I rather liked this statement from Mike Ladd’s collection Invisible mending, even though I’m not totally sure what he means! Does he mean freely available, that is, we don’t have to pay to access it? Or does he mean it frees the spirit, takes us away from ourselves? Either way, he has a point, though perhaps “best” might be arguable in the first sense.
But now, that ongoing conundrum: how to review a collection, particularly a rather strange collection comprising poetry, short stories, memoir, essays and photographs, too. The two common choices are to summarise the range of the stories – like, you know, the stories take us from Adelaide to Japan to Chile and tell us about broken relationships, environmental destruction and living with dementia – or to pick a few stories (as I did with Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s Here where we live) and discuss them. Neither approach is completely satisfactory, but what can you do?
Overall, I enjoyed the collection, though I did have a couple of quibbles, which I’ll get out of the way now, before I talk about what interested me. One of these quibbles relates to a pet hate, the use of “utilise” rather than “use”. In “Gaudi and the light”, Ladd writes that Gaudi “utilised spirals, honeycombs, the planoid surfaces of magnolia leaves”. There are some who argue that “utilise” adds another layer to “use”, meaning “put to good purpose”, but unfortunately its over-use spoils any special meaning it “might” have for me. Also in “Gaudi and the light” is this sentence:
There had always been an aestheticism within him: his reverence of nature combined with an early drive towards utopian socialism, ongoing vegetarianism and a sometimes dangerous tendency to fast.
He goes on to talk about Gaudi embracing “a Franciscan concept of holy poverty”. Did he mean “aestheticism” or “asceticism”? Actually, my quibbles are all in this story, because my third one is surely a typo: “in the shadows was an agonising crucifixion figure, the body a taught bow”. Taut, methinks? Maybe this story was rushed, which is a bit of a shame because Gaudi’s life is intriguing and Ladd reminded me of the wonderful time we had seeing his work and learning about him when we visited Barcelona three years ago.
There is a lot in this collection to enjoy, including, for me, learning about pantun poetry. I know about Japanese haiku and tanka, but had never heard of “pantun”. Ladd discusses them in his travel essay, “Pantuns in the orchard” which describes his stay in Malaysia with his wife who was working on an art project. There are different types of pantuns he tells us but his favourite is the “tunggal” which comprises four iambic lines with an abab rhyme. Like haiku, pantun is strict about content as well as form: the first two lines “draw their imagery from the outside world” while the last two lines “turn inward toward human relationships and psychology”. Ladd includes a collection of his, in the piece called “A book of hours at Rimbun Dahan”. I’ll share a couple that tickled me:
I start the great four-bladed ceiling fan.
Seconds later, a gecko drops to the floor,
stunned. Yes, the world’s like that,
We all hang on as long as we can.
Under the mosquito net, settling to sleep
you feel safe from the world’s attacks.
Then you hear the needling, invisible whine
of that one mosquito inside the net: the mind.
These don’t have the traditional rhyme pattern, but they work for me.
Superficially, the book looks like a disparate collection, in form and content, but running underneath are some recurring ideas addressing contemporary concerns (such as human rights at home and abroad, and the environment) and family (including the dementia-related death of his father, and the return of a travelling son). The story “A neighbour’s photo” tells of the loneliness and uncertainty of a 14-year-old Sudanese who has migrated to Australia with his 18-year-old brother. In the poem “Learn to speak our language”, the narrator turns the statement on its head by suggesting the complainer might learn Kauna or Pitjanjatjarra. Sometimes the politics is more stark, as in the short “Gasoline flowers” in which four self-immolators, starting with Mohamed Bouazizi, are likened to flowers.
Nearly halfway through the book is a little series of pieces about health, the narrator’s own experience in hospital and his father’s with dementia. He captures well that eerie world – a hospital – in “The edge of the lake”. He describes the strange camaraderie that can occur in a hospital ward as four men experience their illness. He writes of his experience of surgery:
Though my legs are cut to blazes, I’m enjoying myself. I feel cradled, it all makes glowing sense to me: the hospital system with its rituals and meals and machines, its steel surface and pecking orders.
I know what he means. It’s a weird, weird world – with its own time and laws – and yet it can feel cocooning, with the outside world far away. Sadder though are the pieces about his father, the man with dementia who is “aghast at the rate the world is leaving him” (“My father at the clothesline”).
One of the longest pieces in the book is “Traffik”. It features the unnamed Student and Middleman, as well as a named Japanese man, Morii, and is about the illegal smuggling of orang-utans. I don’t think I’ve read a fiction piece on this topic before. I liked the complexity of Ladd’s story, the careful way he develops it and the fact that our Student smuggler and orang-utan buying Morii are not simplistic stereotypes of the “parts” they play.
Two other pieces I particularly enjoyed were the story about indigenous pensioner “Ken” and the memoir “Gaps” about parents catching up with their son who has returned from a trip to Columbia. I loved the wordplay on gaps – generation gap, the gaps in knowledge you experience when you return from being away for awhile, and gaps in the hearts of people who may never know that their family members drowned on the Siev X.
There was more that I enjoyed too, including the pointed “Skiing in Dubai” and the satirical “Radio News”, but I’ll finish here.
The back cover describes the collection as “based loosely on the ideas of scarring and healing”. As you can probably tell from the pieces I’ve shared, it is certainly about that. However, it is also about the business of being an artist, and so I’ll close with the last lines of the poem “Back again”:
Our magpie (we call it ours)
tries its run of notes, falters, and repeats;
like our writing and art careers.
Well, perhaps there was the odd falter in this collection but that didn’t stop me being impressed by the versatility and passion of Mike Ladd, and enjoying my time with him. Oh, and it has a beautiful cover, too.
(with photographs by Cathy Brooks)
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)