Saturday, December 19, 2015

In Lakeland

I'd started Maureen O'Shaughnessy's Lakeland the night after my father died -- when I didn't know what else to do with myself. Even though I rarely read poetry, I'd pulled this slender hybrid novel from the pile by my bed and began reading the poems that open it -- one after another -- the transparent couplings that soon become interleaved with prose -- reading on and on like a madwoman into the flat, black hours of the morning.

I can see now, as I flick back through it, that one of the reasons I kept reading this book that night of all nights was that I was so entirely transfixed by its voice -- the way it seemed to hold the key to all the specific strangeness of the day I'd just experienced: the corpse that had been my father, everything about his ordinary leavings that had been lost irretrievably, not only at the moment of his death, which I'd missed, but in the many years beforehand as he was becoming caught, simultaneously, in anxiety and degenerative illness.

The narrator's own father's dying comes in early -- the way he:

... who left this world astonishingly often,

was coming and going continuously,
like someone opening a door and looking through
and shutting it and opening and looking through.

The father turning up again in small and dazzling places, such as in the garden where the narrator is watering her vegetables; among the "unweeded runnels" she glimpses:

...dots of decay --
grubs, rot, and think how behind any façade
lie the small betrayals: those brownish-purple lines
on your father's poled legs, for instance, his winter hands,
faint crystalline ridges streaking his chest
like an oar on the lake's surface, the thin wing of his collarbone.

In the very opening piece about an arrival in Sydney Harbour in the early sixties, the father is only implicitly present at the side of what turns out to be an even more elusive figure -- the mother Sieglinde -- whose thoughts are already churned, on their insides, with the violent agitation of events from the other side of the world -- events that, in the book, we will soon feel for ourselves:

Once bent winds chiselled the water in bluish spirals
quiet as gloves.
She thought, now I'm going to be held
And the wind stayed with them, blazing on the deck
and blazing, and it didn't go away.

There is so much in this book: a multitude of voices that tell of hanged, frightened boys; boys and men that shoot, maim, cower and rig up hurried, desperate nooses out of inadequate cloth; a woman who betrays and is betrayed; a woman who keeps a book and songs by her side so that she might make sense out of her desire.

And then there is the masterful final section of Lakeland, where the narrator, M, and her mother travel to Poland in a highly practical effort -- among other things, there are the mother's frequent flyer points to use up -- this effort to get closer, as much to Sieglinde's state of mind as to remnants of the complex chain of inter-generational evasions and quests that drove a family from their large house in Walcz during the war, and from the lake where Sieglinde had nearly drowned (she was rescued by her father). In this section, there is a moment when M expects her mother to cry from overwhelming emotion -- from an intense recognition of loss. But instead, Sieglinde turns around from where she has been standing at a window and is "smiling, her cheeks flushed. Her hands were cupped around her face".

M is reading Katherine Mansfield. This helps M to keep the line taut between the two hemispheres of the world as, when in Poland, she remembers her own father's patients in Malvern, a suburb of Melbourne -- all the Ms stitching over the gaps between the fragments. During the whole of the book -- and behind the quiet of M's contented childhood journeys accompanying her father on his medical rounds (to see people whose muted success after the war in Australia might be have been described by her mother as "wonderful taste") there's a great effort to address what cannot be addressed directly: "through the waves of pain and sickness and under the clattering chrome-edged light they're feeling the relief of impersonal tenderness".

Obviously, from the state I was in while I was reading Lakeland I was never not going to notice how the Australian father pads in this quiet, pale way behind the dark extremities of the German family. He was too old, perhaps, to have attempted to look after so many children -- seven ("as many offspring" as "a Bruckner symphony") -- children that he nonetheless loves ("even the way he responded more readily to me than the appeals of 'Dr --'"), as my own father loved. This father steps softly in the long aftermath of the consequences of so many fierce choices and omissions in Sieglinde's land, attending where he can, but also, paradoxically, leaving all of it too soon for there to be an aftermath that includes him; the way he has become estranged already from his family, his wife; lying as he does both among and not among:

... the rest of the papers, photos, tickets, cufflinks...
God there's a lot of stuff in this place.
The beauty of this book. Such a tenderness for objects, landscape -- for a myriad of trees, clods, "marks of habit in brick" -- and the bewildered voices themselves. And yet it is the clear, hollowing honesty of Lakeland that I treasure the most:

...M leant across, took her mother's hand in hers, felt the joy of movement and the pleasure of watching two birds blaze a trail across a blue, blue sky. And then the panic returned.