Selected Poems, Fleur Adcock. Oxford University Press, 1983.
Being a girl is dangerous. I don't just mean we are vulnerable to danger, but that we are, ourselves, dangerous, capable of causing great damage to ourselves and others. We, especially in those years we are changing into women, live in danger, where danger is the vibrating state we occupy.
I started thinking tonight about Fleur Adcock's Selected Poems which I first read at 15. I remembered the dark green cover and how the spine looked on my parents' bookshelf. The slim sitting room one with the cut out hearts and tidy shelves of Penguins. Have I made up the moment of discovery? Of pulling the book from the shelf, of curling in the large brown chair with the ribbed pattern that would leave its tribal marks on me? The book must have come alive to me then, something that breathed and beat so that next time I came to the shelf I would recognise it. It would hum when I entered the room.
It was my mother's book but became mine in the way any book is claimed as intimate property by obsessed readers. I wonder if it in turn claimed me, lodging its shards in my ears and brain and heart, because it was the first book of poetry I really read. A book I read for sheer pleasure but also I read and reread wanting to understand how Fleur Adcock had done it. I don't know if that is peculiarly a budding poet's reading, or if that is the nature of all close reading of poetry. That the thrill of a good poem is watching it run but also holding it in your lap, seeing the bones and muscles move beneath the pelt, smelling its oily springed wool. Understanding how it all fits together.
Do teenagers, or at least the kind I was, gravitate towards poetry because the best of it is transformative in the same way adolescence is? Good poetry allowing us not just to see the capacity of the poet, but our own capacities. A transformation from passive childlike recipients of the word and the world, to readers active, engaged and creative in our own right. I think about how it's not just writers who are dangerous, with their strange ability to conjure mountains and moods, but readers too. There is a moment, when we get poems, if we get them, where we are not having something done to us by the poem, but we are doing something to the poem. A good poem, that we have read and understood, can give us a sense of mastery, perhaps what a musician feels when she plays fluently, for the first time, a difficult piece of music.
It is a long time since I have opened Adcock's book and when I do it is with great affection as phrases I have loved for 30 years float up off the page out to me, triggering the same pings of pure pleasure as they did on my first encounter with them.
ichnueman flies have got in
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
...and tiptoes in sandals
that softly waffle-print the dusty floor
'Oblivian, that's all, I never dream' he said –
proud of it, another immunity
'Will I die?', you ask. And so I enter on
That dutiful exposition of that which you
Would rather not know.
Phrases which are part of my own history, which have been absorbed into my sense of the musicality of language, and which have shaped how I have read poetry ever since. And now, on this return, an added richness because I see the connection between Adcock and others. Her poems about the death of old lovers feel close to Lauris Edmond's. There is something of Adcock's parental ambiguity in Helen Lehndorf's gothic works of domesticity. I've just read Adcock's sister Marilyn Duckworth's 1970 book Over the Fence is out, and I see shared insight into the complexities of male violence against women. As Helen Heath explores in her poetry the intersections between human and synthetic worlds, I know she should read 'Gas', Adcock's speculative sequence on involuntary cloning.
She sees with my imperfect vision, she wears
my finger-prints; she is made
from me. If she should break the bones I gave her,
if disease should invade
her replicas of my limbs and organs,
which of us is betrayed?
On re-examining the book I encounter again Adcock's formidable combination of cool formality and passion. Intense feelings bounded by guarded line and graceful rhythms. Feelings constrained, almost to the point of repression. The words seem to rebel against their dignified imprisonment, amplifying their potency.
With Adcock I am always coming and going. Sailing so close to the poems' narrator our skins touch, feeling so close it as is if I understand the warm workings of another's body. This claustrophobia is not always, or even often, pleasant.
If I were to touch you I should feel
Against my fingers fat, moist worm-skin.
I sail from here to a glittering windy world of wry distance, observation, salty intelligence. From Adcock I learned it was possible to write intimately without gushing, to write seriously without being doughy. The arts of deft restraint.
This darkness has a quality
That poses us in shapes and textures,
One plane behind another,
Flatness in depth.
Your face; a fur of hair, a striped
Curtain behind, and to one side cushions;
Nothing recedes, all lies extended.
I sink upon your image.
What surprised me, when I found the battered copy of the never returned book on my shelf in a different room, in a different house, was how dangerous this book is. It's why I started thinking about danger. I wanted to find a belt and wrap it around the book like you must do with Harry Potter's Monster Book of Monsters to avoid being bitten. Selected Poems has tigers and rapists, maggots and prowlers, kitten killing mothers and exile, skinned dogs and nightmarish realisations.
It was obscure, but glancing towards the end
she guessed that killer, and lover and doctor were the same;
proving that things are ultimately what they seem.
Every hopeful poem about mothering and childhood in this book contains within it a moment of dying. Every relationship poem contains the demise of the relationship. It's a frightening book. Slightly hellish in its vision, full of serious and very adult truths. It's brutal and beautiful and honest. No wonder I loved it then, love it still. Look, children, the wood is full of tigers, warns Adcock.
They've eaten all the squirrels. They want you,
And it's no excuse to say you're only children.
No one is on your side. What will you do?
I started writing a response to some of the comments on Giovanni Tiso's blog post Suffer the little children about the reluctance of Auckland Libraries to remove a book, that as it has been pointed out to them, instructs people not only to beat their children, but also how to beat them and with which implements.
My response started going on a bit and was in numbered sections with multiple parts, distinct personalities, and too many semicolons so I thought I better do my own post.
First, an anonymous librarian (anonymous because Auckland Library employees aren't allowed to comment officially on the issue) says the book probably arrived in the regional library by way of people being interested in research.
"By research I don’t mean academic research – I mean people volunteering for community groups, for internet think pieces, for blogs, writers of non-academic books, journalists etc. This is where I suspect the initial request for purchase came from, and where the current 19 requests on the book come from. I doubt any of these people are looking for parenting advice or will find the arguments in the book compelling. "
Given the book was in 1994, up to its 22nd printing, it seems to be a bit naive to suggest that some Aucklanders might not be among those who have obviously found the arguments compelling.
Additionally, the idea that the book is sitting in the collection as an item of interest in terms of research and not as a parenting guide would bear more weight if the library catalogue entry tagged the book with child abuse rather than under parenting.
Go to this Auckland Libraries site and type child train into the search box and it will be the first result returned. You can clearly see the item's tags Religious aspects, Amish, Family relationships, Parenting, Child rearing, Parent and child, Amish. Nothing which implies this is anything but a legitimate parenting manual. While the book may not be kept on the open shelves, as Anonymous suggests, it sits openly in Auckland Library's catalogue complete with the detailed description of the book as written by the publisher. Click through to the book's full catalogue entry and you can see the Author's notes and sketches and if you so desire "Learn more about them [the authors] and sign up for the No Greater Joy bi-monthly magazine at NoGreaterJoy.org ." Good grief.
Dylan Horrocks comments:
"... however much I reject the positions such books might take, I would be disturbed if the library refused to acquire a book on what are essentially moral grounds. Libraries did precisely that for many years, and the result was the suppression - above all - of minority voices, dissidents, feminists, queer writers, etc. "
I do argue that Auckland Libraries shouldn't hold this book - or if they do it needs to be tagged with child abuse, human rights violations, nasty thuggish ideas about beating up children and Childcare by Psychopaths and certainly not with Parenting . I know Dylan's with me on reclassifying it.
But my argument is based on the fact that it is an explicit manual on how to violate human rights. It is not the same argument used to suppress dissidents, queer writers, minority voices unless they too are producing manuals on how to violate fundamental human rights.
They're different arguments coming from different places. And it's okay, this is complicated stuff. We're allowed to be nuanced. We're allowed to say some stuff is okay and some stuff isn't.
As my friend Fraser said on Twitter
“But where do we draw the line?” How about somewhere this side if the child abuse manual?
Which brings me to THREE....
...which is more of a question really. What if this was a step by step manual on how to rape a child? Would the rather wussy defence of the book by Auckland Library representative Louise LaHatte, that libraries are committed to the principle of "freedom of access to information", that they acknowledged the book was "divisive", and they wouldn't
"suppress or remove material on the grounds that it gives offence" stand?
Or is it, as I suspect, that beating a child is a more palatable and socially acceptable violation of a child's human rights than rape. And that should an instruction manual on how to rape a child inadvertantly make it to the library shelves then Auckland Libraries would quietly and rightly remove it knowing that words like divisive, access to information and offence simply weren't appropriate.
I'm not convinced the language of rights is appropriate here at all. No-one is getting arrested or shot for reading the how to beat up your child book. It's probably getting preached in various toxic churches without repercussion. You can do all manner of searches on the internet and I imagine get detailed information and support from others who also want to maim their children. The right to information and speech is not under threat here.
A member of Auckland's population has made a stand and said it's inappropriate for a publicly funded institution to hold a book that instructs readers hurting some other members of Auckland's population. New Zealand is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which isn't down with hurting children. Auckland City Council must be bound by the Convention's Articles, so I reckon that's a fair point.
Okay, I'm all in favour of using a human rights framework as a starting place for policy but Auckland Library's call for freedom of access to information, and others' concern that 'banning' this book is a violation of freedom of rights plays several shonky moves.
It presumes that the right to freedom of information and freedom of speech should be realised even if it means the inability for others to realise their own freedoms.
It favours those who are already engaged in the process of informing and speaking, over those who aren't. In this case the rights for Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To train up a child, to speak and certain Auckland Library user patrons to be informed take precedence over the rights of children simply because they're there and they showed up and they're tall.
It reduces the discussions of freedoms to a single issue of right and wrong, zooming closer and closer, until everything except this particular perceived violation of a right is blurry and forgettable and unimportant. Context is important.
In our society, where the realisation of human rights is uneven, defending the rights of the already powerful is not enough.
We need to be intelligent, and expansive and proactive about rights. We must ask Whose freedoms are we thinking about? Who else's freedoms should we be thinking about? Does this freedom impact other people's freedoms? Is this cry for freedom actually a flag flying call to defend the status quo?
If our attention is drawn to the rights of child beaters, we must think also about the rights of the children they would have us beat.
Read I'm working on a blog post
I have so many more things to say about I'm working on a building but when I found this song I realised it said what I'd been trying to say all along.
Working on a building, Bro. Joe May and the Sallie Martin Singers
The book like the song is full of redemption and longing. Full of hope. Full of time and the possibilities that time offers.
A story told backwards, as IWoaB is told, makes us hold time differently in our heads. Makes us consider time in two or more ways simultaneously. I always think of the first chapter (which tells us the most recent events in Catherine's life) as also being the last chapter. The last chapter which tells us of Catherine as a child, already moving away from people, already interested in buildings, is also like a first chapter. I can only understand the book if I both these things true. Like Lyra reading her Alethiometer in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights - learning to hold three levels of thought in her mind at once.
I kind of see 'em. Or feel 'em rather, like climbing down a ladder at night, you put your foot down and there's another rung. Well I put my mind down and there's another meaning and I kind of sense what it is. Then I put 'em all together. There's a trick in it like focusing your eyes.
The title of the book is an affirmation of time. That the moments of construction, the project in flight, the building are something larger than itself. I'm working on a building is not just a statement about a sequence of events but a summary of Catherine's life story. Cathy, inheriting a human world of collapse and failing finds a type of grace in the certainties of heavy engineering. Cathy survives because she is smart enough to understand, in physical terms, what material will in actual fact, when it comes down to it, bear what load. How concrete is always moving. What happens at moments of stress.
Every second from then, the building would be something new and the new thing would finally twist the floor open and pull her down so she was falling and watching the building coming down on top of her exactly as she expected it would. Look at you, she thought, watching all it would become. Be monsters, she said, and it was.
Listening to the song makes me feel a bit like I feel reading the book, sad and glad and hopeful. Time can carry us back or forward to the places we want to be and the people we want to be with. Time lets us build. Time as a common. Time as a kind of blessing, inevitable, and despite numerous efforts at theivery, available to all of us.
Poor Kitten, Tansy thought. How the hand that feeds has come to hold you. All Catherine would be able to do now was work hard and late, disappear for lengths of time during which she could make something different of it all. Wait, she thought; wait it out. Time changes everything.
I'm working on a building. Pip Adam. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013.
Buy it online or at a bookshop or borrow it from the library. If your library doesn't have it ask them to buy it.
Confession: It’s winter and I am being haunted. A line in a book dogging me, following me. I say the line willingly to myself, willing it to impart its cleverness to me, but sometimes it, of its own accord, says itself to me. Chants itself to me. In the mornings, when I climb down out of our house, the light just arriving in the sky. When I catch the train home and it’s so dark the whole trip is a tunnel. The inside of the train lit up and hot and full and in the train windows a perfect reflection so there are two trains travelling though the night, and I look at myself in the window, in my great detail, and there I am, saying the line. Those nights in which we know only that we are travelling but nothing of what we are travelling through.
I feel sad and complicated thinking about the line but I don’t know why. I want to know why. Because maybe if I understand why, I’ll understand the book the line is in, and how the book works, and how the book pulls me into my 14 year old self and out again. How it spirals me into the 1980s and whispers things to me about what happened then and what it means and what it changed. The loss. The losses. Okay, it was years ago, but most things were.
It was all gone in a year:
Listen. The first two words you say quickly, then the all is drawn out a little, the gone is slow and emphatic. A dull bell, a dreadful ringing. A pause and in a year, two quick beats followed by a slower subtly stressed beat. The whole thing something like dada-dum-duum-dada-dum.
I listen and climb inside the sounds of the words, I see the shape of the letters arc over me, and then I’m in. The terrible firmness of something being gone, all of it. And how quickly it happens, in just one year. Before we even know what the line is about we know it’s a lament and a line that is grieving. This line that worries me, that sings me to sleep, that wakes me at uncomfortable times to ask What’s gone? What’s all gone?
The book is Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building, a story about the life of Catherine who has a great affinity for buildings and understands their complexities. Weight and load and core. She finds people more difficult. She becomes an engineer. One chapter begins with my line and goes on.
It was all gone in a year: the private school, the cars, the boats, the business.
It’s Auckland, I put it at 1988, a year after the global sharemarket crash where people lost a lot. Not just long time investors but people who were new to it and terribly vulnerable.
At this point in the story Catherine is 14, her parents are drunk and passed out on the floor. With the economic collapse, her parents collapse. 'Inspirational' her friend Tansy says. 'Aspirational' corrects Catherine. That night they both leave home and Catherine leaves a note for her sister advising her to get out as soon as she can. I imagine remnants of wealth scattered through the house Catherine has left. A sort of decay that leaves me nauseated. A rot echoed through the book, most hauntingly for me when Catherine and Tansy visit a friend at his parents' house where they observe a decrepit spa pool:
There had been mosquito larvae in it, tiny humping see through things.
So in this first reading of my line the It is money and wealth, and materialism. The comforts of affluence shed suddenly and unexpectedly and now festering. Just with that straight reading I’m excited because New Zealand was burnt worse than any other country in that global ‘87 crash. The losses are large and luminous like ghosts and lit the path for everything that has come after. The eighties had been awful, but in ‘87 the whole place went under. We say unemployment soared, we say benefits were slashed, we say suicides spiked. Because there was something majestic and violent and personal in how awful it was. We’re still grieving. We need to talk about it and write about it. We need stories to help it make sense.
But not just affluence was lost in the 1980s. My friends and I talk about this time, we in different iterations, as teenagers talked through this time. Stories all about losing. How meat works and factories closed down. How people were rebranded out of their offices. How fathers lost jobs and started drinking. How brothers, after years on the dole, finally found work and shortly after killed themselves.
The world became a place of worry and fear and these worries became the tools of governance because everyone who had not lost a job was frightened of losing their job. They could be made to sing and dance and sign away rights and their questions. Because next time, the next restructure, the next cuts might be the ones that affected them. They were obliged to work harder, for longer, for less, in jobs they hated and they learnt not to complain. Those fearing losing their homes or their jobs or their benefits falling over those who had actually lost their jobs and houses and benefits falling over those who had never had jobs or homes or benefits. You could always get poorer.
So here I think about the loss in the line as something like the loss of a communal mood. That for many the focus had to shift from how we might improve our lives to how we might survive them. That depression is such a perfect term for what happened because it describes not just the behaviour of the market in eight successive economic quarters, but the behaviour of the spirit. How limited options slow the mind, distort it, dull it. How the external becomes internal.
But even then, even with the understanding of these profound losses something nags me. It's bigger, I think, It's bigger yet. It was all gone, I think, and the sadness of the line grips me again.
Supply and demand curves
The revolution that happened - and those cheerleading the 1980s reforms and those condemning them both call it a revolution - was based on a very simple idea. That the market, left to its own devices, would ensure the best distribution of goods and services.
The bog standard supply and demand graph I was learning in my dreadful high school economics class was becoming the holy grail of New Zealand policy makers. These graphs have an x axis representing price and a y axis representing quantity. Typically there are two lines forming a cross in the middle of the graph. It shows people will sell lots of a good they get a high price for, and buy lots of a good they can get cheaply. Where the lines cross, somewhere in the middle, the price is set, high enough for it to be worth it for the seller, low enough to be worth it for the buyer.
In the 80s, the equilibrium, long considered a nifty trick of the market, was deified. It became holy, bestowed by neoliberalism's high priests with great magic and recognised as a wonderous force. The invisible hand of the market would ensure an equilibrium was reached and balance would return to the universe.
The thing is in high school, while market theory was taught as fact, we were drilled in the circumstances markets would fail: particularly natural monopolies and the provision of social or public goods things like education, or sewerage. But what was new and terribly exciting for 80s and 90s policy makers, was the idea that the market would never fail. That the market could solve everything. Economic issues, social issues, governance issues, justice issues, education, health, water. You simply needed to translate the problem into something that would fit neatly into a supply and demand graph, understand the correct measurements of price and quantity, type in the numbers, listen to the whirring and bingo, out would pop the equilibrium price and a glorious order would entail.
Society's dominant ethical lesson provided to those of us growing up in the 1980s, girls like Catherine, Tansy, and me was commodification. That the primary relationship between people was of buyer and seller. I think of the day Catherine and Tansy leave home trying to scrounge money from strangers:
‘It’s a hot one,’ Tansy said with a radiant smile to anyone who walked past them. ‘Could you buy us a Coke?’
Tansy and Catherine play their parts well. They're clearly aware of the market value of two young teenage girls beyond the smiles for Coke exchange. Later, they have sex with men in exchange for drugs, shelter or money. There's a cloying neoliberal romanticism that has grown up around sex work, where the work itself not basic rights for workers, or women's economic choices, is repainted as some sort of feminist victory. But in Adam’s story, it’s depicted as a pragmatic decision. Catherine and Tansy would go home with men and
One of them would fuck him, or both of them, but not if they could help it. It was twice the work. They’d stay there while he slept, steal food. It got old quickly and the men started to want to fuck in cars.
There's something here of the loss that I'm trying to understand. Something about public values. How New Zealand voluntarily adopted the most pure form of neoliberalism in the world. It became the poster child of global financial institutions lauded for its commitment to the new market ways. And thriving in the streets of Auckland a market where grown men could buy sex with children.
I think of how, in a messy complex world, theories, especially clean ones that you can graph, are seductive. How nice it must be to think you can reduce everything to two axes, and two intersecting lines. I think of the enormous effort that international and local institutions went to propagating the myth that this was so. The myth that analysis of the world could be reduced to multiple versions of a supply and demand graph.
But the supply and demand graph only works if it's in isolation. If it floats, free of context and conditions. If we dismiss, as if with a wand, the real life consequences of reducing the unemployment benefit, or the impact on local manufacturers of taking away tariffs, or making councils act like they're businesses. It only works if we pretend that people are perfectly informed and perfectly rational and perfectly able to make genuine decisions between producing certain goods and services, or buying from a range of goods and services. As if it's all gleaming fruit displayed alluringly in natural light.
The tallest economy in the world
Each chapter of the book focuses around a building. The first chapter focuses on a replica of the Dubai Burj al Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Catherine is working on it. There are many descriptions of how they flatten West Coast mountains to make room for the replica. The environment in which the destruction and construction take place are utterly ignored by those behind the project. There's horror in the descriptions of helicopters, cranes, tampers but also awe. It goes on forever, say the workers looking around the vast blasted flatness they've created. Then later:
For weeks the strange new valley shook and boomed as the cranes dropped the weights again and again, packing the ground tighter, and the miners joked, "This is going to make it hard to get anything out,; and laughed and dropped the weight one more time.
For weeks I think about context, and consequence and environment, and how the Burj is a metaphor for the theory of neoliberalism, how imposing an ideologically driven theory demonstrated a willful ignorance of practice, or possibly a manipulation of it. I think about that film that said how the mass loss of jobs in the manufacturing industry was timed perfectly to coincide with the graduation into the workforce of the mini baby boom of 1970. How the policies around the unemployed swung from sympathetic to accusatory at the same moment numbers blossomed.
The nub of the replica Burj sways in the wind. We see Catherine contend with the ludicrous alien project.
She built the tower up on her computer screen and then blew at it from all directions that the wind came from. She went to a meeting and told them they were going to have to build a model and test it in a wind tunnel. 'It wasn't designed for here,' she said. they didn't like that. 'It'll be fine once you get the walls on,' she said. They didn't like it at all. 'It was an idiot plan,' she said...
We see a sickening promotion of meaningless hype around the tower. Where the workers who know nothing of what is being built but are required to attend corporate marketing sessions. A lack of imagination posing as originality, the destruction of an environment posed as a creation, something tired posed as something fresh and clean
...here in the Alps, in the midst of the most beautiful place in the world, we are building another Burj, exactly the same as the other Burj. People will come from everywhere to see and stay and shop at the Alpine Burj. This is how confident New Zealand is.
The lines would be funny if they weren't so believable.
It's the beginning of summer now. I've been writing this forever. I write the same thing over and over. Sometimes I write more about being a teenager and how bad it was for me, sometimes I write more about my economics class, sometimes I write about conversations I have with other feminists online, and how it feels like we are staring at each other with utter bewilderment and confusion because we think so differently and I write about how I think that's something to do with neoliberalism, and something in this book helps me understand it.
I get to this point, when I want to make this point and I get stuck. I need to write it and I can’t. I can’t write anything else but I can’t write this, because I start writing something hideous like my Theory of Everything, and How IWoaB relates to everything, and those things all relate to each other, and it’s like a black hole that sucks into it all sense and story and so I stop and then I try again.
I decide to change the name of my essay to I’m working on an Essay, which will be about how I can’t write this essay. I decide to write a blog post about the book instead. I decide to write several blog posts about it because I can’t write everything in one blog post. I try and trick myself into writing one point about the book. Just one. I decide it is really hard to write anything which is longer than a page even poems. I think about how when I write long poems, my writing group almost always suggests edits which shrink the poem to something that can only fit on to a single page. Where you can see the beginning and end at once. I think about holding the end of something in my mind at the same time as holding the beginning of something and not knowing how to do that, and not knowing how not to do that.
This is the bit where I talk about cause and consequence and how neoliberalism stole it. How I went into the eighties a girl, having grown that far up with Sesame Street and fat feminist books on my parents’ bookshelves, and how I was trained in a million ways to think about myself in relation to the impact I had on the world, and the way the world was impacting me. How I wrote numerous university essays, which no matter the topic, contained the phrase both reflects and reinforces. How you couldn’t think about anything without thinking about what was around it, what came before it, what would come after it. I came out of the eighties into the nineties as an adult, and cause and consequence or more, considerations of cause and consequence were gone. The conversations I always expected to have, had changed
Oh shit, I’m doing it again.
This is the bit where I talk about Pip’s book and how it’s about cause and consequence. How you can’t help but think that Catherine who is angry and scarred and grown up when we first meet her is a consequence of Catherine the child we meet at the end of the book. How in thinking about cause and consequence I come to my realisation that the thing that has been troubling me all along, the “It” in the line “It was all gone in a year”, the thing I’m grieving, is Time.
How the book makes me realise that the market stole cause and consequence, and values, and lifestyle, and security, and it stole time. Neoliberalism, in flattening the world to a series of supply and demand graphs, makes externalities disappear. We must forget who arrived at the market, and why, we must forget what happened before the market, and what might happen after.
This is where I talk about the values of the market and how they spread out and out like an uncontrollable body of water. That market analysis affected the way people lived, and what they were taught, and how the State dealt with them, and where they lived, and who they paid money to, and what luxury items became cheap and what necessities became expensive. But most brutally the values of the market changed the way people thought or were encouraged to think. Market thinking denied us the language and the conversation to think about time. I think about how, with time, comes the things time offers. Reflection and promise and hope.
This marvellous bit of writing. From the end of the first chapter or, in my dual reading, from the very end of the story.
Because it wasn't the dark or the deep that had made it so hard, it was the flash of brightness that came out of nowhere. A promise that couldn't have come out of her, and didn't come out of what she built. It wouldn't strike her so she could lie down and die but forced her to get up over and over again. Nothing would ever surprise her, not waste, nor power, not failure, not hope. She would live for years more, working, but not even the assurance of time could startle her now.
I think time is important. I think I’m Working on a Building is important and interesting because it offers us back time. It’s a tribute to time. I think of Catherine, and how she travels through time in the book. Back through time. And how time carries her forward. Troubled, time and hope plague her, she has conversations with them, and wishes them ill but none the less she is beholden to them.
I let time whistle through my teeth and think about it some more. How a book can bring us back things that were taken. How books in talking of loss can ease it. I write about that some more. Literature and all that. What it should be doing. What it can do. That’s what I go back to. That's where I get stuck.
(Contains mild spoilers)
I have read myself into a stupour. Fast indulgent addictive novel reading that I would do as a kid where a part of me knew I should stop because I would end up feeling odd and bad-tempered and a part of me knew I should keep going forever. When I read fast enough, everyday linear time recedes and I fall into the chronology of the book, appearing and disappearing when scenes change. I want to go there so I read faster and faster. Like that scene in Calvin and Hobbes where they think perhaps if their go-cart goes fast enough they'll time-warp. When I finish this kind of reading I experience a kind of jet lag, a slight nausea because my point of focus has been for so long 40 cm in front of me, and I have been moving through time differently. I have been breathing different air.
I am here in my stupour because I have been reading Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire. So good I willed myself to slow down and savour it, knowing there is no reading of a book like the first reading, but I couldn't. The book itself spins time beyond the usual condensing and expanding that happens in novels so the sense of otherworldliness was more profound than usual. I was more fully submerged and emerged now I feel more bewildered.
Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the mythical republic of Southland I was struck with how good Knox was on place. I'm a South Islander and could have cried for her descriptions of the landscape. I have always thought if I had a large house and money I would fill it with carpet the colour of burnt South Island summer grass and scattered with sets of drawers the exact shape and the same mismatching shades as beehives. Nothing else. Vast space is so essential to it all. I ache for the places described in this book, places of sheep and bees, where roads steam after rain, where slopes come alive with rabbits and where mountains are patched with snow.
There are internal as well as external riches. I love books with women who are good with numbers, a relationship that perhaps stems from reading Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, where a daughter of a famous literary man, longs for nothing more than a quiet room to do her calculations. She is a sane and interesting counterweight to the romantic hopes for her of those pilgrimaging to her father's house.
Meanwhile, my elder daughter is re-reading all Lauren Child's Ruby Redfort books in anticipation of the release of the fourth adventure about this 13 year old genius code cracker. Another girl with a flair for figures. Maggie and her best friend are obsessed with RR. I'm not surprised, at nine, the notion that you can be smart, brave, fixated on adventure and female is worth clinging to with all your life.
I love too Catherine in Pip Adam's I'm Working on a Building. Both Catherine, and Knox's Akanesi (or more usually Canny) defy the contemporary and 1950s expectations that the primary role of girls, no matter how smart, is to be Good with People. The reprimands both receive for social failures are also shallowly disguised reprimands of their respective gifts. An unsmiling intellectual attentiveness in a boy may incite respect or even awe, but in these females, to at least some of the people they move among, it's a problem. Both characters experience cleverness as an intense personal pleasure in measurements and numbers and curiosity. Both receive and obey instructions to obscure their cleverness.
Mortal Fire contains magic and magical people, but it is the sort of magic that throws powerful flames to illuminate the muggle. Knox blurs Canny's mathematical gifts with her magical gifts. In describing the dual influences of the mortal and the magic, Canny says of herself
"I might understand the Zarene Alphabet because I'm a math genius but it answers me because the Found One is my father."
But as well as a saturation in magic there's a burning respect for intellect and a determination that we can and should live fully. A geologist is described
"He'd had his own powerful magic – the ordinary magic that extraordinarily interested people always have."
Mortal Fire's fantastic world throws a constant stream of reminders to me about the possibilities of my real world. Even if I didn’t know Knox’s affection for her these gifts would have reminded me intensely of Margaret Mahy. As in The Changeover, the protagonist in Mortal Fire is undergoing both a mortal and a magical transformation. And the transformations are inseverable. The inhalation of one change becomes the exhalation of the other.
When I first read The Changeover as a young teenager I never anticipated my own transformation from girl to witch, a transformation that the main character Laura undergoes, but I was ravenous for the message I received from the book, that my inevitable changeover from girl to woman could hold its own sort of marvel. I was at 14, in no outward way a success, but The Changeover gave me some private hope. I find similar inspiration in Canny who is clever and true. She manages to trick herself and time to become the person she should be. Writing this I think about how both Laura and Canny undergo a common rite of passage but manage to command it and make it their own. They both pull in substance and elements from themselves and the spaces around them. It's exhilarating to watch.
"She got up, and he took an involuntary staggering step backward. It was as if she had turned into a cascasde, a waterfall that flowed upward, or a big bright Founders Day firework. She looked exactly the same as she had a moment before, tall, shapely, dark, very good-looking but that was just her outside. Just her clay. He had handed her the old artwork, and she caught fire."
Canny herself understands and articulates her strength, which is risky. Even in mythical Southland to be sure of oneself and the strength one holds is a glorious breaking of a taboo.
“Getting up the hill would have been easy this time, except they've killed the pigs and the paths are overgrown. But the spells all gave up the ghost when I got near them. It wasn't violent. It was just like - 'Okay, Boss over to you now.'"
She's allowed, I crow to myself. She's allowed to be good at something and know it. And even more thrilling she allowed herself.
I love how dense Mortal Fire is. How long. How mysterious and full of codes. I like how this imagined story is full of other stories, legends, and true stories and, in turn, full of its own imagined stories conjured from nothing but for particular and premeditated purposes. I like how I don't know who is good and who is bad. I love how everything including Canny happens in two or three ways at once. The story becomes like a piece of paper folded in half and half again and again so new things are always lining up with old things.
I love that I was sent to places to observe things I did not understand, and that are not explained: an art work made of chicken wire and smelling of apples, the discordant ages of cousins, swarms of furry bees, a broken fall from a window, the appearance of two girls when there should only be one. How the unexplaining becomes a prompt for the reader to perform her own sort of magic. That you can only reach the understanding, the wonderful unlocking, the changeover at the end if you have been imaginative and curious and brave. As if you have answered Akanesi's mother call to “be brave", to be “braver than you are". The requirements made of the reader another tribute to the extraordinary.
She pretended not to know the water book by heart so she could try out every strategy: looking at the picture for clues; saying the first sound; making a guess; stretching out the word; going back to the beginning of the line.
'Hmm, what could that word be?', Alex has big eyes she has a habit of making bigger.
'R. Rrrrr. Roo. Rou. Ff. Fffff. Rough! Water can be rough", she says.
Alex is learning to read, is understanding the trick of learning, and is re-enacting the trick all at the same time. I remember the same with her big sister Maggie learning to talk, only months after mastering fluent language herself, she would pretend to be a baby, babbling and trying out whole words in roughly formed explorative vowels. Mastery.
After Alex was in bed I kept thinking about Cilla McQueen's poem 'Learning to Read', one of the few poems I know by heart. It was published in The Listener in the 80s and it made odd and beautiful tugs at my teenage heart. There is so much I love about the poem, the perfect cadence, the momentous journey it travels from illiteracy to literacy, and the way the final giddy triumph is realised in a completely different realm.
The lines I kept coming back to were '& then the page / became transparent'. Because, of course, the words on the page are as stiff and opaque as ever when you're reading, but you do see through them. I tried squinting my eyes and looking at the spines of the books in our bookshelf and willing myself not to read them - to see the words only as shapes and patterns. I couldn't do it. Even books with ugly or over-elaborate typography, I could not forget even for a moment how to read. I could not not read.
This glorious notion of transparency. A metamorphosis as magical as any I know. That words lift off the page and become experiences and ideas, threats and declarations, houses and streets. Forests and gloomy mountains. And people calling through them all. And while all this is happening, left on the page, the 26 husks of letters, a dozen or so dots and flicks, the rhythm of white spaces.
I love that sentences or stanzas are little time bombs. Able to be duplicated and replicated or typed out from memory or tagged on a wall without the impact on reading ever diminishing. The best of them eternally chocker with explosive force.
It feels hallowed this time with Alex learning to read. When I was reading Pippi she said 'Look Mum, it and is. The. And Mum, if you took that o off that word there, it would be to.'
She's training her brain to read. Already unjumbling the letters so that she scans a page of text and picks out the familiar. She's doing it recreationally and without trying.
The first time I saw Maggie read for pleasure by herself, it was a fairy story. It was in my parents' house on my old bed. The sun pouring in and just about reaching her. I was a little heartbroken by the glory of it.
Now I watch Alex. She must be watching letters, first singly, then in tentative pairs fly up off the page to somewhere entirely her own. Soon it will be flocks. Just about, I think, just about.
I think, of all the Roald Dahl books I read as a child, I loved Danny, the Champion of the World the most. Joe says he never much liked Dahl, always felt talked down to, and as a kid resisted books he thought were self-consciously talking to children. I think now he's warming to Danny though.
Listening to bits of pieces of it on the CD we have from the library I still like it. I like the whole set up of a village including the policeman and the vicar and the doctor in a conspiracy against the pompous rich landowner. How the book shows the villagers who poach pheasants are spirited and deft and brave. How their illegal morality trumps Victor Hazell's mantraps and gunfests hands down.
I love the thread there is now between my childhood and Maggie's. Lexy's soon too perhaps. Maggie is seven, and a voracious reader, as I was. Reading binds us. Watching her come to the same books I have been to binds us more. Like she is putting on my old most treasured clothes, but they're miraculously new again, and fit her in new ways.
Maggie has pale skin and green wide spaced eyes. She and Alexandra both have the same band of freckles across the bridge of their nose my brother and I had. And when I think of it, their cousin has it too. My brother's son.
I didn't incidentally enjoy the pheasant. I think I am a culinary wuss. Wild game. I wanted to like it. I approve of it. In my first mouthful I found the shot and felt a bit glamorous and rugged calmly plucking it out. And then the next mouthful it was all tiny annoying bones like a fish, perhaps shattered by the shot or maybe pheasants are delicate like that inside. But it was all too strong for me. It tasted like cooked blood.
(C) Copyright 2012, Mrs Loolupants, All Rights Reserved.