As I write, most of Queensland is underwater, hundreds of people have been dispossessed, kangaroos are being ferried to land in tinnies and still the rain slashes onto my corrugated iron roof. Two years ago we had dreadful bushfires in Victoria, and we are just emerging from a decade of drought. Australia truly is, as Dorothea Mackellar wrote in 'My Country', her iconic (if saccharine) poem, 'a sunburnt country … Of droughts and flooding rains', although climate change increasingly has much to answer for on that front.
One cold morning in London a few years ago, I sat in the British Library with a copy of Core of my Heart, my Country, a book I had ordered from the stacks purely because of its title, which hails from Mackellar's poem and which encapsulates my own bond with Australia. The book, by Maggie MacKellar, examines the relationships between women's bodies and the lands to which they emigrated (in this instance Canada and Australia), and how their confrontation with that land altered their sense of self.
However, before I even began reading, I was arrested by the acknowledgements. MacKeller paid tribute to her partner in a way that suggested he was no longer there. Something dreadful had happened, I sensed.
A year after I returned home I found MacKellar had published another book, When it Rains. My intuition was confirmed: the book detailed how she had lost her husband to mental illness and suicide, and then, shortly after, she lost her mother to cancer. By page 20, I was in tears.
Finding herself on the verge of a breakdown, MacKellar took her two kids and left her life in Sydney and the academic position which defined her, to live with her aunt and uncle on their property.
Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, the book is an account of loss in an attempt to make sense of it. Early on, MacKellar refers to Anne Carson's introduction to the plays of Euripides, in which Carson meditates on “why tragedy is so vital an art form. For [Carson], the tragedy becomes a frame that can be put around our grief. Inside the safety of that frame the violent expression of grief and rage can be played out without 'you or your kin having to die'” (p. 29). However, MacKellar found herself not as a character who acted out loss, but an actual person who had to deal with it. Trapped within that frame of tragedy, she used writing as a means of stepping out of it:
For me it is the act of writing that unlocks the frame. I pin my tragedy onto the paper and with the precision of an anatomist take a scalpel to separate memory from bone. Perhaps if I can peel the layers of skin from its torso, it will stop having the power of a dark shape in the night. By writing, I risk sacrificing my deepest intimacies, but by writing, I control the shape they become (p. 29).
Interestingly, this evokes Darian Leader's The New Black, which details how we frame loss in order to let it go. Leader describes how in the dreams of the bereaved ‘a special motif frequently emerges: doorways, arches, stages and the many other features that serve to frame a space’ (p. 100). These dreams indicate how the mental images of those who are lost are becoming framed, and representational: they are entering the symbolic realm. ‘Mourning’, Leader continues, ‘involves a certain making artificial’ (p. 105). Given this, a writer’s grappling with loss naturally involves transmuting it into a literary form.
There are some writers, however, who wish to remain trapped within that frame. As I wrote in a recent article published in Southerly, Rosa Praed, the 19thC spiritualist and prolific novelist, longed to be haunted by her dead companion Nancy, for it signified that Nancy was still present. In a similar way, Edgar Allen Poe longed to be troubled by his dead mother, with whose corpse he had been left alone at age 2, until they were found in the morning. When he became a writer, his work was littered with ‘the blank stare of the dead’ (p. 31), with cadavers, spectres and blood, as the memory of his mother’s corpse in all its permutations infiltrated his writing. Darian Leader argues that ‘Poe’s literary efforts to describe this encounter from every possible angle suggests that the work of mourning could not be completed. Rather than laying his mother to rest, her presence became increasingly real’ (p.31). Perhaps however the emphasis should not be laid on could not be completed, but rather on would not. For if the mourning process ended, so too would the dead (or whatever semblance he had of them) disappear forever from his life.
As I read When it Rains, I could feel the muscles of the book were tight with grief and anger, but gradually they loosened with happiness as MacKellar's children settled and her husband ceased to haunt her at night. MacKellar's descriptions of this haunting made it seem eerie and extreme – it wasn't just that her husband was in her dreams but that her body couldn't lose the physical memory of him; something which anyone who has lost a lover can identify with, but made more visceral by his complete, abrupt absence.
Indeed the intense physicality of the writing – which was present too in Core of my Heart — the descriptions of the sounds and sensations of the country – made me nostalgic and I thought, for a few seconds, about my friends' (disturbingly, only half-joking) suggestions that I go on “Farmer Wants a Wife” in order to shack up with a farmer and move to the country. However I'm sure I would end up like the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” if I tried country living: root-bound, neurotic, and angling into madness. Give me boutiques, cafés and the anonymity of cities any day.
But the difficulty with city living is that you lose – or indeed, never know – the experiences of our rural compatriots. It's too easy to turn off the television and close the newspaper, to worry about rain dripping through the hole in the roof rather than the river than pushed itself through someone's living room, or, if we go inland further still, to ignore the poverty of Indigenous Australians. For those of us whose lives are uncomplicated, whose bindings to those they love haven't unravelled, whose worst experience of all this rain is a sodden skirt or an umbrella bent backwards, it's important to remember that we have it easy.
Donations to the Queensland Flood Relief Appeal can be made here.