Vrasidas Karalis, The Glebe Point Road Blues: In Prose and Verse, Sydney, Australia (Brandl & Schlesinger 2019).
Reviewed by Sybil Jack
This is not my Glebe Point Rd. Nor are his blues my music despite the efforts of the many shifting cafes. There are places I think I know but the whole is unfamiliar. Forty years or so living on Glebe Point Rd has embedded in my mind and heart some images of the route, of the buildings I pass as I walk down to my house and the people I meet – but they are not in this book. This road which is strange to me is created by something not someone, there is no author or editor defined only an asserted when and where. Even if the subjects touch on my memory of places or people I have encountered I do not recognise them, they are impermanent, there for a moment and then they have never been.
Like me, Vrasidas Karalis arrived as a migrant to work at the university of Sydney – but his eyesight and mine are not the same, he defines and identifies a different community that is somehow, despite the context, alien to me, even though we might have in common the intellectual links and self-doubt of a typical academic. The ideas he pursues with his intermittent acquaintances – principally death and difference, catastrophe and nemesis – are tied into my familiar classical literary academic investigation in quite different ways. He touches on poets in different languages, philosophy in its more contentious moments, ethical issues as seen by these apparently passing acquaintances, but this is not how I have debated them with the friends.
Those included in the fragments for whom I sense a passing likeness seem different from the people I feel I have met. Is this truly the man from whom I have bought occasional cups of coffee in La Cite, is that the man who was such an excellent butcher, is that Carole’s true story and not the story she told others? They are all one way or another migrants carrying with them the traumas of a past they cannot revisit, yet constantly revisit – but then so am I. They are mostly men – is that the difference?
The road embedded in my mind has hidden tunnels carrying the trains beneath it, is the source of occasional springs, has fragmentary archaeological sites. I can summon up faint impressions of buildings now long gone that once stood along the road; but I cannot evoke a living road. Mine is not the road that this book perceives as wanting to talk, as a fated place of sorcery and haunted geography; a road that eats the people who dare briefly to reside on or alongside it. Has it consumed me without my noticing it?
Perhaps the difference is that this road which is seen as a river, as a lordly way designed to torment and liberate, is the night road not the road in daylight with its disabled rushing along the pavements in electric chairs, with its dogs pulling at their leads and making friends, with the birds nesting in the trees alongside the library and in the surviving gardens of the big houses where they confront the cats, the vibrant road with its children on skateboards and bicycles endangering the lives of unobservant pedestrians.
This is perhaps the purpose of writing an account so strikingly unfamiliar – to put down in fragments a vision of the space which is intended to represent intuitive realism. The voices of others suggesting that they see the road as uncontrollable, unstoppable, serve to create a world which is inhumane and at best parallel to what is our continuing present. They serve, as the last poem suggests, to show the divide between the zones of abstract and concrete, simultaneously real and imagined. The aim is to confuse the specific events and the actual people someone met in a past time that may not have happened. The objective, in a timeline that has no contact with the here and now, is to represent as random the palimpsest in which the shadows of the ‘other’ are reflected.
The prose ends with the moment when the story diverges completely from my memory. When the Jacaranda tree that had stood in the quad at Sydney University since 1928 to enable passers-by to reflect on whether it was observed by ‘yours faithfully God’, collapsed in October 2016, this history of the ‘Fallen’ sees the dark elements of nature go quite deranged and the place become unthinkable.
The poetry which finishes the volume constructs an end where east and west are no more and when, lost and empty, the cosmos can be reconstituted without us. But will the river of Glebe Point Rd still run?