At last, Oliver’s last proposal for the cover of the special edition of my book has been emailed through.
It arrived, according to the information in my Inbox, at 1.33 pm on May 9th.
And there it languished, for several hours …
Early that afternoon, Martin drove off alone for a visit to his mother in her Retirement Village in Southport, and although this promised me eight days to work here in solitude, in the first hours after the final fussing around with packing and departure crises, I was too distracted to sit at my desk.
Instead, I gardened.
Planted Spanish bluebells and seedlings of white and rosy pink primulas; potted six dark blue hyacinths, which will now disappear into the cooler darkness under the house until their pots are full of roots; sprinkled seeds of forget me nots (heavenly blue) and wallflowers (gold and russet-brown) …
Cleared away wandering Jew and scattered snail bait …
In other words, I started to reclaim some of the parts of this garden which went wild in the wrong way while we were in Paris last year – and I made some progress towards having flowers to look forward to in what we call ‘spring’ here.
By the time I braved my laptop to check for mail, it was nearly 5 pm. And I wasn’t expecting a message about the cover.
So it was a nice shock to see John Knight’s name and his short, but hopeful message. Obviously, he likes this image – Oliver’s ‘best yet’ – and he seems keen to settle on it.
My Mailbox initially had the drawing as a small icon, an attached file that I had to download. Then, suddenly, it was large – taking up the entire screen.
Two flamingo heads on twisting necks: a dramatic pas de deux in a fluster of pinks and reds, with a touch of green. Very startling.
A brilliant drawing, no doubt about that.
I confess, however, that it is not what I was expecting. When we talked about using the flamingoes picture in a simpler form for the cover, I imagined the birds would keep their lovely wings and excruciatingly intriguing long legs. I didn’t anticipate almost nothing but necks and heads.
Large, it is a shock. But at the size I think it will be for the cover – half a postcard? – perhaps it will be all right?
I am not good at making decisions. Offer me a cup of tea, and I’ll be happy with it. Offer me a cup of coffee, and I’ll be equally happy. But offer me a choice of tea or coffee, and I’ll dither for five minutes, trying to decide which I’d prefer.
So now, faced with several possibilities for the cover, I’m paralysed.
All the other sketches Oliver’s done suddenly seem more endearing and attractive than I remembered. I go from one to the other – and off into my imagination as well, where the version I might have done based on the flamingoes lingers – and of course, I end up totally confused.
The only thing to do is to go to bed and hope that when I wake up I’ll be in a better mental state for making judgments.
Next morning, after a reasonable night’s sleep, and with my mind reasonably cleared of my previous expectations of what a cover based on the flamingoes sketch might look like, I approach the new cover drawing again.
It is definitely arresting. The two birds are so close they could be an intimate couple. Such grave expressions …
What I love about flamingoes is their combination of gawkiness and grace. I had always thought their impossibly delicate beauty was due to their wings and legs – a balletic counterpoint to their upper halves.
And yet, without wings or legs, these birds’ heads in Oliver’s drawing become unbelievably vulnerable. Their necks arc as if they’re trying to make letters – or perhaps a question mark, in the case of the larger, more dominating bird?
Beside this image, the others we’ve been considering look astonishingly simple. The young woman striding away into the airport terminal is jaunty and carefree. Even the walkways at Roissy are suddenly clean and optimistic …
Once again, I go from one to the other, trying to be a prospective reader (or customer), and wondering which one I’d reach for if I had no notion of what’s inside the book.
The flamingoes, I decide, are the image I keep going back to. They are the most puzzling, the most visually striking, and also, in some strange indefinable way, the most moving.
I’m assuming that Oliver has responded to an image in my poem ‘Following Rilke to the Paris Zoo’ – but it’s so long since I wrote the poem I can’t remember exactly how flamingoes figure in that context.
When I re-read the poem, I’m intensely gratified. The flamingoes there are emblematic of Otherness – they’re everything exotic and not quite knowable that I’m trying to write about in this book.
Later, I realize with a jolt (and a feeling of great stupidity because this is something very, very obvious that I’ve forgotten): there is even a flamingo in the title poem. A woman in pink Lycra, running up the hill near my house at Lake Macquarie.
I remember seeing her, when I was about to leave for Paris and my mind was already leaping between hemispheres – she turned into an image of a bird from somewhere far away, a moment in the poem when the strangeness of Europe was already here.
So, flamingoes are supremely relevant.
And we have our cover.