When the PDF file for my new book, the Hour of Silvered Mullet, is ready for correcting, I am in Toowoomba, at my mother’s house. ‘Old Haunts’ is what I’ve called the first section of poems, and that is exactly where I am, in a haunting place from my past, as I go through the manuscript, page by page.
I am even sitting at the desk in my old bedroom. It’s decades since I’ve slept here – mostly the room is used for storage now, and so little that’s left here is mine. But the walls are still the same pink they were when I was twelve years old, and the curtains are the same too, made by my mother from a simple floral cotton.
Outside, the street is busier than it used to be. Toowoomba is a much bigger city in 2015 than it was when my parents moved here, in 1963. Then, this house on eight and a half acres of land was on the outskirts, and all the other houses ‘nearby’ were also well buffered by large gardens and a peaceful protection of surrounding paddocks.
Now, I’m surprised by gusts of traffic just beyond this front room. The camphor laurel trees just inside the front fence are probably more than a hundred years old and make a dense hedge, but even they can’t keep back the noise of the present as so many cars rush by.
In this room, though, the past lingers. Once we’ve moved away my mother’s old electric typewriter to clear some space, here is the fake wood-grained desk that is actually a plank covered in Contact, hinged to the wall. Fifty years later, I settle my Airbook where I used to do my secondary school homework. I’m about to do a phone conference with John Knight, my publisher at Pitt Street Poetry, to prepare my fifth full-length collection of poems for the printer. When I was twelve, how could I possibly have imagined this?
In this book, there is a time line that runs from the little Queensland towns of my childhood to Lake Macquarie, where I live now. So the idea of being here, as I refine the arrangement of the poems and put in the final punctuation marks, is quite seductive.
But will it be possible? Will the contemporary wonders of communication work so that I can be here in 2015, talking on the phone to John Knight in the Southern Highlands, while we trawl through this other time-space of the poems?
Actually, no! In spite of my perfect space at the old desk with just enough room for my laptop and my printout of the manuscript, there is a problem.
When I switch on my mobile phone, there’s no signal. Even my mother’s cordless phone won’t co-operate. In this room, it fills with static so that any voice from anywhere else can’t be heard.
Eventually I realize that the only possible place is the kitchen. That is where the main phone connection is. Although I need to move the old flatbed handset to the very end of its cable in order to sit it on the table, and then shuffle a mini-garden of vases of roses and camellias and the first autumn berries out of the way to make room, here at least I can raise a connection to the outside world.
The kitchen is the room at the very back of this house. Usually, it’s where family and friends enter. So, being here for this work is risky. If anyone from the real world is going to visit while we’re immersed here, we’ll be very abruptly interrupted.
Thankfully, no one arrives … For two hours, the room stays in the world of the poems.
It’s exhausting, this proofreading. And because I’m here, where my poetry writing began, I feel as if I’m checking the proofs in other ways as well. Just out the door is the native frangipani my father paused under, all those years ago – I can’t see it while I’m checking the words and the punctuation and the layout for the poem where he will do that forever now, but I’m conscious that the tree is there, and yes, there’s truth and rightness in the poem.
There is also the strangeness of another person reading all the poems back to me. If there are false notes and clumsy phrasings, they are much more obvious when someone else, without personal connections to the content, puts a voice to the words.
On one level, it’s almost unbearably disturbing – all that emotion and personal detail … on another, it’s like proof that the poems are no longer part of me: they have their own separate lives, and I listen with surprise and a slightly embarrassed fascination, as if I know, but also don’t know, what words will come next.
After two hours working like this the first afternoon, and then another hour the next morning, we’re done. At least until the dummy print is ready for more checking!
Then there will be more eagle-eyed spotting required, but by that stage I’ll be back at Lake Macquarie, at ‘The Place of Silvered Mullet’, where the poems in the book end. So that will also feel like the right place to be, as the book is finally declared ‘proofed’ and ready to go out into the world.