Elly McDonald

Writer


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Fruit

Children have an instinct for sweetness
When young nectarines sprouted
From the young nectarine tree
My goblin sister and I ate them greedily
All of them
The fallen and the barely freed from budding
They knifed our bellies
What’s wrong with them
My mother cried
Meaning us, her children
She was so helpless
We were such shits
Rolling round
Like nectarine pits
Suffering from surfeit
Suffering for sweet


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Thoughts on the ending of Drive My Car (film, 2021, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t even think about reading this if spoilers bother you.

This may plod. I am sorting out my thoughts as I write.

I’m prompted to write by the posts I see online that purport to explain the final scene in Drive My Car.

The final scene shows the driver, Misaki Watari, shopping in a Korean supermarket, in Korea, addressing the check-out assistant in Korean language. She gets into a red car, the red car we recognise she’s been driving throughout the film, and she greets a golden dog, the golden dog I believe we met earlier in the narrative in the home of the Korean couple Yoon-a and Yoon-soo.

What is this Japanese woman from Hokkaido doing speaking Korean in Korea in possession of her client Mr Kafuko’s car and her colleagues’ dog?

The internet explainers: Misaki has been freed from her miserable past by her cathartic experiences with Mr Kafuko and his theatre troupe. She has moved to Korea and commenced a new life. (Mr Kafuko, similarly freed from his miserable past, has given her his car, emblematic of said past. Yoon-a and Yoon-soo have given her the dog to be her companion and have, presumably, supported Misaki in transplanting to Korea.)

It’s not a total no-no explanation. The theatre troupe has been workshopping a production of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, which, at one level, is about dealing with life coming to dead-ends. Though Chekhov didn’t offer his characters’ the option of acts beyond the final curtain: say, The Three Sisters move to Moscow.

Myself – and I am odd – view Drive My Car differently.

On the face of it, this is a film about a man grieving his wife’s death who can’t reconcile his wife’s proclaimed deep love for him with her sexual infidelity. So: a film about distinguishing authenticity from acting.

On another layer, this is a film about the genius of Chekhov: how to present the authentic small lives of relatively ordinary people as worthy of our focus.

Theatre as most of us know it in the West derives from classical Greek drama. Its purpose is carthasis – the purging of deep emotions. Its protagonists are the great and powerful. They fall due to their fatal flaws. Witnessing their fall stirs deep emotions in audiences. The purpose of drama – the purging of deep emotions.

Every character in Drive My Car is, or has been, an actor, except Misaki, the driver. Yes, Mr Kafuko’s wife Oto was a scriptwriter. But before that she had been an actor. Yes, Yoon-a was a dancer. But now she is an actor. Yes, Yoon-soo is a dramaturg. But he studied Noh (or was it Kabuki?) at a Japanese theatre school. There’s the theatre festival’s director. But I say all theatre administrators started out as would-be actors.

The driver, Misaki, has her on-stage correlative in Uncle Vanya in the character Sonya: a plain girl easy to overlook, to disregard. Sonya is the emotional centre of Chekhov’s play. She owns the final scene. The character of Sonya is played in Mr Kafuko’s production by Yoon-a, who is deaf, and communicates in Korean deaf sign language.

Mr Kafuko’s production of Uncle Vanya is multilingual, featuring actors from across Asia acting their parts in their native languages. In the earlier stages of the readings, the Japanese actors admit they find the foreign language passages boring, like listening to a mantra. All the actors find Mr Kafuko’s insistence on a lengthy lead-up just reading the text, without vocal emotion, without embodiment, frustrating. He tells them to “listen to the text”.

A multilingual production of a Russian classic suggests the text is universal, and that ‘hearing’ the text transcends words. Eventually the text is felt, at the level of deep emotions. Eventually, almost everyone can understand that feeling of life coming to an end during one’s life-time, or of life running out of life within its allocated limits.

This is the experience of Uncle Vanya. “If I live to 60 and I’m 47 now, how will I fill in the years?”

Sonya’s answer: We will endure. Then we’ll die, quietly.

There are several characters in Drive My Car who have ‘run out of life’. A young man’s life can have ‘ended’ prematurely as much as his older counterpart’s. We are all Vanya, eventually.

So personally I don’t think Misaki moved to Korea and began a new life. 

Personally, I think the film director is revealing “Misaki” to be yet another actor, an actor in a fictional narrative purporting to be true life, that is true to life, but not real. “Sonya” in Uncle Vanya is presented as a simple, ordinary girl, yet is a theatrical construct brought to life by an actor and, as such, as much the performer as the histrionic beauty Yelena (a mask for another actor).

“Sonya” / “Misaki” is the antithesis of the great and the powerful, yet is an agent of catharsis. Because Chekhov taught us drama is not wholly the domain of the great and the powerful, the noisy and famous, but also the stories, in any language, of those who endure quietly. And drama translates to cinema.

Intelligent cinema, anyway.

Afternote: Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami from his collection Men Without Women (2014). Murakami explores the relations of fiction and actuality and acts of creating. The Korean film Burning (2018) is also based on a Murakami short story. One of the more interesting commentaries I read on Burning suggested the characters Ben and Hae-mi never exist in life but are imagined creations of the would-be writer Jong-soo. I recommend viewing Burning in tandem with Drive My Car. (The final sequences of Burning, where Jong-soo attempts to assert agency, are not part of Murakami’s narrative.)

rive


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Where poems come from Pt.3 / Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. By Daffy Duck Pt.2

In 1984 I wrote a poem I called ‘Tidal’ and submitted it to several publications simultaneously, as was my practice. (The odds against a poem being accepted were low and editorial decison-making was slow.) All four journals published it. How embarrassing.

‘Tidal’ was a love poem to my dad. My dad across that period spent hours fossicking on the rockpools at the local beach, looking for shards of willow-plate and fragments of other ceramics lost in C19th shipwrecks.

His pose bending over the rockpools reminded me of a framed print in his parents’ house, the house where he’d grown up, a famous Edwardian image of a woman beachcombing. (Dad named a later home ‘Beachcomber’.)

In ‘Tidal’, I combined that image with the image of my father seeking, seeking… and merged that with the image of his parents on their wedding day, his mother, Edie Gibson, looking young and lush. A Gibson girl.

Two years later, in 1986, I wrote ‘Father and Child’, a deliberate echo of ‘Tidal’, this time the love between father and daughter rather than son and mother. Both have an erotic charge in the last line, intentionally evoked by reference to touch.

‘Father and Child’ was written as an technical exercise, a conscious attempt at a ‘happy’, “life affirming” poem. But I wasn’t happy with it. My father seldom talked about his mother or his parents’ relationship, which I knew was violent. So I wrote the poem ‘Wedding Photo’, about a battered bride, at much the same time. There’s an earlier poem, ‘Mad Edie’, also about, duh, Edie.

(I knew my grandfather’s feelings for Edie were tender, too. As he lay dying, he told 15 y.o. me that I looked just like 14 y.o. Edie as he first met her.)

At the same time as ‘Wedding Photo’ and ‘Father and Child’ I wrote a poem I called ‘Possums’ about someone I’d trusted who turned into a goblin. It was a poem about emotional violence and fear.

That suite of poems put paid to my poem writing for a few decades. A bit before I wrote my first poems in 25 years, my sister took a portrait photo of me as a kind of water spirit / earth goddess. The Gibson Girl of ‘Tidal’ turned full circle.

I’ve written before about a day at poet Dorothy Hewett’s place where I overshared about my maternal grandparents (not Edie and Angus) and Dorothy turned to her husband and said: “How gothic.”

My sister spontaneously confided similar thoughts last week: “Both our grandfathers were so gothic. One lived in Miss Haversham’s house, the other was King Lear.”

So what’s this about? Honestly, I’m over people assuming they know what or whom I wrote about. Those people don’t know the names of the people who mattered most to me. It’s just a bit ‘You’re So Vain’. I bet you think this song is about you.

But you know what? Even if the song *were* about you, I own my experiences and memories. And anyone who feels otherwise can climb a rat’s arse.


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Like Her (21 April 1981)

Sometimes, he said, it’s as if she just sticks
out a hunk of bread, and says butter it
and they do.
But that’s just like her.

I didn’t defend her (those eyes, that hard mouth –
a ruthless child: desperate, defensive).
After all, I don’t
like her.

I’ve seen what she did (he said), she hurt
them to a man, those men. How she
hurt. I wanted to be
just like her.


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Mirror (1985)

from across the room this woman
stares: this face you’ve seen
distorted
by emotion by years by the camera
this face soft-framed
defamed
a face badly-loved, well-hated
unresolved
different every time, every time
you feel the same
you still
feel the same
you feel your face
dissolve into hers; you take
her expression, you turn
into her, towards her her
smile on your
lips
her reflected
in grey eyes
hungry eyes
your move – and her face
falls


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Haven (1985)

My mother has arrived. She’s unpacked
in my bedroom. From the bathroom I can hear
her chatting; she chirps
like a sparrow, cheerily, knowing
God cares – a bird among cats
young kittens, savage
strangers. She’s rolling bright-eyed
amidst claws, on the floor – they’ve hunted
her, caught her
pinned her wings flat; they crouch on her
chest and guard her 
for me, the arch-predator – for my
approval
keeping her prone, they keep this place ours
denying
safe hose to the light speckled alien
refugee: a sparrow, fallen
who helplessly laughs


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Two Thighs (1985)

two thighs, knees together
firm converging lines
parabolic like an egg sucked
hollow inside
decisive outer planes
and gummy inner-lining – the jaws
of a dolphin, linear like this
wash up on northern beaches
bare and hard as crayfish claws
two thighs, knees together
an insolent autonomy
self-contained, impervious
bold strokes defining space
extended to an apex (knees together)
deft draftsmanship
emptiness encased
no fleshy Bardot pout: whose body?
brittle, bleached, beached
what body?
a dolphin’s skeletal beak


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Father and Child (1986)

After writing a sequence of horrifying nightmare poems, I decided to attempt a life-affirming, positive poem.

I wrote it in two parts, out of an intended three: I was aiming for a triptych. But after Pt2 I felt my heart wasn’t in it. I abandoned that poem and didn’t write another poem for about 30 years. When I re-read this one I thought it was awful, Hallmark greeting card stuff. I chucked Pt2 altogether. This is Pt1.

I.

A woman pulled a rib from out
of my side
and my heart stepped out.
she looked
just like me: a small
grey-eyed, soft-fleshed, female
me.

My daughter
he said.
I am not ashamed
to recognise love.
I see no shame
in relatedness. Her eyes are
mine, and she
is my heart.

He walks
her up the road.
He holds her hand.
she rides on his back and
she laughs.

My daughter
he says, and her arms
curl around his neck as
years ago he
sucked the breast of a woman

he loves


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Wedding Photo (1986)

limbs contorted, tearing thick air: white fleshy
boomerangs broken
arms, snapped ribs: eyes fear-forced open, bruised and
swollen closed, the smashed
nose and plates, bent knives, kicked in
door
permanent
images, fixed like that clock – one hand
wrenched off, stoved in and reckless, lying
on its side on the living
room floor – no progress, not ever, silenced and
strange; or the door-frame, splintered
as readily as bone – the violated
flywire, the hammer-bashed
lock: glass stabbed curtains and blood
in the bathroom – the bride in the photo
(no sound) lies senseless, scrunched up
and torn
face downwards


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Two Stories (1986)

Unbalanced, tall buildings loom
above us: screening out the sky, too close
together – like cramped teeth they jut
in shades of bone decay. I look quickly
at her
she looks down, and frowns

Uneven, the roadface staggers before
us. Cobblestones: smooth swellings
cemented together, colourless, so cold –
like trampling
thousands of hardened dead
breasts. Now she turns on me
her death’s head, survivor’s stare


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Possums (1986)

black
streets drop away, breath
catches, while rain
– not quite falling – 
hangs in dark clumps of
night and possums sit
in the middle of a fence
nightfall
wide-eyed, they observe – not caring
neither way
we mean nothing, this is nothing
not to them, not us
come away
from here, take care
in this dark, bright-eyed
with cars – we are blinded
by cars –
in public, all observed
two possums stare
balanced on a fence
you and I, eye to eye
you and I, watching on
small blundering familiars
neither comprehend nor care
my hand reaches out
to your shoulder, instinctive – I touch
your neck:
warm and unresponsive – you’re scared
we two, clinging lightly
lean on each other
look up, look and see large
luminous eyes
in a damp-cheeked night


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Ghosts (1986)

walking onwards, then at once
pulled up
pulled back – as if by an image reflected
in a window, a face one-known
your own
aged features – sharp-edged, so
white – a bloodless light hand
reaches out
touch finger touch phantom a skeleton bridge
half-flesh, half-hope: the ghost
behind your eyes steps out, stands beside you
but it can’t be
you at all

not this time.
In half dark (half-light into
night), it’s someone you remember:
someone else.

Your stare mirrors his; the ghost you’ve become
sees itself living, behind
his eyes reflected; in the present, it relives
a scene from the past.
It stares through a window and sees you both
there – profiles overlapping, fingers touch
flesh… the man (who is him) looks up
stops
stares out the window, straight at the phantom, half-sees
through shadow: he says
I once knew her
The girl with him smiles (she is you, and she smiles)
Go on, go and tell her
‘good to see her again. Go out there
and talk but
He looks away and whispers
She won’t talk to me now

now on this street
you stop, you stare
you can see yourself touching (white lip touches
shoulder), phantom lips
plead promise me
don’t ever walk past me, don’t let me
walk past
No matter what happens, whoever
we become, I will always
stop:

Stop here for me now


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The Devil and the Deep Water (2020) by Stuart Turton – a response

I loved Stuart Turton’s debut, his 2018 novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I wrote a lengthy blog post in response.

His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water, has me conflicted. I don’t ordinarily bother writing negative reviews, but I liked Evelyn Hardcastle so much I feel a need to hash out my thoughts on its follow-up.

If Evelyn Hardcastle was English country house murder mystery meets Philip K Dick, then this is, as the cover quote gushes, a “mashup of William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle”. It showcases Turton’s strengths and exposes (what I see as) his shortcomings.

Turton works cross-genre. In that respect, I found myself comparing his works to the novels of David Mitchell, to Turton’s disadvantage. Nominally this novel is set in the 1630s, at the height of the Dutch East India Company’s power. In an Afterward, Turton states, with reason, that he does not write “historical fiction”. He says he’s done the historical research then chosen to dismiss what doesn’t interest him, tossed in deliberate anachronisms. He says readers can interpret his work according to their own understandings. Like a music hall magician, he plucks flowers from a top hat: everybody gets a bouquet. Let a thousand flowers of response bloom.

For Turton, the show, the performance, is all. Like The Devil’s master detective character, Sammy Pipps, he takes joy in the puzzle. It’s bravura dazzle that fizzles under closer inspection. Though I expect he’d argue closer inspection spoils the fun. The tale is an entertainment, a sleight of hand.

If taken this way, it works fine, though this one is bloody long (548 pages). 

And I have problems with this funhouse approach, beyond the investment of time and focus.

Firstly, his writing style – the way he strings words together – is pedestrian. With Evelyn Hardcastle, I thought that was a deliberate choice, a parody of early C20th British novelists such as, oh, John Buchan, maybe. Geoffrey Household. Agatha Christie. But here, it dawns on me that’s how he writes. Kinda Enid Blyton, Famous Five.

Secondly: His plotting is fantastical, a deliberate choice; can also be described as convoluted, and lacking integrity. With a plot this complex, it’s bizarre (to me) to learn from the Afterward that he blithely substituted a different resolution when his “wife pointed out that my original ending was rubbish”. You can build a house of cards that way, if you don’t mind it crashing. A novel?

Thirdly. History doesn’t matter if we choose to disregard history. But Turton draws on episodes from history here that IMHO do merit more considered handling. For the longest time it appears he’ll hang his plot on two real-life episodes from Imperialist, colonial history: the massacre by the Dutch East India Company of inhabitants of the Banda Islands (conquest 1609-1621); and the 1629 mutiny planned on the Dutch treasure ship the Batavia, the vessel’s shipwreck on an isolated archipelago, and the subsequent massacre of survivors by the mutineers.

Declaration of interest: my uncle, author Hugh Edwards, was co-leader of the maritime expedition that discovered the wreck of the Batavia. He subsequently wrote a prize-winning book on the subject, Island of Angry Ghosts (1966). As a child I was an extra in the dramatised documentary The Wreck of The Batavia, directed by Bruce Beresford (1972). I appear as a demonic cabin boy. My cousin played an angelic cabin boy who gets decapitated. The film rights to my uncle’s book are currently held by actor Russell Crowe.

Forty people died in the shipwreck when the Batavia sank. One hundred and fifteen survivors were then murdered. Five of the mutineers were ultimately hanged on site. Others were flogged, keel-hauled, dropped from the yard-arm, broken on the wheel.

The Banda Islands? There were about 15,000 inhabitants pre-conquest. By 1621, perhaps 1,000 remained. The others had been killed, starved, drowned, enslaved, deported by the Dutch.

As we say in Australia, ya wouldn’t read about it.

Sadly, we don’t read much about it in Turton’s novel. It’s part of the background, a red herring, a backdrop for Turton’s cheap tricks.

Spoiler? Spoiled it for me.

https://theconversation.com/picturing-the-unimaginable-a-new-look-at-the-wreck-of-the-batavia-84269

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/the-seven-deaths-of-evelyn-hardcastle/