Terrible beauty

August 25, 2008

I was at the Powerhouse on Saturday, at a post-last-Rooball-game-of-the-season drinks thing. A mess of exuberant (they won) under-9s scattering and gathering and scattering like a flock of sugared-up swifts, and a huddle of tired-but-contented parents nursing various styles of alcohol. The Powerhouse is a fantastic building, in all senses – a disused, ahem, powerhouse cleverly redesigned and refitted and Gormenghasted, and now used as an eclectic premier arts venue. On display throughout the building was a collection of Paolo Pellegrin’s photography titled As I Was Dying. Chasing my 3-year old down pristine stairwells and through gothically lit old brick corridors, I managed to look at every single shot on display.

Every picture was traumatised and traumatising: bleak, racked with despair, and also somehow – I want to say hopeful but I know that’s not right. Somehow not entirely hopeless. The visceral effect on the body of the viewer is (or was for me) akin to the effect of some of M John Harrison’s work. I can’t be any more specific than that: it was a glancingly felt affinity in my one meagre body, and may be, will be, different for others.

I stood in front of this one for several minutes with my hand over my mouth.

Then someone came past and asked me if I was feeling ok, and I mumbled and moved on. But the picture kept dragging my gaze back to it as I moved away.

This one just plain scared me. They’re the same age as my eldest son. The guns are real, and have killed people.


And then there was this one:

Up close, it’s like a hole has been cut in the board, but there’s nothing, absolute nothing, beyond. Then you realise that, yes, of course, it’s a woman’s back – the shot was taken in Iraq – and reason reasserts itself. And then you look again and reason, again, wobbles. It’s a close-up back view of a veiled Iraqi woman watching a man’s body being dragged away. And it’s an impossible picture of a hole in the world, a massive gaping absence rent by the man’s killing, and spreading through, reaching from the picture to touch the excuses of reason.

I caught up with my oblivious 3-year old and went back with him to the drinks and the shimmering world. He chatted on marvellously to any grown-up who would listen. I didn’t say anything much to anyone. All those people, affluent, comfortable citizens with their beers and their cocktails and their lattes, all complaining one way or another about something or other in their full, dull lives.

Me too, of course.

On the way out, I asked at the foyer if there was a book of the pictures available. A trendily flat-capped demi-Goth girl looked up from her designer Turkish bread sandwich and said: “No, afraid not. It’s a shame, they’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

Well, that depends, I said. If you mean beautiful like Rilke meant it, beauty as the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear, then yes, and let’s sit here and weep together for the lives of people lost. If you mean beautiful like peach blossom or a Freedom leather sofa, then no, fuck off.

“Yes,” I actually said, out loud. “Yes, they’re beautiful.”


Irreal estate

August 25, 2008

Cycling to work this morning: a hot air balloon drifting over Albion*, three-coloured** against the cloud-powdered morning sky. I love hot air balloons – free and irreal and gloriously above the gritty world. Resolutely lo-tech, inherently nostalgic, and shot through with a faint trace of the impossible.

What else ? The clacker-clacker of the bike’s wheels on the boardwalk planks, a deeper-toned repeat over the loose bricks in front of the swish apartments. The river hard with light, a constant shattering of bright surface. An old couple in matching sweats, joggers of every shape, children on leads and dogs in prams, wall-eyed City-rats lurching to the bus, a glimmering ziggurat of blue-green glass glimpsed beyond the far end of a dull-striped suburban street, and then the other way the stuccoed and gabled spire of Our Lady of Victories up on Bowen Hill lending the impression of a Spanish mission and a Saturday morning movie when I was a kid and another world entirely…


*A Brisbane suburb. There are some fantastic suburb names here.

**Yes, those three colours. Vive la revolution. Except in this case they are also the colours of a prominent local real estate agent. Why do real estate agents advertise themsleves on hot air balloons ? I mean, yes, obviously, I know why. But at the same time it seems deeply, sort of, I don’t know… mistaken.

Turner Shelley Byron Bolan

August 21, 2008

This is wonderful, though all 6 of MacBeth’s fictional history essays are worth reading.

I miss the Tate…

Beyond the zero

August 20, 2008

In 20 years working in acute care hospitals, as a porter in England and as a nurse in England and Australia, I’ve seen upwards of 20 human corpses, and been witness to a dozen or so deaths.

I’ve seen bodies with skin so taut and white against the bed linen they looked almost translucent, and others where the blood has pooled in the folds and divided the body into a yellow-grey upper level of face and chest and belly and knees, and a ravaged purple bruise of a lower level, of shoulders and back and buttocks and heels.

I’ve seen bodies barely recognisable as such: an old man hit by a car on the motorway, one leg half out of its socket and with the foot up by his ear, both arms surreally rearticulated, intestines pressing against thinning viscera through a long horizontal gash in his abdomen; a woman whose leg had been run over and pulverised into fresh red mince by an artic cab.

I’ve seen people who, even after looking at them for several minutes, I had trouble convincing myself weren’t merely sleeping.

People have died while holding my hand.

Most of the people who I’ve watched die suffered some kind of intervention in the process – CPR, adrenaline, the elastic of an oxygen mask tangled in their hair – but only as a sort of necessary or expected constituent of where they were, rather than of what they were actually doing. ‘For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne.

I know that what I’ve seen is nothing compared to soldiers, or police officers, or paramedics. But it’s unique to me. I don’t believe in anything beyond the zero. But I believe in the zero.

Words for wounds

August 19, 2008

Highest-rate adjective use in a nurses’ meeting discussing wound irrigation: horrific, horrible, ugly, disgusting, hopeless, ghastly, horrifying, grisly, necrotic, foul.

‘To rationalize horror is to tolerate it,’ says John Clute – something the nurses at the meeting were emphatically not doing. Clute has also theorised the first of the four main parts of Horror’s ‘narrative grammar’ as ‘Sighting: Some small sour lesion in the world is suddenly visible, even in daylight.’

Not unlike a surgical wound. Or, at least, not unlike certain surgical wounds as perceived by one particular group of hospital nurses.

I love a good ritual

August 18, 2008

A house officer attempts to persuade a diabetic 83 year old man with a gangrenous toe to sign an informed consent for surgery to remove the offending digit. This old man has spent the last two days talking animatedly to his drip-stand about the weather, Brisbane public transport, and the state of the train carriage they’re both sitting in on their way to work. The house officer makes some initial attempt at an explanation of the surgery and its associated risks (“We need to cut off your toe so that we don’t have to cut your leg off later. You’ll be asleep, so you won’t know anything about it”) and then endeavours to get the man to sign the paper.

“You need to sign it here, Mr Smith… No, here… You need to sign it… Mr Smith ? Mr Smith, can you hear me ?… You need to sign the paper to say you understand what’s going on… Look, here’s a pen… Careful now… No, the paper’s here, Mr Smith – here, that’s right, on the table… No, the table… Can you hold the pen, Mr Smith?… Let’s see if you can hold the pen… That’s it… Can you hold the pen?… You need to hold the pen so you can sign the consent…”

The informed consent. The “I know what reality is, that drip-stand is a drip-stand, I’m in hospital, I have a black toe, I know what you’re planning to do to me and I fully understand all of the associated risks because you have completely explained them to me, and I’m perfectly capable of holding a pen and signing my own name, thank you very much” consent.

The signature was obtained, somehow – either by Mr Smith having a lucky hit with the flailing pen, or by the house officer manoeuvring the relevant space on the paper underneath the quailing nib and then doing a Spectrograph impression – and Mr Smith had his surgery, and lost his toe, and then lost his life a few days later after contracting classic post-surgical old-person-with-only-cinders-of-a-mind-and-no-muscle-tone pneumonia.

I love a good ritual, don’t you ?

I met Georges Perec in the Cafe Bouquiniste yesterday. He was scrunched onto the futon in the art corner, nursing an espresso and a cigarette and a notebook. Black candyfloss hair, Marty Feldmanesque eyes: it was definitely him. I ordered a coffee and sat nearby and started writing myself (these words, these ones right here). My coffee arrived and it happened that we looked at each other.

“What are you writing about ?” I asked.

“Oh, you know,” he shrugged. “Everything, nothing. The ordinary. All the absolutely ordinary stuff.”

It seems that for some writers there is no alternative history. Or that there is nothing else.

A cosmological disagreement overheard in a suburban shopping village:

“I just wish I knew why, what, what’s the Universe [capitalisation implied] trying to tell me ? I must be being punished for something.”

“No you’re not. Not by the universe at least.”

“But it is, it must be, there must be a reason for all this, these things.”

“No there musn’t! There isn’t! The universe is just a big cold implacable space that doesn’t give a flying [restrained pause whilst presumably searching for a PG-or-lower-rated alternative to the obvious next word: this was in a suburban shopping village, not a mall, and there were children present] tuppence about you or me or anyone else on this or any other planet. You’re getting religious about all this!”

Shocked silence.

“But it’s nice to believe in something…”

There are Hemingways everywhere.

Every city I’ve ever lived in I’ve seen at least one. Wide men with wide beards over wide-toothed smiles, and all of them doing something that’s sedentary and active at once: moving, travelling, always mobile, but always the same routes to the same places, and always taking their own familiar versions of their immediate world with and around them. And always service jobs: bus drivers in London, cabbies in Brighton, a tram driver in Adelaide, a train conductor in France – even a sleigh driver in the Tyrol and a passenger-tricycle pedallist in Hiroshima.

Here in Brisbane, the Hemingways ply the great brown river. The jocular wide-witted ones pilot the exciting and adventuresome CityCats along the languid serpentine loops through the shining city. The more morose versions, the ones who have nightly nagging intimations that they missed a step, that they’re wrong in the world, that they were supposed to be doing something else – they run the cross-river ferries, the older, grungier, chugging workhorses of the spiky and unglamorous world.

There’s a back way to the canteen that takes me past the hospital’s delivery entrance. From the open-sided corridor at the back of the dock you can see two blaring rectangles of sunlight across an empty concrete apron: the open corrugated doors and the truck bays, very ordinary except it looks like an old Bond movie set. Off to one side there’s a cage: ceiling to floor wide-gauge mesh, several signs and plaques of the Keep Out! and Danger! variety. And in this cage, and spilling around it when it’s full, the day’s deliveries are stacked, waiting for the trolleys to convey them to their various destinations around the mini-city of the hospital.

Most days there are boxes of syringes and needles and intravenous lines, of yellow plastic aprons and purple gloves; sometimes there are giant cartons of technology, widescreens and towers and printer/fax/photocopier components; every day is linen day, vast plastic bags of sheets and pillow cases and towels so sharp and rough I’m always surprised the bags don’t shred. Four pristinely empty cribs of white steel tubing. And paper, and manila folders, and staff uniforms hanging orderly in disciplined rows, and more paper, reams and reams of paper, and oxygen cylinders, and gas-scavenging interface valves, and skin-staplers, and scalpel-blade sets, and miles of tightly ravelled sutures, and tubes, lots of different tubes – tubes for people’s brains and for their arses, for their throats and noses and stomachs and bladders and veins and arteries and chests and urinary tracts. Boxes and boxes and boxes of them.

And someone in there, in that cage, is stacking all those boxes. I never see the stacker, though I hear him sometimes: scrapes and huffs and unconnected mutterings of cardboard and carbon-based lifeforms. But he’s very creative. The stacks are never the same twice: you’d expect just piles of boxes, straightforward, efficient, boring. But he builds castles in there, labyrinths that spill out of the cage and spread across the dock, pirate ships, colonial villas – though these are all my interpretations, partial at best, of the built environment in and from the cage that changes daily and across each day. Very occasionally, if I’m passing at suppertime or early on a night shift, the stacks have dwindled and I can just make out a moving shape (though it’s darker then, of course). But the deliveries never really stop, and the building blocks reaccumulate, and he – or she or they – continue their quasi-Sisyphean task.

Today there was a double archway of tracheostomy tubing and what looked to be a pulpit made out of emptied keyboard and mouse boxes. No cross though. Not an obvious one, at least.