The Muse of the Maze—BryshaWilson Press

the-muse-of-the-mazeFirst published by BryshaWilson Press 17/9/2016

Hitch-hiking young tourists assailed by a ‘truly woeful Eagles tape’ and trapped in an ancient Merc carrying an impressive haul of hash and coke across the border of France and Spain, does not sound like the stuff of a literary adventure undertaken to meet a highly-regarded poet and man of letters. However, it sure smacks of the 1970s and as such, it deftly evokes the era in which young Australian poet Jack Driscoll sets out on an odyssey to Deya, Mallorca to meet literary titan Robert Graves and obtain a poet’s blessing from him. The unfolding surprise of the unexpected is one of the most striking qualities of Larry Buttrose’s novel The Muse of the Maze (eBook, BryshaWilson Press, Melbourne, 2016, $AU9.99 from Amazon and Kobo). The other is the delicately modulated prose delivered as a first person narrative by Jack, who assumes the dual role of major player and observer as his story unfolds.

The reader is gently lured to follow as Jack recalls in the first chapter:

…a shadowy world of taverns and cantinas, barbers and shopfront tailors, brothels and gaming dens, all shunted together in the tall and winding, sombre sandstone walls of the maze. Heat and humidity got trapped in here. Dust gritted between the teeth. The sea air which somehow penetrated brought with it the intermingled smells of diesel, sewage and rotting fish, and wafts of perfumes that caught in the throat. A pair of ragged children sat on greasy flagstones blowing bubbles from an old bone pipe. Women squatted on their haunches gutting fish, the tails left hanging in the teeth of drains. I passed down cobbled paths of scrawny cats and lousy pigeons, beneath drying sheets lacy with cigarette burns. Boys hauled handcarts piled improbably high with sacks of onions and potatoes. Babies yowled, whores yawned, and old women looked on from the windows above. Men clustered here and there—it looked like deals were being done, crimes schemed, political acts plotted. I liked it.

In its own cheerful way this beguilingly sensual passage is just as much a portent of potentially tragic consequences as the Rilke quote (from The First Elegy) that prefaces the chapter:

The beautiful is nothing but the first apprehension of the terrible

Jack grew ‘up an only child in a bookless house on a treeless street’ in an outer suburb of Canberra, then ‘took to the road’ after graduating from university with an arts degree. Subsequently his ‘grand tour’ was to give him time to make decisions about what to do with his life and find his way in it as a poet. Stranded in Barcelona, he appends himself to an English-speaking arty enclave of assorted foreigners, while simultaneously engaging in sequential relationships with three different women and straying into the seedy, dangerous side of Barcelona nightlife. Meanwhile, the journey to meet Graves makes little progress.

While Jack’s quest pays homage to Graves, the novel references Graves’s controversial work The White Goddess, a radically personal discursive exploration of the notion of the poetic Muse, whether in triple or single form, as female. The referencing occurs on various planes: in the storyline and its action, as well as in the ideas flowing through the work on both the literal and symbolic levels. All this makes it a satisfyingly intelligent novel, albeit one packed with intense action and tragic consequences. But in the context of The Muse of the Maze  even the notion of tragedy is fluid and multi-applicable, leaving the reader to consider if any or which aspect of the events depicted is actually tragic or merely unfortunate. In that sense, too, it makes for fascinating reading. In fact, The Muse of the Maze is that great rarity—a finely wrought literary novel that is also compulsively readable.

The Muse of the Maze had its beginnings in volume form as The Maze of the Muse (Flamingo, Pymble, 1998) and when BryshaWilson Press approached Larry Buttrose for the publishing rights to re-issue his novel as an eBook, he revisited the manuscript and revised it extensively. The changes are so major that the result is a distinctly new book and in recognition of that it was renamed The Muse of the Maze.

Interestingly, Larry Buttrose did go to Mallorca in 1976 to get a poet’s blessing from Graves and the true story of that is included as a Memoir in the Afterword of The Muse of the Maze. The image on the novel’s cover is a photograph of Deya that Buttrose took at the time of his visit.

Blazenka Brysha
Publisher, BryshaWilson Press

BryshaWilson Press—On Poets and Dancers as Heroes

Layout 1First published by BryshaWilson Press, 10/8/2016

The first blog written for the BryshaWilson Press launch was about a love of books but on reflection more burning topics presented themselves. The chief of these is the question of why you would spend the best part of a year setting up a book-publishing venture when the market place is buried in mountains of books being churned out by vast numbers of publishers all aggressively competing for every cent of the book-buying buck to be scrounged from the big wide world of readers.

The answer is as simple (and as complex) as that to why you would write a poem, or spend years learning to dance, hoping one day to share your dance on the public stage.

Economics and finance have a strangle hold on our world and although wars in all their horror still abound, the real conquests are now made in the financial sector and, for the most part, it’s only when you fail there that you go to war. This is the global reality and any enterprise of which the profit model is not essentially financial raises eyebrows of concern or bemused dismissal.

The people for whom no explanation is necessary are the ones who engage in the creation or the pursuit of the arts in their many guises and the ones who value and share in such activities when the writers, painters, performers, musicians and other dreamers offer their endeavours to the public.

When it comes to funding—government or other—the arts, like Blanche Dubois, have depended on the kindness of strangers but we all know what happened to Blanche. And while few would say no to receiving financial rewards, public accolades and the many other rewards of popularity, the great majority of those engaged in artistic creation pursue it regardless of such concerns.

Barry Kitcher’s memoir From Gaolbird to Lyrebird A life in Australian ballet (BryshaWilson Press, 2016 eBook) tells the story of people who did just that with astonishing results and significant historic impact. The eBook format has enabled the inclusion of much visual material from Kitcher’s personal archive, which would be prohibitive in hard print but makes an important contribution to the recording of Australian dance history as well as the enjoyment of what is a great ballet story.

The other book offered on our launch is The Muse of the Maze (BryshaWilson Press, 2016, eBook) by Larry Buttrose. This beautifully written novel about a young Australian poet’s quest to obtain a poet’s blessing from Robert Graves is simultaneously an adventure story and a study of life dedicated to artistic pursuits. The Muse of the Maze, like From Gaolbird to Lyrebird, has its origins in a previous incarnation as a volume—The Maze of the Muse (Flamingo, Pymble, 1998)—but has been so extensively rewritten that a name change was needed to distinguish it from the 1998 publication.

From Gaolbird to Lyrebird eBook has also been reworked but only to expand greatly on the original 2001 imprint and so the name remains the same.

We think our books very special and hope that they will find many readers who think so, too. Happy reading.



Blackest Saturday

They call it Black Saturday but that is not particularly accurate. I call it Inferno Saturday because it was the day that the gates of Hell opened and in one blazing breath, a great spinning fire burst upon us, consuming everything in its way.

It was only as the horror of it unfolded in the following days, that people, mute with shock, struggling with that knowledge, attempted to find words to deal with the unspeakable.

There had been bush fires before. Ash Wednesday of 1983, stood out eerily in most recent memory: the aptly named first day of Lent was the very day of the catastrophe, which left huge welts of cinder on the outskirts of Melbourne and in the Adelaide Hills.

Then there was the Black Saturday of the 1930s, when big fires did big damage, taking a big toll on life and land. The old could remember this dimly, but it was in another time and in another world. Today it was a different planet, sporting bullet-proof jackets, anti-terrorist strategies, extreme safety consciousness enshrined in tomes of laws, tricked-up emergency services and more ingenious technology than any science fiction writer of the past could have imagined.

Large-scale incineration and mass carnage are just not what anyone could have expected because we had so many fire management and safety strategies in place. We knew what to do and how to do it. We were ready.

It had been a very hot summer: days over 40, total fire bans, the long, long drought that had reduced vegetation to tinder and the earth to dust.

Despite these extreme conditions, daily life went on, working its way around them. Months before, I had contracted house painters to do the gables and fascias on our house and it was late January by the time they got around to it.

How could they work in such blistering conditions, I asked, serving cold drinks to the father and son team.

We follow the shade,” explained the father, who was tanned and had swirling biker tattoos, providing perhaps 40% cover to his arms. The son was pinky-fair, a textbook perfect potential skin cancer case.

The Anti-cancer Council had done its work well and many of us had to take vitamin D tablets because, thanks to the constant wearing of sun hats and sunblock, we were severely deficient of the vitamin dispensed free by the sun in one of the sunniest lands on the globe. At about the time that I contracted the painters, I had been diagnosed with an alarming D-deficiency and was put on a massive daily dose. By rights, my bones should have been as brittle as the drought-parched bush litter. So, we really did need the sun, though it did not feel good for you in the highly magnified circumstances we were experiencing.

Hard to believe in all that heat, but the temperatures were set to really rise towards the end of the last week of January and mid-40s were predicted. As luck would have it, the painters had to interrupt my job to go to Puckapunyal, where they were to paint a new auditorium at the army barracks. It was air-conditioned, indoor work and they would stay three days.

The Thursday and Friday boiled. The garden singed. It was as if a giant magnifying glass had been put between the foliage and the sun. Shrubs over a meter high shrivelled. Leaves that had been green at dawn were burnt to brown. The west side of the radiata pine in our front yard turned a mellow, autumnal red, only it wasn’t autumn and this was an evergreen tree. Because of the painting, I had moved the pot plants on the back deck away from the house and into the shade of a big native tree growing by the fence. I hadn’t thought to put the sun-loving plants right into the shade. By the evening of that first day, they were burnt crisp, like herbs dried in an oven but left too long at too high a temperature. The parsley was unrecognisable.

The Saturday was predicted to boil as well. As I had enrolled in a Tai Chi course that was commencing that day in Hoppers Crossing, on the western outskirts of the city, I had no choice but to go. Although it was a good distance in kilometres from my home, the trip was an easy 40-minute drive over the Westgate Bridge and down the sprawling freeway. The sky was overcast and kept the lid on the heat. After class, I dropped in at a friend’s, nearby. She had the air-conditioner frostily whirring away and told me that her grandparents, who lived locally, had spent the last two nights in her lounge because their house was too hot.

Sitting there in the cool, we chatted about the heat. We talked about the recent spate of bush fires and while we knew there would be more before the summer was over, surely the worst of the heat was behind us. My friend said that if I cut the dead parsley back, maybe it would return.

It was the middle of the day as I drove home along Marine Parade. It was only 39 degrees and the sun was blanketed by cloud. At the St Kilda beach traffic lights, two teenage boys crossed the road. They had bare feet and carried their expensive thongs. The ground must have been very hot but they weren’t even hopping.

Over the following days, the temperatures subsided, the painters returned and life went on again. When skyrocketing temperatures were predicted for the coming weekend, I prepared for it. Old shade cloth was draped over the pot plants and smaller shrubs. Multiple thicknesses went over the fishpond. Gold fish need more food in warm weather than in cold and this summer they were fed daily.

A temperature of 46 degrees was predicted for Saturday, the seventh of February. Having survived the previous week’s heat wave, I again set off for my Tai Chi class. This time, there was no cloud cover and at 9 am, the pale sky shimmered with early heat. The roads were quiet and only a few people took their exercise along the foreshore, usually a scene of pumping action: joggers, bike riders and walkers, with and without dogs, all powering along, oblivious to their backdrop of sand, sea and sky.

On arrival at the community centre where the class was held, I soaked a bath towel in cold water and draped it inside the car by securing it with a window. Leaving the window opposite slightly open for airflow, made a primitive air-cooling system. I did not want to return to a molten vehicle. Later, it was only when I removed the concertina sunshield from the dashboard and felt the heat radiating from the windshield that I knew the wet towel had worked.

It wasn’t yet 11 am and the temperature was already over 40. The air pulsated. There was no one on foot in the streets and the traffic was thin. As I drove along the freeway, the sun bored through the windscreen, which was now too hot to touch. I pulled the still-wet towel across my chest and shoulders. This was heat so thick, you could see it settling its massive weight over the land and pushing the blue of the sky further and further up.

The bayside was deserted. I had never seen this before in my decades of life by the sea and it made me more anxious to get out of the heat and take shelter.

The house was dark and still with all the curtains and doors shut against the heat. The dog stretched out on the floorboards under the dining table, which had become his personal verandah over the hot summer.

As the elderly are said to be most severely affected by the heat, I phoned to check on my oldest tenant, Bill, who is in his eighties and lives in one of our weatherboards in Belgrave, an old township in the Dandenong Ranges. After a life of moving around the country, he had returned to this holiday destination of his youth, which although still a tourist destination, is now considered a part of suburban Melbourne.

He was cool, having recently bought an air-conditioner from Bunnings. He’d been up the street early and was not worried about the heat. I listened to his confident prattle.

What’s wrong with you?” he asked, “You’re not your usual bright self.”

I just mentioned the heat.

Bill was very dismissive. He had lived through the Great Depression, gone without food and footwear, survived industrial accidents and cancer. Clearly he was not set to cark it, despite the conditions.

That was one less worry but not enough to dampen my anxiety, fuelled by the creeping heat. I spent the afternoon in the dining room, reading. It was getting hotter and hotter. The darkness unsettled me. I went to the back door to check how the world of light was going. Radiant heat passed straight through the glass. I opened the door onto a solid wall of heat. It hummed and throbbed with its own intensity. The sky was milky white. The shade cloths were just palls. From the doorway, I cast my eyes around for the cats, neither of which was inside the house. If a fire broke out now, half of Melbourne would burn. That’s how it felt in the 50-degree heat.

The previous summer, I had walked on melting asphalt in Parkes, NSW and my first reaction was, “Yuck, I’ve just stood in chewing gum!” The real explanation was on the sign at the entrance to the public library, asking you to wipe the tar off your shoes before entering. Parkes was hot but this was so much hotter that it didn’t even occur to me to go out the front and check how the roadway was holding up.

By 5 pm the sun could cause no further harm, so I opened all the curtains. The dog still wanted his dinner and the cats reappeared, cool, unfazed. The worst was over, I believed, although it was still very hot. Later, we took the dog for a walk to the foreshore on the rocks, where there is no summertime prohibition against anyone or anything. It was nowhere near as hot as it had been earlier and the air was moving a bit. There were other people about.

Then we got fish and chips, as usual, and watched something on TV that we had recorded earlier in the week but hadn’t had time to watch.

We had no idea that a fire – bigger, faster and hotter than anything ever seen in the country’s recorded history – was at this very time incinerating whole settlements just outside the city. Houses exploded, cars melted.

Many died: in houses, in cars, in open paddocks. The count of charred, scattered bodies, some never to be identified, just grew and grew. The same sad story, retold over and over, counterpointed by the silence of the countless dead animals and a razed black landscape. In the days that followed, we could hear them calling to us.

The survivors told their own stories of a fire alive with its all-consuming intensity: sometimes devouring everything in its path, sometimes leaving a house or a shed standing as if it was picking over a tasty dish of which it had had too much, and sometimes, having passed through, turning back to swallow a whole house that it had missed in its first, frenzied visitation.

Day after day, I kept reading and rereading Byron’s The Darkness, which contained the information that newspapers could never reveal.

It seems everybody knew somebody who was directly affected. My martial arts teacher’s brother-in-law lost his house at Chum Creek. A neighbour, who had strong connections out Marysville way, spent much time working at an emergency centre in that vicinity. My sister had only recently lived and worked in Kinglake West. Her former street, Coombes Rd perished and most of the neighbours were dead. A girl she had worked with, died, along with her sister, trying to save their horses.

The friend, who advised me to cut back the dead parsley, told me how her immediate boss was sacked by the big boss from Western Australia, for being “a heartless shit.” It turns out that some of my friend’s co-workers wanted time off to go help with bushfire relief but their superior flatly refused. When the big boss came to Melbourne, partly to see a close friend who had just been burned out, he wasn’t too happy to learn about this.

The butcher, who supplies the tastiest portion of our dog’s dinner, told me he wasn’t affected because, although his sister lived in one of the bushfire areas, she escaped untouched.

The summer raged on, though not as hotly as on that infernal Saturday. There were more fires, some closer to home: in Upper Ferntree Gully, Belgrave and Ferny Creek. We received SMSs from the police, warning us not to go to the Dandenongs on certain days. If those heavily populated hills had caught fire, the death toll would be in the thousands. This time, we were spared.

After the cinders settled, came the bleak tedium of cleaning up the mess. This included the official Royal Commission into the whole situation, from the thermal science behind it to the human management of the carnage. One man told his story of how no rescue officials would help him cover charred bodies because “it wasn’t their job.” There were people convicted of stealing donation tins collecting money for the fire victims and there were even problems with administering the massive sums raised for bushfire relief. Suspicions of arson had to be addressed and added enormity to the ramifications of the devastation.

Lately, I have seen real estate ads for blocks of land in Marysville. “Privacy and Location,” they exclaim, under photos of freshly levelled blocks, edged by blackened trunks. Having been totally destroyed, the place would be very private. The hopeful conclusion states, “The ideal time to purchase any real estate in Marysville and help establish the town to its former glory.”

But from the safety of Melbourne’s cold winter drizzle, I think of next summer with dread. My fear sits inside me like a large bird, trapped in a cage so small, it can only sit quietly, its wings folded, hopeless.

Of all my dead plants, only the parsley returned.

Blazenka Brysha, June 2009


Twelve months on from the devastation of Black Saturday, the stories behind the statistics are still filtering through. In Vale Reg, Blue Mountains writer, Larry Buttrose remembers actor Reg Evans for his sagacity, wit and helpfulness to others.

Also published in Group Mag2