Step out, it’s like a series of portals; the paths are wide, or else dirt track. Paths that routinely fork are painful for the indecisive. Favourites are merely difficult for them (colour, inner-city garden, plant, book) but occasionally one bursts forth. On this day, on unceded Wurundjeri land, following a series of decisions and forked paths, I, queen of the indecisive, have, while jogging, stumbled upon a place I will call my favourite.
The portal paths continue: choices are grass, dirt, cement, desire line …
Dirt on the dry day, or morning river mist. I’ve not stopped in my tracks like this before now. Often it’s a gradual slowdown, reluctantly giving in to a whiny knee or tight hip.
This: a city of expanse. Even in its smallest corners, the spatial and the temporal. For now, we follow the course of the Birrarung, we’re up past the falls, around the bend. The water levels rise after rain.
It’s a cliff face. We are on this river, behind Abbotsford, nestled below the boathouses. When the sky is clear you can lose a breath from the sight of it.
John Wren was a sponsor of the swimming club. In Collingwood, we trace the Wren venues, past the Tote, down Johnston. We follow the line of cottages too, the sudden plunge to the banks, then track alongside the water till we arrive. Alick Wickham’s record dive spot. We are at Deep Rock.
When I bring people here I tell them: you must come to this exact spot. Let me take you. You will feel it in in your limbs. In your throat. I hate how I sound when I say this. How to name the precise corporeal experience of arriving upon the bend at which Deep Rock looms overhead?
From the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi: ‘There is endless praise for the great perfection of nature, the matchless order of the universe. No words are sufficient to commend it. But what does it have to be so worthy of praise?’i
The matchless order of the universe: this cliff, this expanse. Praise is hardly a sufficient mode for beholding nature. Deep Rock is vast but precise, particular and peculiar, the way the sky and rocky outposts hit off the water: the contrast of the low flat platform, the gentle stone steps into the river, against the jagged face, branches, roots, leaves jutting, tiny platforms for fingertips or toes. It is quiet in a new way. We follow the bend and it reveals itself. To rate this against a concept of perfection is to miss its point. Leopardi will go on to wonder about nature’s ills, but ills + perfection is an artificial dichotomy.
I cannot stay forever. I move along, complete a loop, return. The return is not so jaw-dropping, but I must stop here. A strong sensation in this particular stasis. I might call it pleasure.
Leopardi once more: ‘When you seek only pleasure in something, you never find it: you find nothing other than boredom, and often distaste. In order to experience pleasure in any action or occupation, it is necessary to seek some purpose other than pleasure itself.’ii
What if I did not seek pleasure, but encountered it? What if this bodily experience of nature can only be described as pleasure? And then, if pleasure requires purpose, what is the purpose of the pleasure I experience upon gazing at the cliff face at Deep Rock? What is the occupation of gazing here, because there is no boredom and no distaste?
Does pleasure also, as Leopardi says, exist only in the future? Perhaps that we might be capable of it, and such a promise creates that future. That is, the future and pleasure are a relation. At a place like Deep Rock, where the cliff face towers over, where the opposite bank sits low and allows one’s body proximate access to the base.
When I come to Deep Rock and experience the cliff’s magnitude, I’m not sure the pleasure I feel is of future, except insofar as this place on Birrarung, emerging from dargile formation, is a space in which time collapses, in which your body in space occupies, at once, all of time. It dissolves these and I am reminded of Elena Ferrante’s dissolving borders. My discomfort sits here, that despite calling myself a poet, I am unable to access the words that are required for such a beholding in the body.
Dargile formation: ‘Deep water sediment: mudstone, minor very fine-grained sandstone; laminated to thinly bedded, minor current ripples, shelly fossils.’iii
But then, Leopardi again: ‘Often enough, an extraordinary and transient vigor produces a kind of torpor of the body and the nerves, so that the mind abandons itself in the bosom of indifference toward things and toward itself, in such a way that either it sees everything from a great height, as though it had barely anything to do with it, or it hardly thinks about anything at all, and desires and fears as little as it can. This state is itself a pleasure.’iv
‘Very many pleasures are almost only pleasures because we hope and intend to recount them.’v
We gape at the cliff face, run straight to hit the mud path. The flaked cake of dried ground. The path is winding, but not far from here run the parallel lines of Melbourne’s north: Hoddle, Smith, Brunswick, Nicholson, sharp angles, cables above, the brilliant fabrics we come to retire every few weeks. When I’m too long in one, I crave the other.
I’ve scratched at it in my head: the unfathomable cliff of Deep Rock. The boathouses nearby, the creaky footbridge, overhead BMX trails. Built structures in the chaos of natural bends and dense bushland, thick trees.
I stop once more, as always, to behold the reflective surface, the jagged rock edges. For several minutes, I cannot work out where in time my body disappeared. It was a moment of pleasure and it existed in the future, as did all that stood there.
i Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (eds.), Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowley, Martin Thom and Pamela Williams (trs.), Penguin Books, London: 2013, 1889
ii Leopardi, 1896
iv Leopardi, 1581
v Leopardi, 1583
Elena Gomez is the author of Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt, Crushed Silk and Body of Work, and several chapbooks and pamphlets. She currently lives in Melbourne.
Illustration: Nyein Chan Aung
Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.