The only song I can sing is Ten Green Bottles on the Wall. I don’t feel cut out to understand high-tech, contemporary music that makes you sometimes jump out of your skin or rattles your teeth as if you had slipped under the wheels of a tram.
I didn’t expect to feel both encompassed and displaced – to such an extent – by Parlour Tricks, David Chisholm’s new work in progress.
I was suddenly ravished, as if the notes took me away to some genius loci I knew but had forgotten from long-ago. Was it the baroque instruments touching the notes with more tired gentleness, more restless passion than modern instruments? The sound slips you into that semi unconscious yet fully aware state that makes you hear more than listen. Elizabeth Campbell’s poetry also takes you down the music, down into Hades’ world of no return – unless it is suddenly Spring – such an exquisite reminder of the stormy fickleness of life’s joys and griefs. And the powerful, gentle Jessica Azsodi, with her sunny smile and desperate vibrato conjugated Spring and Mourning so well.
The story’s resolute lack of narration whispers back its presence – like a stranger in a petrol station, turns around to show the face of a true brother. Parlour Tricks plucks you out of its world to plunge you in your own memory of feeling until the music becomes your life and Persephone’s life writ in a strange baroque language of sound where the mythical past and the present meet as she goes down under.
The soprano Hana Crisp, who sang Sea Song, woke up Ophelia and swam with her to the surface of feminine longing. In every woman a drowned Ophelia has given up, but Sea Song sings her back to consciousness. This music has all stories sown in its hem, in a great swish of sound it brings them forth to our sleeping hearts and awakes us where we were no longer breathing, no longer thinking, no longer feeling.
The Song of Prayer is about yellow dressed women (such a reminder of the yellow star) forced into prostitution, then forced straight into convents – both prisons. It visits their lost pain, treads back into their unseen suffering. It awakens a community of feeling with what has been done to others. Touching the past reels in the present in a new way. These women are not alone, we are gathering the flounces of their woe; we no longer drag them in the dust of our forgetting, but lift them into our experience and hearts. Medieval chimes have us step lightly, as we are drawn, deep within, to understand. Yet the harpsichord, the viola da gamba and baroque violin, joined by a clarinet tripling bass and contrabass clarinets, stitch our present into their mourning, into their yearning as David Chisholm’s music swells with compassion.
My father loved generals. Caesar, Hannibal, Constantine, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julian the Apostate… Their soldiers and their banners filled my bedroom, their elephants and their slaves lurked in the playground at school, their cities and their women dwelled in the endless hours of class. In my father’s stories fruit trees were hacked, villages were burnt, heads were sent spinning off shoulders, people were tortured and women were raped, but somehow something shone through, like a tiny lamp in a dark cave. It stayed long after the story was finished, long after everybody had died. This secret light made those generals triumph even in their defeats. My father’s favourite was Napoleon. He was a gamester, took incredible risks and only needed two or three hours of sleep a night. He could nap anywhere, even straddling a chair with his forehead on his forearms – just like my father. (In every story, some element of my father’s life was hidden). My favourite was Julian the Apostate who hated the Christian establishment (like I hated school) and tried to bring back the ancient gods (like I believed in fairy tales). Julian was always reading and his soldiers sniggered at him the first time they saw him. That was before he started winning all his battles. But, one day he was shot by an arrow. The doctor was called. If there was no blood in his urine, my father explained in a medical voice, it would mean no vital organ was damaged and he would survive. So, surrounded by his soldiers who loved him (and me), Julian the Apostate waited. Eventually he called for a bowl. He urinated and the liquid splashed bright red against the bowl’s golden copper. Julian knew this was the end. There was only time to say goodbye. I begged my father: ‘But couldn’t the doctor try to do something?’ My father was adamant: ‘No, nothing at all. Julian died in his soldier’s arms.’ I couldn’t bear letting Julian the Apostate die. Yet, I always asked for that story and, like a miniature Sheherazade, delayed the arrow with cunning questions for as long as possible. But in the end, I had to give in. Death was knocking at Julian’s door that day. You always have to welcome your unexpected visitors.
Generals strike at the right moment. They have the whole battlefield in their head. They always know when the time has come to make a move. They are sure and sudden. They never hesitate. Whether they chew straws meditatively on distant hills or gallop down them on their horses, they often win the day when everything is lost. They know how to accept the unexpected, how to ride the wind. They are artists.
Creative ideas like the generals of my childhood are unbidden, unexpected visitors. Sometimes they knock on the door when we are hammering a nail on its head or standing on the top of a ladder; when we are on the loo, running for your life or even in your dreams. That’s when we have to stop everything, wake up and take notes. If we don’t let them in, ideas will vanish without leaving a name or an address. Just like dreams themselves.
We have to be as swift and sure as Caesar crossing the Rubicon to hear the whisper of the unknown. Like Julian the Apostate reneging on the overfed Christian bishops, we have to follow the gloomy Mongol shaman on the edge of our world. There, of course, we can die and be exposed to scavengers that will circle around our corpses mercilessly. My father’s generals were very clear about that. Facing defeat and death is the only way to push through.
My father carefully prepared me for his own death. ‘Julian the Apostate’s time had come,’ he insisted, ‘as surely as mine will soon. I am an old father and you will lose me early. You have to prepare yourself.’ I would squeeze his hand to push his future absence away, to keep his presence in that moment as intact as I could. When we walk in parks, he would suddenly lie down on a stone bench, just like a Roman emperor on his death-bed and I would shake him and shake him. But, for long minutes, he would remain, without any sign of life, motionless as a granite statue. Then, out of the blue, came a battle cry: he had suddenly woken up and seized me – the unexpected visitor of my childhood.
If we were necklaces, memory with its attendant flash-backs would be the string holding the sum of ours parts together. Sometimes, during the day, unsolicited images pop up. They appear to have nothing in common with our present concerns, yet they nudge us. I try not to push them away, as if they were revealing the hidden texture beneath the surface.
I was washing a blue wine glass tonight. It is faintly chipped but the dent is small enough not to give you a hare lip. I firmly resisted the inner voice telling me to throw it away. Torn or battered objects don’t usually offend me. I have a sneaking sympathy for them. The image of a cousin rose immediately. She was my mother’s sister daughter and was there every holiday. I did not question her presence. It just was. Then my parents stopped seeing her mother and she disappeared from my life. I forgot her easily, as you forget a nightmare as soon as you smell coffee brewing in the morning.
Then, twenty years later, I met her again in the street. She was profusely welcoming. She invited me on the spot to her apartment near the Etoile in Paris and showed me around as if she were a boat captain and I a new member of her crew. Fortunately, I knew the lift was there, ready to carry me down to the street again. I was no prisoner. This was not the eternity of a childhood holiday, this was life. She moved to her kitchen and her hand fell on a plate. ‘It’s chipped!’ she said in disgust and dropped it in the maw of the metal dustbin. There was not a moment’s hesitation. In the clean, bloodless kitchen the only thing I could think of was a guillotine.
The man who was my partner a few years ago also disliked chipped crockery. His grounds were quite different. ‘Germs,’ he said, ‘they lodge themselves in the nooks and crevices. See?’ He pointed at the offending item. I could see nothing. But I nodded and saved the wounded plates and glasses by packing them in a cardboard box. They felt like ugly Sleeping Beauties, parts of myself I could not attend to right then – parts that had to wait in the shed. Until finally I felt I had nearly entirely moved into the shed.
I cannot imagine two more different people than that man and my cousin. One was capable of many kindnesses, the cousin still haunts my dreams. Unkindness can become a kind of sport, like saving can be to misers. Why do people influence me so much, I asked myself? But the blue glass is washed and safe in my cupboard, alive and well, ready for use. My mother loved crystal glasses. ‘They can sing,’ she used to say. ‘See?’ And flicking a delicate finger at one like a tiny conductor, she would make me listen. Just as my father made me sit on the floor of the Sainte Chapelle to ‘listen’ to the music of the stained glass windows. Even though so many other things have been lost, I brought my mother’s glasses all the way to Australia.
The Russians say that objects have little souls. Yet the other day, one of the metal retainers holding the shelf in the cupboard fell off and when I took a glass the whole shelf tipped over. About twenty of my mother’s glasses broke.
Only two survived, huddling together.Though I took a photograph of all the others, I felt no sadness, just numbness as if time had tied a knot in my necklace. Objects need to be respected and loved, but like us all, their time must come. I needed new Australian vessels, new ways to think about things.
A small incident can transform the road we were travelling on. Our signposts and even the tarmac under our tires disappear. Our goals are no longer clear, our very intentions become unreadable. Without warning our life has become unchartered territory – even
the mainland is out of sight and what was ordinary is now scary. We could be in the middle of the sea. Without a road to walk on – how can you go anywhere? how can you grow? Before you stop drinking wine forever or force your body into impossible yoga positions, sometimes a word of magic is enough.
You are a tree,
my friend Emmanuel said to me. Stay. Wait. Something will happen. Plant your roots.
I suddenly knew without a doubt that he was right. My tree may not be visible, it had as yet no Australian leaves or Australian fruit. It had no name. But it was there nevertheless. Growing as I breathed. I had faith in my tree.
I don’t own a television anymore, but once I saw West Wing and heard one of the characters make a comment I never forgot.
Losing faith, losing hope and carrying on in spite of it reminds me of his reference to Han, the Korean philosophy: ‘A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there’s hope.’ Suddenly life offers tiny flashes of opportunity, dawn touches our mind and everything is new when one least expects it.