Book review: The Scarlet Letter

“Truth is to power what fire is to wax, that’s why power and truth are mortal enemies,” says Bangambiki Habyarimana, a Rwandan author of the book, Pearls of Eternity.

The book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is concerned with the relationship between these two adversaries, in whose battle we see inflict untold suffering upon the secrets-bearer when truth is subdued and power dominates, in the same way that freedom is the prize if truth wins.

The Scarlet Letter opens in the summer of 1642 in Boston, and is narrated in a third-person voice some two hundred years later, based upon inherited information. It is a time when the Massachusetts Bay Colony is of severe Puritan character, in which law and religion are indivisible, so that what is construed as sin is a naturally punishable offence. Against this backdrop a married woman, Hester Prynne, conceives a baby out of wedlock. Her sentence is to endure three hours of public ignominy on a scaffold in the heart of the market-place, and then to wear a scarlet letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Despite intense pressure to declare the name of the child’s father, she remains defiantly resistant.

Standing in the mid-day sun before the critical, grim judgement of the city’s inhabitants, Hester catches sight of her legally-wedded husband watching her from amidst the crowd. Two years ago, Roger Chillingworth, a scholar and physician had sent his beautiful wife from Amsterdam to Massachusetts to establish station, following their decision to emigrate, while he was himself delayed to attend to certain affairs. When he realises the nature of his spouse’s crime, as he enters the town, Roger Chillingworth is sworn to exact revenge — not on the fallen woman, but her accomplice.

Through a dramatic device the physically misshapen intellect unearths that the perpetrator of his wife’s temptation is a young, high revered minister of the parish, Arthur Dimmesdale. But, instead of publishing the sinner’s disgrace, Chillingworth perceives that the real agony of sin for the much-loved Reverend lies in the dread of its discovery.

In elegant, albeit rather dense, prose, Hawthorne describes the inmost condition of each of the four characters: Hester Prynne, (her daughter) Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The action of the book rests not in incident but in the gradual manifestation of the people in the tale until they become totally transparent. We are asked to regard less of the plot and more of the substance, which skilfully finds semblance with our own most intimate nature under each circumstance.

The narrative crosses seven years, during which we read Hester’s thoughts as a pariah of society, watch little Pearl’s elfish, wayward growth, witness Dimmesdale’s rapidly withering health, under a cocktail of Chillingworth’s medicinal care and insidious psychological torture.

Towards the conclusion of the story, Hawthorne engages in the discourse of whether “hatred and love be not the same thing at the bottom.” He contends that each involves a high degree of heart-knowledge, each renders one party dependent for emotional sustenance upon another, and each leaves the lover/hater desolate by the other’s withdrawal.

At the end, this is a romance, whose form assumes the spontaneity of a flower unfolding from a force within, with a moral significance in which we learn that a sinner — rather than live a life of saintly deeds, or scourge himself — should be true, and openly accept his shame, otherwise be subjected to the power not only of those who take the law into their own hands, but also that in the load of secret guilt within his own heart.

Twenty- twenty

It's Sunday morning, so I go
for a walk on the lockdown streets.
First, down the footpath,
crossing a driveway, where
a black cab waits at the McDonald's window,
blowing white smoke,
a masked face peering out.

Then onto the avenue,
where a glossy sign advertises a mansion
for sale, where potted flowers are hanging
over balustrades, and moss climbs on trunks.
The sun is out but mist brushes against me,
like wool. I look at a yellow-painted house.
There is a wide-screen TV on the nature-strip.

On to Petrie Square and light filters
delicately through a stained-glass mural
where in a sea of blue Virgin Mary is holding infant Jesus.
A rain-drenched copy of Harry Potter
and the Goblet of Fire lies abandoned on the grass.
And at the corner of Alexandra Gardens, a night-globe
blinks off; it is seven o'clock.

The moon in daylight is a pleasure,
even if sometimes I think it is like
aspirin in a glass. I stop
to read a sign beneath a tree: a
bicentennial time capsule to be opened in 2088.
There are several people of colour
in the park today, which makes it cheerful and warm.

Somebody has stuck a red blossom
in the hands of a bronze sculpture
embracing his lover. Elsewhere,
art is serving a long sentence
and visitors are banned.
And so, one has had her constitutional,
and one strolls back,

past Charcoal Grill,
with menus of rump for takeaway
and the music posters now wasted
and the golf shop on its last days.
Two more corners and I am home. There,
my heart is waiting in these pages
by the window at my desk.

Review: A Canary for One

We all know he is a deceptively spare writer — Ernest Hemingway. The famous six-word fiction: For sale, baby shoes, never worn has been largely ascribed to him. And his complete collection of short stories, comprising 71 stout-hearted vignettes, is spread over just 650 pages.

This brevity is never diminutive in substance. It was Hemingway who coined the Iceberg Theory, the idea in which only one-eighth of the iceberg is shown to the reader, while the knowledge of the story that does not make it to the page forms the bulk of the iceberg.

In A Canary for One the bulk of the iceberg is a great unspoken irony that, deliciously revealed only in the last sentence, glows from amidst symbolisms of freedom and prejudice and relationships and reflections.

The tale follows an American male narrator, as he travels on an overnight train across France with his American wife and a fellow American woman-passenger. The middle-aged stranger shows off her caged-canary, which she bought from Palermo for her daughter who, back home in New York, has been nursing a broken heart ever since the mother tore her away from her Swiss boyfriend. “No foreigner can make an American girl a good husband,” the elder-lady is convinced. “Americans make the best husbands.”

Hemingway is a master of the metaphor. It is the instrument that hints at the leviathan beneath the surface. He uses the canary as a figure of speech here not merely for the young, unhappy woman robbed of her liberty to love, but simultaneously for the mother imprisoned in her own biases.

In an ingenious stroke, the author makes the latter vaguely deaf, an expression of an infirmity, if not to her child’s feelings, then to her own coloured views. And, despite an ostensible capacity to hear the bird singing, she is oblivious to what dynamic is reverberating between her companions.

As the train races through the night towards its destination, we realise (on hindsight) that the American couple, too, are trapped in the inexorable passage towards their marital predicament. Throughout the journey, no character is granted any reprieve.

But Hemingway is not interested in reprieves. Even the landscape past which the narrative careens grows more scarred by signs of crises. The story opens with the image of a wholesome house with a garden and tables in the shade, but soon brings us to witness a farmhouse on fire, bedding and things spread in the fields, before we encounter three rail-cars involved in a wreck.

Published in 1927 A Canary for One has been suggested by Hemingway scholars to echo the writer’s own personal life; for it was the same year when his marriage with Hadley Richardson came to an end. The notion this piece had been intended as an irony leads one to believe Hemingway had attributed the matrimonial rupture to himself — a poignant (probably honest) exercise in self-reflection and blame.

Like his other fiction A Canary for One is a substantive work that achieves multitudes through minimalism. Maximalism does not require copiousness; just think about the iceberg under the water.

Theatre review: Homer’s Odyssey

The image of captivity litters Homer’s Odyssey, and is keenly represented in Loucas Loizou’s staging of the Greek mythology, casting himself as Odysseus. The production unfolds within the ruins of an enclosure, its walls exposing crumbling brick and ancient decay, with no door or windows in sight. In this digital event, the camera is fixed throughout the 60-minute piece, so that we become another of his spectators gathering here every night to listen to the King of Ithaca, now an old man, tell the tales of his earlier days.

Interspersing his narrative with a series of (mostly original) songs, sung with the accompaniment of exquisite guitar-playing, Odysseus takes us from before the Trojan War to his eventual return home 20 years later. We all know the plot of this epic lore, but what counts in any adaptation is the emotional veracity exhibited by the actors; and, in this, Loizou excels, as he imagines and lets us into his character’s mind through music and story-telling.

Loizou is a passionate and talented singer-songwriter, who, as a Greek-Cypriot refugee since 1974, has himself a compelling background filled with adversity, resilience, and passion. His smooth, mellifluous voice shapes the inner world of this fabled figure, immersing us in Odysseus’ feelings and thoughts during his legendary adventures.

We encounter with him the harrowing episode with the Cyclopes, his departure from Circe, the amazing tunes of the Sirens; we muse over his seven love-making years with Calypso, recognise the generosity of Athena, and hear how he defeated the suitors vying for Penelope’s hand.

Without visual atmospherics, despite the dilapidated set and Loizu’s flowing-white gown and hair-dress, we miss the sweeping effects of this chronicle, which Loizou describes in contemporary language, with little literary flourish. But, no Odyssey is perfect. And this one is visceral, different, and good. If we have to spend our days captive in our own homes, hardly much else can rival being captivated by Loizou’s melodies that recount this timeless classic.

Theatre review: Shadow Piece-Alt. Shadow Love

Staging a play in which one or more characters is a shadow demands courage and cleverness. Indie artists, Antoinette Tracey and September Barker, take this adventurous route. They present Shadow Piece-Alt. Shadow Love at the Melbourne Fringe Festival as a digital event, taking the audience to the suburbs, rather than bringing the suburbs to the stage.

It is a balmy night. The single-fronted Victorian terrace would be inconspicuous by its familiarity had it not been for the second-storey lights and shadows behind the shades. Its ubiquity fits the universal nature of perceptions, relationships, and identity that are intricately layered here.

A Woman and a Man are having a heated argument, their black solid forms gesticulating wildly against the window coverings. In time, they find even ground and make up and go to bed. Tracey and Barker, themselves playing these parts, imbue the action with a mystic, surreal quality, that blurs the boundary between wakefulness and reverie, impression and reality. Scenes, in which the Woman finds herself interacting with a shadow, or when the Man confronts his partner’s alter-ego in a dream, weave a discombobulating spell.

This slice of life, without a definable plot, is depicted in a circular style. Bookended by the narrative, the work nestles its genesis in the middle act where we see Tracey and Barker conceive the creative concept with a group of friends. The combination of image, movement, sound illustrates the role of atmospherics and light and angle in affecting how the characters see each other, and see themselves, and, indeed, how the audience might in turn see them. Interestingly, because this is a filmed production, the cameraman wields considerable influence on our perspectives.

The drama is well acted, and the chemistry between The Woman and Man is convincing, although its intensity appears to be uneven as the story progresses. The enigma and ambiguity of the piece also makes it feel somewhat half-digested, not helped enough by the choice of music.

Yet, Shadow Piece-Alt. Shadow Love is worth watching, if only to witness Tracey’s nearly-ethereal dance towards the end when her independent Woman explores her relationship with the shadow of Barker’s Piano Man, her relationship with her circumstances, not least with herself.

It’s Like

Words that misunderstand the heart’s native language
The moon in daylight
An invitation that comes in the middle of the night
Loving with intelligence
A fireplace, tropical home
The sucking of a lung ventilator after the heart stops pumping
Into a candy-floss dawning sky columns of smoke billowing
The last chapter nobody reads because the plot is over
A sepia photograph faded beyond recognition
The honesty of the tide that returns all of its drowned
A single light at 3 A.M. on a second-storey room in an inky town
Hours spent at a tombstone
Savouring poetry as a hungry man eats
Wet socks
The rich rainforest, underneath which carcasses are boiling with weeping rocks
Reaching for the cookie-jar
The bait past which a fish swims
The only sound a vase ever makes striking the floor
An immaculate room with no windows or door
A granite blink
An empty chair in a family picture
A universe of falsehood
Unpacking in front of your kids a bag of tins from the centre for free food
A beautiful city that never gets dark
The brilliant stains of agony the sun shoots into the west as it slides off the sea
Wearing lipstick under a ski-mask
A shadow moving across a field without bending a blade of grass
A house, with one room permanently locked
   

Lockdown Poetry

Curfew

Excepting an all-night globe
palely burning
the corridor at 5 A.M.
was dark
but for my iridescent shoes
and a ribbon of light
under the door
three rooms away
where a flush choked
and swallowed
as I strode past
in silence
not knowing
this poem is for
the interrupted-sleeper or
early-riser who
also perhaps was 
observing the curfew 

Late

Scuff marks shimmering on the footstool.
Still water in a glass. 
The soundless TV in liquid black and white.
Somewhere, an infant's cry.
Rhythmic and fleeting.
As if the 8 o'clock sky has harvested it for dew.
  
I close the August windows and read Hawthorne
nearly weeping for his heroine, and think:
what good fortune to be so happy
we can mourn these imaginary lives.
  

A Family Album: An Exhibition

Her Por Por’s (maternal grandmother in Cantonese) kitchen wall, sporting a flip-calendar, transistor radio, and condiments shelf is how artist-photographer Pia Johnson, of Chinese-Italian heritage, has chosen to honour her family history. Julie Dowling depicts herself and her twin sister as cheeky four-year-olds peering out from amongst their aboriginal relations in a colourful acrylic painting. Hoang Tran Nguyen opens the conversation about his Vietnamese subjects’ boat-trip to Australia with a re-enactment through video-stills.

Also featuring other artists, including Selina Ou, Donna Bailey, Hannah Gartside, A Family Album is an exercise to understand who we are and our place in time by examining fragments of our environment, past events, and our relationships in (and, with) those circumstances.

The exhibition, working through texture, is an interesting collage of settings and faces and emotions. Its intricate blend of love and pain, grief and nostalgia makes the viewer contemplate on their own story, and reach for that family album tucked away in the bottom-drawer, or somewhere deep in the recesses of the mind.

From Sat 31 October 2020
Until Sun 13 December 2020

https://www.boroondara.vic.gov.au/events/family-album

Closer: A Short Film

“Watch us cope, watch us try to cope, watch us.” We do — we can’t help it — as we find our psychological being exhibited so vividly before us, through raw, limpid physicality, in Adrian Berry’s short online film, whose title conjures human’s innate desire for connection, (no more so than) at a time when distance has become the new protocol.

With a series of acrobatic performances, three circus companies from across Europe, Still Hungry (Germany), Agit-Cirk (Finland) and Lost in Translation (England), collaborate to examine the anatomy of touch, to explore our complex relationship with intimacy, and the impact of its absence upon our lives.

In mostly solitary acts, the performers are balancing multiple chairs on the head, or (tightrope-)walking along the ledge of a bridge, like the precarious posture of an isolated mind. They are tossing a rope at high-speed around the neck, and scaling an impenetrable 100-feet wall, as if desperate to cross to the other side, or flirting with self-destruction. They contort, and they spin, they bend backwards, and they split, the sense of deliberate focus and perseverance etched heavily on their faces.

Shot in their respective cities, against the quiet backdrops of Norwich’s horizon, Helsinki’s wetlands, and Berlin’s architecture, Closer showcases Berry’s interest in revelations from solitude, while bringing together disparate communities in this project. Through the universal language of art, he makes us recognise what we really feel in our exile from others, acknowledge people’s inexplicable need for attachment, the way the consciousness writhes affectedly in its vacancy, not least the deficiencies in pleasure and accomplishments of singular pursuits.

Notably, several hand-to-hand calisthenics included in this collection of movements illustrate feats of body-engineering that are achievable only through partnerships: we witness a pair of artists surmount a giant sculpture, without apparatus, a man holding up a woman on his head, or a woman poised upside-down in mid-air, supported only by his hands.

Admittedly, this 10-minute production seems longer than it is. But, why, is that not how it feels, in a lockdown?

Forest Walk

I love walking through the woods
On a spring morning,
Alone, naked
Under a dress, exploring

The footpath
Straggles onward into
The mystery of the
Primeval forest

There's the smell of 
Damp leaves,
Of wombats, sleep,
Slow air, infinity

I can see
All the dark places where
The sun has not yet reached, where
A yellow flower is creeping from
Its bud, where ant-trails ride across soil,
Like hum-coloured taxis, and
Giant trunks covered in rich lichen finery

Farther along, I come to the widening track
Where gleams of dawn
Breaking through the stirring canopy
Are at quiet play, where
I stand scintillating in their splendour,
Where trees speak the tongue
Of bare skin on bedclothes

I sit down on a luxuriant heap of moss
In a gentle dell, with a brook
Running over pebbles,
Brown, sparkling sand

I watch a low-bending branch
Tease the current into cheery eddies;
I hear the babble whisper tales
From the thicket's heart

Somewhere, a bird prattles on
About last night's rain;
Closer, a spider is
Weaving a wedding veil

As my attention draws near and out
In the bosom of this primitive world
It seems possible to trust in life, and
Live simply on this earth