I am drinking tea, made in a blue enamel teapot. It is lukewarm. I need to either finish or reheat it.
I live on Wurundjeri country. Today, this week, I am on Darug and Gundungurra country. I am mindful of having a safe place to read and write while devastation racks India, and Palestine.
Because I’m doing a PhD, I am reading a lot of different things all at once, greedy for the thoughts of others. I was drawn to study because I’d entered a cycle of disaffection with my writing that felt untenable. I needed a breath. I wondered if in the words of others I might learn some new ways to be in relationship with my own. The answer was yes! I find myself re-energised by the deep wrestling and passionate wondering of writers who have asked similar questions to what I was asking: Why do we do what we do? What purpose does it have? And scholars who think about the ethics of thinking: Who gets to do it? What does it contribute?
The sun is in my eyes. I get up and roll the blind down, just enough to soften the glare.
It’s like falling in love with rock stars the way I did as a kid. I mean, have you read Sara Ahmed? Right now, I’m reading What’s the Use? Ahmed takes this tiny word and builds a book out of it, thrusting me into wonder about what is useful, useless, utilitarian, broken, fixable, worth fixing. She speaks to the personal and the systemic; the matrices within which we are all embedded, trying to survive and change them at once. Is this even possible? Ahmed dazzles but there is also an invitation in her words, a gesture to us all that our experiences matter. We, too, can be part of the grappling.
I am fortunate to have a week at a writing residency, with five other writers. I have been here before, the first time almost exactly twenty years ago.
I am deep within Kate Zambreno’s Appendix Project which, she says, was written in part from a sense of incompleteness about things that society tells us should ‘end’ or ‘resolve’ but that don’t. Zambreno wrote it around and between grieving her mother and mothering her child. As a gesture towards ongoingness. It makes me reflect on how we often put grief into a small box. On how I am, in some ways, relieved I don’t feel the wound of my father’s death with the same intensity as I did twenty years ago. But also, a soft sorrow at how, due to time passing, he becomes something of a footnote: ‘Oh my father died a long time ago’. All the pain and the mystery of him, the hugeness of his person, the awfulness of his drinking and the subsequent struggle towards death. It’s not finished, is it? I have written about it only a few times.
Something in Zambreno’s words opens a window to the past. The past that is ever present. I hadn’t clocked the double anniversary of this twenty-year revisiting. I am clocking it now.
It rained last night and, through the window that doesn’t face the sun, I watch slow drips fall from the corrugated roof outside.
I am reading a note, left for me by a friend who was here a few years back, an act of faith that I would return. She tucked it into a book, the playscript: The Rivers of China by Alma de Groen. I read this play nearly thirty years ago when I was in a production, playing Katherine Mansfield. Reviewers said I was quite good but too young for the role. I met Alma here, at this residency, on my first visit. She was a mentor. She was kind and encouraging about my writing. My friend, by the way, didn’t know any of this when she picked that book.
I remember being here as a sort of promise, about the kind of writer I would, or should, become.
For an essay I’m writing about the speculative possibilities of poetry, I’m reading We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, edited by Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel. It’s extraordinary. Poets writing of (un)belonging, yearning and transformation; putting their bodies and their words on the line, to remind us that bodies matter. Bryn Kelly, in her piece ‘Diving into the Wreck’, writes about shifts in feminism, including a sequence of observations speculating about ‘lesbians from the 1970s’ being sad now, feeling a dissolution of their communities. A particular line leaps out at me: ‘They all have breast cancer. Some of them have had it a couple of times’.
I’m not a lesbian from the 1970s. I have had breast cancer. Only once. But something in this wry comment clings to me, wraps itself around me, gets me thinking about women and being on the margins, and seeking or finding or losing a community, about disappointment. There is something too, in my mind—associations I have read about breast cancer and fathers; absent, alcoholic, dead, disappointing fathers. All of us nursing our wounded breast-hearts.
I hear the crunch of footsteps on gravel as a person walks past, quite close to my door. They are a friendly person. I open the door and greet them. We talk about the beauty of this misty mountain air.
I try not to sit with crossed legs. I got a clot in my leg last year, possibly from some medication I was on. My oncologist changed the medication but I’m feeling the symptoms again. I flex my feet—up down up down up down. Get moving blood, you can do it! I am post diagnosis by a few years, now in adjuvant care, the medical system tinkering with my body and its hormones. I have written about this before. Is it too much? Kate Zambreno writes about repetition, about re-reading Barthes’ Mourning Diaries which was, in itself, an exercise in repetition, duration and ongoingness.
The first time I was here, tumbled in the wake of death, I remember sitting on the floor of the little garden studio, listening to a CD of Bach concertos, weeping and heavy. I remember a fellow resident knocking gently on the door, bringing me a cup of tea.
On some days, in certain lights, my breast-heart has ached with disappointment at how much I did not become the writer, or the person, I imagined I would / should. There may be something of this I have inherited from my father. Is there a way I can attend to it? I draw possibility from Zambreno’s meditating on holding, continuing, staying with.
Last night at dinner, we talked at length about dogs and cats, love and death, how gazing at animal faces and touching their warm bodies makes us something more. A few months ago, I minded my sister’s dogs and became obsessed. Both with them, specifically, and with the relationship between people and dogs. In Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto, she too is fascinated, considering ‘dog writing as a branch of feminist theory’. She dislikes the term ‘fur baby’ and warns against loving dogs out of an expectation for how they should love us. Rather, the deep and profound relationship can teach us something about the ethics and possibilities of reciprocity.
She writes about histories of breeding. Another association pings. A whack theory I read once that women who haven’t had children are more likely to get breast cancer because the breasts haven’t served their set use. Ridiculous. I don’t have children, but know just as many people with and without them who have had cancer. Still, the notion of use lingers and takes me back to Ahmed.
The words of others act as a salve; they help make a place for those things that crept in or slid away, that fell apart. They act as a guide, to how I / we can see that newness is always emerging.
My morning wears on. I read a rejection email that shouldn’t, but does, flush me with shame (how could I have applied for that—of course I was never going to get it!). This is followed immediately by reading a message from a student I taught this year thanking me for an essay I wrote.
It takes a long time, this becoming, and is less singular than I / we / they would have us believe. We are always revisiting but not always the same. Returning to places and memories in a spiralling motion rather than a circle. An ongoingness.
The weather was supposed to be inclement and indoors-y while I was here. But the sun is bright and the sky is shouting BLUE all around. I rinse the teapot and pull on my runners. Step away from the desk, the computer, the social media, the books, the emails, the messages. Take my mind outside, to remind it of body and ground, of dirt and trees, sky and birds.
Books referenced in this essay:
Abi-Karam, Andrea & Kay Gabriel. We Want it All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. Nightboat Books, 2020.
Ahmed, Sara. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Duke University Press, 2019.
de Groen, Alma. The Rivers of China. Currency Press, 1988.
Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.
Zambreno, Kate. Appendix Project. semiotext(e), 2019.
Emilie Collyer lives on Wurundjeri land where she writes poetry, plays and prose. She is a current PhD candidate at RMIT, researching feminist creative practice