A few weeks ago as I looked out the window in the kitchen at work, waiting for the jug to boil, I thought, ‘I’m so fed up, I just wish I could chuck the towel in and go to Paris.’ I’ve been obsessed with the city for a long time, and have been there thrice – in 1999, when I was backpacking with two friends from school, and we wandered around Montmarte; in 2005 when I was living in London, and H & I met up with Mum and Dad, and we went to the Pompidou, Versailles and Monet’s Garden, and I cried when I had to go back to London because I was so homesick; and in 2008 when I was still in London, and my plans went a little haywire because the Channel tunnel caught fire, but I made it across the next week to spend a few days with SP, who was visiting his sister. That visit was more low key and gentle, as befitting SP’s demeanour, and I absorbed more of the city’s tenor that time. I love its beauty and the fashionable men and women, but then I’ve only seen it in spring and summer, and it may well be as bleak as London in winter.
When the jug in the kitchen clicked off, I suddenly remembered, ‘There’s a grant for Paris!’ and dashed back to my computer, looked up the Nancy Keesing Studio in Paris administered by the Australia Council, and was relieved to find I hadn’t missed the closing date. I sent in my application, which will be I think my seventh to OzCo, but being plagued by stubbornness, I can never give up on these things.
Over the past year I’ve had a latent desire to take flight from Brisbane and set up shop somewhere else. It escalates when I’m unhappy, and stems largely from not yet having found my way into an intellectual or writing community here. It might also be that, aside from the fifteen years spent growing up on our farm, I’ve never stayed in a place for longer than four and half years, and I’m up to my fourth year of living in Brisbane. Sister, who is about to have baby #3 and doesn’t want me to leave, told me to go travelling instead of uprooting myself. I’m now at the point where I’m so bored that any kind of change would be welcome.
This confluence of nesting, flight, and writing also appeared in a book I read recently, Janine Burke’s Nest: The Art of Birds. I borrowed it from the library because I thought it would be a good present for an English friend who’s mad on bird watching, and decided I should read it first to check. Rather than being a book about birds and their habitats, it was more about the question of whether nests might be art, rather than a construction borne of instinct.
I’m not particularly fond of birds. We had a canary called Ebenezer when we were small, and whistled to encourage him sing but he often point blank refused. Elsewhere, the pigeons of London dirtied the city, magpies always attack me when I’m cycling and I detest the rancid smell of the ibis as they step through the long grass of the park when the creek floods. This might be why I wasn’t overly compelled by the book and found I had to push myself to finish it. However, Burke’s accounts of the intersections between birds and writers were fascinating.
In Chapter Four, ‘Migrants and Writers’, the birds featuring in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts are a springboard for a discussion on the migration of swallows. Flying from England to Africa and returning home year after year, the birds ‘have evolved a navigational system that uses sunlight. They also memorise topography and recognise landmarks such as coastlines, rivers, wetlands and mountain ranges. They watch for the patterns of islands and of waves. They also have an inbuilt compass which helps them to sense the earth’s magnetic field, so they can determine absolute north, and to judge the direction of light – and thus the sun’s position – even when the day is overcast’ (82). To me this was incredible, and I thought that perhaps I should re-evaluate my stance on the ibis.
Returning to Woolf, just as the swallows return home, Burke describes how the writer finished Between the Acts in 1941 and subsided into depression, as she often did on completing a book. She believed she was going mad again, for she was hearing voices, and she drowned herself. As Burke notes, Woolf was ‘hardy, fit, an enthusiastic walker and cyclist and, as a young woman, a demon bowler’ (78), at odds with the popular impression of a psychologically disturbed woman boxed in her room. Woolf was also a good swimmer, and ‘it must have been with great determination that she held herself beneath the water’ (89). I hadn’t known this about Woolf, and it made me sad to read it.
Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, fell desperately in love with Denys Finch Hatton, who made her insanely happy when he was with her, and on the brink of despair whenever he went away. He didn’t seem like a particularly nice person (and wasn’t interested in helping her when she faced financial ruin), but when he was killed in a plane crash she slit her wrists. She survived, returned to Denmark, wrote Out of Africa and became a literary sensation. With public funding, she helped to make her home, Rungstedlund, a refuge for migratory birds.
Death was on the wing of many Romantic poets who wrote about birds as Burke describes in Chapter 5, ‘The Poetry of Nests’. Keats penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in 1819 when he was 24 and had less than two years to live (105). Percy Bysshe Shelley, who composed ‘To a Skylark’ in 1820, fell in love with Mary Godwin whose mother, May Wollstonecraft, died while giving birth to her. Shelley’s first wife drowned in the river, leaving him free to marry Mary Godwin. Mary then lost three children, and Shelley drowned in a boating accident in 1822 (107). Their lives burnt so bright and fast.
Meanwhile, Emily Dickinson remained resolutely homebound, for the source of much of her inspiration, her sister-in-law Sue, lived close by. Dickinson ‘worshipped Sue’ and encouraged her older brother Austen to marry her, ‘presumably so she could keep Sue close’ (113), but Sue distanced herself from Emily after the birth of her children, ‘to the poet’s anguish’ (114). For Dickinson, the nest was a home — one which she offered Sue — and one in which she remained secluded while her mind soared, seeking expression in those stuttering poems. I had always thought that her poem ‘There’s a certain shaft of light’ was about unrequited love and, after reading this account by Burke, that interpretation makes perfect sense.
It was details such as these that made the literary figures Burke described come to life, and I wondered if it was coincidental that the artists who used imagery of birds and flight were also those who seemed to veer towards extremes of emotion and existence. It led me to meditate again on that vexed link between mental illness and art. Is there something in the psyche of artists which means we have to feel so much to create our works that, when things break, they break our minds as well?
I often think about James Bradley’s utterly beautiful essay on art and depression, and how emotion is integral to our work, but can immobilise us when it becomes overwhelming. I’ve never had a complete breakdown but sometimes, when I’ve worked too much or not written or not exercised or not slept or just can’t seem to get over the last broken relationship and I’m wondering when will it bloody well end, I get a glimpse of how debilitating it might be. I sometimes contemplate going to the doctor to get some drugs, but always rapidly give up on that idea because I couldn’t bear to change myself, and I have to find some other way of getting through it. As Bradley writes, ‘I am not someone with a condition: I am myself. My moods, my inner life, their cycles and their sometimes almost unbearable intensities are not something extraneous, they are part of who I am, of what I am.’
I was probably at the worst I’ve ever been not long after I’d arrived in London. I’d broken my heart to get there, I was depressed by the greyness and lack of sunlight, and I was too exhausted to force myself to meet people, so I was lonely. On the phone, my mother said, ‘You’ll just have to pull your socks up,’ but I protested vehemently against this. I sensed that it was an illness, that it needed to pass, and this was an experience I needed to go through because it was my decision to leave Australia and the relationship I was in. To medicate myself would have simply been a band aid. However, not many people might react like this, as Bradley continues:
we as a society are engaged in a social and psychiatric experiment on an unprecedented scale, a project which – whether we see it yet or not – has as its object the elimination of emotional disorder. In its way it is laudable, but it may not be without its costs. For as writers and artists from Shakespeare to Artaud have understood, pain and hurt and the uncontrollable cankers of the mind have always been the fuel for artistic creation. What happens if we medicate them away? Will that mean no more Virginia Woolfs, no more T.S. Eliots, no more David Foster Wallaces?
Bradley doesn’t have answers, and neither do I. All I know is that, as artists, we need to take flight, even at the risk of complete psychological and emotional instability, or we become like Ebenezer, entrapped and refusing to sing.
Burke closes with a reference to From Here to Ear, an installation by French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane in 2011. My friend Fiona Paisley took me there, after we’d had lunch to celebrate the completion of her book Fernando. As we entered the room, I found hundreds of finches flying above my head, sometimes alighting on coathangers suspended from harpsichords installed in the ceiling. Each time they landed on a coathanger, the harpsichord made a noise. I could just hear that, but could hear the higher pitches of the finches’ cries much better. As Burke notes, the birds were making nests, and Fiona told me that during the floods, people were calling the gallery to check that the birds were okay, which they most certainly were, for the eggs in their nests had hatched! It was a lovely story of serendipity, and nesting in the home of art. Birds might signify a need to break loose, but they are also indicative of the joys of making a home, and of coming back to it.
Book details: Burke, Janine. Nest: The Art of Birds. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2012.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council library.
This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.