Sometimes the genesis of an idea occurs before you realise it has been conceived. It’s the moment of confluence; a meeting place for the life force that has gone before and the beginning of the new. Like the two sandbars of Somers, the shipping channel of poetry began to move again for me in November 2015.
For me, this was on a writer’s retreat put together with generosity and attention to detail by Melbourne poet, Michelle Leber, at her home in Somers on the Mornington Peninsula, now Kalang Retreat.
November is a time of awakening in Melbourne, a time when a cool breeze still offers respite and the Australian sun still has the softness of spring. The season hasn’t yet given way to the harsh bushfire-inducing reality of 30 degree days. When I had the offer to stay at Michelle’s house, I didn’t hesitate to take it.
I knew there was a collection of poems bumping together like electrons, creating their own energy in my brain. Rather than trying to harness this energy , I wanted to spend time in reflection, clearing the decks, to make way for the new.
Having been brought up in the Pentecostal church, I had never celebrated lent. In Eastern Orthodox circles, lent is known as the ‘bright grief’. When I think back to the retreat now, I feel a resonance with the phrase.
Having lost a job earlier in the week and with feet still wet in the wake of a friend’s life-threatening illness, I took the Stony Point train to meet Michelle. The irony of the military base to the east of Somers wasn’t lost on me, as battle weary and emotionally frayed as I was.
Being on a writer’s retreat dedicated to not writing might seem counter-intuitive, but like the multifarious plants and flowers in Michelle’s rustic garden, conversations over home cooked meals and coffee or sipping elderflower and sodas were planting the seeds.
I had several books with me on the retreat, including Dylan Thomas, who I took with me on one of several day trips around the area kindly arranged by Michelle. At Flinders beach, I lay on a blue bead-trimmed sarong and read:
“I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me and my inquiry is to their working…”.
I could feel the heady brew of emotions peaking like the waves at Flinders, as I journalled and drew my observations.
There is a stillness in Somers in November that forces the restless soul into quietude. Sitting in a rustic garden seat at sunrise, with long green bowers surrounding me, I watched crimson rosellas dart brightly in one corner. Eating meals al fresco, the poets watched the birds and their industry of nesting and feasting.
One morning, I had been thrown awake by what had come to the surface during my quiet times; the realisation that nature had to more to teach me than the religion I had surrounded myself with all these years.
I took some notes, I cried, I went for walks through the wetlands to let these new revelations synthesise. I confessed to Michelle how the beauty of the sunlight through the eucalyptus trees and banksia was a kind of prayer.
"I resolved to put words aside and let nature speak"
It is only now, a year later that I realise this time of bright grief, with its tear-soaked pages and memories of amber-lit treetops and birdsong was the beginnings of my poetry collection, Beatific Toast.
Rifling through old poems now feels akin to touring the fallen giants of trees along the beach we visited. I remember when they were planted, but now they seem like relics of old ways of thinking, their shapes twisted and beautiful; haunting. Now I have new saplings to nurture; new poems to bring forth.