Dark Night Walking with McCahon, by Martin Edmond Auckland University Press, 2011.
Martin Edmond is a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. Over a number of years he has written a number of impressive short volumes of prose in which he has demonstrated an ability to draw out and evoke the mood of places which would not have seemed at first glance to justify great interest. In Dark Night Walking with McCahon, a variation on the true life novel, he has found a subject worthy of his considerable gifts.
In 1984 the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon disappeared from an event in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and was found by police the following day in Centennial Park. He no longer knew his name and carried no identification. From a story which, on the surface, might have justified a magazine article describing McCahon’s artistic achievements with a lament for an inevitable sad decline, Edmond recreates a possible route for McCahon’s journey using the Stations of the Cross, with powerful symbolic links to the poetry of St. John of the Cross.
If, then, on the common land
I am no longer seen or found,
You will say that I am lost;
That, being enamored,
I lost myself; and yet was found.
………………….– St John of The Cross, from The Spiritual Canticle
Without preaching or claiming to be a believer, the ‘Stations’ he describes pulse with observations of human frailty, as when his journey arrives at Station V ( where ‘THE CROSS IS LAID UPON SIMON OF CYRENE at the Matthew Talbot Hostel):
Somone has written, in different coloured textas, words on the bricks along that side of the laneway …. The right panel is made up of the names of pop divas and celebrity women actors: Angelina, Cate, Grace … this angelic chronicle gradually gives way to a centre piece that is made up almost entirely of obscenities written over and over: fuck suck fuck suck fuck suck suck suck … is an example.
In this unpromising environment, he thinks:
… I hope McCahon fell into company at the Matthew Talbot: I want him to have had a mate … I want him to have walked in step with another into the night that awaited him … I don’t want him to have been, as he almost certainly was, alone.
At Station Vl, (VERONICA WIPES HIS FACE WITH THE HANDKERCHIEF) Edmond considers tranny lane and Carmen, the drag queen:
“… a big woman, with a grandeur and a presence … Maternal sounds like an odd word to use of a drag queen but that fits her too.”
Edmond also writes a passage in which he demonstrates his grasp of arcane information which he pours into the narrative:
“Veronica’s handkerchief belongs to an obscure and contested class of objects known as achieropoietoe, that is, made without hands – images of miraculous origin like the Shroud of Turin.”
Edmond demonstrates a facility with Art Criticism and History as he concentrates and contextualises his perceptions, drawing the reader into observing through a mundane context something astonishing. It is a poet’s gift in a true life novel to observe his narrator following Arthur Stace, the petty crim who once wandered the streets of Sydney writing Eternity in a perfect copperplate hand. When I worked at the International Telephone Exchange the early 1970s, Eternity, as written by Stace survived on the bell in the bell tower. I hope it still does.
Finally the author spends a night alone in Centennial Park. Of the experience, he writes
like McCahon … I had surrendered my identity; I had, like him become just another entity among entities: as the trees pulled up moisture from the earth and exhaled it through their leaves into the air, so too did I inhale and exhale, so too did I inhale and exhale …
He considers in this context McCahon’s art:
This … dissolution into an entity among other entities, followed by return as an altered self into the world, was what he had tried, not simply to communicate but to induce or even compel in his audience.
Edmond is stating an almost seamless congruence between the life and the work: a controversial claim justified by a compelling narrative, the tension of which is largely derived by the correlation of McCahon’s experience (and perhaps the author’s) with an explicitly didactic narrative of the crucifixion of Christ.
Edmond observes that most commentators see McCahon as “one who would have liked to believe but could not. He was not even a Christian existentialist ‘since that implies a kind of faith which, however arrived at, is nevertheless genuine.” Without any inside knowledge, I suspect the author’s views of being broadly in sympathy with his main character. Whatever the truth of this, his use of religious imagery in a tale of an artist who said of himself “I’m nothing” has effectively given a pathetic narrative of desolation depth, social significance and power which otherwise it would not have had.
– Rae Desmond Jones
Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest books are Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011 and Decline and Fall Flying Island Books 2011. His Selected Poems is forthcoming from Grand Parade Poets. He is also the editor of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist (Rochford Street Press) 2012.
Dark Night Walking with McCahon is available from http://www.press.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/home/notices/template/notice_item.jsp?cid=414290