Feet, Teeth, Dust

He walked all night, feeling no fatigue, trembling sometimes with the thrill of being free. When it began to grow light he left the road and moved across open country. He saw no human being, though more than once he was startled by buck leaping from cover and racing away into the hills. The dry white grass waved in the wind; the sky was blue; his body was overflowing with vigour. Walking in great loops, he skirted first one farmhouse, then another. The landscape was so empty that it was not hard to believe at times that his was the first foot ever to tread a particular inch of earth or disturb a particular pebble. But every mile or two there was a fence to remind him that he was a trespasser as well as a runaway. Ducking through the fences, he could feel a craftsman’s pleasure in wire spanned so taut that it hummed when it was plucked. Nonetheless, he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.

J.M. Coetzee
Life & Times of Michael K

Dead, Shed Moments

Michael now took to science and would engage with any of the teachers in religious, philosophic, and logical discussions; his long years of fanciful reasoning had given him an agility in argument; he found himself in his words, the schoolmen’s world, the world of pure verbalism. In Botany, once, having drawn thirty diagrams of the stages of union of two cells of the gutterweed, Spirogyra, which is thin and long like a green hair, a kind of frenzy took hold of him. He looked through the microscope and saw that not only was the series, taken as a series of poses, like a cinematograph, infinite, but that even wit all his care and preoccupation he could not seize the important moment of change. It was not there, it seemed to him mystic. When he saw a person going downstairs and compared the last appearance of that one’s head with the empty space when he was no longer there, the change seemed to him infinitely great, even impossible, a freak that could not take place in the natural world in which he breathed. In his imagination a thing was, and then disappeared, dark remained, and in between was a space of dreams, of nonentity. He held up his mind, a cracked and yellow mirror to reflect the machinery of the world, and in that dark space the world ceased for a moment to exist.

But at these times especially, he would fall back against his seat or lean on his elbow looking out of the window at the trees, and powerful visions would pass through his head; he laboured automatically to increase and perfect these visions, to make them logical, grandiose. He believed in intellectual miracles. He suffered states which were ecstasy, although they were not joyful but rapt and inhuman. In those moments he gave out cold as a genial person gives out warmth and love. …

“I see no will or obedience in anything,” he said, “only the abrupt, spontaneous will and generation; to a certain point water is water, then it is steam or ice, there is no slow change, as I used to think, it is abrupt, and it is mystery. How blunt our senses are, how many thick veils hang between us and the world. How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants? … I wish to watch the ordinary movement of life and I see only a succession of dead, shed moments without interrelation: like a man walking through a hall of mirrors and seeing a thousand reflections of himself on every side, each one a shell of himself, and insubstantial. Time, tide, order, I cannot understand; I would go mad.”

Christina Stead
Seven Poor Men of Sydney

The Imagination Jumps In

Lieutenant William Dawes is one of [Sydney’s] first, and most likeable, dreamers. … Street grids and measurements were Dawes’s day job, the stars and Eora language his night-work. Almost as soon as he landed, he began to build an observatory near where the southern stanchions of the Harbour Bridge now stand. … Dawes spent as much time as possible camped out, making his observations, to the point that colonist Elizabeth Macarthur described him famously and, one think, fondly as, ‘so much engaged with the stars that to mortal eyes he is not always visible.’ In this rare verbal portrait, Dawes appears as a dreamy, gentle man. … Certainly Dawes’s curiosity, or a quality of kindly stillness, must have allowed him to form a relationship of trust, the exact nature of which remains uncertain, with the teenage Patyegarang. In fact, a large number of Eora companions appear to have shared the bluff with Dawes; he names sixteen in his notebooks.

These ‘language notebooks,’ which are now regarded as among the most precious of our colonial records, remained virtually unknown until they were discovered at the University of London in 1972. The softness of night can be felt everywhere inside them. Like the stars, the Eora words Dawes recorded are fragments now of something grander, as suggestive and ungraspable as the far-off ice-light of other planets. From Patyegarang, Dawes learned the words meaning ‘snot’ and ‘hiccough’ and ‘the point of a spear’; but also more intriguingly intimate constructions such as ‘to warm one’s hand by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person,’ ‘we shall sleep separate,’ and ‘to extinguish a candle.’ Many other words — ‘to embrace, to hug’ and ‘when will you be sick again’ — seem to wear a night-time mantle. It is impossible to guess, beyond the fellowship that radiates from these pages, what dreams the Eora held for the transmission of their words to Dawes as they watched the stars together. …

But Dawes’s notebooks are not dry grammars. Instead, as the academic Ross Gibson has noted, they became something more visionary, soon drifting away from Dawes’s table of nouns and verb declensions to record more complicated transactions. At one point in the notebooks, Patyegarang, or Patye as Dawes sometimes calls her, tells him that the Cammeraigal are fearful ‘because of the guns.’ At another, praising his ability to speak, she tells him he has a ‘good mouth.’ Other vignettes offer tantalising glimpses of lost moments: ‘My friend, he sings about you’; ‘My friend, let us (two) go and bathe’; ‘I am very angry’; ‘Take hold of my hand and help me up.’

Recently it has become possible to pull up Dawes’s notebooks on the internet, and track through the tidy, browning pages in order, an activity which has all the drama of a gripping poem, as the imagination jumps in to fill the gaps. What is the story behind the phrase, ‘Thou pinchedst’? Or ‘You beat her while she was alseep’? One has to imagine, too, how close to the city’s geological heart, to the raw edges of its harbour, Dawes must have felt as he watched the milky spread of stars above him, or watched the morning mist hang above the water. Like so many of the city’s visionaries who would follow, he opened himself up to this landscape, let it pour in; but, unlike so many others, he does not appear to have suffered any derangement, perhaps because he let it call to him in its own language. Scroll to the last page of his third notebook and you will find a kind of poem, each word on a separate line, which perfectly captures the future city’s mix of the grossly material and the stellar: ‘the Penis, hair, Scrotum, Testicles, Moon.’

Delia Falconer