Launch: The Ghost Project by Nathan Curnow
Puncher & Wattman, Glebe NSW, 2009. rrp $21.95
The first poem in this new and startling book is sub-titled, ‘Why I am sleeping at ten haunted sites’. This poem promises to answer only one question we could put to this book and in any case it is a slyly misleadingly worded sub-title because of course the point of each of these night-time visits was not to sleep. The point was to watch, to listen, and to be a living antenna for the forces of either the human imagination or a world beyond the physical one we are so deeply embedded in, to use a term that has gained a certain military infamy lately. ‘Why poems?’ We might also ask. ‘Why Nathan?’, ‘Why now?’, ‘Why ten places?’, ‘What is the connection between ghost and poetry?’, ‘Is this some kind of gimmick being sold to the naïve and curious reader?’ … the questions could go on, but the fact is that this is an inspired idea for a book.
All poems are of course haunted rooms. We know this, and we keep returning to them for their presences, unstable and mysterious as they are. And the longer a poet lives the more haunted their poems can become. Nathan, however, is a young poet and his poems are new things with fresh faces, staring at themselves in the mirrors of the reader’s eye, trying to make sense of the shapes that life and art can take. His first poem begins with adventurously long lines, each one tipping dramatically to the conclusion of its thought or image at the beginning of the next line; and near the end of the first stanza, there is that nostalgic childhood call for misfortune to allow us a truce: ‘barley’. This poem begins with the mechanical bunyip at Murray Bridge halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne.
The bunyip, according to the Oxford Dictionary is a fabulous monster of swamps and lagoons (of Aboriginal origin). Bunyips grow fat and monstrous on the fantasies of childhood imaginations. When Nathan was a child, he slept in a manse on the edge of the town of Pinaroo in the Mallee territory on the North West border of Victoria. The house was nestled against the town cemetery where his father, a minister, buried many parishioners.
A minister of religion is a writer and a performance artist. It might come as no surprise that Nathan’s father was a Tivoli mime artist before he became a minister.
The manse where the child Nathan slept made many noises at night. He would wake, and know that in the darkness of his bedroom a creature hovered over him so close he dared not make a noise or even breathe for the monster would do something truly horrible to him if it heard him. He had one chance to call his mother then his mouth would shut and his heart would go haywire. If his mother heard him, and she mostly did, she would go to him and hug him through the worst of his night paralysis, bringing him back from that place where the wild things are. Not exactly back home, because, uncanny truth, the monster resided in the family home. My guess is that most of us have experienced something like this in our childhoods. Nathan’s parents ordered from Adelaide a special poster of Jesus, which was placed on his bedroom wall from where it protected him well enough to get him through those years in the creaking manse. Could a house make all those noises by itself? Surely not. In his childhood the presence in his bedroom had no name, but in this book it becomes the Butcher who is the waiting dark. These night visitations only stopped happening when the family moved from the manse. He was fifteen then, and he has yet to return to spend a night in that childhood house.
But returning is what the book is about, for these poems re-visit those nights and those fears which he remembers had been triggered by the mechanical bunyip at Murray Bridge, the one that will loom up out of the water at you if you put a coin in its slot. It was this same bunyip that frightened his daughter, Scarlet, at the time he was conceiving his ghost project. Scarlet became afraid not just of bunyips, but of the word too, until she head someone say, ‘Bunyips only eat avocadoes’. If The Ghost Poetry Project has a sub-title surely this is it.
These poems follow the path of a year’s journey round Australia to ten haunted locations but they reach back, too, to his family, and there is a parallel or counter-experience for us to follow through the book as the poet meets himself as father. His daughter’s fears multiply: ‘and she is scared of ET … the way spiders manage their legs’.
Nathan’s words in this book are agile, never overlong, always crisply dressed in neat T shirts, tight jeans and sporty shoes. They take up all sorts of positions on the page happily enough and never really get out of syntactic order because they have an inner sense for making sense. They are highly professional and well choreographed. They’ve embraced the fact that this is free verse, but they know who is in charge. You get the impression each one of them has been put through a testing audition. In his wonderfully insightful and droll essay called ‘Writing’ which he wrote at the age of 55, W. H. Auden suggested that ‘to keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.’ These poems from Nathan Curnow are a quality act, each one pitched to us in a performance honed at his desk with his own Censorate hard at work. Among them, I am sure, a preacher who was once a vaudeville mime, and a family that would have liked him to be sleeping at home more often, for while Nathan was hanging out with the dead his wife Kerryn was growing a new baby, Alexis, who made it into this world in time to be there on the dedication page to this book. Mid-way through the book, which I guess was mid-way through the year, she announces she is pregnant with ‘our fourth’ and Nathan announces this with poem titled ‘Anxiety’. Poems, travel, sleep deprivation, baby, ghosts—what a year.
We learn that only four per cent of the population report apparitions.
Even with his well trained, youthfully energetic, rap-savvy and self-confident words strutting their stuff through these poems, mysterious tones and unlikely moves do still creep in—under Nathan’s approval—and we become unsure, for instance, what it is about the tiny bottle of shampoo left in the hotel room or whether there really was the sound of a collapsing man in the room where Ben Chifley suffered his massive heart attack or how exactly to read that word ‘shining’ at the end of the poem, ‘Prior Knowledge’. Nathan writes, he writes, ‘suspicious of the craft’. With free verse, as with ghost watching he must remain ‘open to whatever comes’ (from ‘this Knot’).
Of all ten locations, the one where Nathan faced most directly the return of his childhood night paralysis was at Old Adelaide Gaol, perhaps the most haunted place in Australia. Forty-five people were executed there, the last in 1964. Nathan was taken on a five-hour tour of the buildings and grounds by a guide who was writing his own book, he said. He saw the hanging tower, the old gaol, the cemetery and the New Gaol built in 1879. As he stood speaking to his guide there was a sudden noise on a stairway above them , a stairway blocked by a locked gate. It was like a cane being struck on a ballroom floor. Insistent. They went looking around and returned to this place two more times. Each time the knocking started up again. The guide showed him video clips of orbs of light and shadowy figures in the passageways of the gaol, then left him for the night in a cell.
In these Old Adelaide poems you will meet Clink the gaol cat, a shuddering fluoro light, cheap mannequins impersonating hanged prisoners; Nathan will enter briefly the mind of Elizabeth Woolcock who was executed in 1871 for poisoning her abusive husband. She goes to her death under a ‘hood to hide the bruising’. After such a night Nathan is taken like a condemned man to the death of his own sleep.
As we move from location to location with the poet, we become aware of the way this history has become part of a down-at-heel tourist circuit, each place coming to us with its own version of a ‘fascinating colonial history’ and doubtful accommodation. Waiting for a ghost all night can remind you of the year you had nothing published (‘This Knot’). At Picton, where Emily Bollard was rammed through a train tunnel in 1916, he does see the lights of a train coming at him, along with a group of tourists seeking ghosts. They all fall to the dirt to avoid being plowed through. Later, in the dark in the tunnel there are ‘sounds like a conductor punching tickets’ (from ‘Ghost Train’).
We are reminded too that this country was built upon a history of slaughter. Though we have had no civil war, there has been a sustained violence in our past. It takes poets, novelists and historians—those devotees of disciplines outside the normal economy to keep looking back at the meaning of this history.
What we get in these poems are the feelings, the way memories can mingle with the present when fear is upon us, the associations that poets are on this earth to make for us. He will chain himself to the night (‘Bunyips 2’), at Richmond Bridge he watches ‘a crusade of light on stone’ (from ‘Postcard from Richmond Bridge’), he will run ‘for the street-light’s skirt’ (from ‘Still Night Jesters’). The poems come at their subject matter at a tangent, as the armies of Alexander the Great would move towards their surprised enemies; and sometimes the poems flee from their subject matter in all directions like a flock of frightened ghostly cockatoos.
So we are not just gulping down the chilly midnight ambience of haunted territories again and again. There are hard edges of cynicism here, a plain sighted observation for instance that always when there are creatures involved in these ghostly occurrences they are introduced species. There are phantom dogs, black cats, a spooky goat. But there are no evil brush-turkeys or ghoulish magpies because the stories, like the story tellers, have been imported (from ‘Introduced Species’). How haunted, I wonder, are the sites of Aboriginal massacres, and how painful would we find these places to be if they became tourist destinations?
Nathan spent a night lying in a haunted hearse. Like a true confessional poet he admits to the truth about that night. He fell asleep. But his recorder reveals what seems to be a short, breathy phrase, which a sound engineer isolates for him. It is spoken urgently into the ear of the listener, clearly a consciousness here trying to get a message through. You will find the report of this message on page 81of the book, quickly followed by another bunyip poem to his daughter, apologizing for the road-trips, promising to tell the story of them one day, but confessing he has become ‘disappointing to meet in person’ because he has become stranded in his poems. The ultrasound photo, ‘a remarkable smudge’ of their new baby is the nearest he comes to seeing a ghostly figure.
The book closes with his visit to Port Arthur and the Broadarrow Café. He sleeps in the nineteenth century parsonage among more stories of ghosts, reporting that his children are now texting him fluently, that if there is a ghost here it will probably mistake him for a ghost. He is lighting up, eager to smoke the bees in his chest to sleep (from ‘Going Home’).
I have calculated that Nathan Curnow travelled over 20,000 kilometres during the year of writing this book, covering almost half the circumference of the planet. The historian, Richard Sennet has calculated that it takes 10,000 hours to learn a craft, with mentoring. That is five years of forty-hour weeks devoted to learning a chosen craft. I think Nathan would have packed much more than a year into his ghost-year, speeding his knowledge of the craft he approaches with such suspicion. I am looking forward to seeing where his pen takes him next, and then next, and then after that. He is a poet, a performer and a mind worth following.
Finally, Puncher & Wattman are to be congratulated for producing such a stylish book.
KEVIN BROPHY teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding editor of the national literary journal Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.