It is mid-afternoon on a Tuesday in May, and I am sitting at my desk in my study, writing. My study is a tiny space on a mezzanine floor in a one-bedroom apartment. There are double-height windows at one end of the apartment, which are also the only windows into the home. The apartment is on the ground floor of the block, and set into the side of a slope. From where I am sitting, I have a view of the red-brick back of the building next door, its rooftop dotted with laundry. I can also see the crowns of trees in the park beyond, and their colours are autumnal in the fading light.
At this point in the year, I have finished my professional reading, and am now able to read for pleasure and for my own research. It is a very different exercise from professional reading, where I set myself a rigorous schedule, make copious notes, and try to consistently compare and contrast one book or poem against the next, in order to make difficult decisions around a work’s inclusion in an award shortlist or in a poetry journal. Reading for pleasure, and for one’s own work, is an indulgence, one which I don’t take for granted.
I begin each day’s reading with the news—I read the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC News, the Guardian, the New York Times, sometimes the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. When I catch up with world events, and then feel overwhelmed, as I often do, I seek respite by reading posts on Atlas Obscura, Apartment Therapy, and Serious Eats. I self-soothe by looking at pages of strange phenomena, of bathroom renovations, and the chemistry of boiling eggs.
I make coffee and brunch in the small kitchen. I cut slices of bread from a loaf I baked yesterday. Here is living proof that I can learn almost anything from a book—two weeks ago, I had never baked my own bread. And here I was, cutting a loaf of sourdough bread I made with my own wild yeast harvested from the bacteria in my home. I’d read multiple recipes from different websites, and studied hand-written instructions from a friend, the poet Anna Kerdjik Nicholson, who had also posted me a Ziploc bag of her own sourdough starter when I had trouble getting mine off the ground. Knowledge leaping off the page from words, through our hands, into our bodies.
Another friend, the American poet Jane Hirshfield, has recently had a new collection of poetry out. Ledger is an important and timely book. One of her poems jumps out at me:
dreams herself blind
hearing the click of a light switch.
Forty years since the wake-up han’s
much battered ink-written
“Don’t waste time.”
Sometimes the mallet-sound sharp,
other times muffled.
Self, too, was hearable inside and outside
inside and outside the scent of creek and pine.
Stars, wind, day, night, pine bark.
They don’t need us.
They don’t need to be stars, wind, day, night, pine bark.
As always, Jane pays close attention to the world around us, and within us, and above all, to the awareness and acceptance that the world exists without, and beyond us. That the unknown remains unknown even if we name them, study them, and try to understand them. There is so much we do not control, cannot control, will never control.
Jane is also an accomplished writer of prose, much of which reflects on poetic processes. In her essay, ‘Poetry and Uncertainty’, which was delivered as a lecture at Newcastle University in 2007, she writes:
One of the penalties of consciousness is waking each day into the awareness that the future cannot be predicted, that the universe rests on an incomprehensible mystery, that bewilderment, caprice, and the unknowable are among the most faithful companions of any life. Mostly, it seems, we go on by inventing a story. Yet no story completely suffices… For those willing to let themselves feel it, any story leaves behind an uneasiness, sometimes at the center, other times at the edge of perception, and like the remainder left over in a problem in long division, it must be carried. Literature’s work, in part, and particularly poetry’s, is to take up that residue and remnant, to find a way to live amid and alongside the uncertain.
The bulk of my work is that of teaching poetry in high schools. A lifetime ago, I was a high school teacher, and I thought I always would be a teacher. When I am back in the classroom today, I feel vital, alive, and passionate about the power of poetry and of words to build a home for ourselves, to make a way for us to live our lives. We read poems together. Students and their teachers often want to know, What does this poem mean? I spend a lot of time telling them I don’t know, but that the possibilities that exist in the absence of certainty are part of the great mystery of meaning-making.
Last week, the great Irish poet Eavan Boland died. When I heard of her death, I wept, and I read this poem of hers, from her 1994 collection, In A Time of Violence:
for Eavan Frances
Tryers of firesides,
twilights. There are no tears in these.
Instead, they begin the world again,
making the mountain ridges blue
and the rivers clear and hero fearless—
and the outcome always undecided
so the next teller can say begin and
again and astonish children.
Our children are our legends.
You are mine. You have my name.
My hair was once like yours.
And the world
is less bitter to me
because you will re-tell the story.
How odd to read a poem written by Boland a quarter of a century before her death, where she had already thought of how she would live on in her daughter, and of how we live on in story, in our descendants, literary or otherwise. The acts of reading and of writing poetry, I have often thought, are acts of time-travel.
Eight weeks into the pandemic in Australia, already it feels like the world is ready to begin again. That the human race, with its indefatigable spirit, is ready to move on from the death, destruction, and disease it has been ravaged by, and start over.
Two weeks ago, I read a batch of student writing so I could give my students comments and suggestions on how to surmount any writing difficulties they were facing. We had planned to meet for discussions, but were now relegated to speaking on Zoom. The final student I spoke to, a gifted writer, started to cry when I asked him this question: What is it you are trying to write away from? I was sorry to see him upset. The question, and perhaps the writing that might follow, had cracked open something in him.
It is a question I ask myself all the time, a signpost I refer to, so I can push myself to keep going in the opposite direction, to write towards fear and the place of unknowing. To write is to be vulnerable, to search for the heart of the mystery, to risk failure along the way. To read is to hear echoes of the same journey undertaken by others along the same road, over and over beginning anew, without maps, without compasses, and often without known destinations, or neat resolutions. There are so many stories we have yet to tell.
Here’s a poem by the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, from her 1999 collection, Jizzen:
So little of the world is bequeathed
through us, our gifts
instead, are passed among the living
—like words, or the bolus
of chewed bread
a woman presses with her tongue
into the gorgeous open mouth of her infant.
Words, then, are gifts—gifts of knowledge, of pleasure, of questionings, passed from one to another, from mouths, on pages, through memory. It is early evening now, and the sun is setting on this autumn day—the sky pink, then grey, and finally, dark, pinpricked by electric lights. I think about buying a wool blanket. I wonder if the trend for coloured tile grout will last beyond this season. There is a quarter of a loaf of sourdough left for dinner, and I will eat it with cold, salted butter.
I have spent weeks within my home, reading, traversing the collective landscape of words, meanings of which arise from their juxtapositions, from their precise, at times accidental alignments, and of the worlds they open up beyond the mind of a lone reader. We are all connected by what we read. In times like these, and in the times to come, I wish you good health, and good reading.
Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet, and the author of eight books. Her work has shortlisted for several prizes, including twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her next collection, A Thousand Crimson Blooms, is forthcoming in April 2021. eileenchong.com.au