and my bad ways. There are still four days before Friday’s confession.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Another pair of eyes

November is the month of birthdays in our household. It is both a pleasure and a burden. Half the members of my immediate family of six were born in November. The rest are spread more evenly in February, June and September. November is also the month in which my husband and I chose to get married. The month before Christmas, it signals the beginning of a long line of celebrations.

I have always maintained that birthdays are important. It is the one day of the year when you can really be celebrated. We all need to be celebrated from time to time. We all need to feel special from time to time. We all need to take centre stage from time to time, but how easily it is frowned upon.

When I was a child the nuns described the naughty disobedient ones, generally the boys, as ‘notice boxes’. I conjured in my mind then the image of a red letter box, a letter box with its wide slit in the middle like a hungry mouth waiting for a letter to drop in. Were these naughty boys then like letter boxes, waiting for letters, waiting for attention?

I have a friend, a child psychotherapist who observes the increase in situations where small children, again most often boys, are being diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit disorder. She wonders, she tells me, where is the attention deficit actually located.

This is not an attempt at parent bashing. Think again of Phillip Larkin’s poem: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had, /And add some extra, just for you.’

I wonder sometimes whether as a society we suffer a sort of attention deficit disorder across the board. I’m the worst of all when it comes to this – head buried in a book or at my computer screen.

Just now my attention has been taken away by my daughter who is busy making a lemon meringue pie at the request of her youngest sister whose birthday was yesterday but which we celebrate today. She cannot find the lemon zester.
‘Can I lend another pair of eyes?’

Do you find this? You’ve lost something. You’ve searched all over the house and still cannot find it. You ask for help and the second pair of eyes sees it instantly. I found the zester in the cupboard with the juicer, where it should not have been.

And now I’m distracted still further by a conversation with my husband in which we have decided yet again we must do something about getting the dog groomed. His coat needs a cut; his claws need clipping. So I will make that call now to a visiting dog washer because, if I do not, another week or two or three will pass and the dog will get shaggier and shaggier.

This is the life we lead, attention deficits abound, distractions as Damon Young calls them. And yet there is something inherent in these distractions that I also love. They remind me that I am alive and I’m thankful for them. I imagine when I’m dead they won’t touch me anymore.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Good from Bad

I wonder what distinguishes good writing from bad? What is it that makes us want to read on? To some extent it must be subjective, different words and styles appeal to different people. The good and bad of it is the wrong terminology of course. It's not necessarily good and bad, it's different, at different levels but I can keep qualifying for ever.

When I read blog sites, why do some appeal to me and others not? Why am I so taken by the self conscious confessional tone of some like Artandmylife, who forever admits to feeling poorly educated, a non expert, and yet offers her thoughts and opinions regardless. For me she becomes a sort of every woman, the mother at home with her little ones imparting knowledge to them that is greater far than anything they can read in text books and yet, her knowledge is somehow diminished because it has not been formalised through the official authorised discourse. Maybe this is why I enjoy her work so much, the same with Stripeysocksstudio and Martin Edmond on Luca Antara– was there ever a more self-effacing, yet brilliant writer, who also seems more self taught than spoon fed by the institutions. Maybe for me, too, because I have gone back to the university after thirty years and because I do not have a vested interest in fitting in with the academic ethos – I’m not looking for a job there – I can write more freely even as I know it will not satisfy certain of the establishment.

I resent the insistence that everything said be backed up by a footnote - Who gave you this idea? Who has said this before you? How can you claim to know this? How dare you presume to say anything unless someone else presumably more learned than you has said it before? To me that’s different from the need to acknowledge other people’s ideas. I have no problem acknowledging other people’s ideas, but sometimes I cannot remember and sometimes my own ideas have become such an amalgamation of all the ideas that I have read and heard from many other people I cannot think to anchor the idea as someone specific’s property.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Too late

The day after my birthday on Guy Fawkes Day, the dog snuck out through the front door when my back was turned. I tried to stop him to corner him in the front yard before he reached the entrance gate but he was too quick.

He ran out onto the road and did not die. Cars honked, I screamed and eventually my daughter managed to corner him on Beaconsfield Road, around the corner, but the trauma of the near miss is still with me. I cannot settle.

The next day I gave a paper at a conference on migration. And now I'm struggling to prepare that paper for publication.

The image of the dog running onto Riversdale Road won’t leave me. It’s one of those recurrent scenes that flashes before my eyes involuntarily and I have to shake my head to get rid of it.

It is a small trauma in the scheme of things but a trauma nevertheless and it will be days before it leaves my memory, not entirely, not forever, but at least like music that repeats itself again and again when you least want it, in time this image will only come back when I call upon it.

For the moment it is lodged there, cruelly shattering my sense of peace. It reminds me of how easy it is to lose a loved one; how easy it is to fail to be vigilant and leave the front door open long enough for the dog to slip out; and before you know it he is out on the street.

The dog has no road sense, no understanding whatsoever that the things roaring past will not stop for him if he chooses to run in front of them, if he chooses to play.

When I was a child we had a dog named, Peta. Peta loved to chase cars. It amazed me even then that she never ran under the wheels. When our car took off from the curb, Peta started to chase us all the way down or up Wentworth Avenue to Canterbury or Mont Albert Roads where he finally stopped.

Peta seemed to know when the cars were too much for her. She chased only the single file of cars on the side road on which we lived. She did not take on the main road.

We called her Peta with an 'a' because when we found her as a stray and begged our father to let us keep her we had to convince him that Peta was a boy and not a girl.

Several litters of puppies later he knew the truth, but by then it was too late.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Apple pie order

I had such a day yesterday, a doing-jobs-I’ve-put-off-for-weeks day and now I feel that blessed relief that comes of a nasty job well done. I feel virtuous. Even as my feet are cold and I should put on socks, I can ignore them better when I feel this way. Such feelings are short-lived. I cleaned the stacks of notes surrounding me in my writing room into orderly piles and filed them as needed. I sorted the articles I need for the two essays on which I am currently working, one on migration and the other, straddling two worlds, as autobiographer and psychotherapist.

I do not know how it happens. It sneaks up on me. I begin to work on something and the books and papers begin to collect around me, one on top of the other. Then they become interspersed with letters, magazines and any other correspondence that comes in over the period. After a while I cannot find anything and yet this mess making, as I call it, becomes an inevitable part of the process for me.

Recently in The Age I read an article about Jane Clifton and her writing space, which she loves in part because it is away from her home. She can work in silence and peace all day away from domestic demands and children, then at the end of the day she can tidy up her space and return in the morning knowing the room will be in ‘apple pie order’. Her words: apple pie order. Apple pie order lasts for me as long as an apple pie would. I forgive myself this. I suspect it is the way I am.

When I work on an essay, it’s the same. I begin in a mess. I make many false starts. I cobble together bits and pieces that seem relevant from writing already written, then I try to find some narrative thread to tie them all together. I use Gail Jones’s wonderful parataxis. She has given me permission to continue in this disorderly way. To bring together what appear to be discrete blocks of writing: things that resonate for me, as having some underlying connection, even if the connection is not obvious. Then over time I work on these pieces. I play around with them. I drag one chunk from down under and bring it closer to the beginning. I add new chunks. Then at some point when I sense I have completed a good enough first draft, even though I know it is far from ready, I send it to someone like my wonderful editing and writing friend Christina Houen in the west who will read the piece through and give me an honest appraisal, often at this stage a scathing appraisal where she will point out all the bits that do not work.

More often than not, Christina will urge me to trust my own judgment, to write more autobiographically and to dispense with at least half of the wonderful quotes from other writers that I have included in my first draft. I do this every time and Christina has the same response. I love the quotes I use. I have an ear for them but she is right, they are the voices of others and sometimes my first draft can read like a collage of other people’s ideas and my own voice gets drowned. At this stage I often feel desperate, hopeless. The essay has become an impossibility. But I heed Christina’s advice. I pare back and pluck out the excess to try again.

Grace Cossington Smith, one of the artists whom Drusilla Modjeska writes about in the biography Stravinsky’s Lunch did this with her painting.

‘A continual try’, she writes. ‘It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time, it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube…’(p. 322).

All this trying can be messy: lots of false starts, lots of unwanted bits floating around the room in the form of my notebooks, other people’s texts. My computer desktop is littered with new readings. My husband is disgusted. He is an orderly worker; he needs to be. He’s a lawyer.

At a seminar on memory several weeks ago I tackled Jeffrey Olick on his desire for order. He had talked about wanting to establish a canon for memory studies, namely his need to list a series of basic texts with which anyone should familiarise themselves in order to become proficient in the area, beginning with Holbwachs, Durkheim and the like.

People in the audience, creative types who do not follow easy, straight trajectories, challenged him. Someone offered Ross Gibson as an example of an academic whose work is scholarly but would never reach Jeffery’s canon. Jeffery’s canon is only to include theorists, no case studies, he declares.
'Ross’s work is not scholarship,’ says Jeffrey. ‘It is art certainly, but not science.’ No room for art within Jeffrey’s canon. Then the fight was on for young and old.

When it was my turn to speak I told Jeffrey about the essay writing mantra my lawyerly husband trots out, about the need to plan: Write in the first instance what you plan to say, then write it and finally write about what you have said. There you have it: simple, so simple so neat, so orderly and to my mind so boring. I told Jeffrey before writing an essay I never plan.
‘I would not want you to be my lawyer,’ Jeffrey said after I had tried to suggest that both methods have their place, both are valid, simply different ways of approaching our work. No Jeffrey could not agree. The creative exploratory work of the Ross Gibsons of this world is all very well. But real scholarship comes out of painstaking theoretical writing that covers the field. Maria Tumarkin, Jeffrey says, is doing a bit of both. Christ knows, I think most of us are doing a bit of both, but in Jeffery’s mind the only valid work is the abstract, distinct and theoretical.

I felt for him then. He was outnumbered by most of the audience. He, the esteemed visitor from America who had been hailed the guru of memory studies and came here as a guest of Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research had been reduced to rigidity. By the end it was as if people were challenging his offering so heartily that if he were more sensitive than he appeared to be I think he could have felt very hurt and troubled. But I suspect, given his proclivity for distance and abstraction, he has a thicker hide than most of the messy creative types, all of whom, myself included are far more insecure in our undertakings. We can never have the confidence of a canon.

Canons include and exclude. Although they purport not to be definitive, they become that way simply through the power of the list. A list becomes a measure of belonging. If your work, your book, your name is on the list, you belong. If it is not, you are an outsider and somehow the outsider is measured in such academic circles, as far as I can see, as a maverick, not kosher, not rigorous enough in their scholarship.

Scholarship, schmolarship. To me it’s all about reading as much as you can within and around an area and trying hard to think your way through the ideas, the stories from the past and present, trying to come up with your own measure of things.

In my writing I have found so many ideas repeated again and again and every time I read the same idea repeated in a different voice, by a different writer, the idea takes a slightly nuanced slant in a different direction that shifts and balances the weight of other ideas. But the basic ideas remain.

Here I remind myself of my analyst’s helpful comment years ago about the nature of theory. ‘Theory,’ she said, ‘is simply other people’s ideas.’ Other people’s ideas I would add now that have been validated and confirmed by others in authoritative positions from the academy. Not every one’s ideas can be offered the label of theory. Ideas also need time to percolate within the public psyche before they can be offered the status of the theoretical. But they are ideas nevertheless and the world is full of them, and rarely can if ever reach anything like a state 'apple pie order'.