Place, Palimpsest and the Present Day: Gondwana in Caroline Caddy’s Antarctica

By | 1 December 2013

The position both Australia and Antarctica have as part of Gondwana is also obliquely referenced. The persona, still using the frame of driving through the Australian summer but with references to Antarctica, comments that ‘each bend and curve of the road / a gate into another continent’ (lines 11–12). This is true not only for Australia as a part of Gondwana, but also Antarctica. The landmass now known as Australia was positioned next to Antarctica and India, with Antarctica also connecting with Africa. In this sense both were gates into other continents. Further, the way the persona describes the ‘bend and curve of the road’ (line 11) suggests another comparison. Just like the way roads are shaped by the land they traverse, the coastlines of many of the landmasses that made up Gondwana fit together like a puzzle; they have been physically created by their relationships to each other. The bend and curve of the road is also the bend and curve of the coastlines, each physically determined by its geographic relationship to either the land it traverses or the lands it was connected to historically. Here it is the past that is foregrounded, but using a figure of the present (roads) and thus the connection can be seen as both historical and relevant to the contemporary period.

The final section of the poem deals with the shifting of the frame narrative from driving in Australia back to Antarctica again. The paddocks in Australia are ‘soft bleached tea-towels’ (line 13) which are ‘whipped into the sky’ (line 14) to become ‘pale striations’ (line 15):

that come down here
		        through triple glazing
			                          as sheer half-light
						                         auroras. (lines 16–19)

Again it is the view, and the way it combines both light and seeing, that allows the persona to cross from Australia back to Antarctica. Much like the double framing of the window and the car windshield, it is the doubleness of the tea-towels that become clouds which encourage the persona to cross back to the view of Antarctica. Significantly, the dance of the light, and the way it relates to seeing, becomes something that travels, links, and causes the view of the place to double, to shimmer, to become multiple. It is a presence that is both a history and a continuance, something that exits both in the mind’s eye of the persona, and in the view of the physical landscape. In this way it is not only Australia and Antarctica that inhabit each other as places, but the very perception of them that is interrelated in intimate and layered ways, much in the same way as palimpsest.

It is also fundamental to note the way in which the two places of Australia and Antarctica do truly inhabit each other in a way that insists on their co-presence, and doesn’t involve the sense of erasure that palimpsests can so often suggest. Even as the primary frame of the narrative shifts from waking up in Antarctica to driving through Australia and back again, the presence of both places is still felt in the way the lines are set out, as well as Caddy’s choice of words. Even when one place is in the foreground, the other is intimately linked to it in the background, and as the frame shifts, so does this relationship, as one recedes from immediate view as the other comes into focus. At no time, however, does one completely dominate the other. Rather their relationship is one of equals that depends on the specific focus at the particular time, and not on power dynamics that exist outside the poem. Further, the relationship between the two, while celebrating their historical linking as part of Gondwana, also insists on the contemporary continuance of their relationship. From the way coastlines are linked to roads, to clouds linked to tea-towels and the way the relationship is presented as something that continues – that may have shifted but is not broken – allows Caddy to present place as a kind of palimpsest that insists on intimacy and inhabitation that is ongoing and dynamic.

‘Gathering Moss’1

As the poem that focuses to the greatest extent on the relationship between Antarctica and India in the collection, ‘Gathering Moss’2 is at times quite problematic in its depictions of both Indian spirituality and science as it attempts to create a sense of place that is a palimpsest. The poem examines the relationship the persona and a group of scientists have to studying moss in Antarctica and compares it to an Indian Jaan monk and his religious relationship to living beings. ‘Jaan monk’ here appears to refer to the Jain religion, which Jeffery Long describes as being highly influential as:

The Jains from a distinctive and important sub-community in the larger setting of Indic religious life. Their views on nonviolence have been particularly influential on the larger Hindu community in the midst of which they have always existed. From the practice of vegetarianism to the political deployment of ahiṃsā by Mahatma Gandhi, the influence of the Jains on the religious life of India has been profound.3

Caddy’s poem appears to use this to set up a series of binaries, between science and art, Indian religion and Western science, as well as India and Antarctica, which the persona then attempts to unite through an appeal to symbiosis in the final lines.

The poem begins with the persona in Antarctica taking part in collecting samples, and their relationship to these life forms. The persona describes how:

I take a step – 
mosses  lichens  orange and green
				            and shades of green
tiny upholsteries –  (lines 1–4)

Which is then linked to the similar attitude of a Jaan monk as the persona describes how they themselves ‘balance on one leg / hovering / like a Jaan monk’ (lines 5–7) and describe how this monk is often:

bending to sweep the ground
		         with his peacock feather broom – 
foot reaching out
		         like the sensitive trunk of an elephant
feeling the earth. (lines 8–12)

While the reference to the monk’s foot as being like an elephant could be seen as a continuance of damaging Western stereotypes that use the relationship to animals as a form of othering, here it appears to be used in a way that instead celebrates the sensitivity of the monk. The monk’s foot is not careless or heavy, and compared to the trunk of the elephant in a way that suggests the dexterity and complicated movement of this performance. The layering of these observations, and the way the persona draws attention to the similarities of the movements between the persona and the monk, suggest the beginnings of a relationship that will come to resemble a palimpsest, with all the complicated intimacy that entails.

This comparison between the behaviour of the persona as scientist and the Jaan monk continues in the next section. The persona describes the way ‘they care / in a monkish sort of way’ about the local wildlife, the penguins. This remark is explained when the persona notes that they and the scientific party they are a part of ‘don’t eat them anymore’ instead ‘relying on a large grain-based civilisation / for our livelihood.’ The use of the work ‘monkish’ implies a link back to the Jaan monk, and suggests that these ways of life are similar. In that sense they certainly can be seen as similar, though the reasons behind them may be different, and the extent to which the Jaan monks go to preserve life might very well be underestimated by this comparison. Nevertheless, the persona does attempt to make this link a productive one and based on a similar view of the sacred nature of life, rather than that of difference or otherness. Whether this is successful or not is questionable, but the attempt is made to make this a genuinely layered palimpsest.

The link between the Jaan monk and scientists is made again in the following section as the persona depicts the way as part of their practice the Jaan monk avoids stepping on insects. This is followed up by the comment:

What would he do
in a rainforest – take up art or science?
                                                      his own world park
dependent on nothing
and all. (lines 29–33)

This passage can be read in several different ways, including that the persona is being flippant about the depth of the monk’s beliefs in suggesting that a change of scenery would change the way he perceived the world. However, it could also be another attempt to intimately link the way of looking at life to the place which it is being conducted. This is borne out by the next stanza in which the persona crosses back to the scientists in Antarctica:

Up here on the sterile plateau
                            a group of people study
                                                 a solitary lichen – 
itself a symbiosis between fungi 
                                          and blue-green algae. (Lines 34-38)

The way the scientists study life here is directly related to the place they are within. What in the jungle would be one among many becomes an anomaly in Antarctica’s cold, and in this way it is treated with the same respected the Jaan monk treats all life. In this sense the persona’s link does hold – in this instance the sacred nature of life is upheld by both groups, though it does ignore the fundamental differences behind these motivations and in asking the question whether the Jaan monk would change his view in a different place may well underestimate the faith required to conduct such a lifestyle. Nonetheless, again the relationship being set up here is that of a palimpsest with Antarctica and India being layered.

  1. I wish to thank Vidya Rajan for her very kind assistance and editing of this section, particularly in regards to Jain beliefs and representation.
  2. Antarctica p. 40–41
  3. Jainism: An Introduction (London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, 2009) p. 173
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