A smoky brew - ‘Tarcutta Wake’ by Josephine Rowe
- Genevieve Tucker
Tarcutta Wake by Josephine Rowe
UQP 2012. 220 pages. $Au 19.95. ISBN: 978 0 7022 4930 3
I think when Josephine Rowe is older, we will be approaching these early collections as extended prose poems, reaching into each other. Reflecting on her second collection of stories, How A Moth Becomes A Boat, words like ‘painterly’, ‘highly visual’, and ‘cinematic’ spring readily to mind. Even on a repeat reading, where one is more receptive to small nuances, three stories is all it takes before you are seized once more by the urge to swallow that book whole.
Perhaps there are already academics out there sharpening their pencils at the prospect of tracking plot devices and mood shifts, shadows and shapes, as they roam through Rowe’s early works, including this latest collection, Tarcutta Wake. Rowe is that rare thing, a poet completely at home in prose which asks to be read aloud (like poetry should be). While facing down cliché, Rowe is capable of compounding an astringent and powerful vocalism from closely observed moments and often percussive sounds:
It is understood that a second key will not be cut, just as it is understood that you will not be staying long enough for it to matter. But three weeks now, most of February, and you’re wearing his clothes, smoking his cigarettes, sharing his bed and his razors. From his kitchen window you watch the freight trains thunder past, headed west. By the time you’ve eaten and dressed it will be twelve or one, hot as hell. You’ll listen to the telephones ringing out over the loudspeakers of the factories and Joe’s Storage from across the highway and, grinding your first cigarette of the day into his stainless steel sink, you will not understand why the sound of the freight trains breaks your fucking heart. ‘Stay’ - How a Moth Becomes A Boat
Rowe’s new collection is one of two dazzling publishing events from UQP’s fiction list this year (the other is Jennifer Mills’ The Rest Is Weight). For such a small book (probably around 20,000 words) the range of material and protagonists is surprisingly large, including a returned soldier, a surrogate mother, a singer in a block of flats, a taxidermist, a runaway family, distant or dead lovers, jazz club patrons, painters and models, writers, actors, even ballerinas moonlighting as strippers. Each story carries others nesting within it, and they unfold like the precisely engineered wings of migrating birds.
Throughout Tarcutta Wake, Rowe’s spare, musical style remains firmly grounded in vocal rhythms, so that fine words like ‘suprasternal’ or ‘ouroboric’ carry their ancient, handsome weight gracefully, instead of sounding pretentious or out of place.
In ‘Scar from a trick with a knife’, Rowe has probably mastered the dangerous art of writing in the second person. Fynn emerges clearly, but with a mysterious past: and how did she do that? Dialogue is a part of it, as is our growing absorption with the narrator’s photography project.
There is no awkward movement around that difficult voicing in this beautifully constructed story. Rowe’s control over voice is perfectly invisible, as it should be. Read and learn.
The title story, ‘Tarcutta wake’, has as its central motif a badly kept secret of a betrayal – “something…I carried around with me. Something folded small…” – and plays a searching game with a portrait artist’s unusual, paradoxical disability. It is a study of details, not unlike a painting, where the sharply observed pain of an old artist is allowed to intrude as a rare epigram: ‘Time…is a room where the titles have been wiped from the spines of all the books and the windows are nailed shut.’
As Esther, the artist, softens from a tense nervousness during the dispersal of her old lover’s ashes, the tonal shift embraces the journey from pain to quiet grief: ‘When did longing move from my belly to my bones. When did that happen.’
In ‘Raising the wreck’ we see Rowe’s meticulous eye for detail extended into a longer narrative, with rich results. At first glance, the narrative is intelligently structured around the raising of a wrecked submarine, full of memories for a watching writer. in this tale of the transmission of a book to the stage, Rowe has tautly inscribed the struggles many writers face, and she does this without ever disengaging from the story’s powerful emotional core. Cleverly, she is also riffing off Adrienne Rich’s poem, ‘Diving Into The Wreck’:
They haul it up until it hangs in the air, glistening and terrible. I get a good look at it then: draped with weed, armoured in limpet. The thing itself is not the myth.
Rowe’s prose works (she is also a poet) range from two lines long to a few thousand words. She admits even 800 words is a struggle, but it carries great rewards for her audience (a word I use advisedly since these brief but beguiling works beg to be read aloud, by actors if possible).
One can sense an aural heritage of sorts. Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and all the dirty realists since Carver echo through lines like this:
Then he cut down on beer and moved into the hotel that had my name. That kind of love scared the hell out of me. ‘Vending machine at the end of the world’
Fittingly, Rowe has a taxidermist’s wife read McCullers on a tired leather couch.
There are two stories with art as their focus in Tarcutta Wake, a very welcome inclusion for this reader. ‘Into the arms of the parade’ has a Vermeer-like quality in its structure, zooming precisely into the room through a life- model’s thoughts and then out again. This model has a little more personality than we might permit in most fictions about art, leading to an exchange some might find theatrical – though who’s to know that this never happens, that some models do speak up?
Rowe’s stories show us new possibilities for the fusion of prose and poetry at every turn. This is a seductive and rewarding collection and I will enjoy rereading it often, like the best poetry and short fiction. Tarcutta Wake reminds me of a Chinese green tea known as gunpowder, which unfurls from tightly rolled balls (like tiny bullets) into long leaves when steeped in water, and produces a smoky brew. May the next pot be served soon.
- September 2012