Cover of Navigatio
Alison Croggon

a seductive read
John Ashton, ArtStreams
Alison Croggon’s first novel is not light
A thoughtful journey
Airlie Lawson, Australian Book Review
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And it seems to me miraculous that another human being could love me as my daughter does, when she grants me the pure action of her kiss. And perhaps this is the sum of my labour: to find, amid the rubble of illusions, the real kiss that always lay there, unbroken and wholly itself.

Alison Croggon's Navigatio is a story of double migration. Told in alternative chapters, it is part family memoir drawing on her own childhood arrival from South Africa, part dramatized account of nineteenth century sea-voyage and arrival. It is a feat of memory and imagination, finally drawing together the two tales, like twine through canvass, to reveal the individual caught in the cruel flow of history.

The last chapter, the log-book of a sea-captain becalmed at sea, is a tour de force. It brings us to the eye of the storm, a place that has affinities with Eliot's 
still point of the turning world. As much as it is a journey through the physical world, Navigatio is a journey towards poetry.

ISBN 1876044098
Published 1996
111 pgs
Navigatio book sample

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Past Lives: A Poet’s Retrospective
Kris-Ann Ehrich
Social Alternatives, Vol. 17, No. 2, April 1998

Alison Croggon trained as a journalist and her work includes poetry, plays, libretti, translations, editing and criticism. Croggon’s book, Navigatio, is a story of her family’s double migration and an account of a nineteenth century sea voyage and arrival. The book is divided into ten different stories, all weaving past and present history.

The prologue informs the reader of her father:

I knew all my childhood that I was my father’s favourite daughter. The betrayals of adulthood, the cruelties and indifference, do not change this, but endow it with the intolerability of paradox. My weaknesses, my fears, my dishonesties, the defining hurts of my life, are my inheritance from him: and these words. Particularly these words. I want to migrate forever from these shadowlands where speaking is not possible because the darkness swallows every syllable before it can be uttered, this realm that ate up my parents. Each step takes me further into shadow, into the impossibility of speaking. But I must persist.

(pg. 1)

Croggon goes on to talk of her father’s dreams of a new life in a new country ‘where a man could walk without the burden of history on his shoulders’ (pg. l). She describes her father’s long absences and her mother’s despair and disillusionment. The life her mother had dreamt about was very far removed from the reality of life she had inherited.

The first five stories tell of the voyage to England firstly and then other places. These are vividly written anecdotes of the author’s childhood. Chapter 7, ‘Africa’, brings us into the present day with Croggon talking of her own children and then intertwining memories of the past, her own despair and feelings of futility. Chapter 9, ‘Accounts’, is moving from the past into the present with raw emotion. Croggon expresses the need to bury herself in her writing, ‘I cannot understand myself except through language’ (pg. 95 ). In this chapter the author goes on to describe the hardships that the family encounters on arrival to Australia. Finally, Chapter 10, entitled ‘Apeiron’, is a logbook of a sea captain becalmed at sea. The final few lines are very climatic and full of drama:

Yet, despite my Despair and Grief, I am possessed by strange Exhilaration, which I am at a loss to explain, as if everything I desire and is Mine is before me, as behind a door which is merely closed and presently will Open: and I am overwhelmed with Gratitude for the beauty and terror of the world...

(pg. 111)

There are moments of sheer beauty in Croggon’s written words. I especially found the following paragraph truly poetic when the author describes her own daughter:

And it seems to me miraculous that another human being could love me as my daughter does, when she grants me the pure action of her kiss. And perhaps this is the sum of my labour: to find, amid the rubble of illusions, the real kiss that always lay there, unbroken and wholly itself.

(pg. 13)

This book is an interesting retrospective of the author’s life which interlaces different stories and past lives somewhere deep in Croggon’s subconscious; a fascinating infusion of thoughts, ideas, imaginings and her reality as she knows it. Well worth reading.

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book review
John Ashton
ArtStreams, April/May 1997

Navigatio is both an autobiography and a nineteenth century sea journey whose narratives occupy alternate chapters and are nominally unified by titles commencing with the letter ‘A’. It also has the audacity to open with ‘Once upon a time...’

The controlled authorial voice of the biographer is strong with descriptive imagery which is kept almost entirely to the visual; a childhood memory which employs serious reportage as she recalls the early years in South Africa, Cornwall and Australia.

On one level we get the matter of fact portrait of a family which is trying to secure an emotional and geographical grip on its identity as a family:

Suddenly the fact is firmly fixed in our lives. We will be away for three years in Australia, where the days and nights are upsidedown and the seasons are backwards. My mother is desperately unhappy. We will travel without my father...

At another level, the prosaic description of rural life:

We were allowed to watch the milking: the calling cows herded into the milkshed and hitched up to shiny machines, and milk running through the cow-dung on the concrete floors.

But while trying to maintain the linear symmetries of this structure, the ‘straight’ narrative is continually subverted by the ever-changing poetics of the strange and lonely journey of the HMS Fedelis, at times seemingly random and unconnected, we ‘hear’ the voices of the crew, a child’s wonder, a captain’s anxiety. And in following a reminiscence with almost religious significance, we are plunged into a young girl’s trauma of an horrific assault. The rhythms and imagery of which echo the Old Testament, Hieronymous Bosch, Coleridge and yes, the ghost of Sylvia Plath which ever haunts; as it does much poetry of the twentieth century.

‘Am I thy bitch? My dugs all barren, whelping puppies in a ditch. You’d have me so my darling, I’d gnaw thy pate like the bishop in the ice of hell, forever and ever, until you answered me, until the stone split open and spoke its water.’

One reader commented that Navigatio is ‘therapy writing’ - the author’s voice has precluded such critique in the following sentence: ‘I cannot understand myself except for language’ and ‘ its trespass, a poetic language retrieves the unanaesthctised reality we inhabit at our births’

Therapy? So What? Navigatio is a seductive read, and as in all good poetry, a secret world is both revealed and shrouded in lyrical ambiguity. Each chapter has both a completion and a hook to keep the reader engaged.

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Books and Writing
Geoff Page (poet)
Radio National, broadcast February 1997

Navigatio, a first novel by the talented young Melbourne poet, Alison Croggon, has also been released by the same innovative new publisher [as for Vivien Hopkirk’s Meditations of a Flawed Groom], Black Pepper. Like Hopkirk’s Flawed Groom, Croggon’s Navigatio is also highly experimental and unorthodox in form. Two stories alternate here; one a fairly straightforward autobiography, the other a stylistically adventurous account of what seems to be an analogue for the author’s own family voyaging to (or at least towards) Australia in 1869. The two strands of the novel, if that’s what it is,are decidedly different from each other, despite the centrality of the mother/three daughters unit in both.

The autobiography is a relatively unadorned and presumably accurate account of the unhappy marriage of Croggon’s parents - and of some of the more important highs and lows of her childhood in South Africa, Cornwall and Australia. Unlike the autobiographies of, say, Sally Morgan or Albert Facey, there is not a great deal here which transcends the personal. Clearly this strand offers plentiful material for poems (as seen already in Croggon’s outstanding first collection, This is the Stone) - or possibly for an autobiographical novel along the lines of Kate Jennings’ recent book, Snake (also about the unhappy marriage of an writer’s parents). As it stands, however, despite Croggon’s more than competent writing, this half of the book is finally disappointing.

This is particularly so in contrast to the other strand dealing with the 1869 voyage. Here Croggon displays both lyricism and insight. In the sections ‘Anaesthesia’ and ‘Adelaida’ she reports convincingly on the psyche of her young mother of three in a marriage already turning unhappy. In between a complaining letter to her brother and a cheerful letter to her husband describing the same unbearable shipboard situation we get a moving and poetic embodiment of what must surely have been the feelings of such a woman at that time and how severely she would have had to repress them. The quality of Croggon’s prose itself is additionally affecting since it reminds us of how much of the woman’s own essence she has had to give up to fit the demands of others - and the fantasies about marital happiness which she has absorbed from them. One paragraph is enough to get the flavour:

When I was a virgin and whole the sea was different, it was a horse and I was fearless. I was blown across its expanse without harm, I knew too little to care who I was. Now I am small and timorous, a nose poking out from the wainscot, a scurry of frills, a noise of yes. I put my hand to the ladle and the crib and arrange the silver. How is it I despise myself so much?

In another section of this 1869 narrative, the one called ‘Ananke’, we are given a strong and stylishly colloquial monologue by a female convict who has been savagely abused by her employers in England - and, seemingly, by her father as well (whose influence she finds impossible to escape and to whom the monologue is addressed). In the closing sections of this strand, both equally well written, Croggon becomes steadily more metaphysical and the story becomes a kind of reenactment, almost in magic realism mode, of Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. As a piece of prose the final section is,as the publishers claim, a tour de force but whether it makes a convincing conclusion to the plot is another question. As a postmodern appropriation, however, it is certainly carried off with great élan.

It is hard, ultimately, to know what to make of Navigatio.What do you say when a book is two books - one decidedly more than the other? Probably both could have done with a little more work - the autobiography given a little more of the poetic writing found in the other half - and the sea voyage filled out perhaps into the full-blown lyrical and freestanding novel that it wants to be. In the meantime Black Pepper has Alison Croggon’s second volume of poetry well on the way, a book which will surely be less problematic and more consistently enjoyable than the rather strange adjacencies of Navigatio.

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New Writing
Helen Horton
Imago, Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn 1997

This is classed as a novel, but most of it is drawn from an autobiographical source, even that half that is written as a fictional account of a nineteenth century migration from England to Australia. Except for two, the chapters alternate between this fictional family and the writer’s own family, with its migration from South Africa. The exceptions are Chapter VIII, named ‘Angel’, a series of fragments with a dream-like quality, and the last chapter. In this ‘The Tale of the Ancient Mariner’ is retold via the medium of the log-book of the captain of a ship, the name of which, Fidelis, is symbolic, as is the ending of the book.

The focus throughout is on the far-reaching and complicated emotions that are involved when a husband and wife relationship breaks down and the inevitable spilling over into the minds and emotions of the children, in this case, three girls.

This is not a story told sequentially. The chapters are individual fragments, with the present and memories of the past constantly intermixed, and firmly linked by the parallel family device. The result is at times slightly confusing, but the book never wavers from its main recurring theme of the emotional impact of family members upon each other and their lasting effects. In the process of this emotional probing, there is a certain amount of philosophising, that could perhaps become just a little wearing. It takes the form, however, of a questioning, rather than being didactic, and the reader is never allowed to lose sight of the concept contained in the third paragraph of the Prologue: ‘I want to migrate forever from these shadowlands where speaking is not possible because the darkness swallows every syllable before it can be uttered, this realm that ate up my parents. Each step takes me further into shadow, into the impossibility of speaking. But I must persist.’ That tone is maintained throughout.

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Books Extra
Fiona Capp
The Age, 30 November 1996

Established last year, Black Pepper is a small press which is rapidly making a name for itself and has already published 16 titles. Alison Croggon is best known as a poet, librettist and playwright. In her first novel, she combines personal memoir with the story of a 19th-century sea voyage as she navigates the stormy waters of her family’s past. ‘It took until my adulthood to acknowledge how my father lied to me... I don’t know how to navigate past what he has taught me about truth - that truth does not exist, that trust is impossible.’

Now, as she contemplates the world her children inhabit, Croggon offers up a meditation on memory and the meaning of ‘truth’.

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Airlie Lawson
Australian Book Review, No. 186, November 1996

Find a comfy chair and a quiet room before you embark on Navigatio. Though slim, Alison Croggon’s first novel is not light. Prose narrative overlaps poetry to produce a work densely packed with images and voices. The past, the present and the imagination are all invoked, making the reader constantly reassess and reconsider what has gone before.

Croggon, widely known as a poet, mixes her own story of migrating with others. One of these others is a young mother who is travelling to Australia over a hundred years ago, and her feelings of melancholy, loss and looking are strikingly similar to the author’s own.

What is to be trusted? Doubting God, Croggon and the characters ponder on the life of language, the nature of beauty and the cruelty of man. Who is to be known they ask, and how? Is a person’s fate wholly tied up in what has gone before? The awesome helplessness of just being borne along by life is wonderfully evoked in the final chapter, the logbook of a sea captain, dated 1869.

A thoughtful journey.

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Launch Speech

Navigatio: a response
By Daniel Keene, September 1996

I am very grateful for the opportunity to launch this book. It gives me a chance to respond to it, and after reading Navigatio I wanted to respond. I needed, somehow, to express the joy it evoked in me, joy in its subtle craft and in its potent contents. A response can only be a secondary thing, a dignified shadow at best, the dignity of which is something borrowed from the primary source, the book itself. Like all fine work, I think Navigatio invites response, as much as it invites emotion and thought. For me it also invites humility, not only in the face of the skill it displays in its construction and execution, but in the face of the emotional and intellectual terrain it covers.

Navigatio is a book of a little over a hundred pages, but it is a vast and complex work.

In order to speak of this book I need to speak of Alchemy. Of common Alchemies and profound ones. Of the marriage of opposites and of affinities. Of the deceptions and the truths of magic. I need to conjure the idea of transformation, of transmutation; of the changing of one thing into another, of base elements into richer, more resonant states. Of an exchange of energies between a life lived and life imagined, and of the equality that can be made to exist between these two things. I need to speak of the imaginative riches that reside in memory and of the memories that can be inspired by imagination. I need to speak of drama and the dramatic, of poetry and what it entails, of what it so fiercely requires. And perhaps finally, or firstly, I need to repeat an old riddle. Question: when is a door not a door? Answer: when it is ajar. This simple riddle is founded on the tricks of language, on the difference between the spoken and the written, on the idea that language is not a set of fixed meanings but a living energy that has meaning only in usage; it is a riddle created by the invention that the transparencies of language allows.

The riddle, the conjuring trick, the Alchemical, the metaphor, language itself: they are all are pure drama. The dramatic concerns itself with change, with transformation; with the living presence of that transformation, experienced as it occurs. We can so rarely experience tranformation, moment by moment; it either happens too quickly or too slowly for us to perceive completely; usually we can only reflect and remember.

Navigatio invites us to witness the Alchemy, the riddle, the drama of transformation. It spreads before us the process and the outcome. The magician, the joker, the alchemist, the dramatist, the poet, reveal themselves. It is, finally, an act of revelation. A revelation that leaves mystery intact. In other words, an act of magic.

The architecture of Navigatio is deceptively simple: alternating chapters of biography and fiction, one framing and revealing the other as the book proceeds, this alternation giving the book its strange and irresistable momentum. It goes like this: a woman is writing about her life; her life as it is at the moment of her writing of it and of her life as it was, her childhood. She remembers. Her remembering is a journey she takes, through herself, through regions both familiar and unknown. She asks questions of her self and of those people she remembers, old questions and new ones. But she is always drawn back to the present moment, to the moment of writing, to the act of writing itself. And then she begins to imagine. Other lives. Another time. These other lives she imagines, this other time, are connected to her; through common affinities, through synchronous events, through similar longings, through familiar sufferings. She invents a parallel world, a coexistence as real as her memories, as present as her present moment. This is the method by which Navigatio seeks and discovers its form as a novel.

It is a stringent and confident design. But there is also a prodigious freedom of composition in Navigatio; in each chapter ideas are mixed with anecdote, biography with pure fiction, historical detail with fantasy; there are passages of joyfully intoxicated improvisation, that in ignoring unity of action achieve more complex and richer structures. The writer is inventing her own rules. But the rules she invents are not random: they are calculated and calibrated, drawing on her deep understanding of poetics, and they are finally, as all rules should be, liberating. The book takes exuberant flight. But its wings are not made of wax. They are made of steel.

Navigatio is at once an act of intelligence and invention and an overwhelmingly generous act of biography. That it resolves these differing if connected energies is remarkable, and is the book's achievement. In its pattern and execution it enters areas unheard of in Australian literature. It is a fearless book of remorse and absolution. It is a joyous book, joyous in the face of truths that are difficult, at the end of a labour that has stretched the boundaries of both fiction and biography, that in the end resolves them into a form that both exposes and increases the mysteries and the reality of imagination and memory.

There is an ancient saying: Memory is the mother of imagination. In Navigatio memory and imagination stand together and sing to us, and the harmony they make is richly alive, as beautiful a music as you could wish to hear, a poem like no other I have read. It is pure joy.

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