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THE WORKSHOP by Boey Kim Cheng

'How to invite the moment into the span of the sentence, let the light of memory wash over the paper and the elliptical light print its shadow words on the page.'

For Cassie and the postgraduate workshop at Callaghan.

Northbound, the roster of CDs starting on the deck, on Brooklyn Bridge, Bill Evans alone on “Peace Piece,” taking his time, stretching each note as far as its breath will go, the sound unfurling, to the quavering bars of sun blooming on the opalescent water of the Hawkesbury, its parcelled plots of oyster farms waking in panes of estuarial light. Beneath the wheels the bridge hums legato, the road rising up in bends into the unscrolling fog, to the crown of Mount White, and Jim’s pale face hovers beneath the unwritten page of the day, ghost-grey reel of the freeway aimed straight to Newcastle, to the last workshop, where his voice will haunt the space between pages, in the hollow of words, his furious drafts buried with him in a pauper’s grave in Wallsend. In the workshop there is an empty place, like this silence that sits beside me, audible as Evans pacing the notes so wide apart you hear the music in the intervals, the silence that comes through the stretched skin of sound, the wake the hands trail behind on the keys, the final silence burying Jim’s unfinished work.


The slanting winter light strikes the pages on the desks, illuminates our weekly scriptorium where we labour, word by slow word, alone yet one body, all attentiveness, which is the soul of prayer, says Simone Weil. Jim is once more on the life-changing voyage to Cape Town, twenty-two, and will fall in love with a Soweto woman, the adventurous road overland to London ahead of him. Anne takes us to the humpy in the shadow of Uluru, tending to mangy dogs and corroboreeing with her skin sisters. Sally wanders off to China, searching for the spot on the Great Wall where her daughter stands, still alive in the photo she carries with her like an amulet. It’s been a year since the crash, the nightmare of parents that their children die young before them. In Kabul Diane wakes up to the dawn breaking over the mountains, to the azan, that lonely call in the blue hour, the long echoes in her heart. And Maria is steering her way back to the Swedish Archipelago, the summers of childhood call like voices, like music drifting across the water, the channels and inlets of the sound still holding the midsummer sun like a geography of the lost. Each on a separate journey, no map, no compass, only this learning to find out as you go where you have to go.


Homeward, southbound, Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer” coming on as the car turns into the freeway, the solstice sun poised above the ridges, the cloudless sky a deep glow that holds its last chord till you are past the first turnoff, then the blue hour begins. And between the time arrive and the time you go, May lie a reason why you are alive you will never know. The turn-offs measure out your life in these long intervals, blurred dark miles and the signs coming at you Wyee, Wyong, Wyoming, and you are wondering if they are telling you something, these place-names, their meanings passwords to a country out there or in you, vast as wide open spaces Cassandra is driving her poem through, from Adelaide home to Cessnock, through the Mallee Highway, the Russet Claypan and the outback, over the Blue Mountains, through the distances of her years, these late-arriving poems starting to well up in her, and you can taste the artesian freshness that has travelled a long way to feed the thirst of her poems. At seventy she is scoping out the dusty stretches and her spots of time. All is “touch and flow,” she sings, the “tiny dash between life and death/ is all we have on earth.” Her steady, quiet voice keeps us on course, the words she has gone so far, so deep to fetch, the reason why we are here, waiting, listening, writing to live, living to write.


The Friday afternoon quiet of the bush campus, the quadrangle of angophoras, paperbarks and scribbly gums sieving the menthol-scented silence, their lanceolate leaves laced with the softly returning light. How to invite the moment into the span of the sentence, let the light of memory wash over the paper and the elliptical light print its shadow words on the page. It is like living your life twice over, the second time with this forgiving light, a reprieve, this reading to write, writing to live. No such thing as a failed draft. Each is a signpost on the way home, as long as we keep going. Katharine has found her way to Rajasthan, Peru and back to Edinburgh, to the long blades of sunlight in the briny air, under the dark tent of the castle, to her surrogate standing before a fish and chips store, lost in a dream of elsewhere. Recipe by recipe Julieta is cooking her way back to her grandmother in Bamban, to the little girl calling out in Tagalog, waiting to take her home. Story by story Joanna is piecing together the cycle that is her life, ferreting out the tracks that led her cross-country to the epiphany with the Boondi woman, to the wild remote places in her, and to this coast, where she reads the watermarks on the opaque pages of the tidal sand. And time is running out for Jim, his father calling to him across the desert at El Alamein, to hurry the drafts, to speed the memoir on, nothing but a medal and a photo to buy his passage back, the light draining from his voice, his body, as the cancer advances.


Spring is here, but why is my heart so sad? The melody on the piano summons the missing words, the day lengthening now, adding a few more words, a few more sentences, the breath of the paragraph stretched to an ending that doesn’t really end, to the elegiac chords of light on the western ridges blooming as if it is just beginning, hitting the notes in bars of gold and blood. Then it is over, the last light gone, and I am still on the freeway, listening to Bill Evans on “Some Other Time,” tuned to the key of yearning and regret, quavers blurring the line between need and love, what you teach and what you learn, the vinyl round of the road spinning the track you have heard over and over and yet it feels like you are truly hearing it for the first time. Thirteen years teaching what cannot be taught, the final class that is not a class, and now this last commute home, the faces of the writers, their voices, the fast, slow, finished, unfinished drafts, the work-in-progress, pages unreeling in my head, as the road plays its last song. No more long hauls, discs played over and over, only a silent score, only the wheels humming, the typewriter ribbon of the freeway unscrolling the stories and poems, drafts of lives that appear in the rear-view mirror, closing in, then going past, into the unpublished future.

Boey Kim Cheng is a Singapore-Australian poet who taught Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle for fourteen years before moving to Singapore to teach at Nanyang Technological University. He has published five collections of poetry, a travel memoir entitled Between Stations, and a novel based on the life of the Tang poet Du Fu, entitled Gull Between Heaven and Earth.

Copyright © 2020 Boey Kim Cheng. 

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