empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


some dreams

... are very persistent. One from long ago: I must have been less than ten, we are driving along in the Hillman, in the King Country, somewhere west of Ohakune. My mother is at the wheel and my father, in the front passenger seat, is not happy about this. Us kids are in the back, me and an indeterminate number of my sisters, who total five in all but I don't think we're all there ... anyway. The road leads to one of those enormous, wonderful, terrifying viaducts that span rivers and bush-choked gorges in that dissected hill country west of the mountain. Viaducts made of girdered steel. Hand built, at the beginning of last century. That are not for vehicular traffic but for trains to cross. As we approach the approach, for no apparent reason, the car veers off the road to the right then soars into the vast, eerie space spanned by the viaduct. My father says, in exasperation rather than alarm: Oh, Lauris, I told you ... while I, seriously alarmed, cry out: Everybody, put your hands on the floor! In the belief that putting our hands on the floor will somehow parachute the free-falling car to safety. Much later, the Hillman does settle, unaccountably, on the grey river sand beside the silvery twisted skeins of the Manga nui a te ao, the great river of dawn, where thin green weed grows slinkily on the downside of boulders, streaming in the flow. There is the silence that follows catastrophe and catastrophe averted alike. We have survived. Above, the brown-black steel span of the viaduct still leaps across the chasm the family car could not manage. But we have survived.


Unheard Melodies

I’ve always considered myself ill-educated, a feeling that’s survived thirteen years in the New Zealand state school system, two university degrees, and most of a Diploma in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language, as well as sundry and diverse experience in the school of hard knocks. In this, as in some other respects, I’m like my mother who, despite her worldly and artistic achievements, was always troubled by a feeling of inauthenticity arising perhaps from her own sense of being poorly educated. If this dim conviction of fraudulence can be said to come from anywhere, it may be from the lack of a classical education.

It was probably because of this perceived deficit that, in the summer of 1968-9, when we moved from Huntly to Upper Hutt, my mother advanced a serious proposal that I complete my secondary schooling at Hutt Valley High School because there, unusually, Greek and Latin were still taught. The scheme foundered, to my mingled regret and relief, for two main reasons: my father always wanted his children to attend the schools where he worked, and I had already shown, in French classes, a lack of ability in foreign languages which would certainly have turned the plan into a tedious mistake. I would remain one of the well-enough-educated, knowing just enough to know how much I do not know.

Greek myths fascinated me from an early age and by 1968 I had already souvenired from the Huntly College library H A Guerber’s The Myths of Greece and Rome (1907; 1963), a book I still have; for many years however it was on my mother’s shelves and when I retrieved it I found among its pages a note addressed to Chère Madame from a woman of Menton, suggesting she had taken it with her to France when she held the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship there in 1981. The note, inserted at the point in the tale of Perseus when the hero has killed the sea monster and is burying the Gorgon’s head face down in the sand so that he can marry Andromeda without turning the wedding guests to stone, is an invitation to attend, vendredi prochaine, a concert in the Ambassador’s Club.

I still sometimes consult Guerber, but only after I’ve already looked at what Robert Graves has to say in his two volume Penguin paperback The Greek Myths (1960), which I’ve owned for almost as long. Graves, who is extraordinarily knowledgeable and maddeningly perverse, first retells the tale and then, in the notes, says what it really means, in arcane terms that will be familiar to those who have read The White Goddess (1948; 1966) His retellings are as graceful and economical as his explanations are alternately luminous and bizarre. Then there is the rest of my paperback library, Homer and Herodotus, Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, Plato and Apollonius, Ovid … none of which I can, nor ever will, read in the originals.

On the other hand, ignorance has its advantages, one of which is that there is always more to learn. Another, more dubious, may be that you approach the material without the preconceptions your interlocutors and educators might otherwise have instilled in you. A (related) third could be an ability to think outside the limits of previous understandings, not because you are informed about them but because you are not. I’ve often thought that my unawareness of the proper way to do things, my lack of formal training as a writer, has its benefits, not least of which is that I’ve ended up working in the only way possible for me: a kind of autism which might on occasion attain lucidity.

A central curiosity of the Western tradition, rooted in Greek thought, is the habit of invoking the muse, or muses, at the inauguration of a work. Who were, or are, the muses? What do we know about them and how are we to understand them today? Homer speaks indiscriminately of the muse and the muses and doesn’t name them; Hesoid says they are nine, naming all, though without giving them the specific attributes common only since the Renaissance, and is explicit about just one, Calliope, whose name means beauty of voice. The nine, he says, are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or memory. The Greek word mousa may be related to the verb mimnesko, to remind, to bring to, or put in, mind; which, in turn, can be derived from Proto-Indo-European men-, think. The central act inspired by the muses would seem to be that of remembering.

If we leap a millennium and recall what historian and traveller Pausanias has to say, we find a different, perhaps older, tradition. Pausanias, a Lydian who wrote in the second century AD when Roman emperors ruled most of the known the world, recounts in his Description of Greece many versions of muse worship from different parts of the country. In his account of the rites at Helicon, he says that there were originally only three and that they were the children of Uranus (the sky) and Gaia (the earth). These three are: Mneme (memory), Aoide (voice) and Melete (occasion). He mentions that at Delphi also three muses were worshipped, but they had different names: Nete, Mesi and Hypate, which are what the three chords of that ancient instrument, the lyre, are called.

While mneme seems always to be memory, aoide may also be translated as song, while melete can mean both meditation and practice as well as occasion. Whichever way you look at them, the three attributes are essential to any musical, poetic or theatrical act: you memorise, you practice, you perform. It has been said that together they form the complete picture of the preconditions of poetic art. With this rider: in cult practice, which seems to take us far away from modernity into the mysteries of the ancient occasions for art. Or perhaps not—if you read Homer, it’s clear that minstrels played and sang at great feasts, when visitors were entertained or marriages made, or at funerals as the great dead were interred with games and songs.

In an essay published in Oral Tradition (21/1; 2006: 210-228) Penelope Skarsouli quotes this passage from the Proem to Hesoid’s Theogony:

Happy is he whom the Muses love: speech flows sweetly from his mouth. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet when a singer, the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.

and then points out the conjunction of memory and forgetting: whoever hears the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, no longer remembers his own ills. There is perhaps an ambiguity here: is it the singer who forgets his miseries or is it his singing that allows the audience to forget? Or both?

Skarsouli also mentions that in some parts of Greece the muses were known as the Memories, and it was often said that their closest companion was Hypnos or Sleep, whose three sons by Nyx or Night, Phobetor, Phantasos and Morpheus, are the bringer of dreams. Phobetor conjured animals and nightmares and gives us our word phobia; Phantasos, whose visions were delusive and made out of inanimate things, is the origin of our word fantasy; and from Morpheus, who gives human shape to our dreams, we have derived, among other things, morphine, a drug that eases pain.

In her paper Skarsouli is teasing out a particular strain in Greek thought, that which identifies Calliope as the chief of the nine muses and puts her in a particular relation with worshipful princes. Her thesis is that those in power, dispensing justice, need both the true thought and the eloquent voice granted by the muse in order to act righteously: that is, to arrive at a just solution and then to persuade the people of its rightness. This venerable dimension to inspiration is still sometimes evoked when we recall the phrase, speaking truth to power.

Our legal system is based on precedent and this appears to have been so in Greece in pre-literate times as well, where memory was understood as an aid to dispensing justice; there were in some Greek cities judicial officials called mnemones or rememberers whose precise function was to recall and cite precedents. There was another class, the hieromnemones or sacred rememberers with a particular duty to recall sarcedotal history. An analogous function perhaps is that of the servant required to stand next to a king or emperor and remind him that he is, after all, a mortal man. This role too has persisted, it is probably the source of the character of the Jester or Fool who is allowed to speak a truth that others might face execution for uttering.

Calliope is not simply first among the muses, she is also the mother, by the Thracian King Oeagrus, of Orpheus. I don’t wish to rehearse the entirety of the Orpheus story here, only its later, less well known, component. After losing Eurydice forever, Orpheus wandered mourning over the earth; Ovid says he refused the love of women and makes him the father of pederasty; it is for this, he writes, and for condemning their promiscuity, that the Maenads tore his body limb from limb. In another version they destroy him because he can’t or won’t sing joyful songs for their dances. A third reason given is that Orpheus insisted on worshiping one god only, the sun, Apollo.

His decapitated head, still singing, floated down the Hebrus to the Mediterranean, later coming ashore at Lesbos, where it continued to prophesy from a cave sacred to Dionysus until the oracle was silenced by a jealous Apollo. Lesbos was considered the home of lyric poetry and Sappho, whose island it was, is sometimes called the tenth muse. Meanwhile the other nine muses gathered up the rest of Orpheus’ dismembered body and buried it at Helicon, at the foot of Olympus, where the nightingales still sing more sweetly than anywhere else. As for his golden lyre, that too drifted to Lesbos, where it was placed in a shrine dedicated to Apollo, before being set up among the stars as the constellation Lyra.

There are curious contradictions here: the great exemplar of romantic love become a spurner of women; the supreme poet of nature turned monotheist; the bequeathing of his prophetic head to Dionysus while his lyre returns to Apollo, the god who gave it to him in the first place. However, it is certainly a mistake to think that among the many extant versions of this story, there is one that is definitive. Over a thousand years of antiquity, and two thousand years since, it has been told and retold in what amounts to a practical infinity of versions … and yet, we persist in our belief that across all versions there is something incontrovertible, a substratum of truth; just as, when we look at the many accounts of who the muses were, we continue to think that they are, or could be, one.

This may be because, in both stories, we find a narrative that encloses a mystery. It may even be the case that it is this mystery, precisely, that gives us the notion of the incontrovertible, which would then be something that both is and is not; or rather, something that is but is not to be spoken. No-one who reads, hears, or sees enacted the story of Orpheus is immune from the desire that he not look back to see his beloved walking out of hell behind him; equally, no-one can fail to imagine that he will not just want to look back, but that he will do so.

In somewhat the same way, the irrationality of supposing that, when we write or paint or compose or otherwise make art—and even perhaps dispense justice—we do so by entertaining within us a spirit that is somehow both other to, and kin with, our deepest selves, alien and yet not alien, at once us and not us, has survived all attempts to banish or ridicule it. There are too many testimonies by people who say they have felt taken over, possessed or made into a vessel by some power, for us entirely to dismiss either the experience or the possibility. This does not mean that it is not a human capacity we are speaking of—just that it is one that is peculiarly resistant to rational explanation.

In voodoo dancing, a god, as the Greeks would say, enters the dancer; which god—or loa—will be known by the steps the dancer takes. Whether it be Damballah, Ezili, Ogu, Agwe, Legba or another can be recognised by others and has significance both for them and for the individual dancer. This is not the only example of a dance tradition where there is a definite relationship between the steps a dancer takes and the spirit, loa or god who has entered them. Even on today’s dance floors you can see how a different beat will call forth a different step and how some steps seem perfectly to express some beats. Every riddim seems to have its own dance, its own set of moves.

This relationship is best expressed for me by a silent thing, a photograph:

It is called Dancers, New York, 1956 and was taken by jazz photographer Roy DeCarava at the Manor Social Club, now demolished, that stood at 110th Street and Madison Avenue in Harlem. In dim light, on the wide, otherwise empty wooden floor, two men, seen only in silhouette, are dancing with each other. The one closest to the camera has his back to us. He is a big bald head with a single highlight on the right of the dome; an oblong jacket tilted by the movement of his shoulders to a trapezoid; one arm so hung down it almost drags its knuckles along the floor, the other raised up, with the fingers extended and flexed; two shapeless almost bulbous legs disappearing into the shadowy floor.

The other, facing us, is his echo or mirror. A slighter man, perhaps shorter, he too is elegantly poised about the oblong of his jacket, his knees bent, together, one foot, the right, raised from the floor; his right arm, like his partner’s left, hanging down with all the fingers spread, his left bent ninety degrees at the elbow, the hand flat, held out, the fingers arched. A waiter in a white shirt with a tray of drinks moves up the left hand edge of the dance floor and, at either side, we see the shapes of people sitting on chairs at tables. Behind, through a mosque or pyramid shaped arch, perhaps the entrance to the hall, a bright flare of light comes in along the floor but does not quite reach the second dancer, while in the roof seven white lamps glow but do not illuminate the vast, dark space.

No faces can be seen in the dimness, nor much other detail and certainly no musicians or any source of recorded music; they are probably dancing to a gramophone record. Nevertheless, and here is the paradox, the photograph sings. Somehow, despite or because of the stillness of the silhouettes, those bodies frozen in motion, you feel yourself to be inside the actual moment of the music to which they are making these particular moves. This paradox, which I cannot give any better account of, is perfectly expressed in the title of the book in which the photograph appears: The Sound I Saw.

You don’t have to subscribe to any particular religion, or other form of spirituality, to dance to music, even though music and dance do have an long history of entanglement with the sacred. What’s interesting is that we can still act as if possessed, we can still actually become possessed, even when we don’t believe in possession as such. There is some intrinsic human relation to beats, to music, to song and we best express that relation in movement, in dance. This seems to be true across all ages, all cultures, all times. Even very small children will move to music; even the aged and infirm; even the clod-hopping or tone deaf will try or want to try.

To dance we need those three original muses: memory, voice, occasion, however paradoxical or hidden their expression may be. Memory, when it comes to dance, may not inhere in the mind at all, but in the body or perhaps somewhere else entirely, like the soul; voice will be there in the song or the music to which we dance, even if that be, as it sometimes is, an unheard melody … which Keats reminds us are sweeter, piping to the spirit ditties of no tone. He was remembering dancers on a Grecian urn when he wrote that. Occasion, too, is various, you can as easily dance to a song on the radio in your car, to the stereo in your sitting room, at a vast outdoor concert or in a club or pub or bar somewhere. You can even dance in your mind.

And, it appears, just as you must remember in order to dance, the dance itself will help you to forget. This central paradox—memory (mneme) and forgetting (lethe) entwined together—is there from the beginning, right back in Hesoid where it is said that the muses make us forget our sorrows by remembering, not joy as such, but the great deeds of heroes and the gods. Those are not our subject any more, we who write, but it is still the case that writing is intimately involved with memory and forgetting. I formulated this once as follows: We remember in order to write but we write to forget. How this might be expressed with respect to reading I’m not entirely sure, but it could be said that reading, too, is an act of remembrance that allows one to forget … the quotidian. To become, in other words, lost in story, enchanted, possessed, perhaps even changed.

But there is an even more obvious sense in which the muses are present in the act of writing, even, say, the writing of this essay, which I began by going back briefly to memories of childhood and adolescence, and continued by searching in those great repositories of cultural memory, books; then I wrote down my thoughts on these matters in a manner as coherent, indeed eloquent as I was able, trying to find my own voice, speaking my sentences to myself or aloud into the air. Finally, the occasion for this meditation is surely, like Janus, two-faced: one is that of my own perplexity, in my ignorance attempting understanding of a very old tradition of which I am, howsoever insignificant, still a part; while the other is your face, looking perhaps with a similar perplexity, perhaps with something more like illumination, at the trail of words I’ve left here.

And if there is an illumination to be had amidst the perplexity, this may be what it is: I’m not possessed by a god or goddess or any other alien or familiar spirit, I’m not speaking in the precinct of a temple, I’m not intoxicated or deranged, my words are not prophetic or otherwise revelatory of the sacred; and yet, mysteriously, even here, even now, in this most prosaic of circumstances, a man sitting at a computer in a small flat in a modern city, the ancient conditions of vatic speech continue to manifest: memory, voice, occasion.


Opening the Envelope

When the envelope arrives, I find myself unable to open it. I remember another occasion when I didn't open one of these, joking that, since it was bound to be a rejection, I might as well throw it straight in the bin ... that one turned out to contain a cheque but we all know history never repeats or rather, only in the sense of tragedy becoming farce. I leave it sitting on the table and move on to other things.

On the last page of the last essay in Waimarino County there's a quote from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg about dreams. I didn't use the whole aphorism and I'm not going to repeat it here, or at least not yet. The drift of it is that dreams are as much a part of our real life as our waking experience and that the two are not really distinct from each other. It's also the case that what are sometimes called daydreams, sometimes speculation, sometimes delusion, sometimes even more unflattering names, are a significant part of our waking life. For some of us—I wouldn't like to say how many—this strange daily intermingling of fact and fantasy is a defining quality of our experience.

We're usually taught these days that imagination is a positive quality, something to be valued. On the other hand, there are many examples, from the criminal courts, from news reports and from direct personal experience, of people who have come to grief precisely because they could not distinguish fact from fantasy. We value the ability to project a possible future and then work to make it work, but when an enterprise fails, as often they must, those who dreamed that particular dream usually suffer consequences that might run from private or public humiliation to state punishment, even, in extreme cases, to death.

People who spend their lives trying to make art in its various guises are committed to the projection of futures which they then attempt to realise, but so are those who open businesses, go into politics, become professional sportspeople, travel, get religion, grow old ... inescapable, the urge to dream and then realise the dream. There are even those among the physicists, Paul Davies for instance, who suggest the very processes by which we observe the universe are of this nature, partaking of observation that feeds speculation that then influences further observation. Davies was in the newspaper this week suggesting that we need to revise our understanding of the so-called laws of physics to include the possibility that they are not immutable but evolve, like everything else does, over time. He's the latest to send Plato back to his cave.

One of the sections of Waimarino County, the third, is in fact called Illusions and many of the short prose pieces it contains are transcriptions of dreams, while others are transcriptions of real life experiences as if they were, or could be, dreams. When I look at them now I cannot honestly say where the real life experience ends and the dream begins, or vice versa. Because, as in the mutable universe, the experience changes once it is put into words, somehow leaving the dream/reality conundrum behind. This is what I hope and also, if the hope is realised, what I love.

Meanwhile, the envelope still sits upon the table; like Schroeder's cat the dream it contains is either dead or alive and I won't know which until I open it. I go looking instead for Lichtenberg, one of my favourite books, with its own mystery, since I have no idea how or when or where I acquired it, not new, it's a battered second hand Cape Editions Paperback #8, from 1969. Aphorisms & Letters, it's called. Here it is, page 45, the dream aphorism, I'll give it in full:

I commend dreams again: we live and feel as much dreaming as waking and are the one as much as the other. It is one of the superiorities of man that he dreams and knows it. We have hardly made the right use of this yet. Dream is a life which, combined with the rest of us, makes up what we call human life. Dreams gradually merge into our waking; we cannot say where man's waking state begins.

This seems even more profoundly true than I remembered and gives me a feeling almost of dizziness, especially that last about not knowing where the waking state begins. The envelope on the table will be a kind of awakening, as well as a signpost pointing in one of two directions: either I'll spend the next few months pursuing an artist who was thought to be dead but may still be alive, through the underbelly of Sydney, in the relics of shanty towns and communes, housing commission flats where teenagers deal drugs, bars and gambling joints and brothels ... or I'll follow another artist, like Lichtenberg from Darmstadt, definitely dead but possibly restorable in print, through the arid wastes of the western lands, from Kow Swamp to Lake Mungo to Menindee to Bulloo ... which will it be?

I find my paper knife, shaped like a crocodile, made of hard black wood, insert the point beneath the flap on the envelope and begin the sawing motion with the sharpened underside of the tail that will open it. I carefully pull out the couple of sheets of thrice-folded A4 and smooth them flat. I read ...


forking paths

When someone says to me, as sometimes happens, that cab driving is a good job for a writer, I don't usually disagree, even though my feeling is that writing is the best job for a writer and almost anything else, whatever residual benefits there may be, is a distraction. Teaching never worked for me, nor did journalism, nor proof-reading nor any other of the various things I've done to earn money. Taxi driving does, sort of, or I wouldn't still be doing it; but that doesn't mean I don't regret the time it takes away from other pursuits.

What they mean is that, driving a taxi, you meet many different kinds of people, which is true; what they perhaps forget, or don't realise, is that most of these meetings are brief and superficial and never lead to anything much apart from an exchange of money, a goodbye and a disappearance into the night. It's better like that: the more interesting the ride, the more likely it is to have unintended consequences. While knowledge of where the brothels are, the nightclubs, the gambling dens and the rest, is to my mind a poor substitute for knowledge, say, of the human heart. Which isn't to say that you won't find out something about that taking a working girl to work, you might.

One thing you do gain is an ability to make swift, hopefully accurate, assessments of character - you have to. Another is that you become almost preternaturally aware of the contingent nature of events. Time as a garden of forking paths is in plain view around every corner, down every straight: if this, then this; if not this, then that; if the other, then the other, will be your fate. You are always, as the tag on my taxi driving blog has it, at a nodal point where destinies fork. I do value this knowledge.

I was thinking about it today while walking over to Dulwich Hill … among other things. There's a new second hand shop in Junction Road I wanted to check out on the way. Just as I left it, I came into one of those moments of stillness you are sometimes lucky enough to find. I was looking at the strangely crenellated roof of the block of old shops on the corner of Junction and Moonbie. There was a dove mourning nearby, children chanting in the school across the road, a magpie in a jacaranda tree gargling the rain in its throat and, in the next street, one old man haranguing another, without malice, in Greek or Italian. All these distant, evocative sounds under the cerulean of the autumn sky, that ineffable blue you never see anywhere else.

Always at such moments I feel, below the recent past (the 200 year old one) something far more ancient that still survives, even in the humdrum of the suburbs, even here, inhering in the stones perhaps, in the gums, that blue air ... I'm walking on by now in the pleasant state in which sentences begin to form in the mind when another voice impinges on my consciousness, a familiar one, although I cannot at first place it ... angels and ministers of grace defend us! It's Little Johnny at his most unctuous, someone's broadcasting Question Time, very loud, out across the very suburb where the malheureux was spawned and grew up, although I think the family home might have been a little to the south of Dulwich Hill, in Earlwood.

This too, though not exactly welcome, enters my meditation on forking paths, because it is at least possible, some say likely, that the 2007 election will see his dead hand raised at last from across our necks: who knows, we've had him for eleven years now, that's longer than the nine years Muldoon, whom in some respects he resembles, stole from us.

At the Sally Army store in Old Canterbury Road there are blown emu eggs for sale for five dollars each but I manage to resist buying one, I’d only break it. Instead, I pick up a Penguin Classic from the 1950s, E V Rieu, the translator of Homer, this time turning his attention to The Four Gospels (1952). I've just re-read my father's copy of his The Odyssey (1946), passed on The Iliad (1950) and hadn't realised the Greek of the gospels was what he'd done next. Also, for a dollar, a small leather bound notebook of handmade paper that I'll probably never have the courage to write anything in. Round the corner is an immaculately restored 1938 McLaughlan Buick limo, a straight eight, which I examine carefully and with great admiration ... well, there's more, but I haven't got to the point yet, have I?

The point is, I'll hear next week about a grant application I've made. If it's successful, I'll stop driving for the next few months and write a book. It's a book about Sydney and may even include some of the anecdotes I've gathered from taxi driving, although the subject is not driving per se, rather it is a quest to find an artist, a New Zealander originally, who's lost, presumed dead but may still be alive and, even if he isn't, has certainly gone on a lot longer than anybody thought and produced a body of work nobody knows much about ...

And if they don't grant me the grant, well, I probably won't be able to write the book. This may sound peculiar, and it hurts me to say it, but I think it's right. If I can't do it this year I'd have somehow to fit it in around the two books I've got planned for next year, one of which I'll definitely write (I've been offered an advance, the email came just now, literally now, while I was drafting this) and the other ... yes, that too, hopefully. The funding body decision has already been made and is on its way towards me, which gives me a breathless feeling, either I'll have to keep on driving for the rest of the year or I'll start a new book, which is like embarking on a voyage of no return into a country without a name.

Meanwhile I'm ambling past a grubby looking corner building that I half remember dropping someone off outside of one Sunday night, he had a pushbike, I recall, I picked him up at a railway station, maybe Ashfield ... the windows down the side are open, I glance in, yes, I'm right, there are two bikes in there, in bits, the frames leaning against stacks of books in a low and messy room and I'm looking out for the bloke now, I liked him, to say hello, maybe we could chat about the contingencies of fate, he must be around if the windows are open but no, I don't see him and I'm not going to impose, I wouldn't do that, I just carry on walking until I get home and start ... doing this.


Time Tells

Today, May 18, is the anniversary of my arrival in Australia. A whole alphabet of years has elapsed since then, it's the Zed year that's just ended and so I can start again, perhaps in Arabic or Cyrillic. It was a grey, wet day back then in 1981, just like today; the rain didn't stop for two weeks, while I sloshed from the hotel in Kings Cross down to the Combined Services base in Paddington to do my taxi training. I got into driving because, within days of arriving in Sydney, I met a fellow called Graeme Shepherd who was in the Merchant Marine but moonlighted as a cabbie while ashore. Graeme, whose brother Roger founded Flying Nun records, extolled the virtues of the job and, like a fool, I believed him. Graeme will have his Master Mariner's ticket by now, he lives in Tasmania and commands one of those huge floating behemoths that come in and out of the harbour; I haven't seen him for years.

In May, 1981, Bob Marley had just died, of cancer, in a Florida clinic. I remember flying back from Napier to Auckland after hearing the news, looking at the back of the neck of a shinehead sitting in front of me on the Fokker Friendship, and singing under my breath: Jah would never give the power to a baldhead / Run come crucify the dread / Time alone, oh! time will tell / Think you're in heaven, but you living in hell ... a few weeks before that, Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington DC; later the Gipper famously said: Getting shot hurts. Then a few days after Bob died, on the 64th anniversary of the Fatima revelation, the Pope was shot in Rome. There were shots sounding all around the world: later that May, someone popped off six in the direction of the Queen, but they were blanks.

What else? Mitterand had just been elected in France, Red Ken Livingstone, now Lord Mayor, as Leader of the Greater London Council until it was abolished by Maggie Thatcher in 1986. Here in Australia we had Old Stoneface, Malcolm Fraser, as our PM and there was, just like there is now, a minerals boom going on. I couldn't believe how profligate people were with their money, pulling oodles of cash out of their pockets to pay for their ride and scattering notes across the floor of the cab, often without bothering to pick them up again. Boom or no boom, you don't find fifty dollar notes on the back seat any more like you did then. It was Fraser, often caricatured as one of those Easter Island heads, who said in his faintly bored patrician accent that Life wasn't meant to be easy, enraging just about everybody. No-one seemed to know that he was quoting Bernard Shaw, nor that he'd deliberately left off the second part of the remark: ... but take courage: it can be delightful!

What was I doing? What did I want? Hope for? Expect? It's hard to remember, I was so young then, not even thirty, and without much clarity of thought or purpose. I know I wanted to go to the Film School and I did apply under a program they ran where writers experienced in other forms could learn how to put screenplays together, but I wasn't really experienced in other forms and my application was declined. I can still recall, with blushing shame, a sentence from the personal statement you had to make in which I said that I was a dreamer, something I make allowance for, but no apology. If there was one sentence that condemned my application to failure, that was it.

And yet ... it was true then and probably still is now; I just wish I hadn't been so pompous about it. My idea was to learn how to write films, for a living, and then with the ease and comfort and unlimited time so purchased, write books. It's peculiar, looking back, to realise that I have written both books and films, but that the ease, comfort and unlimited time in which to do so have largely escaped me. They say you should be careful what you wish for because your wishes may come true and mine mostly have: it was the books and films that mattered to me, not the comfort and the ease, which I naively thought would somehow just come as part of the package. I never thought I would end up as one of the working poor, but that's what I am right now.

But I don't want to sound maudlin either, because I'm not: you have to play the hand you’re dealt. What really has changed between then and now is my clarity of purpose. Then, I was full of piss and wind about wanting to be a writer but in fact spent almost no time doing it: I shudder when I look back at the years I wasted, mooning around, because I really didn't know what I wanted to say or how to say it; whereas now, I'm relatively clear about what I want to do but more likely to lack the means and opportunity to do it. Driving a cab for a living has consequences for writing, one of which is that it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to embark on any long work ... not impossible per se, but impossible for me. I need to see a stretch of unfilled time ahead of me if I am to write a book, at least six months, and you don't get that as a working stiff. That's probably why the book that's coming out, or has already come out, Waimarino County, is made up of shorter pieces, because that's what I can do when I'm driving, write shorter pieces that require shorter stretches of concentration, a week perhaps if it's an essay, an hour or so if it's a post, like this, to a blog.

Meanwhile, this morning, when I woke at about six o'clock to the sound of rain falling and frogs creaking in the neighbour's pond out the back, I thought of that Bob Marley song again, partly because I heard a wonderful live set of him and the Wailers (at the Roxy in LA in 1976) on the radio the other night and partly because I knew I would be writing this today. So I came in here and called up the lyrics without remembering the beautiful middle section of the song which, when I read the words in the grey half light and heard the music begin to play in my head, sent (paradoxical) tears rolling down my checks ... and bring them again now to my eyes :

Oh, my sycamore tree, saw the freedom tree
Saw you settle the score
Oh, children, weep no more
Weep no more
Children, weep no more …


Dystopia : X Dreams

You are adrift in a foreign country, of which you do not know even the name. You look it up in an encyclopedia; it is called Dystopia. You cannot read anything else in the book, which is written in a strange alphabet, like Cyrillic. Nor can you understand the signs on the shops or what people in the street are saying. Everything familiar has dropped away. You are as if abandoned in your own mind. Nevertheless, this place is also a simulacrum of a city you lived in in your youth, and you are able to use relicts of the map in your head to find your way to your sister's house. She is in the kitchen, with her woman lover. You want to break down and cry, and for her to hold you in her arms as once she did many years ago in another house in the city which this place resembles and is not. My life is very complicated, she says, by way of explanation. You leave without saying goodbye and go up past the shops at Three Lamps to catch the bus. No bus comes, so you start walking along the footpath towards K Road. You have no destination, you just want to keeping on moving. You lose yourself down this endless street, which extends further into the distance the longer you walk it.

You are in the kitchen of a cafe called the Verona. Out the back in the yard your partner in crime, a misshapen midget like yourself, is being executed with machetes. You don't know what you have done, nor who these people are, only that they are chopping him up, and you are next. You take a burning coal from the brazier to light your way and run out the front door of the cafe. The night is grey and shapeless. You cross K Road and go down a diagonal street opposite. Once you are out of sight of the Verona, you pause and look at the light in your hand. It gives forth a reddish glow but no heat and now you see it is not a coal at all but a tiny skull, intensely malevolent. In the instant you know that it is futile to run any further: whatever you do, you will be dismembered in your turn. You stand there paralysed with fear as dark assailants drift down the murky street towards you.

You are unsheathing a woman from her peacock blue dress, peeling it slowly over her opulent white breasts, which spill out into your vagrant hands. She is older than you, beautiful, not so much shy as unused to love-making. Past the rise of her belly, you see a greyish-white stripe running vertically down the centre of the black mass of her pubic hair, like a blaze on the forehead of a horse. As you plough her crease with your finger, seeking and finding wetness, she gasps and says: My husband hasn't found that spot in years! You begin to worry that you will ejaculate prematurely ... the spasmodic thudding of a copious flow of semen from the vas deferens and on down the urethra into the sticky gap between belly and sheets wakes you. A pearly light is gathered at the windows, and the birds are beginning. You have a curious feeling that this woman is real and is staying, or living, in one of the nearby houses. You feel that she too is lying awake in a mood of post-coital sadness, somewhere nearby. Perhaps she is the next door neighbour who smiled wanly at you as she wheeled out the recycling bin full of bottles emptied by a houseful of drunken men at the end of last weekend. What if such phantasms are real projections? And such experiences true encounters? If she were your succubus, would you then have been her incubus? A pity you cannot ask your neighbour for her dreams.

You go to one of your childhood homes to pick up the key to the mail box. It is built over and behind a Chemist shop on Main Street. Your mother is there in the kitchen, doing something, but you don't speak to her. You take the key and leave by the back door. Then you are on a train, going inland. As it approaches the place where you were born, you see old wooden houses gone silver with age. Over the rise and down the hill we come, there are many of us, converging, walking into the town. It is the return of the scattered. We mass, we come together, greeting each other. At a bend in the road is a massive, blasted tree, of enormous girth but almost without foliage. We are overcome with emotion at the sight of this tree. We are weeping. We have come home.

You are climbing in some red mountains, where the rock is folded like the grey sandstone outcrops on the hills above this valley. Coming to the top, you gaze across a limitless stretch of water where two seas meet. It is the place of leaping off of spirits. While you are looking out, the bowl of the ocean suddenly reverses, becoming one with the bowl of the sky, and standing before an immense void you are overcome with vertigo and fall fearfully into nothingness. You come to walking along a black shore where some fishermen and peasant farmers are lounging among boulders. They are French. You fill a wooden bowl with a steaming black liquid from their bubbling pot, and sprinkle black cheese upon it. With bravado, in the sight of those derisive peasants, you taste it. It's good. Then you hear a voice, saying the adventure is over and you must return. The mountains have gone a crusty, crystalline white, like snow. You cross over them without any difficulty at all and take the road inland; it is one down which you have travelled before in dreams. As it climbs past great fans of gravel onto a scrubby plain, you see ahead a coach and horses; there is a white hand, the same white as the mountains, emblazoned on the coachman's back. The man riding shotgun is keeping off wolves. As you struggle to catch up with the horses, you realise there are two wolves, both wounded, in a thicket of thorn bushes at the side of the road. They are a big shaggy yellow male and a smaller black female. Again the fear, so intense you have to wake yourself up to escape it. And, waking, you remember the red mountains, the black shore, the white hand and the yellow wolf, as if recalling a landscape from one of the further provinces of Dystopia.

A feast of poets, hostessed by a Matriarch—your mother!—to which one poet is refused entry. He is outside in the rain, denied the table where manna is devoured until someone who knows him arrives and brings him in. Wet, shivering, cold, he is a hungry ghost. His friends don't show. He can't explain, so he can't come in. Finally you (yes, you have been there all along) say you know him and that he is a dead man, he died of AIDS, but is a poet nevertheless. You go out, take his hand, lead him in and sit him down at the table. He is given bread and potatoes and soup, but he does not eat. He sits at the table in collar and tie, like a proper poet. Everyone is watching him. Soon, his friends will arrive. Then, perhaps, he will eat.

You are looking at paintings your sister made four years before she died—the dates are written clearly upon the backs of the canvases, together with notes, jottings, fragments of sketches. They are superb paintings on long narrow scrolls, richly patterned, quite unlike any you have seen in real life. You know she made and hid these works so that they would be discovered after her death; behind the great sense of loss you feel is another, more complex emotion: you have always thought that her untimely death was at least partly due to her inability to find a way of expressing herself, yet here are works that are complex, mature, fully achieved, which she could not possibly have made without knowing what she was doing. On the back of the last canvas is a doodle in which you seem to read your own name. Sensing a message, you lean closer, only to find the lines mutating into a scribble pattern, a dense tangle of black, a mare's nest.

A woman is lying next to you in bed, a pale boy curled up on her other side, gushing sperm. You are ranting. How dare she have another in your bed? How dare she!? She listens in her quiet, calm way. She listens and says nothing. She will not do what you want. She will not abandon the pale boy at her other side.

You have come to interview a young woman. She is lying in a bed, wearing nothing but a man's shirt. You stretch out beside her, trying to conceal your erection below the edge of the bed cover. She giggles. Is that what you came for? she says. You smile and say nothing. She takes off her shirt: her breasts are small, pendulous, with protuberant nipples. She lies back, and you bend your head to lick between her legs. Everything is clean, pink and curled shut; she has no pubic hair. Her clitoris lies there like the little tongue on a cashew nut. She squirms when she realises what you are going to do, but she does not tell you not to. A panicky feeling, as of imminent, unwanted orgasm, rises, and you wake up. You have not come. You try to go back to sleep, but you cannot. You feel cheated, and you are, but only by yourself.

A mediaeval artist with a Polynesian tattoo is whispering in your ear. He is trying to seduce you. He says that although he has ended up in a waka—that is, in a wheelchair—he still wants you. He says that you are beautiful, more beautiful than your mother or your sister. His friend, the expressionist painter, is ripping wallpaper off the wall in a derelict house, exposing Disney comics pasted underneath, the brightly coloured, banal images fading, peeling. The tattooed man is still talking. It isn't just that he wants to fuck you; he wants to slit your throat while he's doing it. His voice mutters on like the sea. His tongue flickers in your ear. You stay where you are. You let him.


Luogo di Pietra


In the portico of the palazzo I pick up a stone the size of small egg. It is made of red chalcedony and there is a face carved into it, a fish perhaps, or a bird. A fish, it has lips. We walk out onto the shore, we are waiting for the tide, we will go swimming. Here the people bring their food wrapped in dense white silks spun by spiders and afterwards leave them on the sand for hermit crabs to find and crawl into. The grey-brown sea sluices in among the black rocks. I see flashes of green and purple as crabs drag their silks deeper into crevices or bury themselves in the sand. Tides are brief and violent on this coast, no sooner am I down among the bathers in the bottom pool than the water begins to recede; but instead of heading back we stamp our feet, we move our bodies, we dance. I see my sisters coming from the north, picking their way towards us among the gleaming outcrops. This must be an island, now we are on the other side, another coast, here are intricate, upstanding, tubular seashells in Etruscan colours, yellows and reds and browns, they are shaped like a kind of pasta, they are everywhere. I see in the crosswise falling light that there are many precious stones here, feldspar, chrysoprase, beryl and more, some are antique, they have been worked long ago and then abandoned to lie unthought upon this shore. A crook of amber with silver intaglio. A pile of lapis lazuli, mined in Bactria, that reveals an ineffable blue when water pours over it. Polished boulders of peridot, that green olivine. I pick up some shellfish and take them to the restaurant to ask if they are edible? Of course, the man says, and when you are tired of them, you can go further south and you will find other kinds of food, just as good, but different. A small boy with a stick and a hoop is playing across the tesserae of the courtyard. Later, as we are leaving, paying a small tariff for the privilege of having been here, I show my hostess the egg-like stone I have carried all through this dream. I want to return it to her but she smiles, ever gracious and says no, keep it, we have so much, goodbye ... I wake with my hand curled around a stone and begin immediately to work upon it, carving the vulvine lips just as I remember them, the crooked eyes, the slight ridge at the back that might be a woman’s forehead or might simply be a mark left there yet despite aeons of rolling in the sea.


This is a transcription of a dream, made just after I woke, although not from the dream—that happened sometime in the night, when I did what you seem to have to do with dreams, committed it to memory. And yet ... this isn't really the dream either, or not all of it: for instance there was a prologue I've omitted, as we farewelled our hosts before leaving the palazzo. The images came, I think, from the palace in the film version of The Comfort of Strangers, which means it was in Venice, where I have never been.

And who is we? When 'we' were sitting on the beach watching the people eat their lunch out of spider-silk stockings, I was with my eldest sister; when I went down for a swim, I was alone but there joined a group of people who I did not know but with whom I felt companionable, the way you sometimes do on a dance floor in a nightclub. Afterwards, it was our younger sisters that we saw, coming from the north. They were very well dressed. And the beach looked like the coast south from Wellington. Then all my sisters disappeared from the dream but the ‘we’ remained.

The sea shells on the other beach—it was the west coast of Italy, north from Rome, where I have never been either—looked very much like one of the vessels Philip Clairmont was fond of painting. A vase, perhaps. Or a jug. Their colours were his colours, but I wrote Etruscan because of where the dream was set and also because I like the word. And then there is a little book of Tarquinia frescoes I have that was somehow mixed up with the Clairmont-esque images of sea shells. Which themselves resembled ornate, open-topped cinerariums.

As for the lapis lazuli, that wasn't actually in the dream, it came from a documentary about the Sumerians I watched the night before, in which a pile of greyish stone, looking a bit like schist, lay against a wall while a man sluiced water over it and that startling deep blue colour appeared as if by magic. The gleam of olivine that I've called peridot ... that was there, though indistinct and perhaps the stones were not as large as boulders.

Further, when I went to the restaurant, I went to the toilet first, with the shellfish, which I put in the hand basin; and it was while I was there that the little boy appeared. He peed and poohed on a water feature at the other end of the small room. It was later, after I came out, that I saw him with hoop and stick. The hoop was tiny and perhaps square, with paint flaking off it. The man I talked to, the restaurateur, was his father or grandfather. There were memories of a restaurante I went to at the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, where I watched an old man delight in the play of his grandson.

The woman who spoke at the end, the one to whom I tried to give back the stone, was there for the whole of the dream: in the palazzo in the beginning as much as at the gate at the end. She was the hostess of the dream, its mistress, perhaps, or cicerone. The indispensable other component of the ‘we’. You could even say it was her dream not mine, she was entertaining me in it. I didn't describe her because I have no visual memory of her, she was a presence not an image. A presence and a voice.

Besides all that, the fact is that as soon as you commit a dream to memory, it changes from what it was into a version; and when you write down what you have memorised, it changes again and you have another version. Even so, the original dream survives in, and persists apart from, its versions. Perhaps the reason for writing down a dream is so that its persistence as itself may be recalled from the imperfect versions of it, both the one in memory and the one in writing.


Just before I went to sleep that night I had a moment of intense longing for Pearl Beach, where the street names are given after precious or semi-precious stones: cornelian, emerald, garnet, onyx, tourmaline. It was a Sunday night, I’d drunk a few glasses of red wine, I’d watched the program about Sumer in which water was poured over the pile of lapis and, when I lay down, heard the muted, jumbled, multifarious cacophony of the City and, for the first time since I left more than two years ago, wished it was the sound of the sea at Pearlie I was hearing. The feeling was the one you have when you want to go back home.

Pearl Beach, a friend used to say, is like an ear. Wherever in the village you are, up the back near the Biological Research Station, in the bush, among the houses or down by the shore, you will hear the sound of the sea. It is as if the promontories at either end of the strand, and the high hills behind, amplify sound the way our own interior hums are amplified when we put a shell to an ear. Even on quiet nights, there’ll be the intermittent sudden loud crack and boom as a seventh wave breaks and then sighs up the sand. When it is stormy, the sea will make its incessant, depthless roar.

So that was one complex: lapis lazuli, Pearl Beach, the sea. Were there others? A sequence in the Sumer documentary showed a cylindrical seal being rolled across wet clay to make an impression. The wedge-shaped marks—cuneiform—looked sharp and beautiful and mysterious. It’s thought that these hollow seals, which are found all over Iraq as well as and up and down the Indus Valley, were markers of identity. Signatures, perhaps. But the identities seem to have been commercial rather than individual or existential. You wore a seal around your neck and, when a deal was done, took it off and rolled it in the clay, which would later become a baked record of the transaction.

The marks cut into the seal are of course a negative that will roll out as a positive. The ability to conceptualise this negative / positive relation of signs—when did that arise? Does it have a relationship to the invention of mirrors, which happened several thousand years previous to Sumer? Were these early merchants alive to the ambiguity of carrying a negative of the self around their necks? These were some of the unanswerable questions I was mulling over as I drifted into sleep; their ultimate expression might be: who are we really?

There was another mystery alive in my mind, that came up in conversation with a friend the day before. He remarked, in passing, that the colours we see when we look at an object come from those parts of the spectrum of visible light that the object does not absorb. This means, where colour is concerned, that we see what isn’t there. Somehow this speculation fused in my mind with the notion of those old merchants carrying a negative of the self, or rather of their commercial identity, around their necks. As if we are all visible to others as what we are not; and yet, what we are not is also, and incontrovertibly, who we are.

These preoccupations—with seals, with identity, with the negatives and positives of stamp and image, colour and complement—manifested only obliquely in the dream. The vessel-like shells, or shell-like vessels, echoed the cylinder seals the way the sea echoes, though I could not say what kind of markings they had upon them. The woman who conducted the dream was a figure from antiquity, with that questionable identity people from the pagan past have for us: how did they see? feel? be in the world? My own presence there was as a guest, by inscrutable invitation, in a place where I can otherwise go only as an intruder.


It’s fashionable these days for science professionals to assert that dreams are nothing but the static of the mind. We sleep to recover mental and physical energy, for the body and the mind (they are not distinct) to carry out repairs. Some kind of sorting process is implied, like what happens when you defrag your computer: bits, or bytes, that belong together are joined, others that are irrelevant or unconnected get heaped up elsewhere. Or deleted. This seems reasonable enough, but doesn’t account for two vital components of dreams: their narrative construction and the powerful emotional resonance these constructions, or the images they are made out of, have for us.

Yet everybody knows how difficult it is to communicate the force and strangeness of a dream. As soon as you try to say what made it significant, that significance drains away like the last gasp of a wave into the sand. That narrative splendour, those images of wondrous power, become a banal jumble of fragments, the displaced and scattered stones of a mosaic. You find yourself trailing away into silence in the face of the other’s well-meaning incomprehension. This failure to communicate does not, however, empty dreams of resonance: that remains, a secret joy or wonder, a private source of sorrow, consternation or regret.

Does this mean the countries we explore in dreams, the people, both known and unknown, that we meet there, are part of our own minds? Yes, probably; and yet … another salient quality of dreams is that they point to a (un)reality beyond the self. To explain this by saying that we go, not into other worlds, but into the uncreated chaos of our minds, while a perhaps rational answer, somehow lacks conviction; while any other explanation does violence to sense in this rationally irrational age we live in. The conundrum appears unresolvable.

My dream was made out of various elements: nostalgia for the sea; the Philip Clairmont paintings I know so well and had just been looking at (as photographs) again; my life-long fascination with the lost worlds of antiquity; a feeling for stones that is almost as old; bits and pieces of waking memory; and some physical, indeed visceral facts that I needn’t go into here. Yet a summary of these precursors doesn’t encompass the dream. There are still incommensurables. Here are three of them.

I’ve been to this place of stones before: many years ago, not long after I came to Sydney, I dreamt of an otherwise bare stone house that had a vase of yellow flowers on the sill of one of its glassless windows. I left it and walked out along a rocky coast, where stood statues of white marble. They had black staring eyes and dark layered hair; they were busts of antique dignitaries; and I knew them to be Cretan, then, earlier, Sumerian. I was walking into the past; I began coming across blocks of the same white marble that were as yet uncarved. The dream ended on a stretch of coast that had behind it a lagoon, from the reeds of which marsh birds called: the world before men and women came upon it.

The most resonant of the images in this more recent dream was the intaglio-ed crook of amber lying half-buried in the sand. I looked at it with awe and trepidation; though I wanted to, I did not pick it up. Subsequently I learned that the crook and the mitre of Christian bishops derive ultimately from the staff carried, and the hat worn, by Etruscan haruspices. I knew this in the dream but did not learn it, waking, until after the dream had been and gone. It was an Etruscan haruspex who warned Caesar to beware the Ides of March; Etruria is buried in the Rome that tried to efface her.

The third aspect is inchoate, unformed: my cicerone. Though I retain no visual image of her, I can think of two women she resembles, or who resemble her. Both I met in the last year or so, and with each there was a frisson of recognition, as if we had known each other long before; circumstances dictated, on both occasions, that we had only one brief meeting, one conversation. But the woman in the dream, while alike to both, was neither of these. To describe her, I fall back on generalities, making her seem other than she was. I cannot really say who she is because I have not met her—yet. For, misguided as it sounds, I believe one day I will.


On Stones

… within the collective of a meaning as stony as stones

Alan Brunton


When I first moved to Sydney I lived in Thomas Street, Chippendale, as it was then called, in a part of town that was once the lost suburb of Golden Grove and is now known as Darlington. It’s a small warren of narrow streets in an angle between busy Cleveland and Abercrombie Streets. A friend mentioned to me one day that you would sometimes find there unusual stones, seemingly brought from elsewhere and placed, for some inscrutable reason, on a corner, next to a doorway, beside a curb ... soon after he told me this, I found one of these stones in nearby Vine Street, not far from a big old sandstock curbstone that had the baleful letters K I L L inscribed in it, perhaps by some disaffected quarrying convict. I picked this stone up and kept it near me for many years, losing sight of it, unaccountably, when I left Pearl Beach to move back into the City a couple of years ago. It's probably still up there somewhere.

It was small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, irregularly shaped, very hard, and pitted all over. The upper surface was dark and rounded but underneath it was slightly concave and of a much paler colour, as if it had sat for a long time half in, half out of water. Someone I once showed it to told me there are stones like that lying around about the blowhole at Kiama, on the South Coast of New South Wales, so maybe that's where it came from. Who brought it? Thomas Street is very close to The Block, where an urban Aboriginal community hangs on despite the many efforts from local and state government instrumentalities to re-locate its people elsewhere. I used to wonder if these mysterious stones were an occult intervention in the psychogeography of the City but perhaps that's too romantic a notion.

And yet ... the other day, after I picked my sons up from Strathfield station, we were wandering back down Parnell Street to the car when I spotted another unusual stone, lying in the grass outside some double corrugated iron doors upon which the words GO ALL BLACKS have been painted. This, like the Kiama stone, is very hard and pitted all over, but it's quite a bit larger and the mazy surface below the pits is a rust orange colour. It's much more regular in shape; indeed, it looks as if it has been worked to make a flattened ovoid, though exactly how you'd work a stone this hard is beyond me. It's just the way there's a slight ridge around the circumference when you set it down flat. This stone also fits in my hand, but to hold on to it I have to keep my fingers and thumb curled around. It feels good to heft and would make an excellent grindstone; if it is any kind of artefact, that's probably what it's for.

The impulse to pick up and carry away these stones is very strong but it's not unquestionable. If they were placed, shouldn't they be left? Or are they placed so that they can be found and used again? I'm unlikely to grind with this stone but I will keep it and value it as long as it stays with me—and perhaps that's all a stone asks. As Czesław Miłosz says, stones always are because that is the way they like it. Yet who has not heard, at some estranged or estranging moment, the stones cry out to us?


Recently I read The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, who was born in Medina about 85 years after the hijra of AD 622 and died in Baghdad 66 years later. His inaugural biography survives only in a version edited by Ibn Hisham, who himself died about 60 years after Ibn Ishaq. The English translation is by Hungarian Edward Rehatsek, made in Bombay and completed just before his own death in 1891. This voluminous work was, in its turn, edited by Michael Edwardes to make a slender, elegant book of about 150 pages, first published in 1964. Somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely. I loved its mix of family and tribal history, folktale, hokum and divine revelation. Among the much I did not know about the subject is that the pre-Muslim Arabs of Mecca and Medina worshipped gods who were enshrined in stones. Nor did I know that the Ka’bah, which includes in itself the Black Stone that is thought to be a meteorite, predates Islam. You could perhaps say that the worship of stones has survived the advent of the Koran.

These disparate facts made me remember an encounter I was lucky enough to have, years ago now, with two remarkable stones from Africa. I knew, through a woman friend, a fellow called Ken de la Coeur. Ken was a Qantas steward who spent his time off in West Africa, buying all sorts of things that he would then bring back to Australia for resale. Anything from vast canopied wooden beds to tiny coloured beads made out of Venetian glass that had been melted down and then recast. Many of his things were rare and, since he had a good eye, all of them were beautiful. My friend met him because she used to go into the shop he had on King Street, Newtown to trawl through that vast array. Ken didn't actually sell much, that wasn't really the point. Instead, he amassed a unique collection of West African art, mostly sourced from select dealers whom he'd got to know, and visited on his regular trips.

Ken loved the people of West Africa as much as the things they made, and it was probably from one of the men he met there that he contracted HIV/AIDS. In time, he became too ill to keep the shop open, but he continued to run the business, such as it was, from his home in Redfern. After his last trip to West Africa, he held a soirée to which guests, mostly personal friends, were invited to come and view, maybe purchase, his latest acquisitions. We were among the first to arrive at that event, and the last to leave. Very late in the evening, when there were just a few people left, Ken brought out and unwrapped two stones that came, he said, from among the Dogon people of Mali. It is difficult describe the powerful aura possessed by these two stones. They were about the size of small cantaloupes, ovid, pinkish-red, one larger and darker than the other. I held on to them for a long time, avid for possession. Ken was asking a thousand dollars for the pair, too much for me at the time. In the end I did give them back and he re-wrapped them in their cloth and put them away.

Ken was from Melbourne. His family, although they loved him, had never accepted that he was gay; yet, when it came to the will, he left everything to them. What’s worse, he had never catalogued his collection. It was all in his head. You only had to point to something for Ken to tell you its origin, provenance, significance and all sorts of other detail about it. This knowledge went with him to his grave. As for the collection, the family gathered it up and shipped it to a warehouse in Melbourne. Later it was broken up and sold. Most of it would have been represented only by the tiny cardboard tags, with Ken's fine calligraphy on them, that he would attach to his things. They would include a brief description, where it came from, and a price—no more.

The stones, when I saw them, were not accompanied by any writing at all. They were probably, despite their size, of the kind worn in massive iron necklaces by Hogon or wise men; if so, they represented bones and were indeed a source of power. I often wonder what happened to them, whether they were sold, or if they were thrown out or abandoned—after all, what use to anyone is an anonymous rock? Or perhaps not, perhaps the energy that emanated from them meant that they have been acquired by someone who knows something of what they are. It is impossible to say.

I only had two things of Ken's: one of the afore-mentioned Venetian glass beads that he gave me, which I handed on recently to a dear friend on her fiftieth birthday; and a small bronze box, with three pairs of birds on the lid, facing each other, their beaks fused, that the friend through whom I met Ken gave me. And yet there is a third: an indelible memory of the Dogon stones.


In a 1993 interview, American writer Cormac McCarthy, speaking of his play The Stonemason, remarks: Stacking up stone is the oldest trade there is. Not even prostitution can come close to its antiquity. It's older than anything, older than fire. He is surely right to say that our relationship with stones is as ancient as we are. When we bend down and pick up a stone, we reprise one of the oldest acts of our kind. Holding it in the hand, turning it over, hefting it, imagining a possible use or place for it, our two hundred thousand—or perhaps five million—year old history collapses to a moment in time: this moment, this prospective scan of the next moment, the next act with which we re-confirm our deep, immemorial kinship with the earth.

But stones, while they are indisputably of the earth can, as the Black Stone of the Ka’bah reminds us, also come from the sky. And after all we live, as Hendrix said, on the third rock from the sun. Perhaps our fascination with stones, which even small children share, arises not simply out of the practical uses we may make of them, but from the sense we have that, handling them, we are handling the very material of creation. The Dogon stones were imagined as bones, which are both ancestral and prophetic—where we come from, what we will be; but the Dogon also elaborate a complex ontogeny that derives their ancestors from the stars, specifically, the Sirian system. The ancestor spirits, the Nommo, came down from there in flashes and booms then dived into water where they amphibiously persist. Or, after fatal squabbles between twins, and the dismemberment and dispersal of body parts, they inhabit stone shrines built over their scattered bones.

We can turn this the way a stone can be turned in the hand: isn’t it also the case that we believe that residues of our selves, our spirits or souls, inhere in stones? That the relationship we cultivate with particular stones is a two-way thing? And that as a result some stones are precious? I’m not only talking about jewels here, but also of something more common: those that become our familiars. Among the many stones I’ve found over the years is one I keep on my desk: a rough round red one that I picked up beside the road near Erua, in the shadow of Hauhungatahi—aka (locally) Browntop—on Highway 4. It’s volcanic and I like to think may have been hurled out of the crater of Ruapehu during one of its many eruptions. Whenever I pause to read back what I’ve written, my hand reaches out for this pyroclastic stone; I pick it up and heft it, feeling its weight; my sweat has formed a dark patina upon its upper side. It somehow connects me back to the very place in the land where I come from. And thus, although it remains just a stone, it’s also something else: a transmitter; and what it transmits is intelligence of the earth.



's old surface is heavily cratered like many moons. It is larger than most but smaller than Jupiter's Ganymede and Saturn's Titan; and much denser and more massive than any moon because it is made mostly of iron. Earth is the only planet more dense. Mercury rotates three times every two orbits around the Sun. Its orbit is elliptical, you might see the Sun rise, stop in the sky, go back toward the rising horizon, stop again, and then set over the other horizon.

is similar to Earth in size and mass but has a different climate. Thick clouds composed of sulfuric acid droplets and closeness to the Sun make it the hottest planet. No life of any sort has ever been found. Many things about Venus remain unknown, including the cause of mysterious bursts of radio waves. Venus' highest mountain is Maxwell Montes. Other notable features include numerous mountains, coronas, impact craters, tessera, ridges, and lava flows.

is the third planet from the Sun. Sphere-shaped and composed mostly of rock, over 70 percent of the planet's surface is water. A relatively thin atmosphere composed of nitrogen and oxygen. Earth has a single large Moon that is about a quarter of its diameter and, from the planet's surface, is seen to have almost exactly the same angular size as the Sun. With its abundance of liquid water, Earth supports a large variety of life forms, including potentially intelligent species such as dolphins and humans.

rotates, making most of its surface visible. Dark and light sand and gravel create a blotted appearance for the red planet. Winds cause sand-tinted features on the Martian surface to shift over time. The north polar cap is made of water ice and dry ice, there are fan marks from old water flows, and huge volcanoes leftover from ancient times. Visible on Mars are large dust storms in light orange. A particularly large storm is pouring out of Hellas Basin, erupting into a huge planet wide cyclone that continues even today.

is the largest planet in the Solar System. Due to its rapid rotation the planet possesses a bulge around the equator, giving it an oblate appearance. The outer atmosphere is segregated into several bands at different latitudes, resulting in turbulence and storms along their interacting boundaries. One is the Great Red Spot, a giant storm that has been going on since the seventeenth century. Surrounding the planet is a faint ring system and a powerful magnetosphere. There are also at least 63 moons, including the four large ones discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610.

is the only planet of the Solar System that is less dense than water. Like Jupiter it has a rocky core at the center, a liquid metallic hydrogen layer above that, and a molecular hydrogen layer above that. Traces of various ices are also present. Saturn has a very hot interior and radiates more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. The rings of Saturn average one kilometre in thickness and are composed of silica rock, iron oxide, and ice particles. In the northern hemisphere the planet appears blue, but deep in the clouds the natural gold returns. It is not known why these clouds are gold.

is faint and featureless when viewed in visible light. But enhanced images reveal the moons, rings, and clouds of this distant gas planet. Blue represents the deepest layers while the highest cloud features have a reddish tinge. Racing around the planet, high, bright clouds are seen to move substantially. Ring systems are common to the solar system's four giant planets. The main Uranian ring seems to vary in width and is brightest near the top. There are small Uranian moons beyond the ring system: Cordelia, Ophelia, Bianca, Cressida, Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, Rosalind, Belinda and Puck.

's atmosphere has long light coloured cirrus like clouds floating high in it. Shadows of these clouds can be seen on lower cloud decks. Most of Neptune's atmosphere is made of hydrogen and helium, which is invisible. Neptune's blue colour comes from smaller amounts of atmospheric methane, which absorbs red light. Neptune has the fastest winds in the Solar System, with gusts reaching 2000 kilometres per hour. It is thought that diamonds may be created in the dense hot conditions that exist under the clouds-tops of Neptune.

's horizon spans the foreground, gazing sunward across that distant and not yet explored world. Charon is a darkened, ghostly apparition with a luminous crescent against a starry background. Beyond Charon, the diminished Sun is immersed in a flattened cloud of zodiacal dust. Pluto's ruddy colours are based on existing astronomical observations while high atmospheric cirrus and dark plumes from surface vents resemble Neptune's large moon Triton. Craters suggest bombardment by Kuiper Belt objects.

sources include: NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day & Wikipedia