The Other World
There are words everywhere here, hidden behind the beginning of this Island summer. Words in the salmon light of the setting sun descending into the sea of azure and foam. They inhabit the roughhewn flesh of a fisherman’s hand. They cling to the boards of the longboats; huddlelike floating monks across the horizon. They take tender flight with the breath and wing of the shorebirds; shudder in the eternal song of the grey fantail.
Words travel in the transcendent light. They glide and fall through leaf and branch in the woods outside of my window. The ever-shifting gold against the sea of pines. The aching hues that change the faces of Nepean and Philip Islands. You can hear them in the winds. It is the sound of the soul searching for itself, the breath that arches back across the cliffs to the sheer nothingness of the brow of Oceanus. Here, only fathomless beauty and grief swim – alone.
The words traveled with me from Australia to Norfolk Island in four suitcases, an Olympia SM 5 typewriter, some notebooks, a record player and a few precious books that I could not leave behind. The tomes of the ancestors. The voices of the gods. My wife and I sold everything to move to this tiny paradise lost in the Pacific Ocean. She, to pursue her lifelong dream to work with food, and I, to find a space in which to write.
Words are valued here. They are freely given as acts of kindness from the Norfolk Islanders, in the movement of their bodies and in the sound of their voices towards us. It is the calligraphy of the unique beauty of this island.
To be a writer here not only means to be respected, it means to be seen.
In Australia, my response to the inevitable banality of So, what do you do? with I am a writer was always greeted with at best, mild incredibility or at worst, ignored.
Yes, but, what do you really do?
To be a writer on Norfolk Island, is to be in love with the sound, the shape, the breath and the power of words, to be visible in that gilded light through the pines. Here, creating art as a good, true and beautiful life-giving act is a valued pursuit in and of itself. It is intrinsic to the emotional topography of life on Norfolk. I witness it every day.
It is in the many wreaths of sub-tropical flowers, the gentle hands, and the shared collective grief that falls on a hill of soil on a Sunday afternoon. It is in the dirt and love under the fingernails of a gardener harvesting food. It is the unloading of the ships onto longboats, to the shore: the poetry of seamanship. It is the white bleach of carved bone.
The sensuous movement of meal preparation in a kitchen. Spices, hands, oils, the discovery of an unknown fragrance. Bodies swaying to unheard music. The sheer communal joy of voice lending to voice in the local choir. The small daily pilgrimages to view the glorious wound of sunrise and sunset.
Although living, working and contributing to a small community is a good and true act, to be a writer anywhere is to be ultimately alone. And this aloneness carries with it a necessary melancholy that is birthed in isolation. So, it follows one could say, that writing in isolation on a remote island in the middle of the ocean lends itself, if rather romantically, to inspiration. It is my experience that this is true.
To stand at the top of Mt Pitt and gaze out beyond the edges of Norfolk Island to the infinite in every direction is be confronted with our isolation, our mortality, our smallness. For a poet and writer, this births in the heart, tender elegies of longing.
For we are echoes. We, who are the swimmers, we swim towards the goodness of the age.
To live on Norfolk Island is to live in a much kinder world. I cannot think of anywhere else on this globe where you can leave your car keys, wallet and phone in your unlocked car in the knowledge that they will be safely there upon your return.
There are no predators here. No snakes, no deadly spiders, no wild animals to cause you harm. Only the many cows that you share the road with, and that have right of way. The Norfolk Islanders call everything beyond the reef protecting the Island The Other World.
For beyond this paradisal border there is a storm coming.
There are some, like myself, who moved to the Island for the protection and safety found in that tender ache of isolation, the soft bruise of melancholy. Where we can hear our voices for the first time in the silence. Where we find solace, here away from the arms of The Other World.
When my wife and I arrived on Norfolk, we moved into a two-bedroom cottage at the end of a long driveway, hidden beneath the wooded heaven. The property sign reads, Pilgrims Roof.
We, who without oars move forward, we move with bronze shoulder and arm, away from the Islands of our past.
There are words outside my window. They are the artisans of my future. They craft my life each day as the voice of interiority. Like a pianist, they are the soft notes I am allowed to hold, ever so briefly, in the quiet space beneath my hand. A nocturne for the giant heart.
Then, when the force of the pen to paper is lifted and the pressure of the finger to keyboard is released, words are formed to inhabit our dreams, give speech to our longing, a tongue for the open mouth of love. For, as the sea returns to itself, so must we.
We who shipwreck our hearts, for our lovers, for our brothers, for our children.
There is a free and independent spirit that inhabits Norfolk Island. It is manifested in the beautiful acts of generosity and kindness towards myself and my wife. In the non-judgmental face that is reflected back to us. It is in the quiet dignity of Bounty Day celebrations. Their freely-given gifts of flowers, food and plants. The glory of the intimacy of friendship. The acknowledgement of our brokenness.
Freedom on Norfolk Island is the burning ember just below the surface of a human heart. We are privileged to move, hold and let go in the richness of our one shared life.
We, who possess the honour of lions run free, we run with the wind and the sand and the shore.
When I need to be alone, I walk. My favourite place to walk on the island is the rocky shoreline past the old prison ruins. I move beyond those hollow shapes and follow the call of the rocks splitting the hair of the sea foam. The winds lift my coat at the edges of my body as if attempting to find some secret page in my life. I carry my notebook safely in my pocket, my right hand resting against a poem.
The summer sun is falling down behind the shoulder of Nepean Island, the dark face aching again in its fading hues. Above, below and all around me are the Ghostbirds. They move with both quiet precision and abandon as if dark stars that the sea flung to the sky. The pine trees creak and whisper like the skeleton of a lighthouse.
The light is fading now, grey to black rock. Below the cliffs edge is the wet-gold body of the sea dying in the evening sand. The fishermen are going home without a lighthouse and I am alone. I think of my children and I miss them. I think of my wife and how much I love her. I am a lighthouse. A writer is his own lighthouse. I pull out my notebook from my coat pocket and finish my poem.
For we who are the dreamers are broken, and as the bow creaks and the sail falls, we break.
We break with each and every wave.
Mark Tarren is a poet and writer who lives on remote Norfolk Island in the South Pacific.
His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary journals including The New Verse News, The Blue Nib, Poets Reading The News, Street Light Press, Spillwords Press and Tuck Magazine. He is currently working on a collection of poetry and a novel.