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


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.