The Era of Information: in Pursuit of Knowledge

The Temple Dream

There are a tribal people in Malaysia who go each morning to the dream-weaver of their village and tell him of their sleeping travels. This ritual is considered critical to the survival of the tribe, the community depend on it for it is as crucial to their lives as hunting or gathering food. The dream-weaver rarely interprets, his task is to knit the dreams together and make a fabric of it; each new moon he will examine this tapestry and from there he may well forecast important events that are likely to shape the tribe’s next lunar month. This tribe understand the poetic basis of the collective mind. Dreams are often yoked to systems of conscious regimes of symbology, particularly in the West where dreams must conform to a doctrinal set of prescriptive meanings. To enforce rigid structures on the subconscious, the rich and dark underbelly of the beast of reason, is to negate its capacity to enfold the numinous; the architecture of the world of dreams resists deconstruction, adheres to principles that are unknowing and unknowable. By its very nature the patriarchal structure of knowledge is unable to concede this.

The Dream

In this dream my mother and I return to the old house, first house, we have come here to honour a specific request. In one of the flats of the old house a man and a woman have lived together for many years. But recently the woman has committed suicide. We both understand perfectly why the man has asked us to come here, there is no need for any kind of explanation. The loungeroom has the same old furniture in it that once belonged to my grandmother. Our task is to clean the room up, the woman had shot herself so there is blood everywhere. We start with the walls, sponging and scraping, the work is very long and tiring. We are cleaning the floor when the man comes back inside from the garden. I know this man very well though I know I have never met him in reality, he looks just like the English painter and draughtsman Augustus John. His pain is almost tangible. He slumps into one of my grandmother’s chairs. I have to tell him that we cannot unlock the door to the smallest bedroom and we need to clean it. This room was the woman’s workroom and the idea of opening it seems to hurt him more than anything. But he stumbles over and wriggles and fumbles with the antiquated door handle until finally it opens.

Inside the room is brimming with light and full of the most exquisite objects, the man begins to cry uncontrollably. My mother and I are overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of beauty, all these objects the dead woman has crafted, it is the work of several lifetimes. The man stops crying and chooses a spear for me. It is three pronged and reminds me of the sea spear of Poseidon. It is beaded and jewelled but it could also be used to kill. Then he selects a shield for me, large but light with a circular, spiral design in maroon and gold, the pattern has been beaten into the shield with meticulous care; it is perfectly symmetrical. He then hands me a shawl. This is both soft and strong, gold and maroon again. He tells me that these are the implements necessary to my journey and through them I will be able to dance again. A kind of joy, a leaping and pounding is in my feet. I begin to whirl around the room. Looking back I see that he has given my mother a small, almost symbolic, sword and shield and a cloak of blue and silver. With the wild dance in me I grab her hand and we sweep outside into the world. Its full of willows and poplars and oaks; a river runs gurgling over a bed of stones. When we came here it was dark winter now all is the soft hazy green of spring. This is another world that sits on the axis to ours and close to us is a village that is both feudal and futuristic. To enter it my mother and I must go through a set of showers in order to be cleansed. They are set out like a maze.

When we at last enter the village proper a young man and an old woman are waiting for us. There is something very formal about the whole proceeding but they are very pleased to see us. They say something in a language I don’t understand and then smile. This world is green, green, green. The rest of the village file out to greet us. The young man tells us they have been waiting for a very long time for us to arrive. It appears that my mother knows the names of all the new children and they need to be named. We wind down an old path that twists and turns, the old woman takes my hand; her hands feel like paper. She tells me it is time to go to the library. I look back and see my mother picking up yet another baby. Everyone seems to know exactly where we are going but me and it is obviously a very special place; the way is lined with sculptures and planned gardens. Finally we arrive at a beautiful building, to enter it one must cross a small wooden bridge, a little ornamental moat surrounds this building but the water is deep and an odd colour. Inside the building which is shaped like a hexagon light is refracted everywhere. There are thousands of empty shelves fitted into tiny interlocking alcoves. It is marvellously constructed. The old woman tells me that they have been waiting for me because I know where the knowledge is; I am quite devastated by this statement because I don’t know where it is at all. I tell her this despondently but she looks at me wisely and says nothing. We leave the temple/library and thread our way back up the path. For some reason I begin to worry about my father but we find him waiting for us at the top of the hill. The young man who greeted us has dressed him in a cape that consists of four foxes with jewelled eyes: red, green, blue and purple. My father is pleased to see us and he tells us he has been to this place many times but the way is not easy. All the village troop off to see the house they are constructing for my mother and father. It is somewhat Spanish in design with exposed beams and windows that open wide onto the river-world.

The old woman waits for me outside; it is necessary to return to the temple. I agree. She tells me no to worry so much. We go down the path. I go inside alone, I am not frightened anymore. As I look up at the intricately constructed ceiling somehow eight panels slide back and reveal the twilight. There is a large white cat standing on the edge of the roof.

End of dream.

I have always had strange dreams and I often recall them in great detail, I don’t know why. Perhaps because it is a family habit to discuss our dreams first thing in the morning over tea and breakfast. My grandmother was a dab hand at interpreting them and my family attribute a similar gift to me. Some of my most extraordinary dreams have occurred while I have been travelling on the sea or staying near it. Other dreams are alarmingly prophetic, I dreamt about my sister’s death almost exactly three years before she died. I was staying at Pebbly Beach at the time. It disturbed me so much I had to get up in case I fell back asleep again. As dawn came I felt compelled to write a poem about it which I called Cartography. Sometimes my mother will sleep for a day and a half because she needs to do what she calls Snake Dreaming, these dreams according to her re-telling often resemble a process of weaving ideas, experiences, emotions into one fabric. I find the dreams of my children particularly fascinating and again I was disturbed by the fact that my eldest son dreamt so often of dying. In his early years he dreamt constantly of a giant bee that hunted him, since I love bees with all their connotations of life, flowers and the transience of beauty it perturbed me a great deal at the time; these dreams have taken on a new perspective since his death. My middle child is a dreamer both asleep and awake. He often flies or travels when he is asleep, once when my mother was very ill and he was very young she said that she dreamt about him constantly being in her hospital room. He was about three at the time, and he kept going back to bed to dream Nanna he said. My youngest son quite frequently laughs aloud in his sleep but what he dreams about he will not say.

We would have been quite at home with the tribal people in Malaysia.

Jane Air

He’s in the kitchenshe would saymaking eggs.

She often said things like that expecting us to make some quantum leap of understanding. He actually never existed except perhaps in her head. Or Its on the thing and we wondered what thing she meant, was it on the fridge, the stove, the wardrobe and what was it anyway; it was difficult to guess. I didn’t like her when her eyes went black, but Gail didn’t mind.

Its much bettershe would whisper to me in our giant bedroom When she lets the devils out.

Sometimes the woman would get up in the middle of the night and howl like a wolf and Gail would get up and watch her through the window. I couldn’t, the noise was hair -raising, and I would retreat under the blankets and take the whole menagerie of stuffed animals I owned with me.

Its just like Jane EyreGail would say, exhilarated,And the mad wife in the attic.

Who’s Jane Air?I would ask, imagining some faerie child made of wind, a creature through whom wild nights were driven. Gail would shake her head in disappointment with me again. I didn’t like to disappoint her but we didn’t even have an attic for a mad wife to live in and these details bothered me. Once Gail told me that if I ever told Mum and Dad about the mad woman she would have to unscrew the little toe on her foot and let all the blood run out and then she would be dead and it would be all my fault. I stayed awake for hours watching her and then I made the menagerie promise to protect her, especially Lion, who was king of my carnival of animals. Each one was named and some, the more decrepit of my animal tribe, were lovingly clothed in old doll’s clothes. But only Lion with his one eye and bedraggled tail would travel through the years with me.

I was only three but I knew with the certainty that only a young child can have, that I understood the most important things about the world. How the sea plays games with you and knows your name, how trees and leaves can speak, the language of birds, why cats tails always lay flat when they’re eating and why the tiny seeds of flowers needed the warm blanket of soil. And how Gail was beautiful. But she had some dark shadows in her even then.

She was always a very light sleeper. When we had to sleep in a doubledecker bed she forbade me to move until she went to sleep. Nights of agony with an itchy foot, the slightest wriggle was inadmissible, the terrible need to turn over. One night it was too much for me and a kind of claustrophobia overpowered me and I leapt out of the bed like a demon. She was unbelievably furious with me. But not as furious as the day she played the cello at the Eisteddfod.

Stravinsky came into me,she said later.He made me play like that.

I watched her in a velvet blue dress, too tight and hot for the early spring day and marvelled how they didn’t see how her eyes flashed. But they gave her first prize in every section and for that I was grateful. I hated watching Gail cry, heartbreaking, most of the time she made her cello cry for her.

Once she told me I was adopted and that was the only reason Mum and Dad were so nice to me. I had always called my parents by their first names, I don’t know why. But she said that I did it because I really, truly knew I was adopted and that was the absolute proof of the matter. I believed her for a very long time and when summer came that year like a huge beast caged in heat and fury and all the common flowers died and the creek became a brown weary trickle my mother found me crying over the barrenness of the world. She didn’t understand me she said. So I had to tell her that she couldn’t ever understand me because we were not related. My parents were both cross and amused with Gail over this incident but she was very angry and swore she would never speak to me again. But I knew better, Gail couldn’t hold a grudge for very long, I could.

Gail had asthma. For years I listened to her breathe, willing her to keep breathing. I would wake in the night if the pulse or rhythm of her breath changed. She was both strong and very fragile. She seemed to be allergic to everything. And she was drop-dead beautiful, heart-stopping. She would complain about the misery of beauty, how nobody ever really saw her, they just saw how pretty she was, fairytale princess of my father’s castle. Mind you she was vain and only Gail could spend hours and hours analysing each of her features and correcting some perceived flaw. I remember the day she fell off the horse and fractured some tiny unusual bone in her arm. My father picked her up as if she was one of the rarest of creatures. She was so white and her dark eyes and her hair were startling. She has bitten her lip in pain and blood had oozed down her chin. I had nightmares about it for years and it was a very long time before I forgave the horse that dropped her, I never got on one again,

I also remember the day, the very texture of the day: late autumn and the sun slants its sunset across the common, light spinning in the dead golden grasses, trees in a foliage of blood. And Gail walking across the old wooden bridge, already defiant, her shoulders set for war. She has her schoolcase in one hand and the sun is behind her making her somehow translucent. Young Joan of Arc with a wriggling bundle of brown and white fur under her other arm. Against all family decree she has bought home the kelpie which would live with us for almost sixteen years. A persistent and devoted shadow to my wild redhaired brother who fought death-defying battles against brown snakes in summer and once tied twenty balloons to his loyal companion and sent him off the roof of my father’s shed to see if he would fly. The dog landed in a tree, miraculously unhurt. I don’t recall how he was rescued or how my brother was deterred from repeating the experiment. One of his more bizarre experiments consisted of constructing an entire set of tiny rafts for a young family of kittens in order to assess their sailing abilities in the wading pool. It drove my mother into one of her rare furies.

Gail loved birds. She taught me how to talk to them, she had an odd way of slanting her eyes and pursing her lips while she made the most extraordinary range of sounds. My grandmother said she was madder than all of us put together, a singular compliment. When I was seven years old Gail decided that she and I would have to make a lifelong pact. Since my mother was a committed atheist and proof against all Catholic blandishments Gail had decided that I would have to go to Hell with Mum and she would take the pledge, whatever that was, and go to Heaven with my father. This was a very serious matter and a secret we would keep for years. It was to her credit that she forced me to get up and go to mass with her on the first Saturday of every month for five months in order to ensure that I would be blessed by the Virgin on my dying day. Like my father Gail believed in religion as a kind of insurance policy. Hell didn’t particularly bother me since I would be there with Mum but I worried about being divided from the rest of the family. It was the notion of eternity that really terrorised me. I could not imagine it and somehow it came to snap at my heels like some dreadful dog. One night I dreamt of a way to end this horror that loomed so large in my life. I do not remember the details of that dream only that it sent me sleepwalking right outside the house into the icy frost of the paddock. Consciousness slipped over me like a veil and I realised my feet were freezing and all the world was ablaze with stars and ice. My scream woke the entire house and I am not sure if my father ever slept securely after, unless he knew I was in a room where I couldn’t reach the doorhandle.

My mother loved music and you could always gauge her afternoon mood by what was playing on the ancient stereo. When coming home after school you could hear the strains ofThe Sleeping Beautydrifting across the creek you knew that all was well, but certain pieces of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff were invariably a barometer that storms were brewing in her kitchen. She and Gail often fought but I cannot say over what exactly except that Gail had a way of fracturing my mother’s serenity and could put all the world at odds. But she had magic, did Gail, and wisdom. Gail knew the answers to the oddest questions.

Every year after Christmas we would set out across the dead brown plains for the sea and there we would live in a huge tent that my father constructed. It started out quite small in scope according to my mother but a vision splendid overtook my Dada and each year it became more ingenious until it was like some elaborate canvas seraglio worthy of the Arabian Nights. Eventually it became the envy of the whole camping ground and visitors were brought to gaze at it in wonder and my father was satisfied. It had carpets and kitchens, an entertainment area, a whole area devoted to the activities of my brothers and sleeping room for at least twenty. My father has a military mind and the erection of this summer castle was as carefully calculated as the preparations for a war. It withstood floods and storms and refused to capsize in the tail end storms of a cyclone which laid the rest of the camping ground to waste. Naturally my father welcomed all the refugees from this summer disaster and my mother fed them. Gail loved the ritual of camping and she loved the sea. Inevitably each year her olive skin would tan flawlessly while I was doomed to the shame of wearing a white T shirt over my swimmers. She had very little use for pink zinc. She was allowed hours more than me to swim and was rarely forced to spend the mandatory time under the beach umbrella. I always envied her that. I see her now gliding through the water, more fish than human, her dark head flowing up through the green, a graceful foot breaking the surface. And squealing with delight as she catches the king of waves and flies towards the shore while the family dog runs up and own close to dementia with his inability to rescue her from this unseemly and dangerous behaviour. He was annually exhausted by our coastal trips and the responsibility of keeping us safe and well as we madly tempted the depths of fate in the untrustworthy ocean was so heavy that he aged visibly each year. His rejuvenation was miraculous and began as soon as my father began the intricate preparations necessary to dismantle our seaside world and the dog’s relief was palpable. So, too, was my father’s, who disliked and distrusted bodies of water of any description. Only on the hottest of summer days would he fling himself into the shallows for a quick dip and then beat a rapid retreat to safety. We thought he was crazy for we could not conceive of any creature not delighted by water. My mother had taught us to dog paddle and to dive but my father insisted that we be taught to swim, properly, by one of the best swimming coaches in the country. His pride in our simple achievements was inordinate.

Years later Gail and I were racing each other down the length of some pool in a luxury hotel in America when we were greeted by a round of applause from the poolside spectators. One of them, an ex-Olympian Gold medallist, was delighted to be treated to another sight of the genuine Australian crawl. We were more than fortunate in both coach and father as it turned out for Gail’s swimming skills once saved the life of my younger brother who took to canoeing on another family holiday and got himself into some very deep water.

Driving back each year over the mountain into the interior of a Monaro summer in my father’s huge green Pontiac, the haze that settles across the treeless plains and the incomparable light. Blue green shadows and streaks of silver driven across the unearthly beauty of that country, always at sunset, and the Wedgetail eagles hunting above us. Even then I knew it was dangerous country, later I would learn from yet another wise man that the Walgul nation avoided this place with a vengeance for a warrior’s soul could be lost in such a place and then he would be left to wander the earth like a seed pod. Approaching home and the dog becomes so excited his whole body is hanging out of the window of the car and Gail and I are hanging on to his back legs. The annual bloody and exhausting war that always takes place over the unpacking of the Pontiac, frayed tempers, a seething fury everywhere and then all the excitement of our forgotten Christmas presents. Time as fluid as water and the endless washing my mother embraced like some kind of ritual of ablution. For weeks the washing machine would compete with the stereo. New black shoes, so hard and unaccommodating after freedom, the nuns are looming like black sailing ships, waiting for the return of their prodigal children. Their task is monumental for the summer has uncivilised us and the sea is in our blood, the murmur and fall of waves, white hiss of foam, rocks baked golden, cliffs that sit as stately as gorgeous lions, sea anemones with their succulent demanding mouths, the secret life of crabs as they scuttle under the rocks. Tidal wash, the neap tide of midnight, sand in ears and beds and between toes. Shells and all the graceful booty of Poseidon. Stolen Banksia men from seaside gums. Snugglepie and Cuddlepot had surely never to go to school, under the sea with fierce old John Dory and Little Obelia in her seadress, her outrageous finery. School, late summer and the land is burning. Earth turns to autumn, first red creeping in the grapevine. The harvest is upon us, our Italian neighbours begin the bottling of the tomato crops, the grapes bursting off the vine, working day and night they sing and laugh and dance. It is not the time of sleep. Fabulous aromas from the kitchen where the woman of the house taught both Gail and I the secrets of Italian cuisine without speaking a word of English. Feasts of almost mythical proportions and the table resembling something out of legend; Gail and I drink red wine watered down, almost grown up, my grandmother plays the accordion, mountains of food and there’s my father sitting at the head of the table, almost a Mafia boss and all the time hating garlic. My mother always said that their feasts rivalled those of the Borgia’s, years later we understood this particular joke.

That world is all gone now, all of it. The memories of childhood shift and shape with the seasons, there is no particular order of priorities. They map countries both real and those manufactured by the imagination, they blur distinction between the real and the illusory; there is no need to adhere to strict perimeters. What was imagined was as powerful as what actually happened. Images come and go, sometimes like double exposed negatives, sometimes with an absolute clarity, others need to be teased from the backwaters of time. The ice cracking in the old sink outside, the first white hoary frost of winter, fires in the sitting room, my grandmother’s astonishing and sometimes bloodcurdling stories of past and present family members. Ghosts that presided over the kitchen table, white nappies snapping in the wind. The oil heater a huge hulking monstrosity that dominated the lounge room like a cantankerous old man. Sitting on top of the piano with our legs swinging, singing Latin hymns despite the matriarchal derailment of Catholicism.

When puberty found Gail she left me. Years later she would return. I cannot identify that moment in time when she departed from the country of our childhood only my sense of betrayal. I remember the last cracker night held at Belvedere, that is what our house was called, because it was the year my mad brother almost blew us all up. He was obsessed with home made bombs, testimony to his Sinn Fein ancestors and how he or any other member of the family remained relatively unharmed from his experiments with pyrotechnics is still a mystery. Cracker night was a very bad night for the family dog whose need to protect us from the war being conducted outside once forced him to hurl himself through the kitchen window, glass and all. My mother hated it.

The day my mother told me we were moving to a new house, I cried. This was my sanctuary, nothing would ever be the same and in a very real sense my instincts were right. Belvedere was a mansion, it was the first maternity hospital ever built in the district. It had almost thirty rooms in it and when my father bought it he decided to turn some of this huge house into flats. No doubt he imagined he would be able to rent these out to prosperous tenants but they never housed anyone but a succession of my mother’s family and associated relatives or a long and interesting succession of new arrivals from a range of countries who had come with their families to construct the tunnels for the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Frequently my mother taught them the rudiments of English and my grandmother always ensured they could swear like troopers. Their devotion to my father and his family was absolute.

So we moved into the town proper. The new house my father bought was not nearly as big as Belvedere but by the time he finished his extensions it almost rivalled it. It was here somewhere that Gail changed, her life seemed to be ruled by the rigours of a new set of criteria: fashion and pop music. These nebulous energies preoccupied her almost exclusively while she waited for the phone to ring. Another boyfriend and more tears. Only Gail could cry with such complete desolation over the certainty that no-one would ever love her. Her adolescence was one long dark night of the soul, a constancy of pain, and the winds that buffeted our once invincible world tore down structures that had been sacred to me. Watching her pain and unable to fix it, I swore to myself that I would never wait for any man to ring me whether he was God or mortal. Hopelessly I tried to refashion our world but she was no longer able to inhabit it with me.

Gail’s was no ordinary rite of passage, she was subject to strange, unfathomable diseases, blood disorders of complex rarity and a malaise that beset both soul and body. Still she retained a tensile strength that defied reason. Once we were disparaging her latest illness which consisted of the appearance and disappearance of rashes only to be horrified to discover that she had contracted an unusual form of rheumatic fever. After much consultation my parents decided that she should go away to boarding school, to the city. Far from the safe enmeshed harbour of her family it was possible that she might find her own elusive path to a new sense of identity. Her cello, sometimes her only source of solace, was to travel with her. I was devastated without her, her music had informed and shaped the sub text of my life. From school we received much censored letters which nevertheless conveyed her unhappiness. Once she successfully managed to abscond, an almost unparalleled feat in the last great bastion of Brigidine educational institutions. Her complex rebellion took many forms and while she astonished the nuns with the sheer breadth of her musical talents she refused to accept scholarships to the Conservatory of Music. She did concede to play in the School orchestra and I still remember the night she played the solo from Saint Saens. When she finally returned to us, changed utterly, she delivered the death blow to the collective family belief in her music. She would not compose, she would never play again. A dream died in my father’s eyes that night and something more subtle died within my mother. I was so angry I could cheerfully have murdered her.

Gail grew more beautiful as she grew older, on our long travels through America she was besieged by men, by Hollywood agents and other less reputable creatures. She ignored most of them. Time travelled on into marriages and children and we grew very close again. Often I would say to my friends that I could not imagine a life without a sister. She grew to wisdom, something she always had, but as she grew older she was often the only person I would consult about a particular crisis. Gail had that rare gift, she would put me to bed with a glass of brandy, tell me I was a complete fool, swear vengeance on whoever had upset me and then get me to laugh at it all. She became my harbour as I ventured into a very public life and she remained in her very private one. She taught me many things, not the least of which was a most uncharacteristic liking for the game of cricket, with the proviso that I never supported the Australians unless they were playing the British. Still I mourned, almost subconsciously, the loss of her music. One day she told me she was going to play again and had restrung her cello. Within a week she died. She was 36 years old.

For her headstone I wrote Here lies a perilous beauty. She lived. Curled next to where she sleeps is a small stone cat which yawns in the sun. The wild ducks wander over her and birds flying everywhere. It is her country now and only a matter of time until we reign in it together.

Unfinished Letter to a Man

Beginning. Write it down, they all said, write it down, as if that would be some kind of fundamental exorcism and perhaps in the final analysis they are right: the women who stand behind me, the living and the dead. But sending it is quite another matter. Evidence for the court. The accused and the accuser: who is this woman?

Frequently I feel she bears so little relationship to me. Mythology, a legend with her own impetus both archangel and daemon who drives me relentlessly forward quite regardless of my own needs.

But I am playing diversionary games already, hiding from myself, hiding from you, whoever you are, a mystery, someone to be feared, avoided and never confronted. Try and make another beginning, another attempt to breach the infinite gap which widens and becomes more treacherous with every passing day.

I could say I didn’t love you but that is neither true nor adequate in expressing how I feel and I could say I did love you but that is not true either. I could withdraw both statements and just contemplate them again. Perhaps its closer to the Greek concept of agape but darker, yes much darker than that. The mystical significance of co-mingled blood, Medea:the blood in her would not lie still til she mixed it with another.It was, of course, not at all like that, the child came all unlooked for, unexpected and death negated any concept of rejecting such a grace. There are now far too many corpses littered throughout my life. I cannot seem to help myself, I am a victim of a passion for lucidity, clean lines, clarity that is almost a contradiction in terms. Confucious wrote that even one passion lurking in the heart has the power to destroy reason. While I yearn for that clearness of vision, the quietness that comes with understanding. O be still my heart. I torment myself quite unnecessarily in pursuit of it. And the soul can’t live without its afflictions, the pathology of constant pain, the dissection of the cadavers that rot in memory, the useless analysis of applied logic. Use surgery, cauterise instead. Am I still writing to you? Do you actually exist? You did once, a fleeting vision of your head bent over the tiny, tiny child. I should have realised then that sentimentality is a corollary of cruelty.

Later. After many interruptions and the day has drowned in all the necessities of my life. Now it is twilight. The little one is asleep. Stars shine regardless. Just as they did on the Duchess of Malfi when the assassin showed her the carnage of her dead children. Losing the plot again? Today I took them swimming. He is a little frightened of water and all children should love the sea, waterfalls, rivers. Water is the oldest Mother of all. I suspect you don’t like it for some reason but I have never asked. There are many things I’d like to ask but whenever you arrive so intricately armoured against the child and I then doors close within my mind and I retreat across the broken distance to watch you in safety. Very occasionally I say something spontaneous but your armour is invariably complete and I feel as if I have violated some unspoken etiquette that structures our very peculiar relationship. I watch you as I would watch a venomous and unpredictable predator; you could be lethal to me. It has often occurred to me that you and I are involved in a strangely convoluted war against each other but so little truth is allowable that this close to heresy. For me I try and keep the surfaces neat, cool, uncluttered. You destabilise this whenever and however possible. It is a very interesting game to observe from a very careful distance.

Later still. I’ve just been to a birthday party and I’m slightly drunk. But not drunk enough. I’ve never had the fortunate experience of being so drunk I couldn’t remember anything. Memory is the curse of all my days. The host was almost unbearably gracious to me, he pities me for my Mary Magdalene ways besides your behaviour makes him feel better about his own progeny so he is somewhat grateful to me. I smiled and smiled, the type of smile that makes your jaw ache and words curling beneath my tongue, as dangerous as young snakes and as unpredictable. Like so many other men he has never understood that there is no wife in me, no Hera to play jealousy to a capricious Zeus but I dislike being pitied, one of the ultimate experiences of objectification. He is quite an interesting man in some ways and he has always needed to believe that I am more than a little mad. It fits some archetypal need within his psyche. He persists with his belief despite all evidence to the contrary and even now when death has bought me a quality of sanity I neither want nor enjoy; a deadly sense of accuracy, living with a judgement that can never be mediated or reversed. Suicide is the last word in any argument. The final failure of love.

But I am meandering again, aren’t I? Wilfully. The little one stirs in his cradle and watches me. Does he know the significance of this, my first and only letter to you? What do children know, I wonder. Everything I suspect and then they forget slowly, we make them. We cannot tolerate the wisdom in their ancient eyes, their souls are so naked. We clothe them in systems of belief, values, whatever. I only ever wanted one thing for my children: I wanted them to own the entirety of their being, to grow like trees towards the sun. So typical of my optimism, even now I cannot quite annihilate it. As you once said:Hope is the worst thing. I have often wondered if unconsciously, from some nether region in my psyche, I chose you to father this little one as a way of perpetuating a cycle of self-punishment. I could not forgive myself for the death of his brother. Perhaps I never will. This tangled web. We would both be wise to remember that the child is not a vehicle for our numinous projections. And even a little child, perhaps only a little child, can read emotional and psychological nuances across an enormously wide spectrum. His world is not yet confined by the dubious perimeters of language. He loves the wind.

Meanwhile I continue to cultivate amnesia, vagueness and the gentle art of forgetfulness. Where am I going now, as far away as I can from what I want to say. I cannot seem to write it down, the days divide like winter fog and carrying your heart high, like a stone, waiting for a labour that will all come to nothing. It is the dark time of gestation, cells mutate in the imagination, shadows and spectres abound. On windy nights here when the house is buffeted by the needs of its many ghosts I will get up and make them their favourite beverage, tea or coffee, light a candle and sit with them awhile. It sometimes calms them, appeases their restlessness a little. You are not dead but your energy is much like theirs. If you were dead I would always know where you were. This is a strange concept. Why do I need to know that? Some ancestral enmity lives within you, the container of my fears, perhaps my own capacity for self destruction. You enact it for me daily. The shadow-side of psyche. The enemy within. Buried alive under the mountains in my mind, roaming in the subterranean depths, the Minotaur at last.

The night subsides, a siren punctuates the dark; it is never a goodly time: the hour of the wolf but necessary. Why do we return to old wounds, picking at scabs, language bleeding everywhere? Dreams of monsters with severed heads and doctors who bled an old woman to death and my mother gives me a pendant with a dolphin on it as a young woman comes toward me with a wrought iron butterfly and places it gently in my hands and all the dirt falls out. So old, all so old.

Lilith’s Monologue

(from Mother Tongue)

All our furious grasping at life, our greedy hands that mangle and grab, the seething monstrosities that lurk in the unstable heart;

the perfect mind, wings beating,

trapped utterly

screaming its incomprehensible prescriptions, its diatribes of rebellion, its roiling lust for order; our restless striving, our journeys of unutterable futility.

Hair forcing more follicles, cells mutating, the slip and slide of blood, the unyielding tidal pull of breathing, our wanton caprices of passion,

shorts nights and long penance,

the maggots that curdle and writhe in the white mind.

Our unforgiving and unforgivable energy, the rages that beset us, scalding and boiling, spilling into everything, our inflated sense of worth, our appalling and unthinking cruelty

as we torture each other

in the name of righteousness.

Our slow decay into moralism, our stupid, demanding mouths that swell with

the wasted tumescence of words,

lungs clogged with phlegm, the sluggish heart.

All of it

stilled by death.

Stay not her hand when she comes in the white hour.

Perfect at last, cleaving to earth, pure in the flame

and quiet, so quiet at last.


and the startling clarity of bones.

Unfinished Letter to a Man, Part Two

There is no intermission, just more of the same. Time passed

Finale. The last movement in this sad symphony.Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge.Job 38:2. Would that it was me, my words are so fleeting, another epitaph on the wind. St Augustine believed that the most evil lie was the one not spoken. I learned to read the odour of your silences, the cryptic grammar of your body, the gestures of refutation and the history of your actions became a pattern in which key elements became identifiable. Still I continued navigating these traitorous waters, consulting Oracles and the wise, seeking understanding, a solution. Stretching upward and plummeting down, my soul grew in the dark time. I always understood your inability to trust me, you could not trust yourself, and the agendas you projected onto my reality were the only ones you could accept. Look upward. The sky is open, blue, pure. And the little one’s love is so uncomplicated, love without conditions. The weight of it.

This long and crying way comes finally to its end. You see all I ever had to do was the very best that I could where you were concerned. To ensure that the child kept his birthright and not to occlude it. That might sound simple, it wasn’t. It tried all of my formidable patience and tested yet again the strength of my will, it brought me with all my black Irish pride to my knees, it was like being repeatedly beaten in the same place ’til the bruises had contours, I didn’t even have to look at them. It unhoused the fear that lurked in the deep chasm of my consciousness, the same fear that hunts me, that you would hurt this child as the other father of the dead child had mutilated his son’s brightness, turned his laughing spirit from the sun to the country of nameless fear; never good enough, unwanted, unworthy, a psychological infectionfrom which he would never recover. I didn’t have the antidote to his venom, I don’t have the antidote for yours.

Pain shapes us so much more clearly than love, my intense irrational reactions were born there, they predicate the future. The dead have their claims, their rights, the honour that is their due. Like the moss-covered shrines of almost forgotten Gods it is unwise to ignore them.

Denouement. I have a spiritual theory in regard to the way in which we choose the people who come to constellate such powerful energies in our lives; and the questions are ultimately not about a particular person or their behaviour or their actions. The questions are about the self; which journey have I chosen and why; what myth has captured the substance of my life? Why am I compelled to act it out? More importantly what is it that I need to learn. What did dark Persephone learn in Hades’ merciless, grim world? The ultimate language of betrayal, that bright Demeter could abandon her, that no immortal hand or eye could gainsay the day when the earth beneath the red narcissus field gaped open for her. No child was born of that unnatural union, no child was ever conceived within the domain of death. No child should be condemned to live within its shadow.

So much of my chaotic internal world is driven by an ambivalent relationship with trust. Within the seed of trust, if given, is the seed of betrayal, within the devastation of betrayal is the potential for forgiveness. While I might hazard these dangerous excursions and take responsibility for my performance it is beyond me to hazard the child.

Too much at stake. He has neither need of nor the ability to choose your inheritance to him. He is as yet too small to shoulder the weight of your innate resentment, your neglect, your casual, unthinking caprices of cruelty. I am normally not prone to this kind of judgement despite what others think; I have been judged too often and come to the final conclusion that the only absolute arbiter of my actions is myself. However I have grown tired of preparing testimonials, statements, defences and appeals in the Court you hold where I never achieve a judicial state of a formal presentation of my case let alone a decision. You rarely bother to arrive in your magisterial robes to preside over the Bench let alone grant a Hearing. It has occurred to me that our diverse groups of supporters or detractors must have found in this situation a rare opportunity to enter a vicarious experience which by now must surely be more boring than repeat episodes ofDays of Our Lives. The prosecution and the defence counsels are at rest. It is clear that you have no intention of hearing the case. There lacks a point in waiting. Patience has become obsolete and indifference tends to last forever. I like certainty, most mortals do. There is no real point in apportioning blame though that sentiment should not obscure the reality of certain facts, a profile of data, shall we say, from which all the pertinent extrapolations have now been made. Higher courts than ours will have the final word. But I no longer have to live with the duplicity of your silence, just myself, sometimes not easily, often unclear but I am patient and I will make the time to unravel the most complicated webs. This one is now clear, in retrospect it seems peculiar that it took so long to untangle the threads in this weaving but sometimes what is obvious is the most difficult to see. And I did not want to see it. Your actions finally forced this clarity and for that I am grateful. I feel clean again.

Sooner or later the Great Wheel spins for us all. Retribution, balance, kharma, the portion that the Gods reserve for those who wilfully pollute themselves waits in the wings. But the game is yours now, the victory phyrric and I know, from experience, that you can’t outrun the self. The enormous relief I have finally been gifted with: I am no longer a captive in your audience, watching an indecent performance. Exit the stage, the theatre of cruelty, grace is something I learned at some personal cost.

The Actor is the one who performs Acts, the Mind. Your theatre began with the moment of your birth and the season is on schedule. You selected the script, re-wrote it to suit your own purposes, donned the costume, constructed the set. Sooner or later you will have to sit in the balcony and watch. You lacked the inclination to listen to any director. So it goes.

Your Gods are not mine but the wisdom of the Oracle abides regardless:

The Lake has risen up to Heaven. For all gathering is followed by dispersion. To bless means to help, Heaven helps the man who is devoted, men help the man who is true. He who walks in truth and is devoted in his thinking is blessed by Heaven. The superior man curbs evil and furthers good. He thereby obeys the will of Heaven.

Somehow the night has grown longer; so much of my life resides in the domicile of night, rooms full of night, the hush of the world, the sheltering wings of the Dark Sister. All these words, the armour of language that has become my skin, have flooded over these pages like an old blood stain. The moon is young and sits in a throne of gum leaves. I hear the oak tree resisting the loss of its leaves in the wind that just now rises. Soon the house will be covered in dawn and I will sleep and dream. Stars will chart their eternal paths across the cosmic sea. When morning comes I will rise and listen again to the secrets of flowers, watch the King Parrot regally descend to eat, the child will be laughing at the magic of the world, the cat will wander off the bed and the day begin. And you will be gone. More farewells than Madame Melba. This deep house with its mystery will occasionally mutter your name but that too will fade as the ghosts consume you. Your name, your presence will become a set of notes in an old song, fragments of a sad melody that had potential for something else than what it became.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

We live in an era pervaded by a tirelessquest for information, it rules us as certainly as the Gods of Olympus once presided over Ancient Greece and sometimes with the same degree of wanton caprice. But what does it mean, this obsessive drive to highjack information superhighways, to harness the juggernauts that frequent the icy world of cyber-space, to drive through the lace-like conduits of virtual reality. I do not understand it and though I am much taken with the work of J.G.Ballard, William Gibson and their compatriots in guerilla literature, I must admit that I am more fascinated with the language they are creating than the stories they tell. The frontiers they are exploring are ultimately more linguistic than conceptual and the bottom line story bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythos of the lone Cowboys of North American literature and that time-honoured tradition of good versus evil. The hero triumphs, evil is vanquished and love waits in the wings. When sunset comes he (or sometimes she) vanishes over another horizon. Mind you the weaponry is much more sophisticated and the humble horse has become redundant. Its very strange. But to return to that Golden Cow, Information, the new God of our perverse culture. We must all be informed these days and to be properly informed we must have access to the latest technology that will present this information to us on a platter. Instant gratification, the politics of the market place and the insidious disease of consumerism predicate a global culture that can inform or be informed faster, quicker, bigger, better, sooner, cheaper.

Being of a peculiar cast of mind I continue to believe that information is something that you read off the side of cake mixes or milk cartons, it tells you what ingredients reside within the package and I suspect the information is tailored to suit my needs: I like to think that I am not unduly contaminating the health of my children with toxic additives which may impair their ability to function. But central to this obsession with information is an entrenched and dangerous delusion that information may be construed as knowledge. How the philosophers of Ancient Greece would have abhorred this facile notion for they valued, above all, the pursuit of knowledge and were prepared to dedicate a lifetime to rigorous intellectual endeavour in order to acquire understanding, assimilation, a foundation from which to postulate ideas. For centuries western philosophers have argued over various theories of knowledge without necessarily coming to any ultimate conclusions. Now, for myself, I am quite prepared to admit that I don’t know what it is but its obviously very valuable stuff and I wouldn’t mind having a bit of it before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I do know that knowledge may be arrived at by travelling a number of different paths and that it always requires a level of hard work. Although it is historically true that people may be struck by a kind of epiphany in pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge like Darwin who maintained that his theory of evolution came to him as he was dozing in a carriage, or Einstein’s contention that equations came to him in dreams. Normally however knowledge is rarely delivered to one like a giant sized pizza and the acquisition of it is not dependent on financial resources. Even in these dark and disturbing times there is still a free public library service although I suspect its existence becomes more precarious each day. How can one economically justify such rash and wanton institutions?

We live in a culture that is profoundly opposed to the frivolity of ideas, to thought for the sheer joy of investigation, to forms of knowledge that are completely detached from applicability or practical outcomes. Does the soul’s essentially poetic drive die a death of little things each day because it cannot claim a use-value in the market place? I think not, something in human nature will not quite bow to the new tyranny of Information. For example I know how the King Parrot is beautiful not just because my eyes transmit signals to the brain which then codifies and quantifies information and finally surmises that beauty has arrived in the birch tree on a late sunlit afternoon. I know it is beautiful with the eyes of my heart, it speaks to me of a regal beauty that will never be tamed, the lustre of its feathers, the pungency of colour, the endless fascination of its golden, unblinking eye. When it takes flight there is a surge in my blood, a yearning to go with it. I do not need one scientific fact about the nature of the bird to inform my knowledge of its beauty, it is, it needs no gilding. Watching the King Parrot I could begin to create metaphors of kings and monarchs, jewels and crowns, the true nature of royalty, a profusion of ideas, one leaping after the other and all this is part of my knowledge of its beauty, its essence. It is not just a question of aesthetics, although here we could get into rather deep philosophical water, nor is it a question of being educated into notions of beauty rather it is more like Keats’ famous summationTruth is beauty and beauty is truth. The bird as metaphor, the bird as flying word. Ah me, it gets difficult.

If I were to reduce the King Parrot to a set of descriptors: habitat, food, geographical distribution, lifespan, reproduction, what exactly would I know? A series of facts, a set of scientific observations that do not account for my reaction to the bird nor my intrinsic understanding of its beauty. Nor can it account for this spontaneous combustion of creativity by association. Nothing can. But it is enough, this discursive perambulation, I must return to what I originally wanted to analyse.

A Female Aesthetic in Theatre

Women think, write and perform differently to men because they have different experiences, different myths, desires, dreams and memories. We exist as a separate culture within a dominant culture, a culture distinct from man’s no matter how intimately we may live with or love them. But when women are free to be completely honest in the theatre it will be rocked to its foundations.

So wrote English playwright Kathleen Betsko in 1995. It is an interesting statement with its implications that women’s theatre practice is somehow dishonest, that we censor ourselves, distort or camouflage our ideas, that the fabulous beast that lurks in the psyche of the female artist will remain forever untamed and therefore cannot be unchained. Perhaps we know, intuitively, that in order to enter the male canon, that holy place wherereal theatreis made we must resort to subterfuge and subversion for we are highly unlikely to gain access on the basis of our distinct merits as theatre workers.

What is clear about Betsko’s statement is her belief that men and women have different artistic practice, process and ultimately product. More importantly it may well be that gender defines qualities and perception of beauty and harmony in theatre arts at such a deeply enculturated level that we are hardly aware of it. Since we have been largely educated into our understanding of the aesthetic, the appreciation and practice of beauty from a male perspective can we then even, as women, embrace an aesthetic which may radically differ? Can we actuallyseeit, let alone evolve a practice which may explicate it? For some years now I have been in search of a definition for that elusive Holy Grail: the notion of a female aesthetic and how it functions within the brutal arena of theatre. For theatre is perhaps one of the most confronting habitats for woman as artist, it is a forum in which she has the least insulation between herself and her work. Unlike the novelist, poet or diarist she lacks that comfortable distance between herself and her artistic practice and that may well be the reason why the casualty rate for women theatre workers is excessively high.

In exploring some of these ideas I investigated the work of three practising artists: director Carol Woodrow, writer & performer Victoria Spence and the legendary playwright, Dorothy Hewett.

Carol Woodrow has based her work in Canberra for over 20 years. Her awards, credits, achievements are almost too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that she was one of the early pioneers of Jigsaw Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Interact, Fool’s Gallery, Canberra Theatre Company and has worked extensively with the Bell Shakespeare Company. Having worked with Woodrow as a dramaturg I am familiar with the particular genius of her process. Woodrow works from what Anais Nin would describe as a nocturnal consciousness. She is unafraid of her intuition, of allowing seeds to germinate in darkness, of accessing meaning in text from an emotional perspective and of excavating deeper layers of experience that are not immediately obvious. She too is an explorer. And her road as a director has not been easy to travel but she has the fortunate ability to shift her ground and to continue to go forward in her work. As a director her greatest strength is to open the floor, unlock the creativity of all the collaborators involved in the process and to include rather than to exclude. She is unwilling to impose her vision of a work on others. Unlike the God-Director she will frequently admit that she does not know the final shape and form of the work, that the work must be allowed to evolve organically. This, she says, is sometimes perceived as a weakness by her co-workers for she must encompass the vulnerability that such receptivity entails. But she has a prodigious ability to cohere a wild proliferation of ideas in the rehearsal process and to allow the work she is creating to take on its own life and vitality.

When I pose the question of a female aesthetic to her I find that she is unwilling to define or rather to confine the concept within words. For Woodrow it exists in spontaneity, of creating an environment in which the catalyst of creativity, the chemistry between the participants can shape a unique space, a world, in which extraordinary things can happen. This is a process which requires radical trust but she has an understanding of the subtle and manifold languages of theatre practice whether at a textual level or as an interchange between actors and designer and she has enough patience, stamina and faith to nurture the process into maturation.

Observing Woodrow work on the floor with her team it may at first seem that her process lacks a structure, little could be further from the truth; Woodrow crafts her work with meticulous precision and an ordered chaos must be allowed to function within her process. The final product is a testimony to her ability to co-exist in the realms of the chaotic and the ordered and although critics have varied in their response to her work they have never accused her of producing anything vaguely related to a theatrical cliche. She is an innovator extraordinaire. Her desire to explore new territory in theatre is consistently obvious in her choice of texts whether it be in the deeply subversive collaborations which produced such early works asStandard Operating Procedureor in the spiritual challenges she delineates in works such as Elaine Ackworth’sBod.

Ultimately Woodrow is an optimist and this quality of optimism is perhaps central to the female aesthetic: a refusal to be defeated, a determination to persist with integrity and authenticity in one’s quest for artistic wholeness, despite obstruction, in order to journey beyond the insidious cultural dictates of the male canon.

Dorothy Hewett has been described as livinga hell-raising soap opera of a life and one which, had she been a man, would have been described as Rabelaisian. Notwithstanding such typical media descriptions Hewett remains one of Australia’s foremost playwrights with an outstanding critical reputation both overseas, and somewhat begrudgingly, in her own country. For well over ten years Hewett and I have struggled with a definition of the female aesthetic and come to no substantial conclusions.

Like the Holy Grail of legend it appears to have some of the qualities of a shape-shifter, a chameleon; we know it exists but we just can’t seem to encapsulate it. Hewett believes that women writers have a language wrought in their soul and engraved on their bodies, a grammar, a vocabulary and a distinctly female imaginary.

In 1974 whenThe Chapel Perilouswas first performed in Sydney critics greeted It with a chorus of amazed horror partly because of its outrageous female heroine, Sally Banner, and partly because of its form. For years they continued to complain that Hewett’s plays lacked an expositional form: beginning, middle and end. But Hewett had deliberately chosen to work outside just those perimeters, not through wilful ignorance as her critics implied, but because she needed to explore the deeper and more complex interior worlds of her characters. She was not interested in surfaces. The theatrical worlds Hewett creates are often chaotic and of their own nature irreconcilable and she will often explicate experiences that sit at the uncomfortable boundaries of the human psyche. Within the maelstrom of human experience and at the excruciating edges of pain, passion or obsession there is little that is open to final resolution. As her critics bewailed her lack of propriety and accused her ofwriting from her gonads(which was, as Hewett was to retaliate, a very difficult biological trick!) Hewett went on to create new works which abounded in moral ambiguities. She was creatively preoccupied with investigating and utilising the power of metaphor and symbols, of deliberately engaging a unique lyric density in the construction of her characters and concentrating on exploring and evoking qualities of atmosphere. Above all Hewett refused to give in, aesthetically, morally or philosophically to the rigidity which ruled has much of Australian theatre since its rather cumbersome birth. Doubtless she would have burned in another age for the practice of artistic witchcraft.

When I asked her recently how she survived her tumultuous journey through the war zone of Australian theatre she replied with typical wickedness: that she had side-stepped issues, taken refuge in a secret life, refused to be intimidated, used much guile and cunning and, of course, sex.

Critical reaction to her work has always suffered from a kind of zealous extremism. Long-time friend and associate Helen Musa believes that the overwhelming critical hostility to Hewett’s prodigious creative output in theatre, prose and poetry can only be to Hewett’s personality, to her celebration of her own sexuality, her bluntness (Hewett once described the Western Australian arts scene as an ingrown toenail ) and the quality of almost Shakespearian vulgarity she delights in when mixing it with the media.

Above all Dorothy Hewett is an inspiration to any woman working in the arts because she has survived with both her artistic integrity and her sense of humour intact. In describing her life’s working process she believes that much of her work has been shaped by the demands of raising five children and finding the necessary time to write: therefore it was easier to write plays and poetry than to embark on a novel. The sheer luxury of uninterrupted time is experienced as a rare gift to many women arts workers. It is unfortunately the case that the female Muse, when she visits, does not make peanut butter sandwiches or hang out the washing. It is equally true that the journey of woman as artist is a particular one and that much more so than the male artist she needs a sense that other women have traversed this country, that there are maps and signposts. Thus when she enters her own peculiar labyrinth to go down to the dark heart of the maze and face the Minotaur of her fears and aspirations she may find some security in the notion that many an Ariadne has been before her and has emerged and triumphed.

Virginia Woolf once remarked that women hadto conspire to createand the notion of complicity, secrecy and an aversion to exposure seems to be central to an explication of the female aesthetic. Like so much of women’s history it appears to be powerfully present through its absence.

In describing something of the nature of the female psyche French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes of it as an horizon which will never stop expanding. We are always open. Stretching out, never ceasing to unfold ourselves, we have so many voices to invent in order to express all of us everywhere, even in our gaps, that all the time there is will not be enough. We have so many dimensions. If you want to speak ‘well’ you pull yourself in. You become narrower as you rise. Stretching upward you pull yourself away from the limitless realm of the body. Don’t make yourself erect you’ll leave us. The sky isn’t up there: It’s between us.Much of Irigaray’s work underpins the artistic practice and conceptual development of writer/performer/dramaturg Victoria Spence. Spence has worked extensively with the Performance Space in Sydney, Sidetrack Theatre and has a history of working with Splinters Inc. notably inUtopia/DistopiaandThe Oracle. She has also worked in a number of films.

She outrightly rejects the idea of a female aesthetic because it can only be described in opposition to a male aesthetic. Like huge national monuments the male aesthetic is predicated for patriarchy with its formal shape, colour and voice. It is doctrinal, prescriptive and is enshrined in a discourse which functions to reinforce the existing cultural status quo. Like many women practitioners Spence dislikes defining the perimeters of her work and she equally dislikes the gender specifics that are implied in the term female aesthetic. She is inclined to work from the bottom up originating her

text in her body first and she believes that most women have a different relationship to their bodies in performance in comparison to men.

When she first embarks on making a new piece of work it is essential for her that she has a road map, a sense of the journey, a willingness to open herself emotionally and psychically to the experience and to encompass the vulnerability that is intrinsic to this process. This openness allows women a much wider theatrical reach. Spence believes that the voice of a woman artist whether it be in theatre, dance or film is not as loud or as penetrating as the male voice, rather it seeps through into the gaps and spaces and is much more akin to a set of musical resonances than the set of statements which

define the male canon. For her the female aesthetic is like a mist or a vapour drifting in and out of shadows and out of which the most surprising and interesting experiences can be shared. Women theatre workers she believes frequently work in uncharted country and there they can challenge the edges of their art, flirt with dangerous precipices, sail on strange seas and in general make new maps for further exploration. Equally critical to Spence’s ideas about the female aesthetic is the notion of multiplicity.

Traditional forms of theatre are rigidly structured by the quest for resolution. In tragedy all is resolved by death. In comedy all is resolved by marriage. Women’s experiences, women’s art, women’s practice often involves that which is unresolvable. They can embrace the irrational, the intuitive and can become happily entangled in chaos and circularity. That is not to imply that the female aesthetic lacks structure, merely that its structure is less concerned with notions of closure or with linear forms of exposition. Such an aesthetic could be described as ambidextrous and is endlessly capable of ingenious forms of mutation.

But are we in all our discussions any closer to a definition to a female aesthetic or is the search for such a definition a contradiction in terms since it appears to reside in the inexplicable, the insubstantial, changing form and modes of exposition with the ease of a shapeshifter. While it is clear that the female creative process in theatre challenges Aristotelian theories of unity and other entrenched tenets which are used to shape beliefs about aesthetics in general it is still not clear what constitutes the female aesthetic. Perhaps that is just as it should be. The female aesthetic defies a prescription of absolutes, it subverts the tyranny of text or director, it is untidy, prone to the tangential, the asymmetrical and flourishes in the rich soil of the irrational. It is far closer to an organic life form than the dry and sterile dictates of an artistic imperative which has shaped western experience for centuries. In that it is truly revolutionary.

In 1996 I was invited to the 4th International Conference of Women Playwrights to deliver the Keynote Address. The speech I had written was entitled A Sense of Place. The Conference was being held in Galway, Ireland and the idea of going there was irresistible. I was brought up by my grandmother to believe that we had merely been visiting Australia for two hundred years and we were never to forget that our nationality was actually Irish. My mother annoys my father with this notion to this day. I had made previous pilgrimages to Ireland in search of a sense of permanence but I had never been there as a literary pilgrim. Curiously the idea of giving the paper absolutely terrified me. Fear and I are not frequent companions, this is not necessarily a good thing as a healthy dose of fear can help you avoid all sorts of situations. However I am not easily deterred when I set my mind to something so I persevered regardless of the nasty, bottomless pit that opened in my stomach whenever I though about giving the bloody paper. As it transpired it was an extraordinary experience.

Galway, its the Summer Solstice and there’s a trans-atlantic gale blowing, it doesn’t particularly bother any of us. There are over 400 women gathered together from almost 40 nations and we have one thing in common: we’re all playwrights and we’ve come home again. In another age we would have been put to the stake for none of us have learned the art of silence. At the traditional reception that our Irish hosts have organised there is more than a touch of madness in the air, a gathering of energy that portends interesting things to come. Above the ceaseless level of women embroiled in conversation a young women’s achingly beautiful voice accompanied by the harp drifts through the upper regions of the magnificent hall which was built in 900 A.D. I am enjoying the sheer female resonance of woman energy in this place and gradually divesting myself of my Joan of Arc persona which characterises so much of my interaction with the world of theatre when I am suddenly accosted by the legendary Marguerita D’Arcy (Irish playwright, actor and activist).D’Arcy has decided that I am suitable material for participation in a women’s celebration of the Solstice to be held that evening in some undisclosed location. She’s not the kind of woman you argue with so, somewhat unwillingly, I am dragged from the formal welcoming speeches (for which D’Arcy has absolute contempt) and we set off through the tempestuous night to the Cliffs of Moher. D’Arcy hasn’t stopped talking since she was born and at age sixty odd she has no intention of stopping now. A survivor of Holloway prison for a range of political activities she drives like a fiend from hell in a car that defies description. After several hours of being buffeted by winds and besieged by D’Arcy’s passionate views on Ireland, art and women we arrive at our destination.

The Solstice ritual, a keystone of the Druidic faith is a solemn occasion where the Goddess farewells her lover, the sun, as he begins his long journey across the sea. His departure marks the decline of the light and he will return to great celebration at the Winter Solstice. The ritual is one of the oldest in the world and was once accompanied by human sacrifice. But tonight the air is chill with eerie chants and women glide from trees with huge torches burning to lay their gifts on the altar of the Horned God. Between jet-lag, exhaustion and Guiness my mind is beginning to inhabit some strange spaces and I feel as if I have been transported back through time to the Ireland that predated the arrival of the Romans. However the vestiges of reality return some hours later when D’Arcy dumps me unceremoniously at the door of my Hotel some two hours before I am due to deliver the Keynote Address to my peers at the Fourth International.

By the time I arrive at Galway University College exhaustion has become irrelevant and I am running on pure adrenalin. Standing before this assembly of amazing women I know a moment of sheer terror just before I begin to speak and wonder how did this happen to me. But my life has always been subject to peculiar quirks of fate and this is merely another one. The speech I have written is about location, specifically about how women artists locate themselves within the web of contradictory forces that shape them as artists and as individuals. To be a playwright a woman must of necessity encompass something of an archaeologist and a cartographer. She must be prepared to investigate all kinds of murky experience. In this speech I have chosen to celebrate the work of the women who have stood behind me, whether practically or metaphorically and to acknowledge their formidable power in shaping my life as an artist. For I believe that all women who enter the Circus Maximus of public culture need the certainty of other women’s belief in them. As the world changes and technology collapses all known boundaries I believe, increasingly, that we no longer trust language as a carrier of authentic meaning. And yet words are the primary tools of our craft and since it is women who mostly pass on the spoken word to their children we are faced with an unprecedented challenge. I don’t know the solution to this problem but I do know that women survive and transcend fragmentation.

Sharing these ideas with my colleagues I can almost feel the hum of energy rising for I am articulating the common vernacular of our experience and it appears to cross boundaries of race, class and culture. All of us share the experience of isolation, estrangement and alienation. Here in Galway we will celebrate and explore the depth of our connectedness. At the end of my speech there is a kind of deafening silence followed by a roar of applause that sounds like a giant wave breaking. I am so relieved that I appear to have opened this Conference with just the right kind of music that the only thing I can think of is a cup of tea and how to get one in the seething morass of women but tea-ladies are frequently inspired by the Goddess and they divine my need and find me. Ten days later after a feast of theatre, ideas and endless talk I leave Ireland for Japan. I have yet to assimilate what happened to me.

A Sense of Place

A sense of place implies a concept of dwelling, of belonging and it references ideas of commonality of experience, of home, of community and implicit notions of nationhood. Perhaps more importantly a sense of place is intrinsically connected to the bedrock or wellspring of elusive ideas which partly constitute our sense of identity whether personal, artistic or collective. Place is not merely a geographical designation, it is an emotional and spiritual context for the forces that have shaped us as individuals, as women, as artists. It appears to be an interesting and almost pan-cultural fact that it is the artists in any given society who have the task of mediating concepts of place for their respective cultures, of giving shape, voice, form, colour and texture to the profound and fundamental energies that have shaped a community’s notion of place and identity. It is something akin to a process of alchemical transformation and represents a unique challenge to an Australian artist.

Australians have a curiously dislocated sense of place and this not merely as a result of geographical isolation. The tyranny of distance which once confined us has collapsed under the onslaught of new technologies, information superhighways and the simple economics of cheaper airfares. Our sense of dislocation resides in more complex and elusive areas such as the distortions that have shaped our history, its dark myths and secrets, our sense of spirituality and the almost indefinable nature of our national psyche. Of the Western developed nations we are one of the youngest, our population is a little over 18 million persons and yet we live in a vast and often inhospitable land. The bulk of the original white inhabitants, victims of a brutal British penal code, arrived here against their will and the foundation of our nationhood was, and still is, based on the systematic genocide of the indigenous people who lived here in relative peace and tranquillity for thousands of years before the coming of the white invader. It is not surprising that we have an uneasy relationship with the actual body of the land itself. Much of our early prosperity rested on the backs and off the sweat and exploitation of imported labour from China and other countries. More recently subsequent waves of immigrants from all over the world came to the so-called lucky country to find fame and fortune only to be faced with bigotry and cultural disenfranchisement. We emerged into the late 20th century with a notion of being a polyglot community mouthing a blithe rhetoric about multi-cultural ism and land rights for the indigenous peoples which belies close inspection.

How then does a woman and a playwright locate herself within this diaphanous web of often malignant and contradictory forces. How does she locate her sense of home, both personally and artistically, a sense of belonging amidst the restless ghosts of past atrocities and a national image of fire breathing cricketers and footballers. The current pantheon of Australian deities is almost entirely presided over by male Sports gods, in the past our national luminaries have been bushrangers, criminals and clever extortionists. A notion of artistic culture has always been slightly suspect and for a very long time Culture could only be imported from overseas, particularly in the areas of opera, theatre and music. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that Australian artists left their own country in droves in search of place, community and validation.

Artists of any denomination are frequently driven to voyaging on strange and solitary seas, both literally and metaphorically. We are pilgrims for the world’s soul and we seek sustenance in diverse experiences both good and bad. And to be a playwright in particular a woman must encompass something of an archaeologist and a cartographer. She must be prepared to investigate the mysterious layers of the human psyche and to enter the labyrinthine ways of the heart. It is partly because we embark on these perilous journeys into the grim palace of the Minotaur that we have such a need for Place, a safe haven, a home where Ariadne sits holding the threads that have guided our travels and our return. I find it interesting that while I have an amorphous sense of nationality I do have a very strong sense of place. That place is firmly located within the mythic country of my childhood. I grew up in the shadow of Australia’s highest mountain, Mt Kosiouzsko, it was cold, unforgiving country with Alpine peaks and the swirling boughs of snow gums. As a child I explored this country, re-naming it, re-populating it with the strange menagerie of creatures that lived in my imagination. It was there that I wrote my first poetry and forced my large extended family to perform my plays. It wasn’t until I went away to the city, to University that I discovered there was something very wrong with me. Young women were not supposed to write, to articulate and hold vehement opinions let alone academically outperform their male peers. Since no-one has ever successfully managed to shut me up I was doomed to disaster. It was at University that I discovered that language was not only for the shaping of beautiful worlds but it could be used as a weapon, a defence. I took refuge in outrageous satire. And I enshrined my sense of place in memory and kept it as a sanctuary. But I was painfully aware that my peers regarded me as something akin to an alien and I spent much of my early academic life locked inside the safe covers of books, searching for the women who had been here before me, trying to reconstruct a history of women writers that was elusive and concealed.

I was more than fortunate to meet Dorothy Hewett at this junction in my life. Here was a legendary woman who had trailblazed her way across the patriarchal vistas of Australian theatre and who wrote female characters who were tempestuous, intelligent and frequently failed to behave well, characters who celebrated their intelligence and their sexuality. Her prodigious output of plays, poetry and prose had been the subject of vitriolic criticism for several decades. She has been accused of committing every conceivable theatrical atrocity from failing to understand the mechanics of a well-made play to covering her stages in menopausal blood. It was Hewett who taught me to trust my own process, to value writing from my ovaries and above all to endure. She did not tolerate vacillation or prevarication and through her I found another sense of place, a rich and witty environment where words were treasured as the supreme currency of exchange. Recently I was described by a leading Australian director as a dangerous writer. I took this as a compliment and as a tribute to Hewett’s good influence. For above all she taught me to value my own artistic integrity and to avoid the soul-eating disorders that come with the temptations of compromise. It was not a recipe for popular success but then again I had few Barbara Cartland-like tendencies.

Notwithstanding Hewett’s support and a network of women actors, directors and writers my relationship with main-stream Australian theatre can only be described as clandestine. As with the mechanics of any illicit affair I chose to arrive by the back door, I delighted in one night stands and secret admirers and I still tend to have a rather infamous relationship with the press. This is partly because I feel profoundly uncomfortable with the standard of etiquette required in the palatial residences of public, male culture. I am also too well aware of the dangers of marginalisation, of existing on the peripheries of the real world of theatrical culture as articulated by the dominant cultural elite. I resent the implicit and explicit censorship of women’s labour and there are many and varied ways of skinning the cat when it comes to a woman’s creativity. I have no tolerance for the hidden agendas of tokenism and even less time for the surreptitious prescriptions which dictate what women should and shouldn’t write, let alone how. In short I am graceless about such matters and I have stubborn and cantankerous nature. To add insult to injury I have a fascination with the psychological landscapes of my characters, their interior worlds and I am constantly in trouble for being too intense, too lyrical and working with subject material that is difficult and confronting. But I have a kind of fatal attraction for prowling the uneasy edges of new horizons in theatrical forms, it is the cartographer in me.

Despite the many positive changes that have occurred for women theatre workers over the last decade I believe we are deluding ourselves if we think that theatre is no longer an ideological battle. Too many women playwrights are casualties of neglect, indifference, expropriation and exploitation to say nothing of the more vicious forms of public and private censorship. And there are still too few of us. In women’s history in any discipline it is always wise to note the presence of absence. Women absent themselves from theatre because they quite simply cannot tolerate their annihilation, the constant sense of being outside, in exile, the daily battle to be heard. That is why we have such a critical need for a sense of place, we need to be delivered from our sense of personal and artistic isolation, we need to know that other women are out there with us travelling towards the same destination, involved in similar struggles and yet surviving. In the Circus Maximus of theatre we recognise each other by our scars, by our tenacity and by the care with which we maintain our perimeters, our boundaries.

It is this sense of community which sustains us. Through it we are able to reclaim ourselves as artists; we are no longer fighting solitary rear-guard actions against a monolithic cultural imperative which prescribes our practice and our process. For me, personally, my experiences at the 1st International conference of women playwrights literally transformed my working life. I was initiated into a global community, I found home with almost 250 playwrights from 34 different nations. Here was a place where I could take off my shoes, where I didn’t have to vaguely apologise for what I did for these women were talking my language in a dialect of creativity and liberation which allowed me to take off my armour, to finally relax. These were strangers so familiar I might have grown up with them. What was truly extraordinary was that despite our cultural differences we shared a wealth of similarities. We had mapped the same country, carved out similar paths; we had a common vernacular of experience. It was at that conference that I could divest myself of my Joan of Arc persona and I learned to laugh at myself again and that is a very great gift. We laughed at our collective naivety, our fatal optimism, our stubborn set of beliefs that the theatre women write would change the world for the children who will come after us. For none of us were in the business of writing theatre that had no meaning and we had no interest in reinforcing the status quo of our respective cultures. We had all rocked the boat too often and had been forcefully evicted. These women were my sprit-clan, my kin, my tribe.

Above all they allowed me to find the courage to recapture my vision and my dreams. And women must have dreams, without them we die a death of little things. Through dreams we enter the nocturnal consciousness that Anais Nin describes, the rich and warm wetland of the country of intuition where we draw upon the multiplicity of our experiences and weave them into our art. I regained my faith in language, real language, the kind that Heidegger (1) describes as the house of being, that everything there is, is known through language. No world is given without language and in language the world is stored. As the world changes at an almost unprecedented rate I believe that as a global community we no longer trust words as the carriers of meaning. And yet they are the primary tools of our craft. We have to prevent this massacre of language, we need to re-invent words, to restore their power, to re-energise a language that is regularly cannibalised by the mass media in order that the stories we carry will go on. So that our collective children will have the same wings that language has given us and they too will fly. Both Anais Nin and Luce Irigaray describe the small kingdom of women, the fragmentation that occurs as we respond to the disparate needs of children, lovers, mates etc, the art of juggling any number of domestic needs with the demands of being an artist. But it is precisely because of this small kingdom that women writers are able to plunge into the oceanic unconsciousness of life, to find the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary, to chart archetypal maps of experience and to leave signposts for those travelling behind us.

Shostakovitch once wrote that Art destroys silenceand that is why conferences such as these are critical. For Art destroys the silence which surrounds our maligned history, our debilitating experiences; the silence which envelops our relationships and the very craft of writing itself. Silence was once considered the supreme ornament of a good woman, the voiceless woman, the woman whose lack of speech kept the peace by refusing to oppose. We who have chosen to speak, to articulate, to immerse ourselves in the language of water and the river of dreams should always remember that we speak for the many who cannot, for all those who are disempowered by virtue of their race, their class and other less visible but equally insidious circumstances and that our words will shape a future, create a different world. But we should never forget that it is difficult and dangerous work and we are far more likely to be penalised for it than lauded. That is why we cannot work in a void, we must have links, affinities, a sure knowledge that someone is listening, someone can hear us otherwise we skirt the edges of madness or sterility, we become barren and hopeless.

In the years that have elapsed since the 1st International it has often comforted me as I worked late into the night or early in the morning, in those interesting nooks and crannies of time that women have to make in order to work, that somewhere criss-crossing the globe there was another woman struggling with the same obstacles. In Sri Lanka, in Chilé, in Japan, in any number of countries around the world these women were conspiring with me in the act of creation. My sense of place had exploded, it now crossed time and space, cultural and international boundaries and it had become resonant with a quality that can only be described as music, a melody of women’s power, of spirituality and of the mysterious energies that guide, sustain and inspire the gestation of any creative endeavour.

For too long women artists have been habituated to estrangement and alienation. We would be unwise to forget that not so very long ago we all would have been burned for the practice of witchcraft. This conference has far deeper roots than a mere academic forum for the exchange of ideas and information, presentations and performances, its roots lie in an older, almost subliminal consciousness: the culture of women’s ritual. As Margot Adler remarks (2)

We are interrelated with all forms of life, rituals allow us to re-create that unity in an explosive non-abstract, gut-level way. Rituals have the power to reset the terms of the universe until we find ourselves suddenly and truly at home, secure in our sense of place…

1. Heidegger, M. Letters on Humanism in Basic Writings (1997), New York

2. Adler, M. Drawing Down the Moon (1986) Doubleday, New York


It is, I believe, considered rather bad form for a woman to write about pregnancy in a creative context in our peculiar culture. I am not sure why, it is deeply bound up with some thinly submerged taboos about the whole subject despite Demi Moore’s famous and controversial cover photograph, naked and flagrantly very pregnant and the public pregnancies of superstars and models. It remains however an area of ambivalence in women’s writing and I am always fascinated by the power of thepresence of absencewhen it comes to concerns about the female of the species. It is perfectly acceptable to relegate pregnancy and its myriad manifestations to self-help books, guides on parenting and methodologies of childbirth and feeding etc, etc. Fashions in these areas come and go with alarming speed. Everything appears to be improbably easy provided one has followed the instructions verbatim and does not disrupt the procedure by deviating from the norm. Such books are all a little like manuals deceptively titledThree Easy Steps to Pavingand anyone who has ever attempted to pave knows that its shit work and the final result rarely bears any resemblance to the beautiful and perfectly symmetrical illustrations in the book. These attempts to codify complex issues like pregnancy (or paving) reflect a number of attitudes in our culture including the need for logical, scientific explication of all biological phenomena, the belief that education in this area will result in a kind of organic enlightenment but perhaps more importantly, on an almost sub-textual level, they reference a distrust of the dark, mystical powers of the womb.

In many so-called primitive cultures there is a common belief that a pregnant woman has four eyes, she has many ways of seeing the world and is involved in a duality of experience that exonerates her from normal expectations in her tribal culture. The time of gestation, like grieving has laws and functions that are particular to the individual’s experience. Tribal cultures integrate this experience through all kinds of ritual and ceremony all of which serve to affirm the power of the woman’s gift to the tribe and their collective future. Perhaps the only comparable expression of this experience in Western Culture is the tradition of a Baby Shower. Materialism is all. The spiritual experience of mother and child is not acknowledged. There are occasional weird vestiges of the power that a pregnant woman might wield and strangely enough they are often found in English Common Law. As far as I know some of these statutes still exist and are legally viable. For example a pregnant woman may demand that a policeman cover her with his coat should she need to urinate in public. I have often wished that I had taken advantage of that during my pregnancies but the opportunity did not arise. C’est la vie. But to return to my original point. Why do women appear to shy away from an exploration of pregnancy in creative work? A difficult question and I am not absolutely certain that my contention is accurate. Is it particular to writers, do women sculptors and musicians have less inhibition about exploring this area. I would suggest that women writers feel uneasy about it, perhaps it is a manifestation of the public/private dichotomy, it threatens to disturb that boundary. Nonetheless growing in the womb, in the rich, dark caverns of the imagination and in the uterus there are words and a child, co-habiting, and the child is infinitely more mysterious than the words. Cells mutating, the chromosatic war, the embryo with gills, sexless as any fish, its feathery carapace, it moves through all the stages of evolution into a human mammal and all in utero, hidden away from the prying eyes of the world. Secrecy. No amount of scientific language, explanation, diagrams, ultrasounds can plumb the depths of this mystery. Ancient and gravid, old as earth, the sea roams through us, the moon and stars bestow a soul, other spiritual energies may lay claim to it before it becomes fully formed flesh and bone. Certainly enough cultures believe that the child in its dark home has the protection of any number of guardian energies. Meanwhile the child in utero turns roiling through its mother’s body leaving us bemused, exhausted; it is utterly inexplicable. Old statues of the Mother Goddess depict her as big-bellied and mouthless. Is there a need to speak or is it in the realms of the unspeakable. I don’t know, pregnancy is a state that can only be occupied entirely, its demands are without qualification.

There is something about pregnancy which belongs uniquely to the moon and the night and the primitive but potent power of women’s blood mysteries. It is another crossroad, a place where sacred and profane meet and therefore traditionally under the protection of that enigmatic goddess, Hecate. For there is a part of us which needs to withdraw under the canopy of the stars despite the demands of daily life. No matter what we are doing out there in the arena of public life we are still somehow deeply preoccupied with the inner contours of our bodies and spirits, for we are preparing to give birth to buried things, hidden meanings, we are shaping the formless into form, the invisible into visible and all this is powerful magic. And the womb is matrix: it is the cradle and the grave. We emerge from a dark place of mystery and we journey to a similar dark place of mystery in death. The conceptual similarities between birth and death have lost cultural credibility over the last century or five; in a culture which is profoundly death-denying we see them now as polar opposites, not as conjunctions in experience. And yet both require their very own kind of experience of time (anyone who has ever been nine months pregnant will understand this perfectly), both are about waiting, both require a fundamental abdication from the notion of control. When they reach fruition they require rituals that encapsulate the momentous nature of the event and it is as important to name a death as well and with as much care as one names a child. Both experiences are ruled by the laws of nocturnal consciousness, not the bright hard glare of logical thought processes. As a young woman I was never going to have children. I could not see the sense of it, I was preoccupied with intellectual fields of endeavour, a brain-maiden, not with the messy business of procreation. In my second year at University I was beset by two aunts and my sister all pregnant together. They sat in my grandmother’s kitchen for what seemed like days on end and discussed their states ad nauseum, not only did I feel totally excluded from their world but I could not make any logical sense out of it. As their bellies got bigger it became harder to negotiate around them as they demanded endless cups of tea to fuel their insatiable need to describe and compare their common experience. I think I found it all a bit disturbing, something like the movie Aliens, their personalities appeared to be consumed by their ever expanding bellies. My grandmother found my reactions very amusing, it interested her to time just how long I could stand the level of conversation before I made a break for it. But I was very young and life had yet to happen to me.

I think I intuited that beneath their oceanic conversations, in the watery depths, there was a kind of barely contained chaos brewing in that kitchen and it frightened me almost as much as the surface of the text bored me. But I had been educated to think like a man, logos was God, everything could be understood if it was analysed into its smallest components, I lived within the unassailable bastion of the reductionist view of the world. At that time it suited me perfectly. I felt I could be immune to vast areas of experience, indeed I could effortlessly transcend them. I had contempt for the irrational, the intuitive, the murky waters of emotion, the grimy areas of sex and the threat of the primaeval. I was, in short, terrified of my intense emotional make-up, the ravening beast of sexuality and distrustful of intuition. As a child I had loved the sea, at this time in my life I began to avoid it. I had yet to find a foothold within my psyche in order to embrace my feminine nature. And all this seethed beneath a surface of controlled intellectual arrogance which in retrospect amuses me. No wonder my grandmother found me hilarious. My intellectual certainty about all kinds of experiences that had never even disturbed the orbit of my world was well nigh ludicrous.

Inevitably my evasion of these difficult issues surfaced in any number of disturbing ways during my first pregnancy which to me was infinitely more debilitating than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is a place where psycho-biology (for lack of a better word) meets pure intellect that is absolutely non-negotiable. Not only was my body incubating some unhatched mystery but my domestic circumstances bear little contemplation even now. It was one of my first experiences of total disempowerment, economically, emotionally and biologically. I felt trapped, caged and personally annihilated for nobody appeared to recognise me anymore, only my state of pregnancy. Few people have ever hated being treated like a walking uterus as much as I did. But pregnancy and inflexibility just won’t mix, no matter how one applies the faculty of reason. So I retreated to that place of boundless wisdom, in the same way my aunts had years before, my grandmother’s kitchen. She recognised my need to be treated as intelligent human first, and pregnant woman second. Therefore she made occasional, vague references to my condition and we spent hours drinking tea, discussing the vagaries of the Julio-Claudian family of Ancient Rome and rambling through the mythology of the Celts. She was a woman who rarely indulged anybody but during that time I remember she treated me with an unusual solicitude and tact which eased my heart and calmed my racing, harried mind. She accorded me the privacy I needed quite desperately and yet she managed to defuse my unstated but pervasive anxiety about the whole business of pregnancy.

It wasn’t until my second pregnancy that I healed some of the ravages of that time in my life and the birth of my second son reconciled me to the arms of the Mother-Goddess in full. Perhaps because of the absolutely antithetical nature of my experiences I was able to write Medea’s speech on the death of her children. Although I remember after writing it I was quite horrified at the intensity, the vehemence with which she repudiated her body and her pregnancies. I was at that stage searching for an entry, a kind of code which would enable me to access her psychic state and what kind of savage forces had driven her to the murder of her children. Deeply dissatisfied with Euripides’ portrayal of her I needed to go deeper, to find the bedrock of her psychic constitution in order to explain her to myself more than anything. For she has, I believe, both fascinated and repelled women for centuries now. And only another woman could really get to the bottom of her, thus I chose Morganna to act as inquisitor, judge, jury and executioner. But it is a speech that still disturbs me for reasons I cannot quite explicate. Perhaps you will understand it better, for as reader you can happily distance yourself from the responsibility of having created her.

From Morganna le Fey

Morganna:She’ll not speak, not her.(SHOUTS).


Medea:Not speak?I’ll scream.

Tell me something Morganna le Fey, did you have children?

Morganna:No personal questions.

Medea :Did you?

Morganna:What’s it to you, murderess?

Medea :Answer the question.

Morganna:I’m not on trial here, you are.

Medea:No, I think there are no children in you. You’re more like a man, perhaps you should get a dildo, strap it on.

Morganna:Tell us how you strangled them, Medea, how their little throats . Did their eyes bulge, their soft bodies convulsing. Did they struggle much, Medea? Did you watch them fighting for breath. And when they died? So sad, so cold, so cold, so cold …

Medea :(VERY QUIETLY) I didn’t kill them.

Morganna:Then how did they die, poor unprotected lambs?

Medea :(TO HERSELF AT FIRST) How could I kill them? They are still mine. Flesh, blood, muscle, perfectly shaped ears, so small… I grew them in the giant womb that devoured me alive. I ate myself alive (LAUGHS) Jason’s walking womb. He wanted them, I didn’t, and me the daughter of a king. I had magic in my blood, not children. Circe the enchantress had sung to me on the secret isle, I heard the early song of birds, watched the air beating in the ship’s sails. I, who had led the great dance in the palace of Mycenae. Oh Crete. I can never go home now. Not feel the summer air, the scent of lemon blossom at dawn.

Morganna:I said we’d have the truth, coward.

Medea :Oh, courage I had in such abundance it was dangerous. And Jason himself, hero of the argonauts, wanted me, I couldn’t believe it. Until the end, when I knew why. He had to have power, any kind, political, social, he was so worried what people thought about him.

Morganna:You still fucked him.

Medea :He was the biggest slobbering baby of them all. Tearing me apart, heart and soul. Never leaving me an inch to call my own. Nothing, more babies, more of me to own, mincing me up into little pieces. I lost the girl I was, how I used to play in the moonlit palaces of desolation. All gone. Jason’s wife. I was Jason’s wife. And the children, gimme, gimme gimme.Mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy.

They were like sponges sucking me dry.

Morganna:So you killed them, you venomous bitch.

Medea :Oh we must have children, he whinged and whined. What are you, unnatural or something? I couldn’t hear myself think. And them sucking the blood out of me til I felt like a fat white corpse. My breasts ached. I didn’t want them.

Morganna:You had choices.

Medea :Did I? They all said I’d be fulfilled. I was barely more than a child myself. Fulfilled? I was emptied. But I had his babies and (LAUGHS) he hated them. They mewled and screamed and vomited all over him. All my babies woke up in the night screaming, always screaming. I used to worry they would never go back to sleep.

Morganna:Well you fixed that.

Medea :I tried to want them, they said it was natural, that it all happened naturally, like blood leaking out of me month after month. Blood staining everything like a red haze, like the air was thick and soggy to breathe. I felt like an animal. A diseased sick parody of a woman dragging a leaky body with me. And if I wasn’t bleeding I was bloated with pregnancy.

And all this was natural. I hated it. If I could have got to it, the implacable womb, I would have torn it out. And I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t fight him. And this great gloating womb that tricked me, it hated me, I used to try and get to it, stab myself with objects. But it was sly, it kept its babies in there hiding them in secret passages, lulling me into a false sense of security until it was too late and I had a great fat stomach like a scuttled ship lolling from side to side.

Its better to forget, forget it all…

Morganna:(INTERRUPTING) You still have to hide it from yourself. But I swear to you all that we can’t live with these lies, we can’t own ourselves. Medea is our history. She isn’t pretty I agree, but she is what she is: a murderess.

Medea :It wasn’t like that, you always make it sound so simple, so easy.

Morganna:Well you tell us how it was then.

Medea :I was so tired, why can’t anyone understand that. I used to vomit for days before I had them, and I vomited while I gave birth to them and after laying in a pool of vomit and sweat while they showed me a blood stained bundle and expected a radiant mother my baby, our baby, his baby. And when I had his babies he left me at home day in day out cleaning up their vomit, that milky stagnant smell you can never get it out of your hair, all over my clothes, and cleaning up their shit, breasts leaking milk, pregnant again with morning sickness and diarrhoea, praying that I wasn’t but I always was. He saw to that filling me up with the vomit of his semen, his ugly fat cock whether I liked it or not.

Morganna:And yet you loved him once didn’t you, Goddess knows you toppled a couple of kingdoms to get him. Did you ever love him Medea?

Medea:What’s it to you, bitch, you who have never loved anyone in your entire life.

Morganna:Did you love him?

Medea :Once. I was young. Too stupid to know better.

Morganna:Would you care to be more explicit?


Morganna:Poor poor Jason. He had a short attention span. He got bored so easily and you were about as forceful as a dead cow.

Medea :One day, out of the blue, he came home into my bedroom and he just stared at me for a while. Then he said how ugly I’d become, what a slattern, how my arse had spread and my tits hung down to my waist, how no man alive could desire me now. Then I knew he had another woman.

Morganna:What was she like?

Medea :Clean, pretty, unspoilt, she looked up to him as if he was God.

Morganna:And for that, because of another woman, you killed your own children. It doesn’t bear thinking of. He was only a man like any other man, following the head of his erection. I don’t understand it.

Medea :It wasn’t like that, it wasn’t that simple.

Morganna:I will have it Medea I will have the truth no matter what it costs you. If it wasn’t the woman, what was it?

Medea :Oh he still liked to play happy families of course. There was a slight scandal about her. The boy was toilet trained and he could eat his food without slobbering it all over himself. But it was his daughter, my God how Jason adored his daughter. Then I knew I’d have to kill them. Especially her. I couldn’t help myself you see I came to love her too much. And she was a fool like me. I couldn’t watch her betray herself into a living death. And she would have. She had that kind of innocence. She used to come up to me and crawl into my lap so she could see into my eyes and then she’d touch my cheek and ask me to stop crying. And I would say I wasn’t but she would touch me again and saySee Mummy these are old tearsand try and wipe them away. Tears like old blood engraved on my face. But I never cried. What was the use? I was a stone. Stones don’t cry, they fall like great trees in the old forest crippled by birth.

Morganna:How did you actually kill them?

Medea :I killed them.

Morganna:What about their faces, Medea, how did they look at you when they knew they couldn’t trust you any more, that you were the death that stalked their nightmares.

Medea :Shut up shut up. I never saw their faces.

Morganna:Did they try and run, did they scream?

Medea :(VERY QUIET) I see them sometimes you know. I see them playing together, quite happy and they’re silent, no noise, playing some game they’ve made up. So quiet at last, they don’t cry anymore.

Morganna:Its over now the story.

You can’t hide her, not Medea. Put her in the closet then, her bones will always rattle.

Requiem for Witches

It is the task of the living to make the work, the struggles and the sacrifices of the dead meaningful. Nine million women died in the European witch hunts and they are only the ones we know about.

The Burning Times.

Isis, Astarte, Hecate, Innana, the manifold names of the One. Sweet Goddess of the crossroads harbour me.

I have seen the limbs forced asunder, the eyes driven out of the head, feet torn from legs, the victim now hoisted aloft and now dropped. I have seen the executioner flog with the scourge, and crush with screws and load down with weights and burn with brimstone and singe with torches. And children watching forced to testify against their own mothers

from the Malleus Mallifacarum

Let Sara speak for she saw much and lived long enough to speak of it.

‘That night sundered my mind from reason and divided my heart from love. And such a rage still lives within me. Better to be mad, witless and void of reason then to live on the memory of that black vortex in time which will not bear a living name. I have hidden so much from myself in the name of survival and I endured but to what purpose, there is no escape, no place to hide, not now as age crawls in my bones and the canker of memory gnaws at my heart. I will die clean, however, that much I promised myself, I will not take their restless cries with me. Waiting for the single benediction of death. Who, but I, can now speak of justice for them, the simple women of my village. They traded with no Devil, they grew herbs and made simple medicines, eased women in childbirth, wrapped the old gently in their shrouds, they loved the living spirit in all things and they tended it. Was not the very earth, the foamy sea, the gulls that wheeled above us, the wind itself outraged by their poor demented deaths? What just God could permit this slaughter, indeed, endorse it. Their deaths were meaningless. Unless those women who come after me remember them, honour their suffering, embody their hope, continue their work and live in the light.

They came at night, always at night, the men in shapeless black, their horses
defiling the land, nothing lived after that, no bush or tree or herb could thrive, too much blood had watered the meadow by the stream. Blood’s salt, frozen purpose. If I could but hear the sea again, a bird call at dawn without fear a vestige in my heart, would that change it? The endless screaming that crawls through my mind as they dragged another woman away, her dull sobbing as they probed yet another region of pain, no end, no end to any of it. The white faces of children who could no longer speak. The brutal sluggish faces of those men, another rape, the crack of bones breaking, a fragile face so mutilated, blood running everywhere. I was but five years old when they took my mother. She was not the first, I remember how my father had begged her to leave but she was not made like that.They will not name meshe saidThey dare not. He was right of course, they dared anything, drunk on blood, on the frenzy of their killing, they had a God that hated women and men of the cloth who supported them.

I will not unsay the barren curse I laid upon them all, I will take it the furies of their hell, if it exists anywhere outside of their fevered imaginations. I will call the older Gods and Goddesses to witness this abomination and I will name them for what they are: murderers and rapists. Predators who made war on those defenceless against their evil, they will not be forgotten nor their deeds. It will not lie down this massacre and it cannot be hidden, not forever, like a suppurating wound it will seep through the years of history and women will come again to know it, to remember. He shall know no peace who was related to these deeds, not him nor his descendants. That much power I still have. That much I lay upon the alter of justice. Call wind and fire, earth and water to witness this: I shall not rest for centuries until the desecration of the women in this dark time has found a balance in the acts of men.

Rosemary is for remembrance.

The Burning Times.

Isis, Astarte, Hecate Innana. In the manifold names of the One, sweet Goddess of the crossroads harbour me.

The White Girl

(for Emrys and Conor)

She had tried to drown herself when she was a young woman in this lake, despoiled her own innocence, violated her spirituality, ridiculed her passion and driven herself almost too close to the borderlands of insanity and then she had made of this, in her own blood, an offering to the womb of black water. In return the deities that ruled here had bound her, both acolyte and heretic, and knowing nothing of mercy the lake had kept the mirror of her young soul all the days since. A place of strangeness, it was alien and implacable when the oldest people were young in the land, long before the cruel white ghosts had come in their ghost ships to unleash death and pestilence. She sighs as the wind sifts through the reedy marsh and the faint stench of rotting mulch sharpens the memory of that mad night long ago, a night where serpents still coil and slide through the underbelly of her life; she has been careful to keep it outside the stone keep where she harbours sanity. Where was such rage and self-hatred born in the young woman she had been? There are places on the edges of the self where truth and deception are forced to co-exist and it is perhaps the gift of age to blur those distinctions, or so she likes to think.

But it was here that she had finally accepted the marred gift of her own creativity, on these peculiar shores she had first shaped the clay that was to dominate her life, this haunted place had driven her to the wheel, to the kiln, her hands had never been clean since. Only the stately passage of time had enabled her to encompass herself and her perverse gift, to grow through the winter ice of experience to a mastery of her craft and herself, time and the lake had been her mentors. So she was drawn to return, on any number of occasions. Today is the eve of her sixtieth birthday and the summer solstice swings on the hinges of the world-year, time is as liquid as the glimmer of water and glides into the lacunae of old memories, half-forgotten gods, ancient pilgrimages. She feels indisputably alive. In another age they would have sought to drown her for the temerity of such an inauspicious birth, such children haunt the boundaries of the world, unable to claim citizenship in the domains of reality or of the spirit. This idea still amuses her for she has never felt as if she truly belonged to the community of humans; it is only with children and animals or when working the clay that she has ever been able to forget the invisible stigma of her sense of difference. She remembers a grave young man once telling her that he believed that she had never quite completed her incarnation into this life cycle, that part of her had been left somewhere else. Just where it had been left he did not feel qualified to say and she had roared with laughter.

Now as she struggles through this impossibly alien landscape constructed in shadows cast by sunset, the ethereal drift of colour across the lake in the distance, she senses that some old Minotaur is waiting for her, that the lake will speak again, its murmuring, watery language will rise up in her, the utterance of seerdom, and from its unknowable depths some force may erupt and wrest what hard-won peace she has gained and lay her careful life in ruins again. Above all the lake is a place of truth. But then again she has not come here to be careful. She has come, as she has so often, in defiance.

Sunset, at the time of merging everything that is not fixed is vulnerable. Yet her blood is singing and light, gold and red, whirls through the flatland grasses in the wind. The surface of the lake breaks like glass splintering where minutes before all had been tranquil; it is always like this she muses, difficult, intractable. The trees shudder in the wind, the black swans race the cresting troughs for home, birds tumble through the air, somewhere the sheep bleat and chaos rules again. But she is undeceived, she knows all its tricks, its caprice so like her own temperament and this volatile air of tempest will pass, within half an hour an almost unbearable peace will settle and a quality of light will suffuse the landscape, a light that would blind Gods. Until night comes to settle its yoke of darkness on the water.

But before that there are hours of light and memories to be honoured, a gift to be bestowed. It is time to move, her brittle bones must do battle with the wind until she reaches the old grove of trees that has become her personal shrine, but the wind should keep strangers away and the fishermen will lay low ’til the wind drops. Over the years she has become as inconsequential to them as a passing ghost. Fishermen understand the needs of the solitary, they respect privacy, it is one of the codes of their profession. She stumbles forward though her arms ache and her balance is uneasy until she reaches the fragile shelter of the trees and settles gratefully on the ground to watch the lake unfold its madness, it is as if some giant seethes and roils beneath its surface, some force that can never be truly appeased. She remembers one evening she sat here in an unearthly quiet and watched a mist rise as if from nowhere and drape the land and water in grey and suddenly she was as cold as the novitiates who stood waiting to pass through the waters into the sanctuary of Avalon. A boatman rowed soundlessly towards her. Another world sat on the axis of this place, a shift of light could reveal the shadow of the Tor, a monastery, a garden full of apple trees, the delicate scent of blossom on the air, across the water sounds drifted of young women singing, laughing, the mellow notes of the eventide bell. But that was a gift of the lake when it was gentle, on other nights she had seen men in shapeless black with hearts full of venom and hatred come riding through the shore, wild with the smell of blood on them, black with purpose, murder in their hands, babies with their skulls cleaved open. She will not think too much on that, the lake had often beguiled her close to this madness, she is older now, she can resist some of its more dangerous lures. She does not know if she can resist her own.

She remembers the summer she came here heavy and languid with pregnancy and lay upon the earth plunging her hands into the pungency of soil, the child stirring in the cradle of her body and of how she slept all afternoon long as the air drifted through the sough of pines, waking to the raucous noise of wild cockatoos. The black swans gliding through her dreams and the lake, in sunset, turning all the colours of a butterfly’s wing. A time of promise, a promise broken so bitterly that she had never recovered, nor ever surrendered to hope again. The next winter she had hunted these shores like an animal, found the desiccated bones of birds and pebbles and shaped them into the tiny skeleton of the dead baby, whose name she would never utter aloud again. She made nothing with the clay, it was if the very substance of the earth mocked her, reviled her for her failure. The doctors maundered on about the rarity of his disease as if that might ease her and the child’s father withered slowly before the ice in her heart, love dying a death of little things. She chose not to love again. For years she drifted in this wasteland bruising the ground she trod upon, unforgiving, unforgivable. Even now she turns her mind deliberately from that time and listens as the wind changes, calms a little, launches another assault, but it is over, the tempest, the rest is all games. Quiet is coming again.

The light is dying behind the hills, hills that have always reminded her of a dragon sleeping, in the clefts and hollows she sees the long elegant drift of a scaled wing, claws gripping the stone outcrops, a brutal, regal head. She has watched it for over forty years waiting for it to wake from its lethal slumber and take flight.

It was the spirit of this earth bound dragon that had dragged her, black-hearted and unwilling, back to the clay, but it had became an infection in her blood, she had to set it free. She had always understood what lived beneath the formlessness of the clay, her hands intuited the heart of some sleeping force that woke to her touch and then she would sculpt it into life. She had begun as a potter and she still loved to make simple things, bowls, cups, the earthly requirements of daily life. Almost unconsciously she had moved from potting to sculpting, her spirit drew her deeper into mystery, into the excavation of more subtle forms, her hands plundering her material, a force apart, driven to find the viscera, the nerve and muscle in each creation. In New York they had christened her the Georgia O’Keefe of her craft. She smiles bitterly, over forty years in the making of self and art and now her hands have betrayed her. She strips off her gloves and looks at them, as gnarled and twisted as ancient wisteria trunks, riven with arthritis, they will no longer obey her. Her work has become clumsy where once her hands had roamed freely over chromatic scales of texture like a master pianist now she can barely play a simple tune. And still she forces herself to work, each piece a travesty of her gift and then she lays them at the altar of the Gods who had so created her.

The balance of the day shifts into evening and she has prevaricated long enough, it is time to fulfil her birthday promise. Over the past months she has been crafting one of the last of her masterpieces; she knows it is good, perhaps even very good, for she feels the energy spiralling within it as she works it, carefully, painstakingly each movement a battle with her strengthless hands. But she has won and as she unwraps it she marvels that she has made it at all for in the refracted light of the water it shines with its own light, lit within by an older wisdom than hers. A small triumphant Ariadne standing within the bowels of the Labyrinth as the Minotaur bows before her undimmed courage. And she has made it for both herself and the lake, as an act of restitution to the outcast young woman of her psyche, as a tribute to her own endurance and as an act of pure faith. Rising stiffly she curses her wayward body and cradling Ariadne she walks slowly to the lake’s shore; it is an effort but she has set her will to this event and nothing can gainsay her. She has always been unreasonably stubborn. The water is so cold it seems to burn her, her bare feet stumble a little and she stops, careful of her balance. She must go further out, for Ariadne can only rest in the heartland of these impenetrable waters, only at the very matrix of the lake will creator and created meld. Then perhaps in the purple light of late sunset and the rising young moon she will glimpse the girl she had been and ask her to come home.

The water is thigh deep now and she can feel her bones, a sudden sharp cry of a bird and she flings her head up realising she has come far enough, perhaps too far. With her heart’s strength she hurls the figure deep out into the uncharted depths and hears it shatter the still surface, lovingly she imagines its dark journey down, down to rest in ancient, secret caves. She can no longer move at all, the water seems warmer she could crumble here as easily as the clay figure will dissolve in its watery grave. Far out across the lake she glimpses a boat moving all in shadow, the hypnotic dip and fall of the oars lulls her like watching the swathe of wings of some gigantic bird. She can discern a figure standing, motionless, a figure carved all in chiaroscuro. She cannot take her eyes from it. Across a long distance she hears a voice calling, as piercing and insistent as a young magpie. Turning with infinite reluctance she sees in the uncertain flux of light a wild gesticulating figure on the shore and for a time she cannot decide which is real: the creature on the lake shore or the majestic approach of the boat of darkness. Her mind is full of cobwebs but the voice is imperious with youth and a quality of desperation haunts it. So she turns and as she moves sluggishly towards it she realises it is a young boy. Sensing her own peril, at last, she clings to his voice like a lifeline. As she drags herself toward the shore he runs heedless in to the water to help her.

Thank youshe gasps as they stand at last on dry land.

I thought you were a goner, lady, what that lake takes it doesn’t give back. You have to be careful here.

She considers this odd statement as she assesses him. He is about twelve she guesses, nut-brown and vigorous, a tangle of dark hair, both man and boy and not fitting into the skin of either. His eyes are really quite extraordinary, luminous, the colour of birch leaves. She is shaking too much to say anything very coherent.

Come on he says with absolute authority You must be freezing, you have to keep walking.

I have some warm things up thereshe stammers, pointing to the groveAnd a thermos

Good thinkinghe replies flashing her a smile that transforms him into all of five years old. I’ll get it ready. He strides off and she staggers behind him herblood aching in her veins. When she arrives he is pouring out tea and she sits carefully on a log more exhausted than she thought possible. With something like chivalry he brings her blankets and tea then settles opposite her.

Thank you, again, I am greatly in your debt.

He appears vastly impressed with this courtly statement.

I thought you we’re the White Girl at first.

The White Girlshe echoes.

His eyes move back to the lake, considering something, she senses that he is not all made of confidence and light, there is something broken in him.

I’ve seen her three times now, the last time she waved back to me just before she went in too deep. Old Jake the fisherman says its very bad luck to see her more than three times. She’s not real, of course, Jake says she’s one of the lake’s children. He’s a bit mad.

So am I. I didn’t mean to frighten you. What’s your name?

Rowan, Mum named me after a tree

Mine is Glynna, its Welsh, my mother named me after a forest pool.

Are you all right now?

She is aware of the unspoken implication in the question.

I think so. The lake is always unpredictable, it was stupid of me to go out so far, but I had something to do. I have been coming here for a very long time and I should have known better.

He smiles suddenlyI bet you’re the old woman that Jake calls the Lady of the Lake, he says you’re always a bloody good omen for the fishing.

An omen for fishes? My God just wait ’til I catch up with this Jake, I’ll give him omens for fishing. And then she breaks as laughter wells up in her like sweet spring water. Their laughter disturbs a flock of Currawongs who rush up to the sky in outrage.

ShitHe is suddenly as tense as a startled animal Its almost dark, I promised Mum I’d be home before sundown, she goes crazy…

I can come with you if you like, I could explain what kept you.

No, she doesn’t like strangers he pauses, uncertainlyShe doesn’t talk to anyone…not since my brother died.He looks out to the lake again watching it dissolve into the shadow, the shape of night.

Yesshe says quietly I can understand that. When you are very sad its hard to deal with other people, they can’t help it, they want you to get better, to be normal again, whatever that means.

Yes he says dismissing the subject totally, his pain is too raw for anything as sophisticated as words. You’re O.K. now?

Fine, thank you again, it was a pleasure to meet you, I had not expected to meet anyone here, ever.

See you later.

And then she watches him take flight, running as if his life depended on it, overpowered by the sheer joy of it, as sure-footed as a hunting cat, hair flying, arms pumping. He leaps over the rough terrain as if he was born on it, so utterly at ease in the landscape that the evening takes him into itself as if he had never been. She is moving beyond him already shaping the energy of his limbs in the clay, his eyes like a Kestrel hawk’s, a fierce, relentless joy and at the centre of his being the alloy of pain and love that makes him absolutely himself. She has forgotten her imperfect hands for she is not seeking detail but purity, the elements that will forge his soul as he journeys the mapless interior of himself and the lake. She has almost forgotten this feeling for her work, this quality of alchemy in her blood, the magic waiting for her. On this night of inexplicable benediction she turns one last time back to the lake and watches it tremble slowly into the unbecoming of night, stars suspended in its hoary depths and the thin trail of silver as the new moon dissolves. It is then she remembers that she really should have told him that he need not worry about the White Girl again.


Leaves, possibly from Old English: leaf, she leaves, having no cause to stay; he leaves, forsaking the green earth, the velvet pleats of a night sky, abandoning stars and love, the earth’s dark cradle for him who so loved the light. Leaves: parts of a tree or plant, foliage; each leaf unique, their scaly veins, looking at leaves through sunlight, shape and texture; touching their slight bones, how they resemble feathers or the scales of a fish; watching the riotous extravaganza of autumn, the red creeping in the vine; the song of leaves, the hiss and flare as they burn, how they tumble through the wind; falling into them thigh deep in the afternoon of the world. The last sacred leaf of autumn that will mediate the return of seasonal Gods; the delicate green unfurling of the first pale leaf in the cruel month of spring, so vulnerable; leaf as psychopomp. Leaves: so much more than elegant solar panels shaped to catch maximum sunlight. Leaves: of a book, that smell that belongs to the old books, the wise books; losing yourself inside them, the texture of covers; the hands that turned the pages before we did. Leavening the dough: causing it to ferment; to alleviate, to lighten, to relieve, to raise; a tempering or modifying element. Leaves: what is left after departure or removal; to let go, to cease holding; the remains.

Words have histories, genealogies, families, friends, they become corrupt, they transcend their original etymology, they change. They are fantastically unstable and we who trade in them, as we must lacking another form of communication, we are always at their mercy. Perhaps in some almost unimaginable future when our species has translated the database of genes, cloned its own organs, manufactured all manner of hybrid species and interbred with cybertechnics we will communicate through a sophisticated set of sequenced barcodes and visual display units. There will be no virtual reality for we will all live there. Cyberspace will be conquered and we will be seeking new terrains of conquests. We will have forgotten philosophers such as Leibniz who maintained that there was an innate alphabet of human thought and the many semanticists and philosophers who argued over time about obscure propositions such as how the mind thinks in language, and what relationship this lingua mentalis had to the act of speaking. Leibniz also believed that language was the best mirror of the human mind. Even now Leibniz is considered virtually unintelligible, his work is an intellectual curiosity in the current climate of ideas, his use-by date was up some time ago. More recently and less easy to dismiss is the work of eminent American philosopher and psychologist, James Hillman who postulates in his erudite and compelling work The Blue Fire that language signifies our relationship to the Divine that Man is half angel because he can speak…the more we distrust speech…the sooner the archetypal barbarian will stride into the communication ruins of a culture that refused eloquence as a mirror of the soul. These odd ideas continue to obsess me: the structure of language, the sounds that vibrate in the larynx; where words were first born, who shaped them, chose them, invested meaning or are they actually a secret organic life form? Why do some words have a carapace and others are soft to the touch? What happens to a word when we forget it? It is one of my jobs to think like this, it is part of the territory of writing. I never sleep unless a dictionary is by my bed and I know of no cure for what can only be described as a compulsive-obsessive disorder.

Occasionally I construct a whimsical future in which language has become practically obsolete but for odd groups of antiquarians who gather together on Saturdays and read to each other from hard copy books. They will be rather quaint people with the faint air of elitism that now characterises clubs devoted to Chess, Croquet or the propagation of African Violets. These eccentric individuals will attempt to lovingly recreate a past made romantic with hindsight. Hard copy books will be so rare that they will be forced to use gloves to touch them but the smell of knowledge, of arcane secrets encoded within a primitive society will be well nigh irresistible. They will debate interesting peccadillos such as concepts of grammar and vocabulary but in what language they will conduct these discussions I cannot imagine. Perhaps they will speak in tongues. Language will have changed its perimeters entirely and the origins of words will be lost in the anagrams, the meaningless buzz words, the abbreviations we now use.

In The Wish Palace the leading character, aptly named Bone, raging against his confinement in another meaningless institution finally screams at his interrogators that words are the wings that the Gods gave me, I’ll never give them to you. Bone is a poet, of course, only poets are given to such excessive statements, they are expected to hold extreme views, they are expected to function outside the narrow confines of their cultures and make a lot of trouble. It is the Great Tradition. A tradition riddled with suicides, tragedy, public critical crucifixion and alienation, there is actually nothing glamorous about it, nothing uplifting; it is a tradition that negates human suffering, romanticises despair and labels its manifold practitioners madmen, charlatans and lunatics; it has always specialised in the subtle art of marginalisation. Only once an artist is safely dead can her or his society enshrine them, mythologising both their art and their life. The great God of money can then be served. It is also acceptable to make a fuss over artists in their twilight years for they are fast heading for the border and there is not much trouble left in them. After a lifetime of struggle with ignorance, malice, resentment and frequently poverty, the older artist is usually preoccupied with finishing the Work before the Reaper gets there. Mind you they are still more than capable of rising up and they care even less for the consequences than they did when they were younger. But society is likely to indulge such aberrant behaviour rather than penalise it. What sane human being would then pursue the arts. It is, unfortunately, not a question of sanity rather a question of being hunted, haunted, driven by the insatiable needs of a creative daemon that will allow no peace, no rest until the work is done. There is little choice involved, the price of denial is high. Neither drink nor drugs will provide an ultimate absolution, only a temporary stay of execution. Its a mug’s game. Each new work is a disturbing repetition of an old love affair, the kind that eats at your entrails, fractures sleep, there is a time of bliss and then a gradual decay into familiarity, a time of despair and then a kind of fatalistic reconciliation. It is all so utterly predictable and yet unavoidable. Much depends on the nature of the individual work, some pieces are never finished, never satisfying, others arrive and depart with the speed of Gods, they leave a footprint on infinity, some are easily forgotten while others stalk the night country of recurring dreams.

But for now, gentle reader, we are approaching the end of this book. If you were expecting a sense of closure (that eminently fashionable word) I must warn you that you won’t find it here. It is beyond the scope of this work. Closure is a place of final resolution, of absolutes, a place where ultimate meaning is exposed, all mysteries are solved there. Perhaps we go to a place called Closure when we die, I don’t know, the notion of eternal rest has always disturbed me. In life and art things are infinitely more complicated, for both life and art keep sending out fragile tendrils which entwine themselves around the most unlikely corners, they curl around hidden crevices and burrow deep beneath the soil of reality and then emerge again unexpectedly seeking the source of light. Rarely do they remain in a state of stasis and if they do it is normally a prelude to some new mutation. Organic life forms, despite all the endeavours of Western Science, remain predisposed towards heresies.

I had not expected to be successful in this literary anthropology, to make an exact and scientifically authentic investigation into the correlation between a writer’s experiences and that manifestation in the field of their art. But I find there are a series of curious repetitions, patterns of words or ideas that appear in a number of guises. These remind me a little of the Mandelbrot Set in mathematics, self-similarity, the possibility of an order within chaos. In making Leaves I have often succumbed to a nostalgia for an elegance in form of the kind that is found in the architectural structures of Ancient Greece. There is an enormous appeal for me in the precision of such formalism perhaps because I am constitutionally incapable of it. But Leaves refused to be moulded into such a graceful edifice. And perhaps that is exactly how it should be.

In many ways the writer’s craft is primarily an act of translation, of shaping text, narrative, poetry from sources which are not necessarily located in the conscious mind. Even when the work appears to be generated by an experience, an incident or even a life story there are powerful undercurrents which shape its final exposition. The earliest origins of text often reside in the deep seas of dream, memory, image and the unconscious; their forms are notwoven in language as they glide through the domain of Poseidon with other equally fabulous creatures. Writers strive to entice these nameless beings from the blue void. They fish and trawl and occassionally voyage into the seamless depths of the underworld for they intuit that the tributaries of energy that infuse these dark places are the richest sources of their craft. We do not necessarily do any of this consciously nevertheless, at one level or another, all artists are involved in this conspiracy with the numinous, the ineffable.Therefore a precise definition of the creative process will always remain highly resistant to rational definition. Even that most remarkable of writers, Virginia Woolf, wrote of her own process as of being entranced in a place she described as:

A dark core, beyond love and is beyond hollowness and is the place where we begin..

Most artists are familiar with this sensation, the dark core is often a disturbing place to inhabit, but necessary, and even under its reign of silence we know that we are close to the elusive matrix of our work. As I have often remarked its easy to be a writer, you just sit at a computer and open a vein.