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

By | 1 December 2013

The final lines suggest that the persona does try to make a kind of productive link between the two, though. With the scientists examining the lichen and the way it is made up of fungi and blue-green algae, the persona notes:

They speak his language – 
sweeping assumptions
                              concerning very small things. (lines 39-41)

It is the combination between the fungi and the algae that the persona notes as symbiotic and as a form of unity that depends on the other as a separate entity that they draw upon to move to this comment. This symbiosis is like a palimpsest as the way each group relates to the place and the life it contains forms layers of interleaved relations. The similarities between the two groups are insisted on by the persona, though as has been discussed this is certainly not simple and at times quite problematic. To add to this the use of the words ‘sweeping assumptions’ is often used in a negative way, though this does not appear to be the intention here, and many may object to the overly simplistic summary this statement gives to both scientific discourse and religious faith.

As a result it is clear that the attempts to link India and Antarctica in a form of palimpsest by using the relationships to place and the animals within them is a difficult and most likely unfinished one. The way in which the persona brings together Antarctic scientists and a Jaan monk and tries to unite them in a symbiosis can be seen as a form of layered palimpsest that draws on the links between India and Antarctica in relation to Gondwana but which insists on their contemporary importance. The way the scientists behave in a monkish fashion and the persona asks whether the Jaan monk would be an artist or a scientist in the rainforest portrays a desire to bring these relationships to a contemporary setting; this relationship is played out before the reader’s eyes. The difficulties and at times problematic constructions evident in the poem point to the strain of this task and the fact that whether it succeeds or not is doubtful – and shows very much the unfinished nature palimpsests can have, and the tendencies and questions they can inspire that are not necessarily answered.


As the poem that attempts to link both India and Australia to Antarctica in a form of present-day palimpsest that references Gondwana, ‘Freeze’1 is short but powerful. The poem opens with the Antarctic landscape and the way water moves within it:

Like another sky rising to the surface
                                                        black water
clenches itself into smears of cloud
                                                 platters of froth (lines 1–4)

This depiction of water already sets up the possibility for palimpsest as the water contains ‘another sky’ that is rising to the surface, much like the appearance of writing in a palimpsest. With palimpsests, when one text is revealed under the other it can appear almost like one is rising to meet the other. In the poem this action is directly represented by ‘another sky’ rising to the surface of the water.

This other sky is a critical aspect of the poem as the persona describes how the ‘clenches’ of ‘cloud’ and ‘platters of froth’ are:

frozen lotus ponds
and then
sandy moonlit paddocks
                                that could support ... (lines 5–8)

The use of ‘and then’ is key here as it shows the layering, but also the equality of this layering, in the depiction of India and Australia. First India appears within the water as ‘frozen lotus ponds’ and it is this connection, the critical ‘and then’ which allows this image to be transformed into one of ‘sandy moonlit paddocks’ of Australia. The mirroring of these lines, in much the same way as enacted in ‘Being There’, almost represents a physical palimpsest in the way the places not only inhabit, but transition between themselves. Antarctica becomes India which becomes Australia.

This ideal version of place as palimpsest is interrupted though. The persona comments on the way the images seem so real they ‘could support’, but this is followed by a trailing off and the comment ‘but wait hold out’ (line 9) which becomes an acknowledgement of the power of the Antarctic landscape:

till metres deep and extending
                                  white and indescribable
                                                 to all horizons – (lines 10–12)

This landscape comes to the forefront and the persona entreats the reader to ‘stand back and watch’ (line 13) as they describe how:

the artists that is
                      the ship’s bow
                                  or a storm very far away
acute and cleared of mind
                              make the mark that is 
                                                                   word. (lines 14–20)

This appeal to the power of the ship’s bow and the far-away storm in this landscape may appear at first to erase the initial connection established between Antarctica, India and Australia, though in fact it simply changes the way it is presented. While the physical sight of the landscapes does appear to vanish, they in fact become an integral part of the Antarctic landscape as it is transformed ostensibly by the ship’s bow or the far away storm, but actually these events bring the reader back. This occurs in the final lines, the way a mark that is ‘almost / word’ is created. This could have a religious reading, but more likely is the way this refers back to one of the earlier key poems (which is also quoted on the back of the book) ‘Poem’2 which relates to the translation and printing of books. In this poem translation is initially seen in a negative light, where ‘From racks of type the workers select / characters and words / that are adequate are like – / substitute for’ (lines 25–28). This substitution is seen as an act of betrayal where the workers ‘begin at the beginning / they finish at the end’ (line 29–30). However this is quickly overturned when the persona comments:

Once I thought a book of poems 
                                    translated like that would be 
a travesty
a chaos.
Looking out on this beautiful   vast inane
                                                           I am reading
                                                                     that book. (lines 31–37)

It is through the Antarctic landscape that the persona comes to see translation and substitution as something new, as something more akin to a palimpsest with its live, inhabiting scripts than an act of erasure through substitution. By linking the Antarctic landscape in ‘Freeze’ to the one in ‘Poem’, Caddy enacts a form of palimpsest within the very poems themselves as they come to inhabit and comment upon each other. Further, rather than the Antarctic landscape erasing the images of India and Australia the reference back can be seen as a way to suggest the way they make up each other in integral and indefinable ways. Rather than disappearing, India and Australia become Antarctica, just as Antarctica is also India and Australia. This is very much a representation of these places as palimpsest in a way that creates Gondwana very much in the present as a powerful force. As the layers between the places, and the poems, coalesce in the mutable ‘beautiful vast inane’ and ‘make the mark that is / almost / word,’ Caddy brings to life a contemporary Gondwana through palimpsest, insisting on the contemporary relevance of these old phenomena.

It may seem that concepts other than that of palimpsest could be used to draw out the connections between place, Gondwana, and its present-day relevance. However it is the key elements of comingling and separation, as well as the idea of the reader seeing the relationship occur right in front of them, that I believe gives this relationship something more. The notion of palimpsest suggests something that may be hidden, but nevertheless is continually present, something which suggests the intimacy of direct inhabitation between two of three things that does not necessarily occur with collage or a series of juxtapositions. India, Australia and Antarctica are not placed beside each other; they become one another even as they maintain their separateness. Gondwana and palimpsest in Caddy’s Antarctica becomes a way to represent the complicating layers of contemporary experience as it is lived on the very page in front of us.

  1. Antarctica p. 86
  2. Ibid p. 22
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