Maryanne Hillis Del Gigante
Date of Birth: 6/16/52
Location: Canberra, Australia
Published in: Cottonwood, Sulphur River Review, Redoubt, Four W, The Canberra Times, SITUATION, Gestalten, poetry down under, Red Cat Country, There is No Mystery, Stirring V2:E2
Books: I Never Lie To You
When I was in the hospital, I thought a pond with fish would have been nice. Just as really hot water, or curtains would have been nice. But "nice" is too hard. I care about none of this, really, except for in the early morning when I make out the beginning of light in the unbroken shape of the window. Fading black. Night is a narrow white bed and my throat closing with longing. They said "Rest and get better." They said "Keep a journal, it helps you understand later."
And now I am here at Weerewa, after the treatment and the counseling. Waiting for later.
It is cold. I haven't painted for a year.
This place is spare.
The hospital had a certain desperation - the melancholy clinging to the edges of cities. A bare room with mismatched furniture. Things hung too high on the walls, rough sheets, a metal cabinet with sliding glass doors that stuck. The venetian blinds cut the afternoon light into strips that slowly faded to evening.
This house is as if swept clean of other times and places. I came here for that.
I listen to the cracked voices of night creatures and think of the cellist and how I used to hear him practicing broken scales in his room. The strange silences between the notes bothered me at first until I realized a string was missing. His fingers still must have touched the places where the notes used to be. I thought he would keep on with it for a little while longer, yet at the same time I was a long way on into silence, there with only his music and its spaces to break it.
I wanted to warn the cellist about consequences, but I went to my room instead, and slept.
Last night I dreamt I was summoned to a lake like this from somewhere I don't recognize.
I am walking out the door of a simple house into a street washed with yellow and orange and my mind sings in practice with the woman and her daughter "Aba ki bera mera kunwara". I know that I am leaving the things that are my life of every day, breaking with my house and this morning song, my paints and paper. The new day spreads out for me like a thali of spices. Today I go to the lake to learn not to see.
I have decided that the house I leave is in fact no longer mine. I don't know where my home is. Perhaps I have none. My feet are dusted as if with turmeric, I take on the colors of the street. My mouth tastes of milk-rice flavored with rosewater, and this will sustain me. I take with me only the remembered scent of cinnamon and the music. I turn back once to watch the air rising in a column like a glass tube over the chimney and the ashes ascending. The black flakes of the pictures I threw on the fire float up into the sky and the light is amber, the air warm and opaque with glints of copper on broad leaves. A scrap of singed paper blows in front of me, dancing to the jangling of bells. There is cardamom, the pungency of cloves, I pass trees bearing yellow fruit with the marks of birds' beaks on the skin and the soft thud as they fall. I buy a cup of water from a vendor. I am leaving.
From the day he was recovered, I listened to the cellist and I recognized how it feels to want. To work so hard, to stretch that far, to burn. I thought to warn him that it's too far, and it's too long, and that there's nothing at the end but empty concert halls and another cellist, younger and more brilliant. And when I heard the notes begin to falter I knew what was happening. I did nothing to stop it. Because I caught sight of my face in the mirror and lowered my eyes when I saw him looking back at me, from the other side of the place you get to when they buy you concerts and exhibitions and you realize it is all for nothing, that there is nothing with you.
I walk the shores and think about the dream, about the artist who is me. I look for the bird so I might follow it beyond the touching of the two skies and the two separate worlds -- one vaporous, cloud-built, a moonstone, the other warm, amber flecked with brown, the line between them like the surface of the lake in the sunlight from below. I dreamt I was a failed artist. I left my home and burned my work, looking for somebody or something.
Oh and I remember how it was -- how I knew that painting was my life -- people coming to my parents' house and going away with a picture, something I had made. I knew the outlines of things instinctively, my eye guided my hand - "draw me this flower" they'd say. And I would. And I was aware of them looking at me do it, me controlling what it was that caught the petals and the stem and the glossy leaves of a flower on the paper, and the touch of the brush with the bloom of its life. And every time it was a miracle and I sat back with my own childish eyes entranced because there was my picture -- yet another one!
Now I can no longer draw, what I draw is ugly.
I wonder what a painting residency means to someone like me and I stand at the top of the rise looking over Weerewa, aware of the stillness under the thunder, the furring of trees with lichen, a strew of puddles. I sit with my hands between my knees. I remember the stain of paint under my fingernails, other verandahs marking the edge of the shade, the hope of rain to end the drought, a dead-rag crow caught in the fence, the sound of insects buzzing in wood shaggy with dry-rot. I remember raising my face and staring into the heat. Now I want that kind of stillness, that kind of quiet. I want to feel nothing.
In my dream I am aware that I must leave.
The road is dented with pools like milky tea, the clay bleeding white into fresh running rainwater from the afternoon monsoon. I stand under the slanting trees, away from the brilliant sun, my hands and face smeared with mud, my eyes plastered shut with clay. My silence weighs heavy on me and I listen for the sounds of the street and the distant song of the Alaiya Bilaval. But I remember I have no home. My limbs feel heavy. I lie down where I am, to sleep. I dream of someone awake, or sleeping, or dead. Or all of these.
I rouse and see an endless sheet of water, level with my eyes. I am stiff from lying on the ground, my palms are printed with the patterns of dry reeds and I am still heavy with sleep and the muddy taste of Stillwater. My path is now the lake before me, spread out into the morning light. I walk ahead of the sun to the lake and only now, only in the pale morning -- does there seem to be one moment of color. One moment of utter silence. I look up, and there is a stretch of crystal on the roof of the sky. A bird takes a shard of glass and scratches a line from one bow of the horizon to the other, soaring over my head. The etched line, the one I must cross.
And I accept that I have withered, and I accept that I am shadow. I accept that I am hollow and that I am no more than a breath. I accept this and that I must give up my colors. The grass on the lakeshore bends away as I pass, and I find all my paintings laid carefully on the lake, so they float with their edges soft as torn moths' wings. The colors fade as they melt into the water, and I myself become transparent as the paper breaks down. My trees tangle about me. My colors leave me. The wind takes them gently to settle where they may. I stand in the water and my feet rest on stones. The water is cool and clinging, up to my waist. I lift my arms to the sky.
And what it was that let me paint drains from my fingers and slips down my arms and body like water, flowing back into the lake. I become tenuous, pale, a glide of rain. I see myself reflected, pale as a moonrise
As the sun climbs, I keep my eyes on the center waiting for the white to burst and flood and something burns in the back of my eyes and I close them on a flash of magenta. The bird lifts, the line is etched, and I see beyond it.
I am suddenly there, beyond my winter grey world on the other side of the water. I am standing in another lake, the color of topaz under a thick honey sky, before a door.
When they finally took the bandages off, they said I was healing. But I still remember the violence of it. I still wake up to the explosion of that insane image thrown back -- my shocked still face, the eyes wild, the crashing reflection of the spattered colors and slashed canvases, licks of flame in the room behind me. It was as if I had pulled one of the sunken fence-posts from this elusive, slipping lake, and smashed the dark mirror of my studio window. I remember feeling nothing but the rush of cooler air flooding in and the warm blood from the gashes on my hands and arms and me standing frozen with my heart pounding in my ears and the shrieking coming from the house -- my name ? the sirens? Me standing up to my waist in a pulsing silence, my feet uncertain amongst shards of glass, my eyes full of smoke.
I think of the cellist. I wasn't looking at eternal sleep like he was, the quiet fading as if into mud at the edge of the lake. I was not softly drowning. I fade into the sinking image of him as if he were reflected in the water at my feet, drowning, the weed closing tender about his face, the tangle of wire circling his chest. I could have waited till I came here, looking for that gentle comfort at the end, where the trees stand in the water and the lake draws in its breath revealing bones.
In the dream, the bird lifts and draws the line and I see beyond the rainwash sky to the sky of amber, the crystal in between. I gaze through a corridor of space between tumbling stars, reaching through universes to seek you and all I have is shadows. I look for you, the one I must seek, and I do not know who I am looking for. I have asked the wrong question, I have no clear answers. I don't know the color of your eyes - blue, I say. Your hair? - blue. Your fingernails, the hollows of your back, your wrists? - blue. Your feet anointed with saffron merge with the water, the lake on the other side of misted glass. Following the bird I find the passage between us, the one open door.
I say, "I cannot see, give me dreams."
You turn to me and I know you as you speak -- "Your dreams are your mirror."
And I see that if I have children, I must leave them, if I have houses, I must leave them, if I have money and possessions, I must leave them. I knew this on the morning I left, and even in my dream I am afraid. But I still gathered up my pictures, and closed my eyes to them for good, and let them fall from my hands onto the fire and watched them turn to smoke. Is this enough? I asked.
I didn't weep to see them burn, as I thought I would. I hear it again, the singing that morning -- this time , raga Purvi
Aaawana kahe gaila
Raha Sa Mandarawah aaj.
A morning raga, but my heart is heavy all the same.
I ask -- Is this enough?
When they got me out of the burning studio, it was not as though I had left anything, or lost anything in having it all destroyed. My room here is littered with the pages of sketchbooks taken with me as I walk. I contemplate a tree, a landscape, the whole and the parts disconnected. I am not able to reach the essence of it. The person who does not come to me in the dream was not by the water last night. I have begun seeking in the daylight also. I screamed to be shown what the hell I am doing here. "Isnít this enough!" Birds lifted from a tree, ashes in a sudden gust.
In the dream the door is again closed.
You speak softly from the other side -- "I wonder why you seek and will not find, and I wonder why finding is so hard for you. And I am sad for you. I was there with you, and now you want to go. You shut the door to your dark room and the candle will not burn. I will stand outside, aching with the need to have it opened, living your silence and my heart will close. And Iíll rest my cheek on the door post, and my hands will be empty, my eyes bare. I will look at these hands and fold them into my sleeves; they will hold nothing and I will have nothing again.
And I think of the joy I had yesterday, of the sweeping out, the bright thoughts. The hands kneading dough and laying it out to rise. The damp cloths, soft and white, clean. When I see you again I will not look up to your face for I don't know what I'll see."
I remain silent. I watch myself in the dream grieving for the morning raga, the gentle familiar blanket wound about me, the muffling sounds, the gaping holes of loss and pain. I weep for these, I look for my cast-off shoes and the things whose shape I know. I long for the liltingly familiar, the old arid ground, accepting again the cut and bleeding feet, my hands grasping for stones. I turn away from the other place you hold in your voice and thus show me. You watch me wake in the night and leave my bed returning for what I laid blue and solemn in the moonlit clearing.
You follow me, telling me a story ---
"I have opened every drawer, searched in the darkness of every chest, torn up the carpets and stripped the windows. I have melted down silver, torn the threads from brocade. I have taken strips of the richest silk, cabochons prised from their settings, iridescent shards of the finest vessels -- I have taken everything that's precious and tried to make it into something precious to me, and they take even that away and leave me with nothing. I am the poorest of the poor in a wealthy household, and I must leave. My eyes have turned to stone and I am fading. They tell me I have everything."
Tonight I am very tired. I had asked him not to come, there is no hope of my giving a show, of coming home again. I told him this. We sat on the verandah grateful for the brownish cast of evening, the blessing of dark. He walked down the steps in the thin electric light, jingling his keys like coins in his pocket. I watched his shape lose definition, observing, as one does the sunset -- the final glimpse, not necessarily with regret. The wind fretted leaves, his feet snapped a twig.
In my dream a bird is moving a chip of glass in this other sky. It is unbearably hot. I remember the damping of mats hanging outside from the eaves. I walk restlessly from the verandah turning always back to the closed door between us, back and forth, the mats swaying, them talking in the yellow light, outside. Just the sound of words I don't recognize. I feel my feet pacing, the impatient arches. You speak to me in the dead of night. I hear you. Sometimes I don't hear you. You tell me my names, not calling me, but speaking each of them like the words to a poem, wrapped in tissue, dusted with powdered sugar, as if they were a gift.
I found something today.
I was out walking and saw an old greenhouse on a property at the rim of the lake. I stood inside the room of shattered glass and watched the stubborn dip and slide of fenceposts into the water lying underneath the mist. Markers, seen through shattered glass, burnt and rotting remnants of the arid land plunging on toward the mirrored sky. I asked for the glass and theyíll let me take it. Itís the first time I feel I have found something I can work with, I have the beginning of an idea. An installation, not a painting. Perhaps like the artist in my dream I burnt my paints for ever.
You say -- "Let me show you the thing I made you, soft and white and fine, sewn to perfection so your fingers will feel no seams, just the trace of thread circling your arms, running across your shoulders, circling your neck. I made it taking the stitches, turning in the edges, so that nothing but a circle of my hands would be around you -- as if I were tracing with a finger from the point of your shoulder to the base of your neck, along the insides of your arms, down each side passing your ribs, brushing your ankles. Nothing but the best linen, beaten flax, made by hand, ironed so the fibers melded. This polished shirt you would pull on, slipping it over your head, and it would fall about you barely touching, like air, like music. I surround you."
Too tired to write much tonight. I began to dismantle the glass. The panes are mostly broken, but that is what I want. I took them out, one by one, and laid them on the shore. I cut myself only once, not badly. It will be a different kind of scar. I go to bed tired. I will welcome the end of darkness in the morning. This new work exists in light.
I have all the glass laid on the ground, at the edge of the water. I will trace the patterns of the leaves, the stones, the mud beneath on each, leaving each in place as I finish it, edge to edge twelve feet across, mapping out the shore. I am making an etched mirror of the land, and I will raise it to the sky. And once I have mounted it to stand between the water and the land, I will etch over that the progression of fences, the far line of the shore, the ebb and flow of the lake tide, the shapes of clouds over time. I want it to stand as a mirror as Weerewa itself is a mirror, between its land and its sky, touching both.
You have turned thunderous and beautiful. Your face comes up as if from water -- suddenly -- hair streaming, tossed back in a solid hank, flinging spray like split glass. The soft speckles in your eyes dissolve, your lashes curl with petrified tears, beads of jet. You are no longer floating, face down in water, no longer contemplating the winding twist of fish at the bottom of a lake. Your face comes up with nostrils flaring. I see your pale lips coloring, no longer tasting of the trunks of trees in rain. A broad leaf fills and tips. You stir and your heart would sound like a gourd full of angry pebbles shaken. You are a hollow sunken tree emerging. I hear the pulse thundering in your neck. I hear only that.
I stood before the Lake Mirror and laid my hand on its images of leaves and stones, clouds and drifting tides, as we raised it finally into place today. My hand met the reflection of itself. My own shape in it melted into the color of the water.
I hear you. You lean against the closed door, your hands rubbing words into the grain. Jewel-words like polish over wood, pale yellow smears in tiger's-eye, with glossy, shiny depths. Your hair is running with honey, your hands sweet at the fingertips. In the dark I stare into the thick yellow sky between us, across the separating universe, into the depths of amethyst and lapis spattered with stars beyond. I lean toward you, against the closed door, into the darkness edged with light, gold braid on a parasol, an eclipse. My neck shines with sweat. My hand is on the door, still hesitant. My breath precedes me.
I watch us rise together like a storm on the lake. We become air. We stream through the spaces that once shut us out, gutting all flames, and we pass -- a lift of hair, palm laid to palm -- in the wake of the sweetish smoky smell of extinguished candle flame, cinnamon, and wax.
(Published, 1999 There is no mystery. Canberra: Ginninderra Press)