Human TouchArdea cinerea is the scientific name of the Grey Heron found in Europe. In Human Touch (2004) a heron alights for a moment on a stone basin in the garden – an Australian species no doubt but when I observed the haunting effect to which it was put I thought of my childhood familiar. After thinking I would speak on this theme, I came in half-way through a screening of Paul’s film about Nijinsky: there, again, was the heron, taking off, sailing behind the tracery of bare trees. In the spirit of the director’s gift of association, Ardea was improvised over a period of two-and-a-half hours, roughly the length of a feature film.

Improvisation for Paul Cox

1

Snapped at the horizon of vision

thoughtfully tenanting Egyptian waters,

your role in the periscope of remembered

time is protected by the agency of

Orpheus: with that weight of association

to bear no wonder you drape a grey raincoat

over hunched shoulders and refuse to attend

rehearsals, – as if one whose brush had drawn

up shadows from death’s bowl writing with them

mortal maps needed further direction.

But I see you under other lights when

without regard for Fiction’s plot you dropped

in to the set, perching on Medean rooftops

or idly lifting off from sunken regions

we had overlooked you pulled the straining wires

of your craft, Phaedrus-like, towards the sun –

startled, I always thought, by a psycho-

logical indiscretion or the rowdy

obsession with surface detail likely to

obscure the immortal creases in the water’s face.

Then, pulling off the monkey face that answered

you, jabbing with futile endeavour the beak

that probed the underbelly of the shallows

for life, you were not so smart, but ungloved of

your double’s worship, stood about like any

evidence of nature’s perversity: shags,

gannets, mergansers and other notorieties

of northern avifauna easily out-hauled

the treasures of the deep, putting food on

the table of science and the everyday,

while you with your flamingo pretensions

stalked up and down in solitary, unpicking

an Ego not yet dreamt of in my Eden.

2

Always it has been like this, we say, expecting

a tearing of the veil that will reveal behind

the film the existence of a might have been

trajectory, you know, spreading southwards

as the heron heavily climbs towards

the threshold of whatever emancipation

of the spirit – O look down below (panning with

the camera’s eye of memory reclining

on association’s lulling cushions):

a girl, her skirt rolled up above her knees

with red hair, green eyes and the century

in her hands; O look, the funeral bier

and over there the alienated family

come together with the deceased’s ashes,

reading futures in the glitter of the fishmeal

urnage turned out in mother’s favourite waters –

you funeral fowl, ardent in defence of

ashes, you doctor who takes over when

this-worldly doctors wind back across the field –

Death having put an end to artful deferral,

veilings and the other feathered artifices

society uses to capitalise the flesh –

when you could have been useful you rose

with just the smallest effort, the baby-bringing

stork in reverse (and shot in grey),

and listlessly doubling the point settled

to new work, new littorals a bay away.

Sad, I thought, that at the end one who

had specialised in shores (and knew his Keats)

could not be recruited for this last scene.

3

I wouldn’t have taken you for a dancer –

a swimming attendant or other fin-de-

siècle servitor caressing rebellion

behind solicitude for his master’s ease,

dancing on the fingers of the age’s

puppeteer perhaps – but these wild fanfares

of wings, these alightings that always seem

lunar in their lack of gravitation to the earth,

suggest a stick figure of skin and bone,

a fantasy of Wilbur Wright. As for style –

beside the quill clipped over the ear

and the Hapsburg hunch, you are, if

pivotal, the Janus operator from a time

when light had not been sprocketed with sound

but glanced as easily as the tide withdrawing

ribbons round the ankle – and the girl who then

stood astride vocations, like the opening of a film,

is married and wears her hat of woe to bed.

Transposed, the traded feather is the clue

to what is going on: from coveted ear covert to

pennant plume caught in a woman’s hat as

the door opens onto a parterre with pond,

it migrates, metamorphosing into the motive

itself, Time’s arrow, call it Eros, that holds –

and holds apart – the consecutive acts

of passion’s eagle-snake struggle with death.

Love, the picturesque dialect of liquids,

curtains, drugs, divans, goes on down below

but you are drawing out the line above

like a 1950s bomber invisible but for

the aged arcing eyebrow of the trail,

you, breastless, a creaking scaffolding

of bone and woe, little more than a curve

on wings, a needle pricking out the stars,

are always departing from the visual realm

the keeper of the out of sight that underwrites

these fragile felicities of the camera’s gaze.

4

Why did you come back that day, scrambling for

a foothold on the sloping roof, astride the ship

wreck of my life when, unmoored by half a world

from what my mother would have called home,

and my wife in the mirror of her dying also

withdrawing into the underworld of hope

abandoned, why did you take on the role of

vagrant or rare visitor to that place

where already the soul of her had lifted off?

Was it to bring news of her right ascension,

with your needle beak to stitch my flight path

into the hems of her abiding canopy?

Or was it a torch of fire, a blackened branch scored on

your brow, expression of a finger raised in

solemn condemnation of my act, you sought

to balance, like Fame’s malicious messenger?

Monitor of the entertainments we devise

to curtain off the very real, you act out

the uncoordinated passages of the soul

which the bushfire of our art drives to madness:

the evidence of your empire is

the aftermath of ashes. I wish I could

withdraw you from the dead campfires

of our collectivity’s acquired regret,

cross you with the pelican, kingfisher

or gavotting egret or any other more genial fowl

but born of Dawn and Dusk, the critic of

our daytime plays and artificial fires,

you refuse intimacy as suffocation -

as Olympian in your rag-and-bone way

as Plato who thought plays a double tragedy

from the point of view of right geometry,

angular yourself, I should have recognised

in you divinity’s dishevelled cope.

5

To and from a tidal district you passed over

our tents, our huddled streets, our half-built square

as one might survey another’s troops,

torn between calculation and care, amazed

perhaps the precious regions you made for

remained unknown to the director here

whose bright new world of crowds and convergent

destinies lay protected from the ebb and flow

of time – that hoary context of the primary pose

and sufficient phrase that would secure

the life-likeness of the writer’s script.  So,

day by day, whatever the state of the weather,

you marked the stages of our uncommercial

pageant with your patient economy

of eels on lucky days, maintaining an indifference

unduly calming as the sequel proved.

Male or female we could never prove – in-

distinguishable to the outward eye,

unsexed as the Phoenix is when the ardent

nest of flames dies down, we enjoyed you,

if at all, as some aerial artist, cyclist

or heraldic parody of American power,

appropriate for symbolic grafting on

to the retina of an audience unused to

intimations of the invisible. Until, some

parallax effect of life on art occurred –

a mother died, a marriage began unravelling

against the backdrop of ongoing war –

and you noticed for the first time the human hand,

clenched and unclenched when the bird took off,

saw where previously there had been the usual

effects of cloud, a woman’s lips and imperious brow,

nothing like the ones whose dreams you had cropped

on a hundred different beds (over the years)

and you knew that its persistent passage back and forth

mapped the crossroads of a life lived back to front

and that you had before you saw it passed into

post-production when cut into a thousand ribbons

a life joined up is composed of endings – and She

was rowing into the backlit sky a twig borne

crosswise in her beak, and nothing you could do

to stay the creation of next year’s nest.

6

Then it turned ugly with the fire of endings,

waste tumbling out, promontories collapsing

as if eschatology had become

a fashionable aesthetic and the best

nooses narrative could devise to stay

the flood produced instead an empty deafening

roar. No matter that the essential theme,

the solitary stalker on the shore, had

come into sharp relief, the sand was slipping

from underfoot, and even the actors had

shot through, gone under, or embalmed in

their last images sought anonymity.

Just then, convinced departures had caught up

with you, the master of valedictions, it rained

and stepping out, although it hurt to exercise,

you saw reflected in the archipelago of shallow

waters underfoot the craggy impression – thought

at first the Stork of childhood but battered, cinereous,

pointedly accelerating away – a figure whose head

shrouded underneath a mac could have been any

artist of the Cold but was instead Ardea

cinerea, walking as fast as you could go,

splashing wordlessly, a dea, a dieux, and you,

although you could not hold up the action

to ask it to pronounce more clearly ashes to ashes

or any of the standard phrases actors know,

were happy that the cinema underfoot

had brought you back a brother to your vision

a goddess of the flooded plains whence you came,

a totem of the incidental but for which

the incidents of a life could not take wing.

*

The clouds are nuclear this Sunday – hard

to say whether they are films or screens. I thought

with regret of leaving them behind,

moored thoughtfully off chimney tops

or caught like plastic bags in the powerlines,

of the aperture closing to this aloneness

at the end – except that this aloneness witnessed

as the archipelago aloft, call it

regional, an inclination, these

accumulating hypotheses of

possible endings that will never be,

no, a continent of connected thought –

who could not love your muffled outpourings,

lowering rumbles and general detachment

from the earthquakes scoring agony across

the wrapped up surfaces of the world below –

embryos of, if not a universal,

a film realisation of the whole –

who could bear to tear themselves apart

from this interim investigation of the Real.

So every illumination of the loss,

though mortal immortalises parting

and these passages of the final film

though unforthcoming about the final cut

connect the islands of our apartness –

look, conquistadors come bounding down

from the sky, bridging horizons, O you

are mine, heavenly, deformed creatures,

you drifters foreshadow as decisively

as time allows the shape of things

to come, the wisdom accumulated in

these ephemeral citadels! the collapsing

artifices of faith! O you vocations for

the inexpressible, greet here below one

who raising wings steered up among you,

the best and glorious best of what any could do.

About The Author

Paul Carter is an historian, writer, philosopher and artist currently engaged in his own creative research practice, “Material Thinking”. He has authored many books concerned with Australian history, places and identity, including The Road to Botany Bay (1987), The Lie of the Land (1996), and most recently, Dark Writing (2008).