Zucchini (no substitute)

‘Sorry no Colly Spuds and / Broc instead’ is scrawled on the box left yesterday out front. It was the second Saturday of the month: usually, the day for the Kyneton Farmers Market. No matter the forecast, stallholders and locals brave the unplanted church grounds in Piper Street, exchanging news and handshakes, coins and banknotes, dirt and air … . Usually. While stage 3 restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 continue, enterprising farmers and producers are delivering their small luxuries and hale produce door-to-door. Under the banner Small Farmers United they’ve formed a collective, and when a van rolled into the driveway yesterday I felt I should salute. The Broc is a deep green posy of tight buds. It’s easily an alternative to Colly. After all, ‘quarantine cooking’ is the practice of making bold or spontaneous substitutions for ingredients we don’t have.

‘Sorry no Colly’ surprised. Zucchini, I knew when ordering, is no longer in season in Victoria. Of course, it’s a summer vegetable. Yet the last one from the garden, discovered at the end of April, seemed like a gift from another epoch. Another existence, even, oblivious to patterns of Earth’s disease ecology; with no experience of Zoom fatigue; dull to hopes for wellbeing in the world—shared hopes, impatient, extravagant, readily made light of.

Those were more ordinary days, when it seems more of us were able to forget, over and over, our belonging to the basic laws of living matter, plant and animal. Back then, I hadn’t read about German chancellor Angela Merkel’s background in quantum chemistry; hadn’t heard that, in Punjab, ozone pollution has been effacing views of the Himalayas for decades. I didn’t appreciate how simple words like ‘face’, ‘case’ and ‘cluster’, ‘distancing’ and ‘downturn’ could keep carrying such grief … and how the necessary quiet can be so close. There it was, just under the silvery, drooping leaves of the zucchini plant, a last fruit, shining and unblemished. Sweet enough to slice raw, for a salad spiced with fresh oregano or thyme.

Peter Balakian’s recent poem ‘Zucchini’ (The New Yorker, 2 March 2020, pp. 50–51) sensitised me to the breathable joy of that late, unlooked-for harvest. Written before pandemic-related crisis and lockdown, ‘Zucchini’ works as prophecy, too: it first found me in mid-March, in the week when the Minister for Health declared a state of emergency in Victoria. The poem begins and ends with poignant evocations of a home kitchen, where bodies are centred by family rites of cooking. The kitchen’s fragrant intimacy allows the asking of an impossible question—‘Can holding on to this image / help me make sense of time?’. These lines turn the poem’s full attention to the irresistible and volatile forces of the natural world, and, by implication, those of human history.

The gleam of ‘glass façades, highways of glistening money’, remembered or dreamed, is countered by the kitchen as source of ‘a small light at the bottom of the stairs’, ‘waiting’, after ‘we wake to find the hallway dark’. The kitchen proffers ‘cold water to bring on the day’, while restoring the task of making sense of time to a domestic, personal scale. I listen to the poem. Inhale its atmospheres, take the cold water. Firmly, kindly, I’m reminded that suffering, confusion, and solace invariably coexist.

Is it ever safe to substitute one vaccine for another? There are few substitutes for the jostling fellowship of a farmers market, or the tough play of city crowds. There are none for the warm embrace of dear ones who live apart. None for the poem that feeds faith in imagination as shattering news rolls on. Daily, more gratitude, then, for poetry—and for any uncomplicated substitution that succeeds. In this home kitchen, today, ‘Broc instead’ is just fine.

Are you a writer during times when you’re not writing?

This question tends to appear at two or three o’clock in the morning, when a sharp sense of as-yet-unrealised projects can suddenly rise as though from the dark itself. If I am not on guard, a shadow side of doubt can take fearsome form, impede sleep—and threaten best intentions for the next day at the desk.

So in mid-June it was a great pleasure to discuss the question with new friends, in a room flooded with summer sunshine. We were part way through this year’s Wolf at the Door writing retreat at Dhanakosa, in the Scottish Highlands. Here, for a full week, writing was allowed to matter: through all seventeen-and-a-half hours of daylight, and into the night. We were exploring correlations between writing, meditation, and the dynamics of imagination.

Following a day of shared silence, we gathered to talk in small groups. Below the open window—past a lawn strewn with buttercups, and over the winding road from Balquidder—Loch Voil was calm and glossy. In such enjoyable conditions we pondered the question, ‘are you a writer during times when you’re not writing?’. On that occasion it felt truthful for me to answer straightaway, inwardly, ‘yes’. As the conversation began, I mentioned ‘loyalty and disinterest’ as two qualities that, together, can continuously nourish creative practice, especially through times of ‘not doing’.

My friend Margaret Cameron (1955–2014) was in mind. In her study I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy (published posthumously in 2016) Cameron examines the development of her ethos as a writer, performer, and director. She emphasises that ‘loyalty and disinterest’ became no less than a methodology for her work after she encountered American choreographer Deborah Hay, in Melbourne, in 1996.

‘This embarrassing poetry is all I have’: Cameron evokes her methodology as one of listening to her attempts at writing, and learning to hold them all lightly. Such delicacy, she found, allows the words’ shifting possibilities to ‘hover like a kite held with two strings, one string of “loyalty” and one string of “disinterest”’. Practised simultaneously, ‘loyalty and disinterest’, ‘like the like-ends of magnets that will not go together, create space—a paradox to work in’, she affirms.

Notwithstanding weeks, even months of fallow, when my notebooks are merely crisscrossed with lists or hasty reminders, I maintain respect for myself as a writer by rediscovering ‘loyalty and disinterest’ over and over. Both involve patience, and paying attention. ‘Disinterest’ points to a helpful emotional distance, an attitude of simple curiosity rather than judgement. If I notice feeling aloof from creative practice, the noticing is free from a larger story; rather, it is gently questioning.

Meanwhile, ‘loyalty’ infuses the space of ‘disinterest’ with emotional warmth, expressing faith in my fundamental connectedness to the writing life—confidence in the vigour of its energies. The simple curiosity, then, relates to what I will be writing next, not ‘if’ I will write! Loyalty counters harmful doubt. Disinterest acknowledges that fresh ideas and bright work can emerge in tender ways at first, and often need shelter from the glare of the appraising mind.

Among my souvenirs from recent travels in Scotland is the collection Subjects and Sequences (2004), a tribute to Margaret Tait (1918–99). ‘As both poet and film maker, she makes difficult demands’, observes Ali Smith in her essay for Subjects and Sequences. While savouring this handsome book, once again I have been reminded of Cameron: if each of these artists refused easy descriptions of her work, each was highly articulate about her creative intentions and concerns.

Discussing her early film Three Portrait Sketches (1951) for BBC Scotland, Tait spoke of ‘treating everything equally’. She was thinking aloud about ‘everything’ within the camera frame, whether woman, leaf, or wall. (On another occasion, she cited the equal importance, in filmmaking, of image and sound.) Yet the phrase ‘treating everything equally’ resonates beyond Tait’s film poems, seeming to point quite precisely to ‘loyalty and disinterest’ as aspects of equanimity, a non-judgemental composure. From there, ‘treating everything equally’ is easily an instruction for meditation, and just as helpful for keeping faith with writing when no words flow. In the frame of attention, ‘no words’, or ‘not writing’ is just one element. If I can remain curious, ‘not writing’ might become an exquisite silence. And that silence, or another, might become a startling question.

For the sake of silence and solitude, celebrated French writer Marguerite Duras (1914–96) took to her house by the sea. ‘When I was alone in the house, everything wrote. Writing was everywhere’: with stark fervour she wrote the five short pieces published under the title Writing (translated by Mark Polizzotti, 1998; read long passages from the first piece here). On this Wolf at the Door retreat I was far from alone, but silence and solitude could burn brightly in meditation, and through a few afternoons of hill-walking. I thrilled in the opportunity to be alive to writing ‘everywhere’, across landscapes without and within.

What luck: soon my notebooks were striated with images, ideas, words exchanged with the dearly departed. The open pages were being sown like a wildflower meadow. Since then, ‘writing is everywhere’ has become a stirring reminder of that week, and another source of encouragement in the deep of certain nights. Loyalty and disinterest. Yes, I am not writing, yes, writing is everywhere, yes, I am a writer. The breath of this body is breeze enough to keep aloft a paper kite or two.

She and her car

In Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale, the character ‘She’ is clearly part-transformed into a red fox. For much of the show She is also immobilised in the rusting mound of a small car. Set and costume designer Emily Collett is currently creating this car for the stage at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre. And kindly agreed to a short interview.

‘The car isn’t simply a detail of the set’, Emily says, ‘in effect it’s an additional character’.

As a basis for her design, Collett has sourced original parts from a mustard-coloured, two-door Toyota Corolla sedan (E20). Bec Etchell, who was until recently Technical Manager at La Mama, has donated these parts from the first car that she ever owned. Etchell remembers her Dad buying it for her secondhand. ‘I needed a car for a show. That was in 1999, I think. It cost $500 registered. I loved that car. If I could afford to I’d buy one now!’.

‘As well as the front passenger door, we have the front grill and bumper’, Collett explains. ‘These remind me of the smiling Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. In that story, the Cheshire Cat is a knowing presence, quite philosophical, and feels like a guide in Alice’s journey. The car in Undercoat plays something of the same role’.

‘The whole Cheshire Cat is often represented by a part, such as its big grin. The car that’s centre-stage in Undercoat will also be implied by bits and pieces’. It’s important to Collett that the car parts are recogniseably historical, and hardy, as well as compact. My own Dad used to say that those second-generation Corollas, launched in 1970, could run on the smell of an oily rag. In that year the Corolla was the second-best selling model of car in the world.

‘People still drive such Corollas’. Collett observes. ‘Yet the colour and styling of these parts also gives the sense that the car is timeless. So it supports the idea of fable, which is exactly right for the world of Undercoat’.

Undercoat is a paradoxical story. Set in an Australian landscape, as well as She it features three characters that are foxes. And because these three foxes live on the urban fringe, they know that a major cause of death to their species is collision with motor vehicles. Both She and the car represent a very disturbing intrusion into their habitat—the car, for the foxes, is surrounded by force field of repulsion-attraction. Like humans these characters project aspects of their particular reality onto the car’.

Meanwhile, for She, Undercoat is a tale of metamorphosis. Once upon a time She’s car represented protection and freedom of movement. At the opening of the play, the car is literally the vehicle that has brought She to the brink of her transformation. Then, at the edge of the remnant forest, its meanings begin to change.

Flamingo stories. And a tide of change?

At five years old I was given a book titled Daddy, Read Me a Bedtime Story, which was first published in 1971. Presenting the collection to young readers, the editor, Mary Parsley, wrote, ‘Who reads the bedtime story in your family? Chances are […] Father would if he knew he might enjoy the story as much as his children will’. I have no recollection of my late father reading aloud from this volume, although he certainly delighted in sharing a good tale (read his obituary here).

Parsley recommends the volume particularly for its humour. Yet the emphasis is much more on the uncanny—the fearfully strange. One story that recently resurfaced in my imagination concerns a schoolboy named Gregory, who literally transcends the unkind appraisal of his headmaster by changing into a flamingo. ‘In his new colours of rose and red, the feathers black at the end of each wing, Gregory flew towards his new life. […] “Goodbye,” called Gregory to the rooftops of the town, in a raucous but faintly sorrowful voice. “I’m off to live by the great rivers of India and East Africa.”’. ‘Gregory’, and Tony Escott’s illustration of a large bird framed by a wash of sky over narrow rooves, first introduced me to the flamingo.

‘Flamingo’, from early forms of the word ‘flaming’; named for its vivid red and roseate plumage, which from afar can seem to shimmer. Associations with fire are apposite to a story centred on freedom achieved through metamorphosis. In ‘Gregory’ the flamingo also transfigures the boy’s sense of alienation from his bleak horizons in an English town. Leaving behind his ‘long raincoat’, he migrates to tropical and subtropical habitats where, as a young reader, I was sure he would feel ‘at home’.

Flamingo populations can migrate in search of more favourable weather and water levels in the saline lakes or lagoons that are their feeding grounds. Aeolian artist Ambra Mirabito points up the analogy between this ecological fact and the basic quest for safety and better living conditions that continues to result in human fatalities in the Mediterranean, and the arrival of migrants at European shores.

Mirabito sourced her project ‘Fenicotteri Migranti’ in a news article about a ‘stray’ flamingo that stayed feeding at Lake Lingua on the island of Salina for some four months. The artist repurposes this story by making paper flamingos: giving each a name; decorating the wings with hand-drawn patterns and silk stitching. The new flamingo then ‘takes flight’ in a large envelope, migrating by post to the address of a waiting addressee. Each effectively carries a question—namely, is it possible to transcend fear towards the unexpected arrival of ‘strangers’ with an attitude of hospitality?

According to the UNHCR, so far in 2016, 272,296 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea. Such numbers are abstractions from always perilous journeys, and landings uncertain at best. They are part of the attempt, however, to document the current refugee crisis. On World Refugee Day, the trenchant statement issued by PEN International asserted that the world’s present system for protecting refugees is no less than ‘broken’. The horizon could not be bleaker for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conditions of war and persecution.

Uncannily, through the overlong campaigns that preceded Australia’s July federal election, rhetoric from the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labour party barely registered immigration policies as a matter of concern to voters. The great bird that came to mind during those weeks was the ostrich. Or rather the age-old myth that the ostrich buries its head in the sand when seized by fear.

Now, however, against the Australian government’s habits of silence, obfuscation, and point-scoring, there is an increasingly vocal consensus that Australia’s system for meeting humanitarian obligations toward refugees and asylum seekers is broken too. Compulsory offshore detention is the stuff of brutal horror stories. By its themes of abuse and abandonment, this chilling chapter in the history of Australia’s relationship to the 1951 Refugee Convention evokes the earliest Children’s and Household Tales published by the brothers Grimm. Except that at present it is haunting, outrageous fact.

Meanwhile, the #BringThemHere campaign just might represent, at last, an implacable tide of transformation—to a prevailing attitude, in Australia, of compassionate hospitality towards some of the globe’s displaced people, who, so close to our shores, continue to suffer unnecessarily. Dare each of them, like Gregory, imagine ‘a new life’ of thriving in dignity? If sponsoring one of Mirabito’s paper flamingos seems far-fetched, signing the #BringThemHere petition is a more direct way to express support for people seeking basic safety and protection. We can respond on the basis of our common humanity.

Who reads the bedtime story in your family?

Thoughts Parafoxical

We don’t need Patricia MacCormack’s argument for an ahuman theory of ethics to acknowledge that ‘nonhumans don’t care’: to appreciate that the nonhuman animals assimilated into human discourse, endlessly re-grouped and set against one another, ‘don’t care’ about news stories (or play scripts). Thank goodness. Three weeks ago Melbourne’s population of red fox, vulpes vulpes, was again mentioned in local news, under the headlines ‘Fox Massacres Melbourne Zoo Penguins’, and ‘Fourteen Penguins Killed in Fox Rampage at Melbourne Zoo’. Presuming readers’ sympathetic (domesticating) identification with the ‘little’ penguins, these headlines demonise the figure of the fox. As such, they distil from the news a moral tale with an ancient heritage—a tale, however, more usually driven by contentious humour.

There are plenty of sharp nods to this heritage in the script Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale. The project first glimmered in my imagination years ago when I read about a fox found trapped at the rear gate of the Melbourne Zoo. As noted in an essay for Writing from Below (which you can read here), Undercoat takes the absurd liberty of anthropomorphising no fewer than three foxes. Or is it three-and-a-half? Set in an Australian landscape, this fable ‘for performance in seven scenes’ begins edging off the page this week, in anticipation of three showings as part of La Mama Theatre’s Explorations series. Inwardly I hear the chant of the character Ruber becoming more insistent, ‘Be careful, be careful, be careful what you fox for!’ … .

Peter Wiltshire, longtime ranger at the Darebin Parklands, kindly agreed to be interviewed while I was researching for Undercoat. In Australia’s inner urban environments, Wiltshire says, foxes have no natural predators. ‘They’re extraordinary creatures’, he begins, ‘they’re flighty, moving continually. They disappear into the grass, they’re agile, extremely fast, well balanced’. At one level Wiltshire’s interview suggests that, mercifully, gloriously, no combination of adjectives can suffice to convey—let alone ‘capture’—human impressions of a fox’s singularity. Quite simply, like the quickening aliveness of a rehearsal, a fox, or a penguin for that matter, is not what we think.