Sheer Edge

Many moons ago I spent a blissful year reading, thinking, and writing about David Malouf's work. In particular, his treatment of the margin and edge in An Imaginary Life and Remembering Babylon. It was way back in 1998, also the year Malouf delivered the Boyer Lectures, A Spirit of Play, where he examined the making of Australian consciousness. Well worth a listen for his deft examination of ideas of nation-making, identity, landscape and a sense of place. 

Back then I was on my own mini ledge. I'd taken a year off law to do a thesis on Malouf in my arts degree, a decision the then law dean sternly advised me to reconsider. Instead, I needed to "decide if I was a law or arts student, only one of which would ever get me a job." Wow. I filed my thesis papers and spent the next year reading, writing, and thinking about margins and edges. In Malouf's work, in society, in ourselves.

I've kept thinking about those things in the years since. The increasingly nasty treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, of those struggling at the margins of society, of our former female Prime Minister. Nasty language by Sydney radio personalities, by our pollies, in social media forums. Have we lost our empathy?* Stopped imagining what it might feel like to be at the margin of things? Either as someone fleeing persecution, seeking better lives for their kids, struggling to make ends meet, or forging a path as Australia's first female Prime Minister.

Some of Malouf's work imagines the edge and margin as a transformative space, a place where re-imagining is possible. One of my favourite poems of his, Sheer Edge, touches upon this beautifully.

Sheer Edge

Here at the sheer edge
of a continent dry weed
clutches, grey gulls
from the sea and gather
here, precariously
building their nest;
and here too at the edge
of darkness where all floors
sink to abyss, the lighted
bar is of light
the furthest promontory
and exit sheer fall,

though words slide off, and hands
catching fail to hold
here also may flower
precarious as weed
or grey gull's nest, the moment
of touching, the poem.

For Malouf, it is in this moment of creative endeavor - the poem  - where a re-imagining of possibilities, and a connection, can occur. 

Everyone either experiences their own edge in some way, or witnesses others struggle at the margins. The knife-edge grief of losing a loved one, poverty, violence, the death of a child, mental illness, job loss, relationship breakdowns. The list goes on, the places and times where the edge looms large. It's within us all. 

So it turns out the edge is actually central to all of us. Losing the ability to empathise (in public and private lives) is as much about losing perspective and connection to ourselves, as it is about losing connection with each other. 

Well, that got deep for a Friday afternoon. Still with me after that ramble?

If you are, the point was to say that sixteen years after stepping off the supposedly sensible-degree-to-get-a-job ledge, I'm excited about finally hearing David Malouf discuss his latest collection of personal essays, at the Sydney Writers' Festival.  The man's a master of his craft. I'll let you know how it goes.

Happy weekend


*For a cracking TED Talk by Roman Krznaric on empathy, have a listen to this.
  Above Photo by Tony Edge (Creative Commons license) 


  1. I am a Malouf fan too Pia. I did Jonno and 12 Edmonstone Street at uni but strangely enough it wasn't until my daughter did English Studies in Year 12 last year that I read Fly Away Peter and fell in love with his words, imagery and his world view. I hope you love Sydney Writers Festival x

    1. Hi Karen
      I know, his writing is beautiful. Glad you're a fan too! I'm really looking forward to listening to him speak at SWF. I'll post here afterwards about how it goes.

  2. Hi Pia, I've arrived here from BWP land. I'm trying to make my way around everyone's blog and leave a comment. Comments are a good way of encouraging fellow bloggers don't you think? While I'm not a big reader, I do appreciate a reader's passion for the written word. I'm more a visual person so I really enjoyed the link you shared to Roman Krznaric's TED Talk. I'm a big TED Talk fan.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the TED talk it's one of my favorites lately!

  3. Beautifully written Pia! I have to agree - so much of what you see in the media today lends itself to a lack of empathy, much less sympathy. It's heartbreaking to see that there are people in pain and many who cannot see it or understand it.

    Another visitor from BWP :)

  4. Hi Catherine, thank you, Great to see you here!



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