Books

Anwen Crawford
No Document

There are books readers like. There are books we love. There are even books that, occasionally, we might say we adore. But there is a fourth category, home to another book entirely: the book we have written.

Not literally, perhaps – self-congratulatory impulses have their limits. Rather, those with which we have lived for so long, bristling with so many of our personal notations – below words, under sentences, around passages, down pages – that it seems as if we had redrafted them. I developed the habit of bringing No Document with me wherever I went. It lay beside me as I wrote; held enough scribblings to warrant being mistaken for a work-in-progress. This, then, is not so much a review, as the story of how I came to live with my own edition of No Document – as, I suspect, many others will.

At the heart of the book is Crawford’s friend, the artist Ned Sevil, lost at 30 to cystic fibrosis. “I find a notebook in which you have written MY WORK – in blunt pencil, as you always wrote – and then crossed out the MY for OUR.” Theirs is the communion of lifelong partnership. He is Crawford’s soulmate, a permanence. As Franz Marc wrote to his wife upon hearing of a friend’s death in the First World War: “Oh dearest, the naked fact will not enter my head.”

Crawford engages the art of taking the line for a walk – “I’ll follow a street to its end for the promise implied in the way that the light falls.” She diagrams affinities between interior and exterior worlds, compressing time to show how bereavement – and coming to terms with its ache – demands its share of space. The communion with the missing (“you wake from being pressed into the hollow of a loss you cannot name”) is as proximate as social catastrophe and upheaval: knowledge of the terrible, the “naked fact”, comes to feel like a personal and political reckoning.

There are risks in locating individual trauma amid global cruelty. But since every event comprises history, the problem is not so much the act of setting oneself there as the execution. “[A]rt is not precious, neither is politics”, writes Crawford. Her approach makes the creative part of the larger political work – the possibility of another world. The result is a document of our times from the Tampa crisis of 2001 to the present, with historical vanishing acts – colonial massacre and theft, Holocaust, mass incarceration of asylum seekers, all the violent squalor of Enlightenment – woven into the fabric.

Each aspect of Crawford’s book is carefully considered: the typesetting, the design, the sense of space and arrangement. It evinces the strategic eye of both the activist and the visual artist. The ordinary work of grief, depicted as a descent through space (“though you have passed from falling with me”), is repeated, analogous to the movement of the text on the page as it spills downward, again and again, before reaching its conclusion.

No Document is a book that demands your heart. Repeatedly I found myself drawing lines in the margin; whole pages became bordered by a river of black.

During one passage, Crawford jokes about asking undercover cops at activist meetings to identify themselves and leave. She quotes Sevil writing to her about “sussing out good hiding places for when we are fugitives”. The joke is existential – because now they are: from the land of the living and memory’s grasp. And, in some sense, from Crawford’s attempts to write what has been lost.

The accommodations necessitated by life and art mean “[w]e must keep moving, mourning, making, joining”. Holding on to everything, “including the failure to remake a world where there is no place now that contains you”. She recounts Franz Marc writing to Paul Klee in 1914: “I’m still convinced that I won’t paint my best pictures until I’m 40 or 50; I’m not yet ready in myself for this.” Much of No Document concerns this process of belief: the time it takes to reach a question we may not yet know how to answer.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion said that after her husband died, she felt she should keep his shoes safe in case he returned – as if by holding on to them she might force the event. “I have been made by what was done, by what gets done, what I have made, and I can’t redeem one part of this,” Crawford reflects. She has to face things before she is prepared to face them, “not yet ready in myself”. But she has no choice – when she talks with the young man at the snap meeting who has never heard of Tampa (“it occurs to me that 20 years of detail has dissolved”); the Elder who scolds Crawford and others for freeing asylum seekers, putting vulnerable people at risk on Kokatha country in Woomera, 2002; when she reflects how “[a]fter your death someone called me to talk about you and I just couldn’t remember them at all”.

“Dear brother, my sister,” Crawford writes, “no document can make you manifest.”

Thankfully, she is wrong. No Document is a tremendous vision of life, all the detail love and loss demand. And the possibility of redemption? Well – she is wrong about that, too. No Document is a galvanic one. A masterpiece.

Declan Fry

Giramondo, 160pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Anwen Crawford, No Document".

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Reviewer: Declan Fry