Recently, I re-read the 1999 poetry collection Wicked Heat by Australian poet Kevin Hart. The book doesn’t belie its title: on the contrary, I was reminded of just how much heat-related imagery the poems contain.
I haven’t lived in Australia since before Hart’s book was written, yet his poems bring back all kinds of recollections: the scorch of a sun-roasted vinyl car seat on the back of my bare legs; the way my flip-flops (or, to be Aussie, “thongs”) would get stuck in the melting car park tarmac at the local shops; those scorching, insomniac mosquito-haunted nights spent lying on a coverless bed, turning the pillow every few minutes in the forlorn hope of finding some coolness and refusing to open the windows in case a night-prowling huntsman spider came in.
When I first moved to the UK in September 1995, I lost a summer, skipping directly from southern hemisphere spring to northern hemisphere autumn. Somehow this absent summer seemed symbolic of the bigger climatic adjustment I’d made, from a city where serious frost was a rarity to one where a day of twenty-six degrees centigrade was “a scorcher”. Indeed, a few years later I was to write, of my arrival into Heathrow, that the landing plane’s engines spilled “a last Australian heat”.
It might be tempting to conclude that life in the Northern Hemisphere – where I’ve done all of my “proper” writing – has had a big effect on my creative landscape. For example, just for fun I once ran the text of my first poetry collection through a word-cloud generator that emphasised the most frequently-used words. The thing I immediately noticed was the prevalence of chilly words – ice, snow, frost, winter, cold. Since then, cold-as-metaphor continues to crop up regularly in my writing, and interestingly, certain words have become proxies for coldness in a decidedly un-Australian way – “North” and “January”, for example. Is my location really the source of these images? I’m not so sure. Isolation and loss tend to figure more strongly in my writing than (for example) rage and passion, so maybe the cold imagery is an expression of an inner emotional landscape as much as, or indeed more than, an outer physical one.
There’s a subtext to my pondering all of this right now: I’ll shortly be visiting Australia, for the first time since 1997, to be reminded of the “wicked heat” of my first quarter-century. On my journey, I’ll be accompanied by the uneasy knowledge that it was shortly after (or – to introduce a note of writerly superstition – perhaps resulting from) that last brief visit to Melbourne that my writing life began.
Now that I’m sixteen years a Northerner, I don’t know what to expect from the imminent return to the Land Downunder. Perhaps what I’ll be noticing this time, as the plane makes its final approach, is not the heat spilling from the engines but the tendrils of high-altitude frost melting away inside the plane’s double-glazed windows.
Born in London in 1969, Kona Macphee grew up in Australia. She flirted with a range of occupations including composer, violinist, waitress and motorcycle mechanic. She took up robotics and computer science, which brought her to Cambridge as a graduate student in 1995.
She now lives in beautiful Perthshire, where she works as a freelance writer and moonlights as the co-director of a software and consultancy company. She has been writing poems since 1997, and received an Eric Gregory Award in 1998. Her first collection, Tails, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004. Her second book of poems, Perfect Blue (Bloodaxe, 2010) is now available. Visit Perfect Blue’s Bloodaxe page, Perfect Blue’s dedicated website and Kona’s website.