Local by Anna Couani, Flying Island Press 2021 was launched by Virginia Shepherd at The Shop Gallery, Glebe on 12 February 2022
Walking on a beach on the far south coast I found a metaphor for Anna Couani’s Local — a deep ocean shell, cast up from the sea, weathered to reveal its interior spirals. At the apex, a perfect miniature of mature shell- the mollusc’s first home—succeeded by whorls revolving outwards. The creature inside carries its past on its back and all its history is simultaneously present— past and present touch one another. So too with this book. In ‘Earliest Memories’, we tread the same footpaths as the parents had done, long before, “clapping hands under the fig-trees/ to see the fruit bats fly up/ and watch their nightly migration” – and “now nearly 80 years later, doing the same thing/ “calling up events and memories/ tracing lines back to the buried tram tracks/ surprised by the synchronicity, the continuity, of the one who broke away, but didn’t break away”
For this is a book about place, the meaning of home, the shell, and its expanding whorls. The suburb of Glebe, “a palimpsest of history”. A marine place, swept by the harbour’s breaths, an “ancient maritime paradise” or in ‘Glebe Local’, “the harbour that reaches everywhere like a giant in a big frock with spreading skirts”. When reading this poem I thought—this is a love letter to Glebe—, only to find the line “Is Glebe, place full of characters, a character in my narrative? Is this a love letter to a place? Yet, “a place is not a person, to love being here is not to love a single entity, it’s the multiplicity”. Here, in Glebe, Indigenous people lived on the foreshore, fishing for crabs in the mangroves, building oyster shell towers, and then, “the invaders surviving/ the only way they knew how/ badly, stupidly, fouling their own nest” … It “wasn’t home for the English/just a temporary sojourn” but the rhythms of Nature persisted, returned.
For this is a book about Nature and its rhythms, undeterred by humans, indifferent to the city and suburb that grows like a coral, collapsing, reforming. In ‘Ibis Sanctuary’, the ibis sanctuary re-emerges from new excavations, where once stood ugly 2 storey flats, and before them, worker’s cottages, and before that, a sandstone quarry, and always, before that and now, an ibis sanctuary. In ‘Once were Wetlands’, “we found old bottles when we dug/ relics from early invasion days”. It is “reclaimed land, not just stolen, but abundant fishing land, appropriated, changed, destroyed”, yet “the tidal canal, once putrid with industrial wastes from tanneries, now fish nursery”. The mullet are swarming, there’s a million fry in the water, and oysters have set themselves on rocks, as they always did. The “poisons are a dark secret at the bottom of the harbour”.
At the tip of the metaphoric shell, the tiny perfect replica of the expanded whole, is ‘The Old Mansion’, the first Glebe home, “crumbling waterfront mansion, a bay window in a big room, overlooking the Harbour Lighterage Company, with their fleet of tugboats”. The poem ‘Leaves’, on another whorl of the spiral, circles back to the image, later in life, summers of the past flashing past, faster now, and ‘the way water connects to you, the surf, the harbour, the leaves overlap”.
For this is a book about art, about visual harmonies, stillness, balance, paintings in words, watercolours on glass that can be viewed from both sides. Accompanied by artworks in varied media—watercolour, collagraphs, etchings, pencil drawings, inseparable from the poetry. A feeling for art materials, you can smell them, the chemicals, the methods, the coloured inks and blacks. The quest for a certain black, black of calligraphy, not flat, not shut down, but open, deep, the inky black of ‘Other Art’ and ‘City Views’. Hilik Mirankar’s sculptures, toothpicks wrought into a tiny chair, on an unreachable podium, reflected in a window, and the old armless soldier, making multiple personalities—a paper fan—she wishes it was glass.
In the ten-part ‘Ideas for Novels’, the final large whorl of the shell, the images are recast, smoke on the harbour, smoke on the water, the green guitar, the matt black, verdigris patina, copper carbonate, the haunted people, refugees, Uncle Con’s café in George street, Great grandpa’s stained glass windows in the girls school, Auntie Nellie in the Oceanic Café, “all of us walking those streets, different decades, across 140 years”
“there is this life, multidimensional, multi-headed defiance, then there’s that other place, where the wild things are situated, contained, erasure of diasporic histories, rooted or rootless cosmopolitanism, rooted in a place, back from long absences, returned from a long and seemingly pointless sojourn”.
– Virginia Shepherd
Virginia Shepherd is a scientist, science educator and author of science fiction stories. She has authored numerous scientific articles, book chapters and a book in the fields of biophysics, cell communication, bioelectricity and plant intelligence. Her SF stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Abaddon, Cosmos, and You’re Not Alone, edited by Damien Broderick. She continues to explore the world inside this one.
Local is available from https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/local-by-anna-couani/