It must be 30 years since I first came across Carmel Bird. Gerald Murnane whom I revered had written a blurb – was it for Cherry Ripe? – in which he said she was his kind of writer. I didn’t believe that then, but I would qualify my sense of its accuracy now, in all ways but one. Carmel Bird, like Gerald Murnane is a literary artist to her fingertips. She is a writer who believes – and they are rarer than they should be – in composition in the musical phrase.
She is a maker of fiction in the tradition of Joyce and before him of his master Flaubert who writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak because she knows how to make it sound. For Carmel Bird, as for Ezra Pound, the emotion is in the cadence and so is the high and mighty moral vindication of art.
Now we have two books, one miniature, the other medium length, and they contain most of what we know and need to know about the telling and shaping of stories. One is Fair Game, a long essay in Julian Davies’ handsome and noble series of mini-books. This one is about butterflies (which adorn its cover) and Tasmania where Bird hails from and which her fiction circles round and returns to over and over. Here is a ruminative example of Carmel Bird’s voice, apparently weaving the wind but with touches of a different order of bewitchment.
“I haven’t travelled so very far from the butterflies on the postcard. They seem to be unwanted in England but they are welcomed in Van Diemen’s Land for they are going to be, on the one hand, the wives and mothers of the colony and on the other, the servants, and also ladies of the night. In their garish finery as they flutter across the ocean, they might be dancing at a glittering ball, or decorating the lounges of a bordello. They don’t look much like servants, wives or mothers. In fact they are a pretty plain statement of the butterfly as signifier of the labia and vagina. It also means the soul and resurrection. But in the case of the Fair Game Girls, I think the labia will do.”
There is a swooping audacity in this for all its conversational air.
And so it is for the marvellous stories in My Hearts are Your Hearts which defy paraphrase because their musicality is so integral and so intricate yet they consistently stun the mind and touch the heart.
“Her Voice Was Full of Money and They Were”. How’s that for the title of a story that would enchant…I don’t know…Guy Davenport? Literary education alerts us to something about Gatsby and then we get an old English mistress discoursing from the shallow well we imagine of her experience about the phenomenon of the hit and run driver.
Okay, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and his girlfriend. Before we know where we are, we are off – fleetingly, dazzlingly – on a kind of re-enactment and revision, the young, the beautiful. The death and the dazzle and events – that essence of the plotline – in a story that staggers the mind.
Just before it we get the story of two sisters, one who dies terribly in defiance of all moral convention, and the other who cannot tell the terrible truth of what has occurred. “The Legacy of Rita Marquand” is a story is full of incidental Catholic charity and whatever its quality of mercy was and yet it is full of the marbled coldness of a lost world which is well lost though Bird’s art gives it a marvellous remembrance.
These stories have a grace and an inevitability that makes you want to retell them or allude to them because they waste nothing. A woman of 40 meets an older woman on a plane. The 40 year old has the prospect of happiness before, the old woman the reality of grief. Then the younger woman recognises the dead daughter in law is the girl, Japanese as it happens, later a famous photographer, who gave her a friendship box that contained the words “Think of Me”. And she does.
These stories are as light as air, as rapid as anecdote, but with an extraordinary grace of music. In one way they are like those Borgesian equations of storytelling that seem to contain multitudes and sagas yet leave nothing but the outline. But in Bird’s case the economy seems so exactly paced that we believe in the absolute reality, at once mundane and musical, in a world that is exactly adjusted to the grain of the storyteller’s voice. Nor does she have Borges’ particular penchant for fiction as the algebraic reduction of a yarn that is told.
A Carmel Bird story is more like this. Two young girls are pictured together in a photo from 1955. The one who did not go off on a scholarship to an Anglican boarding school hears that the one who was sent home in disgrace for having done things with boys wants to see her. They are now 60 odd. She had pined for her friend long ago but one letter was answered. In fact, the girl with the bigger future fell into the hands of an Anglo-Catholic priest who quoted the Song of Songs to her and told her that his wife wanted her help in giving him what he deserved. She becomes wet, she loves it all. He takes off all of her clothes and then all of his until they are left in nothing but their socks and he puts herself inside her and they have sex on the foxskin rug. He also has a habit in pointing a gun at her in his enthusiasm.
One night, after he has ceased to see her like this because his wife has conceived again, she is walking round the country town and two boys who reckon she’s been having it off with the vicar put the hard word with her. They smell of sweat and rubbish and rot and she revels in it. Clumsily they put themselves in her, one after another. She’s found out and the priest denounces her and has her expelled though his wife, voicelessly, is sympathetic.
The girl can’t cry, she goes off, a bit later, to Queensland. She marries a man who abuses her. She has kids who neglect her and scarcely care for her. She never ceases to care for the priest. She writes to him after 15 years or more and he writes back full of lasciviousness and fervour. His wife has left him and they resume their great love. Biblical and sensuous. He comes to her and is all fire. After a time, some priests in sunglasses come and whisk him away. She’s pregnant but loses the baby.
The Archbishop is beside himself and treats her like dirt. Eventually the priest is defrocked but escapes prison. People shrug: surely it was at least carnal knowledge. The old girlfriend, the stay-at-home, says the priest should be locked up. The woman who has been abused, however, says to her that she just hopes the priest will say he’s sorry and then she’ll take him and God’s love will sucker them: love is as strong as death.
“My Beloved is Mine and I Am His” is the longest story in this book at 26 pages. In a shorter one, “Perhaps That Bird was Wise” a girl sits at her mother’s deathbed, there is a watch of fool’s gold that goes tick tock and time is fast. In the T.S. Eliot poem the bird says humankind cannot bear very much reality. The mother says everything happens to everyone. She likes the story of the chairs of the seven dwarfs but what does happily ever after mean? Later, after the mother dies, Allegra, the heroine, finds those chairs in a country antique shop. The little watch tick tocks on. Happily ever after. The bird was right.
Carmel Bird reduces the critic to repeating notes taken as he tries to hold on these fugitive breathtaking stories.
Read them. Read them aloud. They have the ring of truth.
Peter Craven, The Age