Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Barbara Temperton’s Southern Edge by John Kinsella

Barbara Temperton is interested in where folklore and folktales intersect with fact and reportage. She has taken tales that come out of specific locations — especially around Albany and the surrounding coastline — and merged the figurative and the narrative. She tells tales in verse, but that is not all she does — she shifts the stories, language, and locations of these tales to make them much more than the sum of their parts. In Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook, F, D. L. Ashliman looks at why ‘we tell stories’ under the following headings: ‘fantasy wish fulfilment’, ‘expression of fears and taboos’, ‘explanation’, and ‘education’. One might add more than this to the list, certainly in the case of Barbara Temperton’s reinvigoration of the form, but in essence these aspects are all present in the three stories told in Southern Edge

Before progressing, it should be noted that ‘Southern Edge’ refers literally to the coastline that looks down on Antarctica, though we read that land and sea, indeed body and sea (and nature in general) are interconnected and fluid. Each of the characters in the three narratives that make up the book flow in and out of the seascape and landscape to varying degrees. The narrative voices also flow in and out of the stories. In the second story, ‘The Gap’, which refers to probably the best-known coastal feature in the south-west, the male narrator charts his relationship of addiction in terms of love, obsession, admiration, and drug addiction with Julz, a junkie who is also, in essence, a free spirit. It’s a perverse freedom, though, as her talismanic and shamanistic exchange with the natural world comes at a great cost — to her, and to the young male narrator. Woven through the story are reportages of loss extracted from local newspapers, signs, and other sources, that set the tale against a background of fact. In a dreamlike montage of events and moods, the stories of Everyperson are reflected through the love story of Julz and the narrator. 

This technique is also at work in the other two narratives, each of which relies on the other in their telling. Julz, whose living and isolation spread across the folkloric space, is a form of natural bridge in one sense, but also the froth and foam of the never-ending crush of the water within the Gap. I don’t say this lightly — in Temperton’s book the oneness of the elements and characters is absolute. And those who are outside this merging are ciphers. Julz is archetypal female renegade free spirit who even affirms the feminine in the male farmer-fisherboy narrator figure. This figure is an unreliable narrator, as we shift outside and around his viewpoint at times, in an eclogic way. 

Moving back from the centre to the beginning, ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’, we also find a shamanistic figure in the lighthouse keeper, mostly absent from the narrative but omnipresent in the mood of the piece. Reversing the vulnerability of such positions, this is the God-like figure who controls the elements, including his wife. She, in her loneliness of kerosene tins and domestic duties in isolation, reaches out for others. Her need for love is ultimately defined by the sea, though, and indeed, by extension, her husband. Her escapes are illusory. 

In fact, each of the tales is tragic in this way — the characters are not able to find the liberation they seek, trapped by their own emotions and by the natural world of which they are part. The lighthouse keeper is the magician who controls the sea but not his wife on one level, but ultimately neither escapes from the ‘roles’ that the sea has forced on them. Even one of the wife’s lovers, Knute, who loves and leaves her, will come back to her in the context of an elemental death: he will remember her as his life flashes past him in the pocket of air in an overturned boat far away. What the lighthouse keeper’s wife searches for is unfindable but paradoxically archetypically present. 

The final tale in the book takes us to the Kimberley, but ultimately back to the southern edge as we follow the ‘traveller’ in his escape from himself and the forces of ‘nature’ embodied in the bird woman. A psycho-sexual drama of denial, it confronts us with the uncertainty of responsibility for a crime which the traveller might or might not have committed. The tale is montaged through a variety of prosodies and narrative techniques. We are intimately inside the seeing and experiencing of the (male) traveller, his observations of the bird woman, his sexual confusion and frustration and inevitable ‘consummation’, shifting to witness statement, through to fragments of narrative and imagery driven by journeying south — from the scene of the crime — that implicate elements of the earlier stories, ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife’ and ‘The Gap’. The merging of fluids — sexual fluids, blood, the ocean (the body of the bird woman literally melts into the ocean only held together by a cloak — she is like a bird killed by an environmental disaster — she has been polluted) — blurs the boundaries between cause and effect, between land and sea, between crime and folklore. 

We are able to accept even the most horrendous crime as symbol and tale when it recedes into the past and is told and retold through symbol, allusion, and archetypes. That’s how community absorbs the distressing and the disturbing. These tales are about women, about the isolation, the vulnerabilities and strengths, the archetypal feminine, and the mythologies of the female body and its oneness with the earth, water, and air. Temperton is not interested only in critiquing or verifying such mythologies, but in investigating how and why stories like this are told. The work is very sensitive and highly attuned. Its presentations of gender are complex in that male and female are defined so clearly, are counterpointed, and yet they blur in terms of time and the elements. 

Barbara Temperton has managed that rare thing, finding a methodology to present stories in verse that are also mosaics of impression and intimate observation of specific places. She has a pinpointing eye for local detail, and can actually make her characters seem real although mythological. She manages to finely balance sexual menace and sexual joy — the undercurrent of sexual threat as cautionary tale is at the basis of so many folk stories. Our sense of time is altered and the stories themselves become timeless. And yet the details are so specific to time and place. That’s a skill. It might be Bald Head near Albany, or ‘an old Morris mounted on blocks’ or a detail as clinically specific (for the witness statement) as the ‘Northern/Southern Hemispheres Bird Migration Study’). Great care has been paid to lineation — the lines vary from pared-back imagistic glimpses to longer prose-poem-like flowings in which the story is told at a steady pace. 

To conclude, I’d like to say the overwhelming feeling this book left me with was that loss is a trauma we tell stories to overcome. The bird woman was about to leave the traveller as she’d finished her project, and the reader is shocked by what ensues. Either way, the traveller’s loss is given focus, not as excuse but as a vehicle for the way stories might be told. In ‘The Gap’, the narrator is left stranded between his ideal of Julz and the brute reality of the situation, and the lighthouse keeper’s wife tragically never escapes her isolation but her longings remain so intense that she wishes to destroy her singing, her voice, to, in essence, stop ‘telling’ the tale: 

Kerosene smudges everything 
with its hazy-blue skin, 
is the lighthouse’s other tenant, 
always present, never seen, 
a bitter layer on the lips 
after she kissed her husband’s hand. 

Remembering the children’s dog 
barking until its voice was gone, 
she wonders how long she could scream 
before she would not make another sound. 

The irony is that each of these tales needs to be told — needs to account for all the tales of pain that could not be told by those who experienced them. This is how story and poetry can become universal.

(Posted by permission of John Kinsella, presented at the Geraldton launch of Southern Edge, 13 February 2009, Geraldton-Greenough Regional Library)

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