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28 May 21

A silent and invisible conversation


‘Prose, as it is absorbed and internalised by a reader, is surprisingly similar to visual art.’ In this meditation on the close relationship between art and audience; book and reader, author Cate Kennedy plays in the infinitely open spaces where the page, the prose, the frame or the form ends, and encounters magic and transformation.

When I was in my early twenties, like so many Australians, I did some extended travelling in Europe. I didn’t take a camera; instead I collected hundreds of postcards of paintings and artworks I loved in the many galleries I visited. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit – in these days of rigorous Marie Kondo decluttering – that I still have several hundred of them, stacked in an old suitcase, ready to be drawn out at random and studied again some day. I still have many of my childhood books, too – complete with my loopy seven-year-old signature, and I can see where I’ve laboriously traced images, or copied hands and faces, from the illustrations I pored over for hours. After long years of upping stakes and moving house, these postcards and books are solid companions now, and I’m not going to be throwing them away as clutter. Like all artefacts, they’re charged with something ineffable and hard to articulate, to do with use and memory and meaning.

I picked up a copy of the book not long ago which had been my very first ‘reader’ at school. The moment I turned to the first page it was like swinging open a vault. I experienced that strange, vertiginous sensation that swamps us when we touch an artefact that has become deeply inscribed in our early memory. Fifty years ago (!) I was checked off on a roll and told to sit down at a tiny desk, where I would learn to read. Miss Cresp, who taught prep at Laverton Primary School that year, handed me this same book, published by the Department of Education in the early 1950s. The Department sure got their money’s worth out of those books, since they were still in general use in the early 1970s, which means two generations of Australian schoolkids learned to read with them.

If you were in primary school during those decades, you will no doubt recall the ‘Playmates’ series and the spookily well-behaved John and Betty (‘John is big. He can help father. He can dig with his spade. Betty is big, too. She can help mother. She can water the garden with her little can’) their pets Fluff and Scottie, and their robotically polite little friends Peter and Ann. (‘Betty likes to play with Ann. ‘Let us skip,’ says Betty. John likes to play with Peter. ‘Let us have a slide,’ says John. ‘Up you go, Peter. I can slide after you.’ ‘Let us go for a walk,’ says John. ‘Yes,’ says Peter. They go to the pond to see the ducks. ‘Let us feed the ducks with my bun,’ says John. ‘This is fun,’ says Peter. ‘Yes,’ says John.)

The moment I re-read these lines, every year that has passed in my life since the age of five slips away, and I am transported back to that classroom, with Miss Cresp in her miniskirt, paging through this worn Scotch-taped book, spelling out those phrases. The room smells of chalk and sandwiches in vinyl schoolbags and cardboard Globite cases. Two kids who are always as obedient as John and Betty themselves – our ‘monitors’ – are studiously punching the foil tops in our recess milk bottles up the front of the classroom, and I am thinking that the kids in this book live on some other planet, where boys feed ducks buns instead of lobbing bits of brick at them, where they address each other saying ‘let us’ instead of ‘jawanna’ (as in ‘jawanna go on the slide?’), where Betty has a pram and a doll and John has a drum and a truck, and they play nicely with Baby.

I haven’t told Miss Cresp, but I’ve already taught myself to read, too impatient to understand how those marks on the page became sounds and stories to wait. I power through John and Betty in five minutes. But she doesn’t care. She tells me – the first of many crushing announcements by teachers – that this will be my reader for the rest of the term.

Eternity stretches away before me in a wasteland of ducks, prams, skipping ropes and brown sandals. Something dutiful in me wants to believe there’s more to this book than meets the eye, because an adult has given it to me and, after all, adults hold the keys to the kingdom. There must be some secret to absorb beyond this boring repetitive android chanting, I am thinking, and I’m looking for it, suspended in my own bookish daydream. On one page I suddenly notice that Betty’s shadow, as she pretends to be a bird, is actually a bird. ‘John can hop!’ declares the text, and, as he hops, his shadow is actually a rabbit’s. Even at five years old, I’m so desperate to see the point of the exercise that this tiny, simple thing seems instantly elevated to the significance of a Zen koan. It’s like the artist has drawn a visual gag just for me, a wink, a small private joke.

I gaze hard at the children on the orange cover – silhouettes of John and Betty with their dogs striding purposefully off in opposite directions. Where are they going? What is happening off the edge of the book? And what’s going on between the borders of the pages, inside? What are the children pointing at, that I can’t see?

Now, fifty years later, I am struck afresh with the dizzying sensation of sharp visceral recognition at this precise recalled moment of discovery. The illustrations leap out at me as fresh and intact as ever, full of their secret messages and hidden narratives I had wished, yearned and imagined into being. I recall exactly how it had felt to be seized with the idea, at five, that the author and the artist were giving me the equivalent of a secret handshake, that there was something to be found between the lines; a small secret reward for those looking beyond the surface.

Underneath those words and images it was as if an invisible, silent conversation was going on, built out of suggestive space, and a leap of faith. As an adult I’ve written across many genres – poetry, fiction, memoir, essay – but this desire is always the starting point: how to give someone else the jolt of surprise and recognition something has given me? What form is going to best serve this revelatory moment of connection, shared through the prism of language? What is our silent, invisible ‘conversation’ about?

Prose, as it is absorbed and internalised by a reader, is surprisingly similar to visual art. There is detail, and dimension, and a kind of careful scenic staging which is not always discernible via the casual scan but which rewards deep reading. Objects, settings and patterning are all put to use. Even the way prose is formatted on the page is designed to give the reader breathing space, to feel entirely immersed in the blow-by-blow trajectory of the narrative as it unfolds in an imagined temporal dimension.

I often think about a story in terms of its parameters, and authorial decisions made about where those parameters are placed in order to create a dynamic emotional experience for the reader. I feel myself shaping a frame, directing and modulating a reader’s attention. Inside that frame is everything they need, and everything outside it can be trimmed away, and left implicit.

As a child, my family visited the city together rarely, although my mother brought me to Collins Street once in a while to have eye tests with an optometrist and be fitted with new, ever-uglier glasses. These visits generally involved having pupil-dilating eyedrops put in my eyes, so for a few hours after each optometrist visit I stumbled along behind my mother in a blurry world of painful overwhelming dazzle. Through this squinting glare I beheld my childhood Melbourne: the steep incline of Collins Street, the David Jones Food Hall, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the cenotaph and occasionally the National Gallery of Victoria itself on St Kilda Road.

Once my whole family visited the Gallery together. The memory of the day has stayed with me because we happened upon an exhibition which was, for me at seven or eight years old, transformative. The drawings in the show seemed diffident, even careless – big confident sketches in crayon, to my memory; faces rendered with the loosest and barest of strokes. Everything seemed to clear and solidify around my field of vision as I gazed at those drawings. They were by Pablo Picasso. I’d tried to draw faces, eyes, hands and horses myself, so I knew how effortlessly, uncannily brilliant these were. I lingered, doing another circuit, marvelling.

Nobody else in my family seemed to find the drawings that interesting or arresting, though, and they got bored waiting for me out in the Gallery foyer, and came into the exhibition to find me, making a joke of it. I was burning up with something as I came back out, something dilated and lit up and restless. How could they talk, now, about heading over to the floral clock, or buying an ice cream? Why was my dad concerned with getting back to the car to beat the traffic home? How could they possibly have failed to be mesmerised by that?

During those eye tests, my small head clenched into a big metal contraption, I’d been instructed to keep my gaze fixed on a series of small illuminated letters and icons as the optometrist fitted slides of different calibrations into the eyepieces, saying: ‘Better now? Clearer? How about now? Clearer?’ until suddenly the right combination was found, the correct lens slid into place, and everything sharpened at last into bright, clear blinking focus.

Stepping out into the Gallery foyer that day, I was aware of a similar sensation. The stained glass in the Leonard French ceiling was dazzlingly rich, the water coursing down the front windows created a whole new streaming abstract landscape of the world outside. Something had shifted in me, and it was something unexplainable to my parents and my sister; it was a secret, private realisation I nursed to myself.

On school excursions to the NGV after that, I was always dawdling, trying to break away from the group, hoping for a chance to gaze at paintings alone.
I didn’t want to comment on them, or write down my responses to comprehension questions on the excursion worksheets. I wanted to feel, again, that transfixing moment of silent communion with an artist, empty of judgement or even discernment. I’m sure you know the state of mind I’m talking about. It feels like a waking dream; someone else’s dream they have dreamed for you which you are invited to step into; to imagine and infer what is under the surface, what is beyond the frame.

Frederick McCubbin’s triptych The pioneer, 1904, was an artwork I always returned to during those excursions. It wasn’t just the technical prowess of the painting – although McCubbin rendered eucalypt forests, light, leaf litter and smoke like nobody else – it was his device of creating a clear, nuanced narrative through the three works which appealed to me. There were no explanatory notes to make this interpretative process didactic or reductive, just the three paintings, displayed with their internal storyline presented as visual snapshots, caught in time.

You don’t so much view the triptych as fall into it. The forest is gradually cleared, the trees are felled and a house is built, a child is born and grows, the city emerges like a shimmering mirage on a distant horizon. The woman’s face looks lost and despondent in the first panel, but we only have her erect, dignified posture and her husband’s uptilted listening face to gauge her emotional state in the second. Within this suggestive space bloom our own internal stories and inferences and impressions. How are we able to step so effortlessly between the frames, and create this coherent narrative continuity out of what we are not being shown? Whose grave is it in the third frame, and who is the man kneeling by it? Is it the disheartened man from the artist’s other work, Down on his luck, 1889 (Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth), or the adult son depicted as a baby in the second panel, tending or praying at the grave of one of his parents? Is it even the same place? It echoes the landscape and position of the grave in McCubbin’s earlier painting A bush burial, 1890 (Geelong Gallery, Geelong). Is the man the original pioneer, and does the grave belong to the wife or the child?

In my experience, we don’t stand empty before a work of art for long, especially not one where a narrative ‘throughline’ is signalled so deliberately. We can’t help but try to intuit what is behind the intentional shape of the framed ‘moments’ the artist is showing us, and the more we enter this liminal, imagined space, the more memorable this narrative and its subtextual possibilities become to us.

The process of ‘story-making’ is participatory. It’s exactly how good narrative prose works, too, as we immerse ourselves in the vivid dream of reading. I’m showing you, says the artist, this, then this, and because of that, this. A bird in a shadow of a child outstretched, pretending to fly, or a hand cupping a chin, a hand clinging to a mother’s neck, a hand touching a bush grave. Beginning, middle and end, conception, growth and death. And we somehow care about these painterly representations on canvas, or invented characters summoned to the page, as though they are real people, humanised and honoured by the invisible connections and empathic re-visioning that we ourselves have provided. The transformation – its epiphany and emotional charge – becomes our own.

Look closely, says the artist as we gaze on what they have rendered. Clearer? Clearer? How about this?

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 18 Sep–Oct 2019.