Ardea Paul Carter December 2009 Paul Cox Dossier, Special Dossiers Issue 53 Ardea 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.