I didn’t meet Josephine Rowe at Adelaide Writers Week, but we were there together. I arrived in the city some days early, by request, because I feared the jetlag would be much worse than it was. It wasn’t terrible. I didn’t stay up all night and sleep away entire mornings, the way I do when I go to Europe. I just felt like I was dreaming. I walked down to the festival every morning. It was held in a park not far from my hotel; two stages shaded by trees and elaborately rigged awnings, a tent for food and coffee, a bookstore tent. I drifted between events, drank coffee under trees, listened to writers talk, thumbed through novels in the bookstore, was mesmerized by parrots.
Rowe was on a panel of three poets, on one of those first days when I was still in a daze. All of the poets were good, but Rowe’s work stood out. She read a poem called “Vanellinae” about ex-army men at a repatriation clinic. It’s possible that jetlag and the disorientation of finding myself on the far side of the world made me especially susceptible to beauty in that moment, but I found it stunning. I kept thinking of her work afterward. A flock of parrots flew over the stage, green feathers flashing in sunlight.
When I’d arrived in Adelaide, I’d gone out in search of Australian classic literature and found paperback editions of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, slim enough to fit in my carry-on luggage, and I’d decided I wouldn’t buy any more books after that. Books are expensive in Australia. I was on a tight budget. I picked up Rowe’s two available books in the bookstore tent a few times and seriously considered them, but — this isn’t exactly a popular opinion in the circles I run in, but here it is — it’s always seemed to me that buying books when you can’t afford them is essentially a shopping addiction in the guise of bibliophilia, so I returned to North America without them. Where months later, on slightly more solid financial ground, I found that I very much wanted to read them, ordered them at some expense, and wished I’d done the sensible thing and just bought them in Adelaide when they were right there in front of me and didn’t come with shipping charges.
Rowe self-published two volumes of poems some years ago, but in recent years her focus seems to have turned to short, often fragmentary pieces that slide between short fiction and prose poetry. The first of her two collections of stories, How A Moth Becomes A Boat, has one or two weak spots but carries an undeniable force. Many of the pieces in the collection are utterly exquisite. There’s a certain mystery about them; given the brevity of the form, context is often light or entirely absent. In “Stay,” one of the lights of the collection, an unnamed person lingers for a week or two in some industrial corner of Far North Queensland, waiting in someone else’s house for long days in the tropical heat:
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.
It’s a moment in a life. In the absence of context, only the things that are truly important remain. The reader will never know who the nameless smoker was, or what they were doing there, but it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that they were there, and that freight trains broke their fucking heart, and that someone wanted them to stay but they didn’t.
Tarcutta Wake followed two years later, in 2012. It’s a spectacular collection. A few of the stories are longer and more conventionally story-like, in the beginning/middle/end sense; others are a paragraph long. Themes of displacement and alienation and aftermath continue to pervade the work. There is mystery and wistfulness. In “In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing,” one of the most gorgeous works in the collection, the only facts that can be established with any certainty are that once some people lived in a dilapidated apartment building, and later they were evicted, and often they heard a man singing, and memories remain:
All of us were in between, rising or falling; we wouldn’t know which way till afterwards. There was so much to look forward to. There was so much to be sorry about. For that time we lived in the midst of each other’s static, the murmurings of radios and televisions that came through walls, muffled conversations that rose from the floor or floated down through the ceiling. There were no true secrets.
The story is about three pages long. Its effect, to me at least, is deeply moving.
“We are a migrant country,” the Australian author Brenda Niall said, in her panel at Adelaide Writer’s Week, “and the deep Australian question is, where is home?”
I don’t have a deep enough experience of Australia to confirm or refute this sentiment, but I wrote it down because it resonated. I found myself thinking of it as I read Tarcutta Wake. I don’t mean to suggest that Rowe’s writing is quintessentially Australian; I wouldn’t know what that means. But when I read her stories of drifting, of heartbreak and aftermath and travel and displacement, it seems to me that where is home? is the underlying question. For some of us, there’s no clear answer to that question. In our work, we can only continue to ask, and, in Rowe’s work, the asking is both graceful and profound.