1988. It is five years after the Ash Wednesday bushfires, which devastated many parts of Victoria, including the coastline of the Eastern Otways. It is also Australia’s Bicentennial year. A man in his early twenties sits on the step of a small fibro bungalow in the Aireys Inlet riverflat, in the thick shade of two towering old macrocarpa pines. Catching the light at his feet is a loamy brocade of russet pine needles, stretching across the yard to the sunroom of his house, one of the few buildings in the town to survive the fires.
In this yard there are vegetables growing, a lemon tree, a boat and outboard motor, chopped firewood, surfboards, fishing buoys, a bicycle, a car. Behind him on the step the door of the bungalow is open. Inside the bungalow there is a single bed and a desk with books and cassettes on it. There is music playing, a melody full of tremulous, wistful mandolins. The sound of the music blends with the ocean waves falling into the rivermouth a couple of hundred metres to the south of where he sits.
The music stops and a voice begins to speak.
The voice the young man hears from the bungalow cassette player is Italian; the words are Italian too. He listens as they are translated and spoken again in plummy English in the foreground of the music, and over the sound of the sea:
This house was inhabited by the sea, by the smell of the sea, the light of the sea, the voice of the sea. The sea was omnipresent.
The voice pauses now, so that only the sound of the ocean can be heard, which importantly, the young man on the step now realises, is coming both from the recording and from the rivermouth.
A woman’s voice is heard next, once again speaking English but in a strong Neapolitan accent:
At times I have a very beautiful dream and there is always Palazzo Donn’Anna, and the very clear water. It is a part of my life that I wouldn’t change with anybody else. I think it was a privilege to live in such an old, majestic, magic place.
• • •
When I was in my early twenties and sitting on that bungalow step, a correspondence began to form between the depth of feeling I experienced in the bush and oceanscape around Aireys Inlet (Mangowak), and the emotional and visual response I was beginning to have to certain works of fiction and poetry. Reading poets and novelists from many countries, including Australia, was to be ushered through a series of unique portals to a mental landscape of sensuous insight and numinous reflection. The experience, because of both its intensity and its liminal quality, converged with my sense of place on the coast. A responsive, cyclical, perpetual interaction was set up that spilt beyond the delineations of conscious thoughts or physical body into the ‘response-ability’ of literary forms.
Looking first at the landscape, then at the page I was reading, then back at the landscape while still sensing the page, then returning to the text with the life-world of landscape still in my nostrils, a desire was seeded for another page, a new page, on which I could write fresh words, lines, sentences, paragraphs, poems, fables, novels.
In defining the term wreading, that is, the simultaneous and recursive synthesis of the acts of reading and writing, the critic Jed Rasula says, ‘“Wreading” is my neologism for the collaborative momentum initiated by certain texts.’ This definition approximates my youthful experience. I noticed even at the time, while wreading the works of historical periods and from distant geographies, that this experience amounted to a magnification process, which enlarged certain texts of fiction or poetry by placing them mentally in my own physical landscape. Therein I reanimated the narrative and characters within the optics, acoustics and olfactory parameters of my own ground.
While reading literary works from other parts of Australia, but also from pre-Soviet Russia, from Second Empire France, from Victorian England, from the American Roaring Twenties or from Ancient Greece, I positioned the action of the work, the narrative events and settings within my own regional topography. Thus, I pictured Count Vronsky from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on a shooting expedition in the Allen Noble Bird Sanctuary in Aireys Inlet. I imagined Flaubert’s characters Bouvard and Pécuchet inhabiting a country house not in Normandy, but on Lardners Track near Gellibrand, in the heart of the Otway forest. The action of my wread version of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House took place on the seam between forest and plain, in the grounds of the Western District property near Birregurra that borrowed its name. The arc of Jay Gatsby’s gaze across the water to the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s East Egg dock lay on the south-westerly diagonal from Split Point across Loutitt Bay to the pier below the Grand Pacific Hotel in Lorne. Polyphemus’s legendary hostages escaped not from a Cyclopean cave on the shores of Homeric Sicily, but from one of the two caves positioned just underneath the Split Point lighthouse.
With this in mind it was perhaps a logical next step to seek the thrill provided by these non-endemic works of art in imaginative texts intentionally set in my local geography. But what I found when I went looking for such local equivalents was, apart from one or two exceptions, silence … absence.
There were two books though. In the early 1950s the English-born detective writer Arthur Upfield had rented a house in Aireys Inlet in order to write a crime novel there. This novel, The Clue of the New Shoe, set in a fictional town called Split Point, featured Upfield’s Indigenous detective, Boney. When I first read it in my early twenties the novel struck me as being atmospherically accurate but disappointingly generic in both a cultural and formal sense (I nevertheless reprised another character from The Clue of the New Shoe, Fred Ayling, in my Mangowak novels).
In 1980 Craig Robertson had written a novelised account of the life of escaped convict William Buckley, which dramatised Buckley’s time in Mangowak and his life with the Wadawurrung people in the surrounding area. By simply acknowledging alternative versions and possibilities of place by dramatising life prior to official white settlement, this novel was compelling. Its ultimate significance to me, however, lay as much in the inclusion of a word list of Wadawurrung language at the back as it did in the body of the text. This glossary was my first encounter in a book of a language resembling that which had been spoken in Mangowak for thousands of years. It led to me forming the band Barroworn, the name of which came from the spelling used for the Wadawurrung word for ‘magpie’ in Robertson’s list. After two years of extensive touring through both urban and remote regions of Victoria and Tasmania, Barroworn’s only recorded album, Mangowak Days, was released in 1995.
Unlike other landscapes already famous for their literary histories, such as the New England coast of North America, Dantean Tuscany, or the Lakes District of England, and even unlike less delineated but equally productive literary regions such as the Essex palimpsest documented by British chorographer James Canton in his Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape, there was a distinct and resonating lack of literary forbears in my midst. The two books of Upfield and Robertson were all that came to hand, and from subsequent research I have found that in truth there was not much more to discover. It is also worth noting that these two books were far from well known among the coastal community when I was growing up.
Thus there was an eerie lack of correspondence between a landscape that seemed so aesthetically generative, indeed so epic, and the silence of written responses to it. This gap between the ground I lived on and its imaginative written representations seemed significant. I began to reflect on the source landscapes of the books I’d been reading, the wread nature of my own landscape as I experienced it, and what had not been described. I became aware that my cultural landscape appeared not like the succulent creative and regenerative ground I was walking on, but like a dried-up riverbed bearing little resemblance to it.
The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.
Us, listening to a river in the trees.
• • •
The inheritance of a landscape almost entirely divested of its native peoples can too easily become inflected with the linear concept, also inherited, of the prior existence of a mythical lost paradise. This lost paradise, with its implication of humanity’s fall from grace into sin, is of course a key trope of Christianity, but as James Boyce has documented in his Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, it has also been thoroughly buttressed by Western philosophical culture from St Augustine to Richard Dawkins. Interestingly, historian and museum ethnographer Philip Jones has also shown in his essay ‘Beyond Songlines’ how this strain of nostalgia has been reinforced in more recent years by European reductions of the ‘history-collapsing’ Aboriginal metaphysics of the Dreaming, or Dreamtime.
The Neapolitan novelist and thinker Raffaele La Capria characterises the concept of a lost idyll, or a lost harmony, in his own way, with the conceptual phrase La Bella Giornata, or ‘The Beautiful Day’. He uses the term to help characterise his grief at the brutal commodification of his own root landscapes of Capri and Naples, brutal in so many respects but essentially because of the way shrill tourism ignores La Bella Giornata, in so far as it refers, like the Dreaming, to an inner or metaphysical existence, both intensely personal and entirely communal, that connects to the deep past but remains eternally present, and is therefore continually shaping the future.
At the same time as discovering the work of La Capria back in my twenties, I had also been reading nonfiction texts dealing with the dispossession and genocide that had taken place in the wider landscape around me. One of these books, A Distant Field of Murder by Jan Critchett, dealt with the historical situation in the Western District of Victoria by charting the violent disruption caused by white (un)settlement in Gunditjmara, Gadubanud, Gulidjan, Wadawurrung and other homelands. Though far from identical, both La Capria’s La Bella Giornata and the daily lived realities of Indigenous family and cultural life in Wadawurrung tabayl (Wadawurrung country) denoted a continuity of culture that was slipping from focus, that was marred and occluded, perhaps even ruined, by modern industrial society.
So increasingly now I was feeling the reality of what it was like to stand on a map among lost coordinates. Bad cultural weather had arrived in Wadawurrung country—my family had arrived with it—and the sound of the ocean filling the area of this map began to sound to me like a tear in a fabric I was not privy to understand.
• • •
Each summer morning when I was young my father would rise in the riverflat to go fishing but before leaving the house he would invariably ask in an enthusiastic tone: ‘Did you hear the ocean last night?’ My presumption at this time was that to him this sound denoted a simple happiness, a breezy freedom. Not yet knowing about his own father’s grief-stricken trip to Lorne in 1937, I was only half right.
While recovering from the premature death of his young wife, my grieving grandfather had made a wondrous discovery in an upper-storey room of Lorne’s Grand Pacific Hotel in 1937, where he had been put up for a week by friends to help him cope with his loss. Like La Bella Giornata, this wondrous discovery was of both an intensely personal and an entirely communal nature—it was the ‘sound of the ocean under his pillow at night’. As I’ve described in a previous and connected essay, ‘The Ocean Last Night’ (Meanjin, voulme 77, issue 4, 2018), each evening during his visit, as he laid his head down to sleep, he would let the sound envelop him. When the week was over and he returned home to his young son—whose mother had died on his tenth birthday—he described what he had discovered: the most beautiful sound in the world.
It was at that point that the sound of the ocean at night established itself in our family as a maternal harmonic, a kind of sonic rosary beads, an acoustic medicine for grief. For me, however, born ‘very young in a very old world’, as the saying goes, and unaware therefore of the way the bluewater landscape was resonating within our family’s emotional history, the sound of the ocean did not yet contain the loss of my grandmother, the grief of my grandfather and my father, nor was it fully described by the enthusiasm of Dad’s question as he readied his Evinrude outboard, his rods and nets. On the contrary, the sound of the ocean seemed as atavistic as the moon.
It did, however, form a question mark in my mind. Or multiple question marks. With every crash and breath of wave on the shore at night and with every recollection of that sound in the light of day, another, equally perpetual, quandary came:
What next? What now? How to write, to sing, to say?
• • •
Magnetised by a sense of all that had been lost, by the feeling of a vacuum (nature abhors a vacuum, in this case a vacuum of story and song), by La Bella Giornata and the broken song of the Wadawurrung, I immersed myself in what I considered at the time to be the only ethical resources at my disposal. Whatever sympathies or affinities I felt I had with what some academics erroneously call the Anglo-Indigenous landscape, I would not, I could not, speak, or sing, for the people who had been dispossessed. Although I began at that time to make my first foray into Wadawurrung language, a language I subsequently began teaching, with the permission, encouragement and guidance of local elders, at the Aireys Inlet school in 2015, a simultaneous aspect of my realisation of the violent past of my country was that I was unmistakably, even as late as the 1980s, a European agent among it.
In short, my creative impulses certainly afforded me no exemption. As has been said of poet Judith Wright, I had both ‘a deeply etched knowledge of being from a conquering people’ and a simultaneous desire for a ‘fertile invoking of place’.
So, how, what, to write, to sing, to say?
By the time I was in my twenties an initial response had begun to form. I made the decision to start educating myself in the voices, music, literature, history and mythology of my two genetic bloodlines, Irish and Sicilian. I realised, for better or worse, that only within my own literal blood-zones of cultural inheritance did I feel comfortable to speak or sing. Only in Irish and Italian examples could I seek a correspondence with the luminosity I was experiencing; only in those traditions could I learn, or even borrow, a method, a tone, a cadence, the techniques of a voice that, when inevitably inflected by my own experience of the colonial geography, could approximate my wreadings of book, ocean and land.
I embarked on two simultaneous projects, the writing of my first novel, The Patron Saint of Eels, which narrates the metaphysical migration of an eighteenth-century southern Italian Franciscan monk into the landscape of twenty-first-century Mangowak, and the setting of poems by the Irish poet WB Yeats to music on a pump organ, or harmonium, a project that resulted in my album The Black Tower: Songs from the Poetry of WB Yeats, subsequently praised by the Yeats Society of Ireland, to my great surprise, as ‘equal to, if not surpassing the finest musical interpretations of Yeats ever made’.
During these intensely hybridistic compositional days I would look down at the skin of my arm and remind myself that despite the fact that I was born here in Australia, like so many of the poems and stories I had been reading, thinking about and singing, that skin, in evolutionary terms, had largely been made elsewhere. It was Irish skin, Sicilian skin, Atlantic skin, Mediterranean skin. More than 120 years before I was born, my great-great-grandparents, James and Mary Day, were living only 18 miles from Aireys Inlet, but what did that matter? I had their genes, their Irish freckles on my shoulders. Likewise, my great-great-grandfather Antonio Denerio from Riposto in Sicily arrived in Wadawurrung tabayl in those same 1840s. Because of my physiognomy and colouring, I had been embraced as Italian all my life, but what did that say? What, after all, is 100 years in an ‘old, majestic, magic place’ like this? Is it a long time, a short time, a long enough time to shed a skin, to lose sight of where you came from?
By hunting among the creative quarry of Ireland and Italy, despite their geographic remove as landscapes, I hoped to discover the source materials of a relevant prelude, some pre-existing mythological and lyrical strata that could help me activate my own impulse to somehow expressively match the grandeur, sorrow and mystery of the world. To sing the land.
I hoped to discover something that had been left behind as well as taken away …
The Patron Saint of Eels was the first of three Mangowak novels, throughout the writing of which (and also during the writing of my novel of Second World War Crete and King Island, Archipelago of Souls) I worked at Lorne Fisheries at the pier head on Point Grey in Lorne in southwest Victoria. This fishery started as a fishermen’s co-operative in the 1960s, when barracouta (thyrsites atun) were being caught in quantities as large as 1000 to 2500 tonnes a year. At its peak there were 24 ‘couta’ boats on the Lorne pier, but when the stocks of thyrsites atun began to dwindle due to a strengthening of the warm East Australian Current, the Lorne model then transferred from a co-operative arrangement to a private business owned by local partners and run by a young Greek-Macedonian migrant, Christos Raskatos, and his family.
Despite this change of modus operandi the cultural seeds of the co-operative fishery remained extant. To the local fishermen who now brought their Southern Rock Lobster and sharks up onto the patinated landing to be weighed and processed, the ocean had become over time not only a worksite and source of income but also a repository of story, mystery, mishap, humour and myth. It also became clear under the new arrangement that for Christos Raskatos, who had come to work in Lorne in the days of the co-op, and who was now the chief proprietor and driving force behind Lorne Fisheries, the ocean was an imaginative field with the potential to link and light up the two key realities of his life: his prior existence as a working-class child of Greek migrants in Geelong, and the metaphysical call of his family’s cultural lineage back in the Mediterranean.
On two blackboards fixed to the front wall of the co-op building beside the pier on Point Grey, ostensibly there to announce the range and price of the daily catch, Christos Raskatos began to publish poetry. He continued doing so through four decades until the closure of Lorne Fisheries in 2016.
During these years the local residents, holiday-makers and visiting tourists to whom Christos Raskatos sold seafood, found themselves enmeshed in a universal story dissolving time and space. They were not only contemporary participants in a postcolonial fishery and tourism economy, but also players in a continuous human drama for which the ocean of Bass Strait, and specifically Louttit Bay, provided a compelling and renewing analogue. Raskatos’s co-op poems, which were written predominantly in English but occasionally in Greek, made reference to local events and people. They cast the deeds and postures of these people and events, however, in the context of the metaphysical paradigm of the myths of ancient Greece.
Over time, as the poems on the co-op blackboards began to function as a chronicle of the vicissitudes of the poet’s own life and the life of the town, they began also to serve as a Homeric celebration of human continuities. In doing so the co-op poems served to re-equip Lorne with something that had largely been absent from the site since the expropriation of Gadubanud and Wadawurrung lands in the nineteenth century: a metaphysics of place.
Despite Philip Jones’s explication in his essay of 2017 ‘Beyond Songlines’ of the acknowledged difficulties of precisely defining the concept of ‘The Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ in written English, the anthropologist WEH Stanner in his 1953 essay ‘The Dreaming’ defined what he called ‘the metaphysical gift’ of traditional Aboriginal society as ‘the ability to transcend oneself, to make acts of imagination so that one can stand “outside” or “away from” oneself, and turn the universe, oneself and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation’. This definition shares at least some common ground with the perspective of Cheshire novelist and choreographer Alan Garner when he says: ‘Creativity is not an occupation. It is service to something beyond the self. In this broad sense, it partakes of the religious.’
As is evident in the topographical nomenclature of this coast where I write, where towns such as Anglesea, Torquay and Lorne were named after pre-existing British places or people in the manner of colonial selfies, since first white settlement ‘locals’ had looked to the ways in which the place reminded them of already extant cultural sites in Britain. Likewise, they had imported the Christian beliefs of Europe and built churches in order permanently to overlay these beliefs upon the place. While it is perhaps perfectly understandable that a European settler society should initially hearken back to their source culture in order to structure their new social arrangements, there is nevertheless an inherent disjuncture that takes place when the stories used by that society to explain the mysteries of human and animal life and the structure of the cosmos become, as it were, generic. A cultural distance is installed between the physical features of life and death as they are experienced in the sensual realm of the place itself and the way in which they are interpreted metaphysically.
To some extent, Christos Raskatos’s co-op poems went part of the way towards lessening that distance. Through his combining of the demotic, local and often iconoclastic vernacular with a demonstrative use of a Homeric mythological inheritance, the poet was able to ‘make acts of imagination’, in Stanner’s words, that turned ‘the universe, oneself and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation’. The co-op poems did this by imaginatively redefining the Lorne community as existing within what Stanner might call the everywhen. Stanner’s 1953 neologism may perhaps have its roots in the phrase ogne quando from Canto 29 of Dante’s Paradiso, which famously is set in a polytemporal realm outside the linear paradigm of European time. Stanner’s ‘everywhen’ also resembles La Capria’s Neapolitan La Bella Giornata in the way it folds the past, and geographically distant locations, into the historical and topographic present.
Thus, in Christos Raskatos’s world, the application of originally place-specific Greek myths, such as Mount Olympus, the Cretan labyrinth at Knossos, or the Taenarum (the Peloponnese entrance to Hades, located at Cape Taenarum), became viable. An Otway Taenarum became a mythographic reality. Indeed, his poems often referenced Hades, a mythological region that, as Julie Baleriaux has shown in her study of how meaning was given to subterranean rivers in ancient Mediterranean landscapes, ‘may have been inspired by the widespread karst landscapes in Greece’ and, in particular, the Peloponnese around Cape Taenarum.
It is interesting to note how the Otway Basin too is predominantly a karst landscape, a characteristic feature of which is a porousness resulting from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, creating networks of underground streams, caves and sinkholes. Such features were described—a ‘group of orifices’, ‘extraordinary caverns’—by the superintendent of the Port Phillip District and future governor of Victoria, Charles La Trobe, in 1846, when his party rode through the forest to investigate the building of a lighthouse on Cape Otway to alleviate the incidence of shipwrecks in Bass Strait. In karst landscapes the same stream can run for kilometres on the surface before diving through swallets under the land and reappearing somewhere else. Baleriaux believes this feature of topographic porousness seeded Greek notions of the parallel unseen underworld of Hades. In Christos Raskatos’s hands, this allegorical ‘unseen’ became once again a spoken everyday force in Lorne.
As such the community was at least in part redefined, not by ethnicity or religion but by the way each moment of daily experience is given meaning by the journey through time and space that has preceded it. Thus, in Raskatos’s poems the European postcolonial community was endowed with a human continuity stretching at least back to the heroic age of Homer’s day. The community members of Lorne were presented back to themselves not merely as citizens of Australia but also as agents in a metaphysical drama in which they were assigned their roles as ironic amphibians—half shore-dwellers, half in the waves—and preternaturalists: identities capable of dwelling in and thinking about a liminal space between spirit and body, between life and whatever precedes, succeeds or surrounds it. Ultimately the co-op poems claimed the common daily survival of life’s high and low weathers, of all that the unpredictable ocean of existence can dish up, as a significant, even heroic, achievement in itself. The most ‘ordinary’ and uncelebrated Lorne people could therefore be represented as everyday locals with intrinsic relations not only to sea and land but also to other worlds of miracle, wonder and metaphysical power.
One function of the Lorne co-op poems then was to reinvest a sense of the sacred in a place that had been desacralised by invasion and colonised by the generic tropes of the British Empire and its dominions. Another function was to decolonise the idea of heroism by wresting back the metaphysical realm from the humourless strictures of church and state. The working poet was quite literally taking the gods outside again, up into the beech and mountain ash forests of the Otways overlooking Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean, back into the realm of the hunts and humours of everyday life.
On chalkboards streaked with saltspray, seaweed, pollen and wind, Raskatos reinserted a stratum of pre-Christian mythology into the ancient east-facing cove of Lorne. In flamboyant style he repersonified the place, attributing to the physical environment the qualities and power of a Homeric goddess, or a dear but formidable old friend, therefore restoring the site as a place of worship in itself. In the co-op poems the topography of the littoral and the sea-light were once again the objects of transformational power and devotion, not the cloistered iconography inside the colonial church. On the salt-streaked co-op blackboards Raskatos cunningly improvised a voice that summoned pre-Christian deities in an attempt to match his surroundings, to reacknowledge and narrate not only the epic drama of the coastline, but the wonders of what we can’t see and can never know, as well as the often unnoticed mysteries of everyday deeply felt emotion.
Unlike the novels I wrote while working alongside him in the fishery, Raskatos’s co-op poems were never published in a book but only in the ephemeral and performative chalk of the striated, streaked and mottled workaday space that was the fishery on Point Grey. In their impermanence the co-op poems bore similarities to the nightly live music played through the summers of the 1970s and 1980s by bands such as AC/DC and Cold Chisel in the Grand Pacific Hotel, which hovered in late-Victorian grandeur above the pier and fishery, and where once the arias of Beniamino Gigli had been played on a gramophone in the foyer.
The co-op poems sat in an interstice between the oral and written traditions, not only insofar as the weather co-opted them by determining their legibility, but due to the fact that the poet was often on hand to perform the written poem for the reader. These factors helped define the co-op poems as work by a poet living in between realms, one of which was halfway between manual labour and imaginative composition, another between the written and the spoken text, and yet another between the seen and unseen. As written on the blackboards the poems could be read only for as long as the weather allowed, and by that fact alone they were symbiotic with the place. They were not separated from the environment they emerged from and thus one had physically to be in the place to encounter them. And if while reading them the reader got wet, whether from sea spray or rain, the texts got wet as well.
As is evident in his own William Buckley novel Strandloper, the Cheshire writer Alan Garner believes that ‘what we call “creativity” is the bringing together of pre-existing entities that have not been seen to connect before’.
Here then, excluding the Australian texts I was also reading at the time of composing my Mangowak novels, is a list of components for my own psychogeographic creative instrument, a list of some key inflectors, or companion species, from the literary traditions of my two migratory bloodlines:
WB Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, John McGahern, James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Leonardo Sciascia, Luigi Pirandello, Anna Maria Ortese, Giovanni Verga, Raffaele La Capria, Norman Douglas, Marisa Fazio, Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Satta, Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso.
Besieged by the seeming infinitude of contemporary analogies for the concepts of ‘network’ and ‘community’, I am tempted to describe this as a list not only of companion species, but as a textual neighbourhood, an epigenetic milieu, a mycelial library. My preferred way of looking at the ingredients of this list, however, is as the stops of a pump organ or harmonium, like the one my recurring character Ron McCoy plays in the second Mangowak novel, Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds.
The list then can be seen as a set of readymade stops that I arranged in various combinations in order to respond to:
what my grandfather heard under his pillow in the Grand Pacific Hotel at Lorne;
what my father heard when he went to sleep every night in his house in Aireys Inlet (Mangowak); and
what I heard when as a younger man I cupped my ear on the sound of the ocean among the cultural absence in the landscape around me.
For instance, to extemporise: with the WB Yeats stop pulled, the harmonium is capable of intoning radical innocence, an innocence attained through maturation, through hard labour at the craft of writing, through a fascination with ancestral customs and beliefs. With the Lady Augusta Gregory stop activated, there is a relevant personal redemption at hand, in creative and ethnographic form, given that it was her husband, Robert Gregory, who was responsible for the land laws that contributed so specifically to the cultural devastation of the Irish Potato Famine. With the John McGahern stop open, the harmonium sounds reed-clear and unsentimental, and yet somehow full of love. It plays with an unwavering fidelity to regionality, with an emphasis on dark irony in the received opinions of the landscape.
The Seamus Heaney stop, with its assiduous linguistic retrievals and ability to synthesise them with modern existence, reinherits pastoral yet percussive sounds, which create tactile, luminous sensations of the timeless-everyday. By opening the Italianate stop of Giuseppe di Lampedusa we become aware, in the story of the late demise of the Salina family in his novel Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard, of a landscape tragically imbued with the past, a demesne of fallen grandeur. Adding Leonardo Sciascia’s more contemporary Sicilian stop to this, we incorporate the unflinching cultural logic of Mafia brutality and fear. The harmonium begins to filter the events of small communities through a deeply moral lens.
With the Marisa Fazio and Anna Maria Ortese stops open, we find the picaresque and commedia dell’arte traditions reticulated through the natural thrill of magic realism, reintegrating materialism with fabulist leaps of the mythic imagination. Through the Giovanni Verga stop, we sound the keys to provide working trials of the human figure in the heat-drugged landscape, and by opening the Roberto Calasso stop we intone a new trancelike music of multi-storied lands, a revisited acceptance of the inevitable mythological network in soil and place.
This harmonium is an imaginative foundry in which writer forebears are filtered, inevitably, through a mysteriously alchemical and largely intuitive auditing process. Through the framework of the harmonium I seek both the fundamental note and the harmonics it issues, the voices of correspondence, in order to describe the sound of the ocean and the people living within its range, and to augment it for readers and listeners. The search for psychoacoustic accuracy, for the right sound or arrangement of sounds, for the right word or combination of words, the right character or combination of characters to animate upon a string of narrative, is both a truffling and a composting process, a trial and error on the wallaby process of the emotional imagination, as well as an exercise in auto-ethnographic tuning. I cock an ear, I comb an archive, I sniff the ground, I proffer a chord.
In attempting to document honestly the unsequestered everyday process of making that has resulted in the publication of my novels, I am seeking to deal in what Nicholas Jose has called ‘the personal imperatives of history’. By this method beauty without transgression is disqualified. Tragedy without humour likewise. Possession without dispossession has no purchase here. The imported, constantly mutating English language itself is intrinsically vernacularised, hybridised, rendered both demotic and high, tending towards sonic and sociological accuracy but remaining eternally tangential.
Inevitably then I found myself beginning to pedal a dialectical instrument, a Celtic-Italian instrument, a breathing, literary, pollen-filled harmonium, exuding the floral wafts as well as the funereal tones of Wadawurrung country, producing synaesthetic texts born from the heaths and shores of the landscape with its botanical, zoological, sensory, as well as cultural, and soulful, diversity of stops.
Just as there is no stone without stipple, no lichen without basis, no ironstone headland without telluric rift and heat, I felt little stereotypic anxiety of influence as my Mangowak novels got underway, despite my resorting to traditional, literary, Irish and Mediterranean models. No doubt this unabashedness came partly from my own naivety, but it also came from working alongside Christos Raskatos and the knowledge implied by his own embrace of the fact that by its very nature the littoral garden of words can never be devoid of flotsam and jetsam, things that have washed up, wild sonic frequencies, so-called invasive species, contravening rasp or song. Likewise, the arrangement of mimetic organ stops that we call the written sentence, proceeding as it does in a literary lineage, needs always to be stabilised by the geology of silence.
There is a sonic prose of a shore that teems with the presence and absence of past voices, as well as the serial mathematics of stem, petal, stamen, sun and moon. Every tide, like every day, is the same but somehow different.
Did you hear the ocean last night?
Now, on the bungalow step, the young man hears the voice beginning to speak, over the sound of recorded fishermen’s songs, and the recorded sea in the background:
Naples is nearly 3000 years old and for most, if not all of that time, fishermen have worked there at their nets and their boats. At least until just a few years ago.
The melodies of the fishermen go on, but for periods the voice that accompanies them stops speaking.
Our young man sits in an undoubtedly old, majestic, magic place … in a cultural landscape where, according to Buckley’s account of his time in Wadawurrung tabayl, a local site once existed, and therefore might exist still, that was the source of all the world’s songs. Perhaps this was an opening in the porous karst limestone of our area, a stoney rift that led from under the overhanging branches of a drooping sheoak into a Wadawurrung Taenarum, or underworld. These days I wonder, admittedly with a degree of satiric scorn, what such a site would sell for on some glossy muzacky Surf Coast real estate sign.
Yes, according to what Buckley recounted of his 32 years among the lifesaving hospitality of the Wadawurrung, this is also a cultural landscape in which one very special person had the role of maintaining the local sticks that keep the sky up off the earth. This person was the keeper of the light and breath in the world and I’m often speculating as I walk about which species of tree would best serve the function of holding the sky up like that—perhaps the ironbark or ngangahook, the hazel pomaderris, or maybe the tea tree, or boono, chosen for the same strength and flexibility that made it so good for fashioning into craypots before the days of plastic and steel?
Only months before the arrival of the landgrabbing English boats in Corio Bay in 1835—just six years before my family members also disembarked—in a most fabulist but nevertheless gravely coded call to arms, the word went out across Wadawurrung country for everyone to bring whatever tools they had from every corner of the world to this special person. The call had gone out that the sky-supporting sticks were coming under grave threat, that the whole world was teetering and in danger of collapsing into darkness.
The young man sits on the step underneath the pines, dwelling in lost glimmers and still-recurring inklings of that unwriteable thing, the Dreaming. The light speaks to him, it has a voice, voices in fact, and so of course he dwells also in the mythological stratum of his own inheritance: in Stanner’s everywhen, in Dante’s ogne quando. In The Divine Comedy the idea of ogne quando is uttered only when, having been guided through the molten depths of the underworld, and having subsequently climbed the Purgatorial mountain, which is positioned in an imagined Southern Ocean, Dante listens to Beatrice’s description of the idea with tears streaming from his eyes. I wread his tears as springing from the same source as all the world’s songs, and am glued to the page as he begins to comprehend the overwhelming significance of what Beatrice is describing: the generative, fearless, fertile and perpetual nature of any authentic and genuinely imaginative moral code.
So the young man sits under the pines now, with the sound of the ocean both in the air and on tape, in a landscape drenched with such emotion, with La Bella Giornata melodies of Naples mixing with the sky-climbing Bass Strait sonics in his ears, the whiff of cooking fires coming to him across the inspired screen of Blake’s and Botticelli’s visual renditions of Dante’s three realms: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, or to put it differently: the Otway Taenarum, the Mountain of Expiation in the Southern Ocean, and the Twinkling of Ancestral Campfires in the perpetually wheeling night sky.
In the shade on the bungalow step he smokes a cigarette. He listens to the protean melody of the sea. Only this song bears any resemblance to the deep but open-ended passion he feels at the centre of his world. The groundedness and groundlessness. The enigma of his colonial antecedents in the landscape, the upwellings of the oceanic heart, upwellings brought about by loss and migration. The 133 different spellings of the word Wadawurrung that are to be found in the historical record. 133 ways of looking at a heartland.
The sound of the ocean contains it all.
He sits on the step underneath the pines, one non-endemic species below another. There is a richness and a loss, laughter and a keening. Very old beginnings of a possible new way of being here.
Note: A version of this essay was presented on Saturday 13 April 2019 at the ‘reciproco/RECIPROCAL’ symposium at Co.As.It.
Gregory Day is a novelist, poet and composer from the Eastern Otways region of south-west Victoria. His latest novel, A Sand Archive, was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award while his essay ‘Summer on the Painkalac’ was also shortlisted for the 2019 Nature Conservancy Nature Writing Prize.