He understands the bones of little fish.
The way each spine will set in stone
beneath the weight of forests, sediment,
the collapsed strata of years. How
many times has he lifted those skulls
with a minute brush, blown dust
from the space their fins once radiated?
Asleep, he rolls in chains. Always
this siren-song: thin and unbuckling
as weed, a greening he can’t understand.
Was it Eliot? A childhood dream?
Now all he recalls is the seduction
of a whale’s anvil (sweet bouquet of bone),
the possession of a marmoset’s thigh.
And yet it is sufficient: this solitary
marriage, this slow working on a rock’s
bondage. How a dreamed body forms
the skeleton, how myth grafts to stone.
Inspired by the ‘fossil’ of a mermaid created by palaeontologist Bob Slaughter.
Debbie Lim interviewed by Eleanor Jackson
I have a friend who is an ocean palaeontologist, which I have always thought of as a rather mysterious and romantic profession. Even with my limited understanding of what this actually entails, I have a hazy impression of her sifting through the sediments of the ocean floor in some sort of deep sea vessel, uncovering the vast biological memory of the ocean. While I’m fairly certain this is an inaccurate impression, I can understand Debbie Lim’s fascination with underwater dreamscapes. There is a genuinely “supernatural” quality to the world beneath the ocean, a thrill that almost transcends reality. She feels a profound connection to the deep sea.
“I love diving and snorkelling, the other-world down there. Its creatures have inspired a lot of poems. The deep sea seems to me such a wonderful metaphor: of the unknown, the dark, the resilient, astonishing and strange. The sense of vertical space and movement is also something that I noticed in a lot of my poems and that interests me. I’m currently working on a manuscript ‘Notes from Bathypelagia’, which alludes to this.”
‘The Fossil Maker’, Debbie Lim’s submission to the Peril Map, conjures a tenderly scientific look at a mermaid’s skeleton and portrait of its creator. Inspired by an exhibition on mythical creatures at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, which featured a mermaid fossil, it features Debbie’s signature elegance of language and her fascination with the natural world, the biological, and the delicacy of observation.
While ostensibly the poem responds to the work of a respected palaeontologist, the late Bob Slaughter, (who had a side hobby creating beautifully executed mythical fossils), Debbie’s poem was inspired by the “re-casting something as stereotypically imaginary as a mermaid within a scientific framework and so somehow making the myth ‘real.’” She loved the concept of a hybrid creature – a fossil spanning both sea and land, “a paradoxical land-locked mermaid that dwells between worlds, or in both worlds at the same time.” That fusion between myth and reality, dream and detail, past and present, sea and land, solitude and desire, work and creativity were, for Debbie, an evocation of “the liminal places” where seemingly opposing things are embodied. “I guess the only ‘place’ a mermaid can exist is in the imagination, but the mermaid fossil seemed to make the imaginary tangible.”
Debbie thinks of herself an Australian poet, “who just happens to have an Asian background”. Her parents are of Chinese descent – her mother was born in Manila in the Philippines, and her father in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. They came to Australia in the late sixties and early seventies to study at university, while Debbie and her sister were born in Sydney. She says:
“I do feel a bit odd calling myself an Asian-Australian poet, even though I identify as an Asian-Australian. I think it’s mostly because I don’t feel my Asian heritage is relevant to my poetry. I don’t really write about it or autobiographically in general. Maybe that’s partly a reaction towards my cultural background – preferring to look beyond it or elsewhere. But I suspect it’s mostly because I think there are more interesting things than myself I’d rather write about. There’s a sense too that being labelled a ‘migrant poet’ can be limiting, that there’s a pre-conception out there that such poets will automatically write about cultural issues. Although I think that writing about those issues is important, I wonder if there’s sometimes an assumption that that might be the only, or at least the most interesting, poetic contribution poets with migrant backgrounds can make. That’s something I disagree with.”
She’s not alone. Several of the writers in this project have acknowledged the limitations of labels, the tickbox that can also become a cage, or simply just not feel accurate. At the same time, Debbie acknowledges that she’s had some very positive experiences as a part of this Asian-Australian writing community. Her first publications and readings were through the Asian-Australian online journal Mascara Literary Review, something for which she will always be grateful for. She says “even just realising that there exists an Asian-Australian artistic community which can lead to opportunities has been eye-opening. It’s made me better appreciate my Asian background as a positive thing. It’s also made me more aware that there exists a whole body of non-Western literature that’s just as important.”
Although inspired in high school by “the vivid imagery and dark sensuality” of David Malouf’s ‘The Year of the Foxes’ and ‘At My Grandmother’s’, it was not until her late twenties that she started to write poetry. Working as a medical editor after finishing a postgraduate degree in research psychology, poetry provided “some kind of release from that kind of academic, structured, kind of writing… a way to dig down and re-see details that were starting to go by unnoticed in a blur of routine.”
In describing her writing process, Debbie says:
“The pleasure for me is the freedom of letting my curiosity be captured by random things then seeing where a poem leads. Writing poems has always been a bottom-up process for me, rather than a strategic one. I find the sense of surprise and being able to work instinctively really rewarding. Often it will be a striking visual detail that will trigger the beginning of a poem, or a sense of a strange ‘other’. I’ve often, but not always, been inspired by animals and the natural world. I think a small sensual detail or arresting image can become a portal into the complexity of a thing. Often I’ll begin a poem by trying to describe the subject or capture a sensation more clearly. But it’s a balance between achieving clarity and letting the mystery of a thing show through. When I was a child I never was interested in playing with dolls. I much preferred digging for earthworms or inspecting bugs. Sometimes I think writing poems is just a grown-up version for me of the same thing – but instead of holding an object in my hands I’m looking at it with words.”
Like ‘The Fossil Maker’, Debbie’s work often evokes the senses, with an almost scientific keenness of observation, writing more about elements of the natural world, rather than place.
At the same time, Debbie has almost a deliberate aversion to writing autobiographical stories of place that may more stereotypically be considered the domain of Asian-Australian authorship. “Maybe part of the reason I’ve tended not to write directly about place has to do with having grown up between cultures. I’ve never really felt that sense of completely belonging to a place, so it’s harder to feel attached. I wonder if it might be different if I’d been born in Asia before migrating.” She acknowledges that there is something “a little overwhelming” about attempting to capture something as potentially immense as place.
With Debbie’s microscope fixed meditatively on its subject at hand, surrounding details like geography or culture can be hard to place. One thing that has become clear in the course of this mapping project, is that just as we seek the comfort of “identity”, naming places, homes, and cultures as “ours”, there are limitations to every category. Yet in some way, the process of mythical recreation that Bob Slaughter was undertaking in ‘The Fossil Maker’, is not dissimilar to our own endeavour here. Perhaps we are creating a fake artefact to something that was only ever imaginary, both “myth and reality, dream and detail, past and present, sea and land” – a mythological fossil.