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Exclaimed beyond the calling

When you call an item from the stacks in a collecting library you are never quite sure what to expect. You may have read the description in the catalogue but this still leaves enough to the untrained imagination to raise anticipations about what may arrive. However, when the librarian appeared with my item I exclaimed, “Did I order that? Are you sure?”; my imagination insufficient to a perturbed reality.

I had ordered the original engineering design plans for Sydney Harbour Bridge from the Bradfield collection held in the Rare Books and Special Collections section of Fisher Library. To get to this you descend two levels, passing ranks of students working at computers or on white boards in glass-walled break out rooms. As you leave these behind and descend the stairs, a sense of serenity emerges along wood paneled corridors which reaches recognition upon arrival at the rare books reading room; the scholarly quietude and calm, friendly professionalism with which I was met did not disappoint the journey down. So it was with some embarrassment that I tried to reel back from my unseemly exclamation. The librarian however simply laughed and said, ‘Yep’, as she struggled through the doors. The plans, I expected, would be about the size of a map. She had appeared with something that would not have looked out of place in a Schwarzenegger movie; the scene where deep in the rain forest, the dirty, muscled, sweaty mercenaries split open the weapon cases delivered by the illegal arm’s dealer. Here, the case the librarian manoeuvred toward me would have contained a large shoulder launched missile. However, she was neither dirty, muscled nor sweaty; for unlike her movie counter parts, she had a trolly: professional, I thought.

I had sat at the long, deep mahogany table in the reading room while I waited. It looked a satisfying, sturdy plinth upon which to study plans. However, it was only able to accommodate half of the plan at a time. It took two of us to unpack it, and at over ten meters long by one-and-a-half wide, of the thickest grade of cartridge paper, it was very heavy. So, with the notion that rare books librarians only deal with the flimsiest of aged papers, put to the lie, there I was, left alone with the only existing plans of a global icon drawn up over eighty years ago, free to examine and carefully handle for as long as I needed. I had to pinch myself and it took me some time to come to terms with what was in front of me and get down to business.

I had called the plans to guide my thoughts and inspiration for a piece of poetry that had started to form about three months previous upon walking across the bridge for the first time. There was a sense with which I had known it all my life. Not simply from watching TV coverage, though this does give an iconic turn to the emotions upon seeing it for the first time, but rather from having grown up with its earlier iteration in the North of England; the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle.

I had always been aware of the similarity in design between the two and noted the plaque on the Harbor bridge crediting the same Middlesborough contractors, Doorman Long. Moreover, having recently arrived in a country whose Newcastle, like mine, had also grown upon coal and heavy industry, this had moved me to dwell on other associations and relationships across time and places; how they were bridged and grown in the mind, and take senses from where they were, to where they could be.

Studying the plans and photo collection helped me gain a sense of the ambitions of the designers, contractors and workers; beautifully and precisely rendered at one-sixteenth scale in fine, hand drawn lines, the plans capture the possibilities of design. Through this, I have attempted to refract a sense of palimpsest around the aspirations of bridging, from known places, pasts and projects, to new arrival, both physically and in the mind.
The poem ‘Bridges Memory’ can be read along with other poems on Bruce Sinclair’s blog ‘Clouds and Clocks’ at: http://cloudsclockspoetry1.blogspot.com.au

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