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Not a week I’m in a hurry to repeat, coloured by upsetting news from far away, ferocious colds and slushy snow. We’ve all had colds but Antonia and I have been the worst hit. Managed to take the kids out to the cafe yesterday which was the highlight of Felix’s day. He drew two Thomas the tank engines, complete with smiley faces and yellow number 1s, and a more abstract looking drawing which he said represented a ladder falling apart. I didn’t get time to aim for better photos as they both wanted to commandeer the camera. Felix took the one below of me drawing a ‘wow wow’ for Antonia. Looking at the photos on the camera, Antonia pointed out ‘Tonya’ and ‘Bebix’ for the first time. I was so proud.

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Drawing

Felix drew a picture of Mog tonight. Mog, from the book. We had been reading Mog the Forgetful Cat. I read it all the way through, and then Felix wanted it again, but Antonia insisted we read Mog in the Garden instead, which is a more appropriate book for one year olds, though a little boring for four year olds. So I promised I would read Mog the Forgetful Cat again afterwards. But Antonia squeaked and squeaked. So I said I would put Antonia in the bath and Felix could sit on my lap while I watched her and I could read it then. But of course then I had to sing nursery rhymes, so it took quite a while to get through Mog the Forgetful Cat for the second time. As soon as I did, though, Felix scampered off to the table where I’d left the paper and textas for him, and he drew Mog.

Felix’s Mog has ears but no eyes. He went back afterwards and gave her legs. Mog is coloured in, carefully, all in grey. And I do not know the word for this feeling.

Pride, I guess. But that doesn’t seem to capture the quiet wondering awe I feel.

It’s only this year that Felix has started drawing things. In Australia he drew a ‘recycling factory’ – a blob with smaller blobs inside it for windows. But even after that, he really resisted any attempts we made to encourage him to draw things. He got so frustrated that he couldn’t match the picture in his head. ‘I know how you feel’, Michael told him, ‘I was never good at drawing. My Mum did my drawing homework.’ He tells the story with some bitterness.

For a while I encouraged Felix to fill up the whole page with scribbles, as I read somewhere that’s what they recommend at Montessori kindergartens – it makes the scribbles look better and the children are proud of them. He liked this suggestion and assiduously followed my advice.

And now he has started to draw. A few weeks ago he drew a fire engine in a few seconds flat – a large rectangle with wheels, coloured in red. And a while before that, he drew me a house, complete with bookshelves and chairs. I have it in my office. And now he has drawn Mog. A big, bold, lovely grey Mog. And I see his careful concentration and his idea and his shape on the page and all his little decisions and how brave you need to be to draw a Mog when you have never drawn a Mog before. And I do not know the word for this feeling.

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‘The colour of the sea should have astounded, but the boy was seldom astounded. . . Nevertheless, the colours had entered into him, printing a brilliant memory.’

Randolph Stow, The Merry-go-round in the Sea

Exploring: above and below.

Felix, despite being a bit nervous about heights, decided he needed to make it to the top of the complicated climbing structure in the playground. He did.

Antonia spends her days scooting along backwards. Here she was exploring my Dad’s workroom.

(edited: I changed my mind about which portraits to include this week!)

Linking with Jodi for a portrait of my children once a week in 2015.

Painting with Poppa

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My Dad keeps trying to get Felix to call him ‘Gren’, but Felix named him ‘Poppa’ in September and for the moment it is sticking. One of Felix’s favourite phrases at the moment is ‘Poppa mo-ker-bike . . . helmet on!

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He also enjoys scurrying into Dad’s studio at any opportunity. He agreed to wear the apron because, as he proudly told me when I poked my head in the door, it is ‘Poppa’s’.

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Documenta 13

As I mentioned a few posts back, we recently visited the documenta in Kassel. There were a lot of groovy people everywhere. And there was me, looking like I’d stumbled down from an Austrian mountain without brushing my hair. Which was pretty much true. Felix lasted about half an hour before I came to the conclusion that he does not appreciate modern art. Michael and I alternated after that, which worked much better. (Having a whole afternoon and evening to myself to wander around art exhibits was blissful.)

One of the nicest things about the exhibition was the way the exhibits interacted with the spaces in which they were housed. In the Orangerie, which normally functions as a science museum, there was an exhibition about the man who built the first computer, Konrad Zuse, which included a replica of one of his models, but also several of his futuristic paintings. It was interesting seeing the paintings as a visualisation of his thought process.

In the Fridericianum, the largest exhibition venue, there was an amazing video by Mariam Ghani shown on parallel screens, one shot in the Fridericianum, and one in a ruined palace in Kabul. The buildings are very similar, and the Fridericianum itself has been destroyed by fire. In one video, a woman dressed in black ghosted through the corridors, in the other, a woman in white. There was a beautiful narrative telling you the histories of the two buildings. The Fridericianum was built as a museum but also served as a library and a parlament, and burnt down during the second world war. The videos gave you the eery sense of being in the past and the future at once, and meditated upon the intricate histories of buildings – of change and loss and reconstruction. How in rebuilding, something is lost, and in not rebuilding, something is also lost. How public spaces hold collective memories.

I also really loved a room full of stone books. Some of them were replicas of books that had been destroyed in the fire in the Fridericianum.

In one of the galleries there was a stunning piece constructed of cutouts from Life Magazine on little sticks.

There was technology,

psychoanalysis,

and some very sexy plants.

Michael visited many of the smaller exhibition spaces around the city and said it was strange to see the town of his childhood so transformed.

As people were transformed, too, wandering through it.

Little artist

I’ve been sitting on these photos for nearly a month now, but Felix was doing some lying on his tummy on the floor, drawing, again today, so I thought it was a good time to post them.

Felix and I survived the first week back but we are so happy it’s the weekend now. August in Norway and the autumn is just around the corner – there is a chill in the air most evenings. It’s rekindled my enthusiasm in knitting, which is severely cutting into my blog time. I’ve discovered two-colour knitting and I’m hooked. I’ll see if I can convince the photographer to take a picture of my work in progress tomorrow, although I can’t promise anything because I think he finds few things as boring as knitting. Anyway, awwww. Isn’t my little guy sweet.

Knights (and other dreams)

We recently went to the documenta 13 in Kassel. This is a huge art exhibition that takes place every five years, pretty much taking over the town. We had a great time when we went five years ago. This time, we loved it, and I’ll write more about it soon, but I first want to share with you one of my favourite exhibits.

Nedlo Solakov’s installation ‘Knights (and other dreams)’ is housed appropriately in the Brothers Grimm Museum. It opens with a a videotaped interview with a Bulgarian actor/director, Oleg Kovachev, who is most famous for a role he played as a child in a movie called ‘Knight Without Armor’.

In the interview, he candidly talks about how frustrating he finds it to always be known as the boy from ‘Knight Without Armor’, especially as he tried to make it as an adult actor but failed, although he went on to become a prize-winning director. Solakov uses this as a jumping off point for thinking about his own unrealised dreams – he had always wanted to play the drums in a hard rock band, and he had coveted a remote controlled helicopter as a child. He also invented a dream – to own a real suit of knight’s armour. The rest of the exhibit consists of interviews with people interested in knights, including medievalist societies and the Maltese Knight’s Hospitaller, and documentation of Solakov’s decision to realise some of his own unrealised dreams, both real and imagined. This culminates in a quite spectacular performance of a knight playing the drums, and a not-so spectacular episode in which a knight attempts to stop a remote controlled helicopter from skidding around the ground. Some dreams turn out to be wonderful; some don’t.

It made me think about my own dreams, both realised and unrealised. Many of my dreams have come true: to fly in the sky like a bird, to study medieval literature, to get a phd, to live in a little house with sunlight on the floorboards, to live in Europe. Some I have revised – after experiencing Norwegian winters my old desire to visit Antarctica no longer seems quite so appealing. And some just haven’t worked out – as a teenager and young adult I wanted nothing more than to be a great Australian author, which now seems unlikely. And it made me think about my Dad, who has quite a few dreams (both realised and unrealised) that really shape his personality. The exhibition was whimsical and quite funny in places and I love that it left me with the sense that unrealised dreams can be precious things.

Rainy day

Perfect for exam marking. But of course I am procrastinating. When there are exams to be marked, what better time to write a blog post! The rain is quite lovely in fact. Mermos is purring in my lap, Whitby is curled at my feet (I have a lambskin rug under my desk). They are such funny, friendly kitties. They always follow you around (even to the toilet, one thing I could do without!). A load of washing is on, I’ve sorted out the kitchen, and hung some pictures on my office wall.

On my left is a lovely print of an early drawing of a wombat family, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur in 1804. I bought it when there was an exhibition in Adelaide many years ago of early French drawings of Australian plants and animals. It was the most amazing thing! Because Australian creatures were still relatively odd to European eyes, the representations looked slightly odd because they hadn’t worked out how draw them yet. Anyway the print sat under my bed in Adelaide for about seven years, but I took it back with me in January and found a frame for it. There is a mother wombat with about four little baby wombats toddling out of her pouch (do they have that many babies?), and a father wombat looking on bemusedly.

On my right are two prints of pages from the Book of Kells. I bought them on a trip to Ireland with the University of York hiking club in early 2004. Michael had organized the trip, so he was there, but we weren’t together yet. (We did, however, always sit next each other and talk for hours…) I remember offering him one of the posters on the train home in a kind of clumsy courting gesture. He said no thank you, he wasn’t into putting pictures on walls, he wanted to wait until he had his own place and could do it properly. (I bet he’s forgotten the entire conversation!) Anyway, here they are, and here we are. One of them is extra special to me now, because it is the Q from the Quoniam page, which Les Murray has written a poem about, and which I devoted about two and a half pages of my thesis to… (I can tell you more about that if you’re interested…)

Michael has been in the south of France all week which I am insanely jealous about. He gets back tonight only to leave again for Texas on Wednesday… Anyway, I’m very glad not to be at work today. Fridays are now my own! But the exams are calling. Wish me luck!

Whales and worlds

Today the light was soft. Sunlight hazed through billowy clouds, gilding the edges of the harvested fields, getting caught in the golden trees that have already started losing their hair. English weather really. Most mornings, frost glitters on everything, and once the mist clears, the sky is blue as ice.

Quite a lot has happened in the past two weeks. I had my last day of my summer job of proofreading and newsletter writing. Finishing up was actually a bit sad. We made a seriously brilliant newsletter though.

I held a two week old baby. She was beautiful.

I got back from the UK yesterday, a five day trip that started with an essay exam in Leeds, continued through a packed two days of catching up with friends in Leeds and York, and culminated in a lovely weekend involving curry and beer in London with my brother and two cousins and their wives. Family is just the best.

I also squeezed in an exhibition on T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber in the British Library (did you know, there was only ever one Faber but they thought that two Fabers sounded more distinguished). Seeing type-written letters between Eliot and Pound and Stephen Spender and a whole host of other poets was just cool.

And on Tuesday morning I went to the Turner Prize exhibition with my brother. Probably not quite worth the eight quid but fascinating all the same. My favourite was a partial whale skeleton that you could only view through slits in the wall so that you were taken aback by shocking details and strange angles. It was called ‘Leviathan Edge’. The artist had also reproduced Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures in coal dust. My brother preferred a different installation involving an atomized aeroplane scattered on the floor like a desert landscape, and wall sculptures made of a mix of plastic and powdered brain. Actually both installations seemed to be about trapped flight, and movement, and time…

Speaking of flight, that’s what Michael’s been doing – brushing the sunset with his wings. He’s in the States for a conference (and other things), but I couldn’t join this time because of commitments.

I got home last night to a fat package covered in stamps with whales on them. It was a copy of the brand new Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature, which my Grandma very very kindly posted to me. Another world, more than a thousand pages long. I can’t wait to get stuck into it.

I’m happy to be back – happy to be at the kindergarten, and to have two days a week free now for writing. Let’s see where it takes me.

Speaking of stone

I have been thinking about stone. Partly because of some lovely posts by Jeffrey Cohen which include extracts from an article he is writing, and partly because, in the past few weeks, I have seen many strange and beautiful stones. I don’t have a theory to share. But I have three images. Jeffrey, they are for you.

There is this stone, the stone of the Norwegian mountains. Michael once commented that in Norway you can see directly into the mountains themselves, into their core, whereas in Austria they’re still decked out in topsoil. The mountains in Norway feel old. Their bare, curved forms are clad only in lichen. Their stone walls drop abruptly, nakedly, down into the fjords. You think of the inching of glaciers. You think of those who farmed the valleys hundreds of years ago and trekked over the mountains and the ice to trade.

And there is this stone. The stone bodies of the Vigeland park. My brother said how strange it is, the bronze sculptures and the stone sculptures are all in exactly the same style, although it would have taken him decades to complete them. How strange to build such an edifice, so many similar statues. And I said – but it makes you think about your body, your physical existence, in a way that few things do.

I have been thinking about life. Its softness, its weakness, its slipperiness, its vitality. Because of my friend who died, and because of the babbies I play with most days. And, yes, stone seems something other than that. To see movement, and flesh, and babies, and old people smoothed from the stone itself… I don’t know. The sculptor himself is dead now. The sculptures speak of the human life-cycle, from birth to death. But each sculpture does not age, save slowly, minutely, by the rain and the sun and ice and the wind. The sculptures outlive the bodies they depict. But the sculptures will not last forever.

Stone speaks to us and we make stone speak.

And there is this stone, the stone ship. The strangest of them all.

The mountains are shaped by time and by ice.  We blast tunnels and build roads to make them accessible, but they are bigger and harder and older than us. They do not make concessions.

The Vigeland statues have been chiseled painstakingly until they resemble us. People. Bodies. The curve of an arm and the curve of a cheek; the softness or the fierceness of a gaze. They are stuffed and molded with life. But they are stone.

The stones of the stone ship are somewhere in between. More human than the mountains, more natural than the statues. The standing stones are solid things. They mark a burial site. They mark the space between. The space between earth and sky, between life and death, between earth and ocean. The stones form a skeleton ship, sailing the heavy earth.

So much to tell you

I have been scrambling along for the past couple of weeks and haven’t really had the headspace for blogging. Had a brilliant weekend though. My brother and I went to Oslo today. I’ll tell you more soon but must go to bed now. My new job starts tomorrow. The Vigeland Park helped get me in the mood…

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Lakes

I cycled to the lake this evening and the water was very still. The pine trees, gilded by the late sun, mirrored themselves perfectly. Then a fish jumped and flopped and splashed and the ripples circled out, a perfect bulls eye, eventually hitting the bank and folding in on themselves. It reminded me of this poem, by a 19th/early 20th century Australian poet who lived and wrote poems near the country town where I grew up. He was a farm labourer and largely uneducated. This poem is a bit awkward in places but I like it anyway.

The Crane is my neighbour

John Shaw Neilson

The bird is my neighbour, a whimsical fellow and dim;
There is in the lake a nobility falling on him.

The bird is a noble, he turns to the sky for a theme,
And the ripples are thoughts coming out to the edge of a dream.

The bird is both ancient and excellent, sober and wise,
But he never could spend all the love that is sent for his eyes.

He bleats no instruction, he is not an arrogant drummer;
His gown is simplicity – blue as the smoke of the summer.

How patient he is as he puts out his wings for the blue!
His eyes are as old as the twilight, and calm as the dew.

The bird is my neighbour, he leaves not a claim for a sigh,
He moves as the guest of the sunlight – he roams in the sky.

The bird is a noble, he turns to the sky for a theme,
And the ripples are thoughts coming out to the edge of a dream.

Claire Souter made a painting inspired by it.

I also thought of this poem, which I wrote about ten years ago and remember word for word. (Not surprising really as it is a silly little thing.) I wrote it about a lake not far from Penola, with which Neilson had some connection, and I was thinking about him and his lake and his ripples at the time.

I am the lake’s reflection
said the curved moon
leaping like a silver fish
in blue, late afternoon.

For me, there is still something magical and improbable about lakes. Perhaps as I come from such a dry country, where things marked as lakes on maps are often just sand flats or salt flats waiting for rain. ‘Lake’. There is something marvelous about it – the image, the word. The thought of all that still water beneath the stones and the trees.

Boats and clouds and rainbows

Last week we went sailing. Over water that lapped and trembled, all the colours of the sky.

Past clouds stacked like tower-blocks, through a sunset that lasted an hour.

I got to steer. I loved it.

Michael looked rather dashing in his lifejacket.

I looked like a cloud myself.

We had cakes and coffee in the hull. It was great. Reminded me of one of my favourite picture books, where a girl and her little brother go sailing. They even grow plants on the boat. It’s a brilliant story. So adventurous and so cozy. Can’t remember what it’s called. The little boat we were on had everything – a kitchen, a shower, several beds. Sometimes, they sail to Scotland.

We sailed to a town where Munch used to live, Asgardstrand. I guess that means something like beach of the gods. Or, more precicely, beach of the city of the gods. We saw his house. We stood on the pier where he once stood. I thought of his clouds and curves and small dark islands.

There was a rainbow. The first I’ve seen in years.

And the clouds burned all the way home.

Many wonderful things

I am in Austria. Very close to Switzerland. If you climb a mountain – or, with much less effort, take a chairlift – you can see into a lake that touches Austria, Germany, Switzerland. I am surrounded by improbable lushness: meadows peppered with dandelions, mountains swathed in patterned cloaks of dark and bright green, the pine trees interspersed with deciduous trees in the first flush of spring. White blossom still flowers in the valleys, but everything is in leaf. Here, May is the most beautiful of all months. Winter is gone and summer is yet to settle, but the air is warm and the green burgeons with promises.

It is strange to think that on Tuesday I was in Adelaide, on Thursday and Friday I was in London, and now I am here. A week of contrasts if ever there was one. It was very sad to leave. It was just so nice to hang out with my family and catch up with my old friends. My brother and my grandparents drove me to the airport, and after a coffee and a very chocolaty raspberry muffin and at least three hugs from each of them, I felt bereft as they walked away. On the plane, I thought – why am I leaving? What am I going back to?

Autumn in the Adelaide Hills.

But as soon as I arrived I knew. Apart from being with M again, which is just brilliant, there is so much to see here! So much to explore and think and dream. I really enjoyed the two days in London. I usually just transit through London, but this time M had organized a two day workshop and they were all staying in the rather lovely Goodenough College, so I got to piggyback. I just loved wandering around all the green squares between the London University buildings, pretending to be Virginia Woolf. I’ve been to that section of London before but never spent much time there. Spring is in full swing and the huge trees are raining down little umbrella-shaped pollen things.

I spent an afternoon in the British Museum. It is all wonderful but I was especially amazed at collections of medieval and Roman rings – how strange to think of the hands that have worn them! And then on Friday evening we wandered around the Tate, which is possibly my favourite art gallery in the world. It’s all been re-hung since I was last there, and there are themed collections: ‘poetry and dream’, ‘energy and process’. I loved the way the words wove between the pictures, and the layout of the rooms made the paintings and sculptures talk to one another.

I started writing this in Austria but actually now I am in Switzerland. M is working here today and we are going back to Norway tonight. I haven’t been there in nearly two months! His parents joined us in Austria and we had a very relaxing couple of days. They made friends with the neighbours. Monica did a brilliant job of combating her fear of heights – she came with us as we drove over a high pass in the mountains (see above), and even went on two chairlifts!

Michael and I each had one beautiful paraglider flight – I was up for more than an hour and could have stayed up much longer if I wished. How strange to be able to work the air currents and drift above the mountain ridges and the trees.

We had a minor disaster yesterday when M tried to launch in a tail wind and didn’t take off in time and flew straight into a clump of trees. Luckily he wasn’t hurt but we spent nearly three hours extracting the glider from the trees! They were about four metres high, so not strong enough to climb but too tall to reach the top of. They were perched on a steep slope in a patch of snow, so there was a lot of sliding around. We even had to chop a couple of them down with a borrowed axe! Anyway, no harm done, and we are rethinking our safety policies…

But all in all, everything is beautiful. My viva is two weeks from today – I wonder if my examiners are reading my thesis yet.

Adelaide

I always find blogging more difficult from here. I guess it’s because many of the people who read the blog are just around the corner. But it’s been good. I’ve been hanging out with my grandparents, and my brother, and my old friends. And it’s good good good. There’s something about old friends which is just great. I also met my one year old second cousin who is cute.

Up until yesterday the days have been shiny and warm and bright. Yesterday it started to rain. After an initial grumpiness (yes I know Adelaide needs rain but not during my holiday) I let myself enjoy it. The white twisty trunk of the gum tree near my parents’ deck is now grey and slippery like wet silk. The air smells clean. The birds croak and chatter and fly about between the newly washed leaves. And the rain, when it comes, is sudden and fresh and noisy on the tin roof, and not like European rain at all.

Another funny thing happened last night. I was drinking a beer with my brother in the verander of a pub, and a very friendly lawyer kept popping out for a smoke. He chatted to my brother, and when he discovered that my brother is an artist, he gave him his card so he can invite him to his next exhibition. Then he asked me what I did, and when I said I had just finished a PhD in literature, he said his sister Kate is into literature too, she’s a poet. ‘Kate who?’ I asked, but I already knew. Kate Deller Evans and I had our first collections of poetry published together in New Poets Seven back in 2002. He said he was seeing her later, and he’d say hello. Living on the other side of the world, I have become unused to all this synchronicity!

Berlin

I first went to Berlin ten years ago, on a whirlwind backpacker bus tour with my mum. It was love at first sight. It snowed and snowed. The city was covered in cranes and big fat blue and pink pipes. We did an incredible walking tour and went to checkpoint charlie one evening. I bravely caught a bus out to the Die Brucke museum only to discover it was closed. We saw the Reichstag. The new dome hadn’t been finished yet, so, like everything else in the city, it was still in the throws of reconstruction. My high school history classes came flooding back to me (admittedly they were only a year old). I couldn’t believe it was the same building that burnt down when Hitler came into power. There was something strange and beautiful about Berlin, it seemed the centre of history: old and new, broken and healing.

So when, two years later, I got the chance to spend a month there, I didn’t take much convincing (I took a bit of convincing, because I was very shy). I went with a group of students about to embark on honours in European Studies, and our charismatic head of department. The idea was to learn German. They’d all done some before, but for me it was torture: I’d never even heard of cases and declensions, and my impatient beginner’s teacher would only condescend to explain them to me in German. I also have a stammer, which makes speaking new languages difficult. I didn’t get far. And I was intensely homesick. At the age of twenty, I was quite convinced I knew the meaning of the universe, and was scared of anything, or anyone that questioned this, which the people I was with, and the city itself, certainly did. Nevertheless, Berlin continued to work its magic. We had a guided tour of Daniel Liebeskind’s incredible building for the Jewish Museum, before it had any exhibits in it. It was like being inside a sculpture of silence and horror and hope. We had a tour of a Russian prison by two men who’d been wrongly imprisoned there for years. And I discovered the Pergamon museum, with its reconstructed Babylonian gate, which still affects me in a way I can’t quite explain.

There are monuments in Berlin which speak of wordless sadness and terror. And there are new buildings, shining, all of glass, like secular cathedrals. And there are spindly trees like black feathers – to me it is a winter city. And – cocktail bars, and bakeries on every corner, and a large, calm river, and a spirit about the place that just delights me.

Henry the eighth I am I am

Well, apart from the somewhat more than frustrating fact that my favourite person is too far away for my liking, things are going quite well around here. The thesis is progressing in its own inimitable way. Which means: sometimes fluently, sometimes excruciatingly. But it grows. Revising my latest chapter sometimes feels like putting gilded roofs onto a beautiful castle, and sometimes like attempting complicated surgery. The body of the chapter lies sprawled before me, broken and bloody, as I try to remember what I’m supposed to be doing to it.

When it all gets a bit too much, I do a bit of this:

I’ve been working on this for years, on and off, and I’ve still got a long way to go. I’ve nearly finished Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, but there’s another four wives, as well as the border adorned with Tudor roses, and all the back-stitch and French knots and beads (yes!) to go on at the end. But there is something immensely calming about working on such a long term project. Especially as it involves no major decisions or structural problems. I follow the chart to the letter, and it comes together! I’ve worked on this cross-stitch in York, Leeds, Norway, Austria and Germany. The threads bind my life together.

This kind of thing reminds me of both my grandmas. My mum’s mum knits and makes bobbin lace. She also used to make lots of clothes for us, and several wedding dresses! (We’ve been informed homemade wedding dresses are no longer on the menu – fair enough too.) My dad’s mum has painted and dressed hundreds of china dolls, made many lovely teddy bears, embroidered huge tapestries, and now makes the most amazing quilts. As a young girl, I loved nothing better than sitting with one or other of them, tapestries or bobbin cushions on our laps, watching tennis on tv into the wee hours.

At about the age of fifteen, I decided craft was a waste of time, as I was an artist. Now I suspect the distinction between art and craft is not quite so clear. Even what I would regard as art involves a fair bit of craft – skill, and attention, and time. And, counted cross-stitches aside, much of what is called craft is actually art anyway. It’s nice to have it to turn to. I like the richness of the threads, the motion of the needle piercing cloth.

Birds and Tigers

When I arrived back in Leeds just over a week ago, it was like Christmas. I had been away for seven weeks, and my desk was overflowing with envelopes and packages. A one hundred and thirty pound refund from Yorkshire water. Photos of the Lake District and a Kookaburra card from my grandparents. Hagues chocolate teddybears in a tin from my unbelievably kind cousin in Adelaide, who thought I might need some cheering up. And, most wondrous of all, this.

Claire Souter had been touched by my previous post about her, and was interested that out of hundreds of paintings I’d included Birds and Tigers, which she said had never been framed nor exhibited, nor hardly seen. Waiting for me, she said. She sent it to me.

So now the beautiful bird perches in my room. I can’t quite believe how lovely it is. The bird’s soft grey feathers, its quiet, intense glance, the way it concentrates, the golden light, the golden ring, hovering. It is like a myth and a fairytale. A muse. Just looking at it calms me, and helps me think and write. I love the lace beneath it, too. I used to make lace. These days, when I’m feeling crafty, I stitch away at a giant cross-stitch of Henry VIII and his wives (two wives down, four to go). Claire’s delicate painting of the lace makes me think of women, and patience, and skill and love – and all the hours which must have gone into such creations. It is a metaphor for my own work as well – a thesis is built and held together by tiny stitches. And the tigers looks pretty happy, bounding in from unknown fields, as flowers bloom above them. It is a wondrous painting, a meeting of worlds. I can’t help but think it captures the fleeting, private, luminous act of creation itself. It reminds me of a poem I wrote, once. In the poem I mention a nest. Claire has painted one. Thank you. Thank you.

Paraclete

You would like a poem about a bird,
about that bird
which is a deeper grey than pigeons,
is delicate,
and is visiting our feet.
We do not know what kind it is
but there is something lovely
about grey wings which sheathe
realms of air beneath their quiet feathers,
about the pointed bright eyed head
which bows and bobs
and knows something, but will not say.

Apart from that
it is a bird, and birds
have soft breasts we long to touch
but cannot own –
brittle underneath and light as air,
warm quickly pulsing
(our groping hands would crush in loving
or die of gentleness)
– and mostly, a presence
which can dip away swiftly
but is near now.

I would like to build a nest with words
(nothing like a cage)
fine enough and firm enough
for the bird to live close to you.

You could carry her around like a good secret
you could take her out at night.

She would diminish the darkness
but you still wouldn’t own her –
the bird would be just as precious
just as rare, pure gift.

Documenta XII

Every five years, since 1947, for one hundred days, the sleepy town of Kassel is overrun with art. The documenta takes over the town, inside and out. A poppy field blooms in a city square.

Snow trees are printed on walls, and three dimensional squiggles hover.

We all look up.

Giant white leaf sculptures weave through buildings, inside and out.

Australians even get a mention.

These watercolour manuscripts were some of my favourites – faded like desert sands, peopled by animals, broken-down cars, and death in a jar.

A dress made of light bulbs.

And people, thousands of them, exploring, wondering, taking photos.

Here I am getting in the spirit of things.

And the lovie and his mother are transfigured by light.

Claire Souter

Fly

Recently I was reminded of the wonderful Australian artist Claire Souter, who used to live in the town where I grew up, Mt Gambier, South Australia. She used to exhibit regularly in the area, and I would run into her work every year at the Penola Festival, where she made a habit of winning the John Shaw Neilson painting prize, and I made a habit of winning the youth sections of the Max Harris Literary Award. She has since moved to Queensland, but she is still painting. Her gallery sounds like a wonderful place – you can read about it, and see many more of her beautiful pictures at her website.

I own the painting pictured above, or one very like it (I have a feeling it has two birds, but it is in Adelaide and I can’t check). It’s from a series called Green 1999, which was based on French lace patterns. I love it because of the layers, the stillness, the movement. It is at once lace and a jewel and a mosaic and a plant and a bird, flying. The green capsules which hover on its surface at once contribute to the sense of flatness and give it extra depth – you feel like you could reach out your hand and pick one up. But how do they stand up like that? There is something enchanted about the painting – it’s like a glimpse into a magical moment captured in skeins of fabric, of glass, of light. I bought it because the bird reminding me of a small dragon I was writing about at the time, who would have been happy there.

My parents own one of her paintings too, but I couldn’t find a picture of it. It’s golden light falling over a table. It’s beautiful. Here is another bird.

Bird and Tigers

And here is the sea:

Newcastle Beach

Souter has also painted several series based on medieval stained glass windows. I love them – the colours, the light, and again, the layers. She works with glazes a lot (very thin layers of paint applied over areas of the canvas) which I think helps her to achieve these effects.

Balance

Glory Vine

Silver Birch

You’re just going to have to go to her website, these few paintings are just a taster. Recently she has been painting the thick rain-forest foliage of her new home. I think there are themes running through these paintings – a fascination with surfaces, with light, with patterns and the natural world. I love the way she layers different surfaces that treat light differently – the autumn leaves and the stained glass windows, the skeins of waves on the beach. And the way she plays with the surface of the paintings – the capsules on the lace, the leaves on the glass, the watermarks on the rain-forest paintings. The word ‘surface’ can sometimes be used disparagingly – as though it is less important than depth. But it is through surfaces that we apprehend the world – our skin is a surface that can touch and feel other surfaces, our eyes apprehend light on the surfaces of objects. Souter paints surfaces with gentleness and delicacy – light rests on them, shines through them, floods around them. Yet again I am reminded of one of my favourite Les Murray poems, ‘Equanimity’:

… a field all foreground, and equally all background,
like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent
like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.

Beautiful Leaves

Leaf 10

Light and Shelter

Paintings and images copyright Claire Souter. Used with permission.

Roses and Stars

Tonight there were wild roses tangled in the long grass on the fortress. Every time I go there something has changed. Flowers have bloomed, or died, the grass is longer, the leaves thicker. Tonight the light was milky – a thin sheen of cloud covered the sun. Below the fortress, the river gleamed and the town waited, grey and quiet. The roses made me think of Klee, who confuses flowers and stars.

Today I have been writing – rewriting. Drawing out the strands of my chapter, testing, pulling. I remember once saying that editing is safe compared to the dangerous brightness of writing something new. But it’s not. Editing is scary too. It’s all about choices – making connections, moving paragraphs, extending this, chopping that. And before I find my structure I must dive into the raging mass of it, see what can be done, work blind, sometimes. Try things.

I remember that I have the best job in the world. Well, it’s not really a job, but I get paid. I get to write about poems I love. And it’s flexible – I can write and read in Norway as well as I can in England. And it’s exciting, because in all this reading and writing and endless rewriting, I am reaching towards something new. And if sometimes there are roses and sometimes stars, and sometimes there’s just darkness, waiting, that’s okay too.

By the way, the stars are metaphorical. And the darkness. In Norway, at the moment, the sky stays as blue as this painting.

Worlds within worlds

This is a photo of the pin-up board above my desk. It’s a collage of places, people and images that mean things to me: Australia, England, Europe; flight, dreams, creatures, stories. Some of them are gifts, some of them I’ve collected on my travels. In the right hand corner is an echidna painted by a French explorer in the early nineteenth century. It’s a birthday card from a friend. Above it is a stained glass window of the Canterbury pilgrims, which I bought in Canterbury Cathedral when I first arrived in England nearly four years ago. In the middle, I’m launching my paraglider – the most amazing feeling. Second from the left at the bottom, is a painting of Kandinsky’s bedroom. I saw this at a Van Gogh exhibition in Melbourne when I was fourteen (it was next to a painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom). I just loved it: the colours, the light, the cheerfulness and practicality of the room, the thought of Kandinsky sitting there, calm and happy, painting it. I bought a postcard, and when I got home I made an enlarged copy of it with coloured pencils. It took hours. I don’t have it any more, but I can remember the feeling of colouring every brush-stroke, every shadow, the weight of the pencils on the paper.

I like the idea of artists painting their bedrooms. Here is my bedroom:

It’s perfect, except when the neighbours play loud music or yell at their toddler. It feels good to put pictures of it here – another little piece of my world. This blog is becoming a bit like my pin-up board – a collage of disparate elements placed alongside each other. It’s not always easy to leave bits of yourself all over the world. But look – they’re all here.