uncertain cities

words and sequences of them by Rhett Davis


He was driving in the city and he was past the zoo and it was the time of day when the cars come out, and so he was driving among the cars in the fading winter sun. He was playing music loud and Sonic Youth’s Youth against fascism came on, and he turned it up. He’d done this many times before, driven this road, driven this highway, played this song, turned it up. But never when he was thinking about actual fascists. When it finished, he played it again. He did this four times, as he drove past the zoo, past the tree-lined parade, past the university he attended an increasingly long time ago. On the highway he’d been thinking about emboldened, dark voices that were rising from the ground. On the highway, he’d been thinking they were all around him. That history could repeat. On the highway, they were in the cars passing him. Their neck sweat, their grinding teeth, their empty eyes, their purposeless yet remorseless spite. On the highway, he couldn’t get away from them. He was going to a book launch and he was going to listen and buy the book and drink a glass of wine and talk to good people. Late winter was wild and windy and the city was where it had always been. It had never been his city. It was cold and he’d only ever arrived and left. He’d never stayed for long enough. And yet it was there, up the road, where it had always been, sometimes closer, sometimes at his feet, sometimes too far away to see, and it was entirely new and familiar. The dust that settled on it was the same dust, but it had been disturbed by passing cars and humans and winds and money; had settled on different cracks and door jambs and footpaths and windows; had shifted the light. He passed a pub he’d been to decades ago. It was the same pub. But everything around it—the people with new faces, new clothes, the way they walked, talked, the air itself—had a different shape. At the traffic lights Sonic Youth sung about impotent jerks. The people in the car next to him might not be so different. And the people next to them, and next to them. He played the song again. And again. And again. At the lights, he turned right and tried to find a park, but it wasn’t that easy. History could repeat, but the dust always settled a little differently.


I’m not the one who ordered the bloody cake, he said.

I don’t know what the cake has to do with anything Lem, I’m just nervous, okay? Feel sick.

She wasn’t sure where she was, but that was normal. Whereas he was always sure of where he was in relation to everything else on earth. He was good with directions. Instinctive. Always knew the way to go. It’s to the left, he said, as she walked unsteadily out the door.

The exit is to the right, she said.

But what about the cake?

I don’t care about the cake. I’m leaving out that door with that sign that says exit.





At least let me go get a slice of cake.

No, you come with me.

Jan, that cake looked superb and I am simply not going to pay five hundred dollars for a cake and not eat a slice. I simply won’t do that.

They’ll see you.

You wait in the car. I’ll be there in a mo. He threw her the keys and walked back down the corridor.

He held two slices of cake in his hands as she drove away. She waved and disappeared, and he took a bite. She wasn’t sure where she was. How would she find her way to wherever it was she thought she was going? Whereas he, he knew where he was. He was sure he knew where he was at all times. He chewed and swallowed. It was good cake. Gooey and buttery and chocolaty. It would feed him for a week. He was right to have stayed.

He looked up at the sky and didn’t recognise the stars. He walked back inside and the room was empty and the floor was dirt and the walls were full of ivy and moss. The windows had been broken by angry trees. There was a stink of mould and dank. The cake would last for a week, but how would she find her way back to him if she didn’t know where she was?

Recurring bone

At the end of our street, there is often a bone. It is usually a different bone than the bone that came before, but it is always the same type of bone. It looks to me like the knee joint of a cow, but then, I don’t know much about knee joints or cows. The bone is always in the gutter, on the same side of the street. Something or someone removes it each time, and every week it is replaced by another. There are any number of suspects. On our way to work or unwork we sometimes speculate about who, or what, it might be. My suspicion is the old people with old dogs who roam our neighbourhood in the mornings. I imagine the old person spoiling the dog with cheap knee bones from the butcher a short walk away and then both of them walking home. The dog appreciates it, but it’s old and is worn out by the time the pair reaches our street corner, and drops the bone. Better yet, the dog has a secret friend it communes with by scent, and to which it bequeaths the bone after some quality time with it. Later, the secret dogfriend picks it up on their walk, and their owner doesn’t mind. The dogs never see each other. They only know each other by scent, and this knee bone. 

I’m sure I would be disappointed by the truth of why this knee bone, or knuckle, or shoulder joint, appears and disappears when it does. All I know is that there is a bone, it appears in the same place weekly, and disappears the next day. I prefer to believe in paths that don’t cross, in dogs that don’t meet but share something profound, and in the lines between each of us that we will never see. Sometimes I’d rather not know the truth.


From a distance, things seem so appealing, but the closer I get, the uglier they appear. The bad poet in me suggests that they are merely holding up a mirror. The bad poet in me is always saying these kind of things. The things that my writing professors would tell me are ‘on the nose’. Sometimes I am nothing but the bad poet. Sometimes, it is who I think I am. But back to the problem of proximity. It is in the detail of things that I find the least hope. I’m astigmatic, which renders the world gently fuzzy. When I first was given glasses, at sixteen, I was amazed at how the world really looked. Leaves came into focus when before they had been a pleasant green-yellow blur. I could recognise faces ten metres away. Years later, in Rome, I ate spaghetti with garlic, lemon, pecorino cheese, and pepper, and it was the best meal I have ever had. I was outdoors, and it was hot, and this city was the city I had dreamed of. There was dust in the air and graffiti everywhere. The streets were chaotic and noisy. A man walked out in the middle of traffic and swore at the cars. An ancient aqueduct wound through the neighbourhood of our hotel. It was enormous. Every day I found something I had never seen. It was a magnificent, living ruin. How long would it have taken to become too close? How long before the traffic irritated me? Before I hated the tourists, and the old buildings, and inefficiency of it all? How long before I would again have to retreat, and look on it from a safe distance?


Waiting for a delivery. Not knowing when the delivery will come. Unable to move, because if I miss the knock at the door, I will miss the delivery. If I miss the delivery, they will take my girlfriend’s product far away, to the airport. I don’t like the airport, and my girlfriend doesn’t like the airport, and it is a long way away, so why can’t they just leave it on the doorstep? What they’ll say is that they can’t leave it on the doorstep because it requires a signature from the person who is receiving it. This is to indicate that the person has received it, and can’t complain that they haven’t. The package has been through Quebec City, Louisville, and Honolulu. I can watch check in at cities I have never been. Last night it checked in at Melbourne. It is supposed to arrive today. Sometime. In the meantime, I sit near the door, so I can hear the knock when it comes. I can’t leave the house or put on my headphones or have a walk. I must be here, I must attend to sound and movement, and be sure that I do not miss the delivery. Occasionally the wind blows the plants in the front yard, and it sounds like someone’s approaching the door. Every car that drives past might be the van. It’s hard to concentrate on the work I think I have to do, or have to do, or am thought to be doing. I’m not sure this is the optimal way to procure a sun shade. 


They have been working on the road near our house for months now. Trucks park next to our driveway and graders rumble all day. I don’t know what is taking them that long. I could ask them. I’m on waving terms with the guy at the “road closed” sign. I could go up and ask him. But I prefer to be at a distance. You could say this is a metaphor for a much greater truth about my life, but it would be a clumsy one, and inaccurate. I went to see George Saunders and he said some profound things and I felt inspired, until I forgot the profound things on the ride home and became uninspired again. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked in the same places. Sometimes I’m sick of them. You can change the concrete and rip up the road, but it’s still the same damn street. You can paint the walls but it’s still the same house, with cold corners and dank underneaths and spider-infested ceilings. We went to a field in the morning and it was foggy and there were spiderwebs over all of the grass. There must have been millions of them in that one field, working away in the dank underneaths, waiting for their feasts to come flying in. The early morning sun melted over them, and formed halos in the fog. The field was brilliant bright yellow-white, and we strayed off the path to take photos. The mist rose from the river nearby. I’d been there many times before, but I hadn’t seen that. 

Watching: Wonder Woman

The only superhero who mattered to me as a kid was Wonder Woman. Batman was too silly at the time and Superman was okay I guess but yawn. And yes, perhaps in my little confused 8-year-old way I had a crush on Lynda Carter. But I think it was more than that. The idea that it has taken so long to make a movie about her in an age where a movie has been made about every single shitty superhero, often repeatedly, is ridiculous. The idea that it is actually good and is doing spectacularly is a small happiness in a year of regressive global shite.


He had a habit of collecting things he did nothing with. The broken radios and television sets and watches he found at garage sales and op shops were never fixed. And yes, she was tired of it. And yes, he knew. And yes, he bought the teapot anyway. It was green, and it had an interesting swirl on it. There was something about it. It could have been worth something.

Reading: Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta

Apparently the first "book-in-a-box". Written in the early 60s, it's a bunch of looseleaf pages that can be read in any order. I like these sorts of things, and I'm writing and reading about them a lot at the moment. I think B.S. Johnson did this more successfully a few years later in The Unfortunates. The device that Johnson uses - the same start and end page - helps anchor us and frames the narrative. Saporta's work doesn't quite convey the same sense of meaning (it's also, to put it nicely, distasteful in parts). For me, this is an example of form that works against the reader, rather than with them. Does it need to be coherent? Maybe not. But the few discussions I've read about the work mention only its appearance and the experience of reading it. Few mention what Saporta might have actually been trying to say, and to me that says a lot.

Listening: Sonic Youth

Songs don't attach themselves to me like they used to. Is it age, or technology, or both? For me this song is hundreds of drives on the Geelong Road at dusk. Long dusty dead plains and headlights and the fear that the little shitbox I was driving would break down at any moment. 

Reading: S. by JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst

I've just started a PhD, you see, and I'm looking at books that use different mediums and forms to convey their fictions. I've just finished JJ Abrams & Doug Dorst's project, 'S.' The premise: two university students encounter each other in the margins of an old library book by a mysterious early 20th century author. The book we hold is this old library book that they have defaced with their scribblings, messages, postcards, and other clues and ephemera. The thing is: they have written on the book at different times, after certain events have happened. There are around five narratives to follow: the narrative of the book, the narrative of the writer and translator of the book, and the narratives of the two university students at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the journey. It's all very confusing, and it's a slow read. I found I had to change gears every page to work out where I was at in each story. Others have suggested reading each narrative at a time - i.e. the book text first, then the margin stories. Not sure - I think it's better to take it all in at once. It feels like it was designed that way. It's an amazing read, and being the sort of idiot I am, I loved coming across a napkin with a map on it, or a postcard, or some other artefact. It's beautifully produced. As with much of Abrams' work, I found myself unsure of where it landed by the end and what the point of any of it actually was. It was clever, but maybe trying to be cleverer than it was. It was a fun ride though. 

His job

It was his job to drive people to work. People would drop off their cars and wait in a lounge and he would ask them where they needed to go. Based on their responses he would pick three of them. His colleagues would take others. It was his job to be polite to these people; to call them sir and madam. He would not have called them this normally, but it was his job, so he did. It was also his job to gently ask them to get into his car and take them to their jobs. They usually did not want to go to their jobs, but the society in which they’d found themselves necessitated the illusion of productivity above all else. In this society it was important that things kept growing, or at least appeared to keep growing, so they went to work and tried to grow things that were very rarely physical things that could be seen to grow. Because they couldn’t see the things they were supposedly growing it was sometimes hard to tell if they were growing at all, and this often contributed to their waking up in the mornings full of sickening dread. He could usually tell when one of them was experiencing this dread. They stared out of the car windows at the city they couldn’t stop seeing and grunted a lot. 


There were four towers in the complex. Wide swinging doors—the sort that you have to time just right—led to their entrances. There was gold and black shimmer and warm yellow light and glass and reflections, and men and women with expensive clothes and important business swarmed around. I was dressed well, but not well enough. I wasn’t sure where I had to go, so I circled for a while. There was a food court and I found a cafe that wasn’t busy and I bought coffee and decided I would pretend that I knew what I was doing. I walked up the stairs to the tower I intended to enter. I walked through the swinging doors like it was something I always did. I found the reception desk and a woman approached me from behind. She was tall and there was a frightening symmetry about her. She asked if she could help me and called me sir. I hadn’t shaved and my shirt was hanging out and my backpack looked a little scruffy. I didn’t feel like a sir. I said where I wanted to go, and she pointed to the elevator I needed, and I thanked her, and she looked at me for a little too long. I went to the elevators and I looked around at the people going to their elevators, these people needing people with frightening symmetry to make sure they get to their destination, to make sure only the right people were permitted. The elevator was full of mirrors and a television and I couldn’t look anywhere but up, and I ascended with these people. And I got out at my floor and I found a table in the office and I plugged in my laptop and pretended I belonged there. I reminded myself I had a card that proved that I did. Others with frightening symmetry walked around, removing plates and correcting placements and calling people sir and madam. It occurred to me that I could only be in that complex in that tower on that floor on that table with my laptop plugged if I had passed a test conducted by someone, somewhere. Perhaps the woman at reception. Perhaps someone looking at video screens, or device tracking statistics. There were four towers in the complex, and I was on one of the floors, and there were hundreds of towers in the city and thousands of floors and millions of people and none of us were satisfied with how high we were. I wondered when they were going to ask for my ID card.

Listening: Swans

Swans (the band, not the football team or the waterfowl) are astonishingly terrifying. I watched them in a warehouse with my brother in a suburb of Melbourne when it was 40 degrees outside and probably more inside, and the sound was a little out of control, and my bones and organs resonated so much I felt like I was having an attack of some sort, so I walked out of the warehouse for a break in the ridiculously hot sun before venturing back in. I've heard that people have been known to vomit from the intense noise of their performances, so maybe I did okay.

But what a sound. What a grinding, angry, defiant sound. Later I bought a shirt that features the baring teeth of the animal on the front of the album The Seer (above). I'm told it scared an old woman the other day. She didn't even go to the show. 

Listening: Guided By Voices (again)

Once I saw Guided By Voices at the Prince of Wales in St. Kilda, and it was the greatest show I had ever seen and have seen since. The band, and particularly Bob Pollard, drank vast quantities of red wine, getting progressively drunker, sweatier, raucousier, shoutier, and kickier. It was magnificent. I did not get a t-shirt. I have long wished I bought a t-shirt. T-shirt regret is not something you get over. Guided By Voices continues to fill my listen ears to this day, mainly because there are so many goddamn songs that shuffling my playlists is bound to bring one out again, but also because, sometimes, what songs they are. 


You know when it’s been a relentless blue sky summer, and you wake up and there’s a light fog, and you’re in a bus going to the university you’re now attending, and you break over the hill to see the suburb that has been built in your lifetime obscured by fog, so obscured you can only see the waterslide, built in your lifetime, you can’t even see the shopping centre, built in your lifetime, and you look around and you see an Aldi you don't recognise and recall that it used to be a place where people like your mother ordered interesting varieties of dirt, and you look at the petrol station and recall that it was once just some rough space, and you look again at the suburb on the hills that you cannot see, and it feels, for a moment, as if none of this happened at all, as if it is all still farmland stretched out over hills on the way to the home you no longer have, and for a while you can't stop thinking, what if?

Reading: Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)

I was a little worried that Saunders wouldn't make the transition to the longer form as well as he should. His short stories are little subversive humanist revolutions, and anything less than something extraordinary in his novel would have been disappointing. 

It is, happily, extraordinary. He inhabits characters like no one I know. He can make you feel something deeply for a character who features in only three lines. It is strange and bold and deeply human. Read this book.




We walked on the beach at night and felt the coarse fine sand squeeze between our toes. The water was unfamiliar and almost warm. A man with a large fluorescent lamp ran around a posing woman, illiuminating her for a long exposure photograph. She held her arms high and her dress blew like a flag and the man ran around and around. The stars were appearing over the last lines of orange haze. First one, then another, winking timidly into life. Nearby, other people, shadows lying on the sand, hidden and anonymous and unknown. It had been a hot day, but the wind was now coming off the water, and the two who were with me were talking and I was quiet and I felt like something of me was here, in this place I did not know. 


One had the feeling in those days that you had to be someone. Being someone was difficult, particularly when everyone else was trying to be someone. Being someone, he decided, required many other people believe that you were, in fact, someone. Your own opinion of yourself was largely irrelevant. To get people to believe you were someone required a great magic trick to be performed. It was possible, for example, to be someone when you were dead. Sometimes, you were no one when you were alive but someone after you had died. You could be someone for a few minutes, or a few days, and then become no one again immediately after, for the rest of your life. Sometimes, if you pretended you were someone hard enough, for long enough, and told enough people about it, you would, in fact, become someone. It was possible to become someone entirely accidentally, by falling off a roof, for example; or by singing particularly badly while being filmed by your brother in secret; or by being a carpenter, hired to fix a film prop, whom the director believes looks better suited to the role of the pirate king than the weak, temperamental someone-soon-to-be-no-one he is currently working with.

Playing: Inside

A few hours of strange, beautiful dread. I hate platformers, but this is worth the effort. A masterpiece of game design, with sound, music, art, gameplay and architecture all blending perfectly to create something extraordinary. To attempt to explain Inside would be to ruin it. A rare game that has almost no obvious narrative, but somehow manages resonance and impact.