April 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Plots

By Debra Adelaide
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The wind at Waverley Cemetery, high on the coast of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, is a hair-whipping, coat-tugging, cheek-scouring wind. On gusty days the exposure can be frightening. Apart from a straggle of Norfolk pines along the northern perimeter, there is no protection, which makes it possible to imagine being swept away – up, out to sea or beyond, to the heavens.

It is common to associate cemeteries with peace. The idea of the deceased eternally resting under a lawn, with headstones proclaiming they are at peace or with their maker is an invitation to the visitor for their own contemplative repose, perhaps under a yew tree or beside a monument. But there is another side to the pastoral view of the cemetery, the quintessential one of Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, where it becomes a place of wild extremes and dramatic possibility. The cemetery has long been a locus rather than a location, a place for the intersection of imagination and rhetoric. But some cemeteries are more complex and intriguing than others, capable – especially in extreme weather – of inducing imaginatively charged states.

Or so it seemed the day I first noticed the marble angel at Waverley Cemetery. Perhaps I was guilty, like Gray, of one of the crimes of sentimental poetry, the pathetic fallacy, but the angel and its companion did strike me that apocalyptic Sunday afternoon as especially sinister. I know I tend to find narrative everywhere, but even so I did not conjure up this confronting and mystifying monument.

Angels are not so much angelic as awesome. That much is apparent from the Bible, where they guard with flaming swords the gates to paradise or announce divine pregnancies to virgins. Still, the fearsome entity mounted high on a plinth above the grave of Kate Reynolds Fiaschi, “born 1850, died 1913”, has alarming characteristics. It is a magnificent creature, sensual and commanding, with enormous wings curving down to its bare feet; it holds tightly the figure of a naked child. Closer inspection reveals the child is a pubescent boy and the angel is androgynous, though with feminine qualities such as breasts and long hair. (In the Judeo–Christian tradition angels are supposedly genderless, despite their masculine names.) The figures are not simply kissing, but are also clutching each other close as if the very breath of life is being given, or taken. From one side, the boy looks like he is resisting the embrace, from the other, entreating it.

It is the archangel Michael who is responsible for claiming souls at the hour of death, but this angel bears no resemblance to conventional images of Michael. And another mystery: Why does the grave of an adult feature a naked child in such an intimate embrace? What could have been the artist’s intention? It is impossible to imagine such a provocative sculpture surviving in other public contexts, such as a park or a street corner. Nor even in an art gallery, not these days.

But it would be crude and simplistic to dismiss this sculpture as erotic or paedophilic. The grim expression on the angel’s face, the bent of its whole body towards the boy, suggest a joyless purpose far beyond the purely physical: the rescue of the soul, no doubt, at the moment of death. Either reaching up on his toes or being drawn upwards, either clutching the angel in desperation or holding on tight in desire, the boy is either receiving the kiss of eternal life or having his mortal life sucked out of him. But then why is he naked?

The endless ambiguity (the poetics, it could be said) of this statue, this grave, this site. It is not surprising that a cemetery can draw you back again and again. If, as Roland Barthes says, the narratives of the world are numberless, those of the dead are infinite. Having recently bought a plot here – how I love that it’s called a plot – I am slightly more attuned to the narrative possibilities than I might otherwise be.

I know, for instance, that the cost of monumental masonry is huge. This wind-defying monument must have cost a fortune back in 1913. At the cemetery office I am informed that a monument similar to Kate Reynolds Fiaschi’s today would cost somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000. These days most Australians don’t spend large amounts of money decorating graves, so those of the recently dead are by and large unremarkable: many of the recent graves at Waverley feature a standard, plain white cross or the smallest of plaques. We now dedicate very little to the place that marks our final journey or offers our last message, our ultimate narrative.

Waverley Cemetery is run by the local council but is financially independent, which means it pays for itself from burial and plot fees. And unless a family continues to pay renewal fees on the lease of a plot, there are no funds to maintain gravesites. Which explains the shabby sign not far from that fearsome angel: a handpainted square of tin nailed to a weathered post saying, “Grave of Henry Lawson: This Aisle”. The grave itself is modest, and though it has been maintained thanks to a donation made in recent years, it is hard to imagine a more amateurish approach to the grave of Australia’s favourite author.

London’s Highgate Cemetery, containing the graves of many famous authors, is now so popular it is locked and guarded by a trust, and visitors can only enter on official tours. No one is beating a path to the grave of Henry Lawson, nor to any of the other famous literary dead out at Waverley, such as Dorothea Mackellar, Henry Kendall and JF Archibald. But maybe it is preferable this way. The place retains its powerful ambiguities. The numberless narratives, extraordinary and spectacular or quiet and modest, could become closed were this place to become more popular. The same police who confiscated Bill Henson’s photographs in 2008 could easily decide this marble sculpture is inappropriate, drape it in black and remove it to a locked room. The plots would be different and not necessarily better.

Debra Adelaide
Debra Adelaide is currently teaching creative writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her books include The Hotel Albatross, Serpent Dust and The Household Guide to Dying.

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