Kim Mahood's Craft for a Dry Lake: A Work in Progress

All crises in some way involve a struggle with language, and to be healed we seem to need to find a way to tell our stories.                                                                                     Marilyn R.Chandler

It is all I can do, to record my movements, describe the country, hope that this net of words will catch something which I cannot articulate.                                                              Kim Mahood, Craft for a Dry Lake

Craft for a Dry Lake is an evocative, sensual and challenging blend of history, fiction and memoir in which Kim Mahood maps her physical and emotional journeys of return to the Tanami desert, the country of her childhood. The Tanami, we are told at the outset, is her father’s country. But it is also the country of the Warlpiri people. The journeys narrated in Craft therefore tell a history in which the personal stories and memories of Kim and Joe Mahood are interwoven with a larger, more complex narrative of ongoing Australian frontier history. Mahood writes the kind of history applauded by Paul Carter, a spatial history of place and feeling and memory, “analogous to unfinished maps”. Significantly, while Carter asserts that “spatial history...begins and ends in language”, Mahood’s is a language of gaps and silences. It is also very much a language of the (wounded) female body.

As a child, around both dinner table and campfire, Mahood came to understand that stories had the power to “transform the intractable matter of fear and loneliness and failure into something lighter and more flexible” (25). She learnt that telling stories was a way of telling the self into the country. As an adult she wants to achieve such a telling but written language, she laments, is an inadequate tool for recording her deeply felt experience of return and recovery: “Conventional forms of representation seem to carry no meaning, and I don’t know where to begin finding a means of recording this experience” (201). As a visual artist (with a deft facility with language), Mahood paints a canvas of vast desert landscapes, histories, cultures, languages and selves through a collage of vivid imagery, photographs, diary extracts and voices. She casts herself as a mapmaker and attempts to chart her way through the many experiences, past, present and possible future, that this journey of return entails. As readers our journey, like hers, is not and cannot be linear. This is a spatial narrative: “The mapmaker’s tale radiates across the landscape. It is a glancing narrative, its structure spatial rather than continuous” (245). That “glancing narrative” is mapped physically and symbolically onto the groundsheet Mahood uses while camping in the desert, a groundsheet which accumulates both the ash and dust from her campsites and “the overflow of her night-time dreams and confusion” (202).

What follows is a spatial reading of Craft structured on that multilayered groundsheet. Such a reading attempts to separate artificially the many interlinked, nuanced layers of this narrative in order to demonstrate how Mahood both tells and withholds certain stories.

Singing it anew: David Malouf's Ransom

‘The creator in art is he who discovers a new analogate of the beautiful, a new way in which the radiance of form can shine on matter’.

Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

When David Malouf spoke about Ransom at the UNSWriting Public Seminar in April 2010, he revealed that he had written the novel during 2002 and, as had been the case with much of his work, he then filed the manuscript away. Malouf gave a few reasons for his reticence to publish immediately: he was concerned that critics might wonder how Ransom fitted into the rest of his oeuvre; he thought Australian readers might ask why they were being invited – in, he supposed, 2003 - to enter the world of Homer’s Iliad; and he thought perhaps his interest in that world was a little idiosyncratic, of no great interest to a reading public. Ransom was not published until 2009, and it then received great critical and popular acclaim. The overwhelmingly positive response to the novel surprised Malouf. In his talk, he attributed this response to the fact that the novel ‘presents itself very simply as a story’. And it does. (I wonder how many readers, like myself, read Ransom in one sitting.) However, while it may ‘present’ itself ‘very simply’, it is an intricately crafted story that engages with complex philosophical questions about narrative, aesthetics and being-in-the-world. In re-imagining Homer’s characters, and in introducing his own character, Somax, into the weave of that ancient story, Malouf offers in Ransom a very human narrative of dignity and grace.

Malouf takes us into the world of the Iliad in order to explore imaginatively new angles, new stories, new possibilities offered by Homer’s epic. The war continues to rage around the walls of Troy: Achilles is sulking at Agamemnon’s slight; Hector slays Patroclus; an inconsolable Achilles slays Hector and desecrates daily his corpse. Finally Priam renounces the position of impotent observer and acts decisively to bring Hector’s body home. This basic plotline mirrors Homer’s. But, in place of Homer’s heroic epithets and epic similes, Malouf’s language is quiet, spare, sonorous and sensual. Heroic action gives way to contemplation and inner turmoil. Achilles’ wrath plays second fiddle to his grief. The ‘action’ opens with Achilles listening for the voice of his mother:

He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes its sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue – a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted (3).

In the quiet dawn light: ‘Small waves slither to his sandalled feet, then sluice away with a rattling sound as the smooth stones loosen and go rolling’ (4). This is beautiful prose and I use that adjective advisedly because beauty and its manifestations in the world are a central concern of Malouf’s narrative.

Unpacking Castro's Library, or Detours and Return in The Garden Book   

...a real always somewhat impenetrable

 Walter Benjamin

Near the end of Kafka’s largely letter-driven affair with Milena Jesenká he proclaimed that letter writing was an “intercourse with ghosts [...] not only the ghost of the recipient but also with one’s own ghost which develops between the lines of the letter one is writing”(229). Brian Castro cites part of this letter as one of his epigraphs to The Garden Book, a novel in which the characters, landscape and writing are haunted by, and are in conversation with, ghosts. Kafka continued, and Castro quotes:

Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

Letter writing, like the writing of a novel, takes place before an absent addressee. It can, therefore, be seen as an act of faith that gestures towards, or relies upon, some future moment when, by virtue of being read, the text will come into existence. Kafka, who persisted in writing letters as a means of communication, here outlines his lack of faith in the ability of writing to engender or sustain intimacy: the “written kisses don’t reach their destination”. Not only is the intended recipient absent, the writer too is dispersed by the act of writing: “one’s own ghost [...] develops between the lines of the letter one is writing”. There are, ultimately, only words; words sent out into the world as a “sort of detour via the other and then returned back to a dead sender” (Castro, “Auto/Biography” 118).

The Garden Book offers a collection of fragmentary detours via eighteenth century Chinese poetry, Proust, Heidegger, Benjamin, Virgil, Ovid, T.S.Eliot and Baudelaire (to mention a few)i, in its quest to examine simultaneously a collective literary and social consciousness and to explore the relationship between writing, history, memory and death. I want to pursue some of these detours because, as Castro writes: “You have to know the detours; [have to know] that the whole idea of any story, like existence itself, is beside the point” (The Garden Book 7). It is in following these seductively incomplete detours, in appreciating how other texts and writers ghost Castro’s writing, that we become true readers and writers of this text.

Literature and the Intimate Space of Death

The desire to come to terms with death, one's own or an other's death, is profoundly human. In our quest to understand our mortality, a quest that must by necessity fail, we turn often to literature, art, and music, and are confronted repeatedly not with revelation and certainty, but with the spaces of absence and death they shelter within. Theorists like Maurice               Blanchot can help us understand some of the imaginative strategies artists and writers employ in their attempt to represent the ungraspable experience of death. In this essay some of Blanchot's ideas are utilised to negotiate the spaces of absence and death that inform Alex Miller's novella, The Sitters, and Noel Rowe's poem, 'Next to Nothing'. In both of these texts we see the protagonists responding to the actual or threatened loss of a sister; both Rowe and Miller employ the device of portraiture; and in both texts death is represented through the unsaid, the absent.