The reward for sustaining patience
A Body of Water, Beverley Farmer, Giramondo
On Beverley Farmer: Writers on Writers, Josephine Rowe, Black Inc.
In 1987 the author Beverley Farmer was living in the Victorian town of Point Lonsdale, recovering from a relationship breakdown and experiencing a bout of writer’s block. She kept a notebook, later published as A Body of Water, now re-issued, as a way of poking and prodding until the dam burst.
The title is appropriate because the book is a weighty but fluid mass with various currents and meanders. It contains poems, quotes, diary entries, stories that were shaken free in the process, observations on life and art. I like the multifaceted aspect of the book, but it contributes to the fact that the book is underrated. It is uncategorisable, and the reading public tends to like books they can safely get a grip on, although there is probably more openness now to such a project than there was when it was originally published.
Themes recur – Buddhism, a new fig tree, her time in Greece, passing ships rattling her house, the local lighthouse, swimming, cooking fish. She writes about a Matisse painting she is trying to turn into a story and a Buddhist retreat that doesn’t sound like much fun. Associations are loose and diverting. Not getting to a point is the point. Or, rather, the parts contribute to a mosaic, rather than being points on a linear journey. If the book is a body of water, the reader drifts on currents, is dazzled by sunlight, lulled by waves, immersed.
In Josephine Rowe’s book on Farmer, one in the Writers on Writers series, Rowe notes that in the process of trying to write herself out of a hole, Farmer keeps coming up against herself, her writing is a mirror, rather than a window. But if the writing is within a circumscribed world, it is nevertheless a full world, and Farmer is attentive to its richness, making us perhaps, in turn, think of the riches in our own.
She looks long and hard at things, and many things. In her book The Bone House Farmer writes that a writer’s task is ‘noticing’. Rowe puts her in good company, with John Berger, Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard (all of whom Farmer quotes in the course of her book). Like Dillard, says Rowe, Farmer is a steady, unflinching observer, but moving between observations of the particular and the metaphysical.
Rowe says that to read Farmer requires patience, in order to stay the course of Farmer’s generous, roving attention, which may be another reason why Farmer is underrated. There may be a connection between Farmer’s spiritual practice, which may be a bit inward but which also emphasises the time taken to receive rather than grasp, and her patient observation. Contemplation, meditation – these things are difficult to sustain in an impatient world, but patience is usually rewarding.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com