underneath

Underneath
Is a pale blue mist.

There
Everything speaks.
Everything spins.

All extends through all
In a trans-dimensional space.

Meaning is movement
Is spin
Is relationship.
Yet each instant reveals the whole.

Underneath
Is Big.

Very, very, Big.

Underneath
Humbles.

Your whole world
— the Universe at large —
Not an atom
Of an atom
Of an atom.

The Strange Mosaic Inn: a cryptic triptych

Some loosely cryptic poetry written under the mind distorting influence of insomnia, a few years back.

Night One
The 2am ramblings… lacking definition.

Again (2): The Strange Mosaic Inn (3,9)
Down ‘dan… (4,3,3)
Across …confused, or beat. (1,5,2,4)
Stop! (2…,4)
Grave, no? I’d say, yeah. (3,4)
(But no need for alarm.) (1’2,2,8,2)

Re: The Insomniac
Down and out…
…a cross to bear.
No… more!
Too many.
(I’ll be sleeping in.)

Night Two
More cryptic ramblings from the Strange Mosaic Inn.

Anger in the midsts of lost days. (5)
But with time, this, I understand: (4, 4…,1’1,4,2)
With this place, I oust my chaos. (5,2,2,3)

Tired.
Arse this… I’m over it.
Where is my out?

Night Three
Snookered at the Strange Mosaic Inn

Little cueman rattled (4,4)
the black in the middle (8)
using the rest (3,4,8,4)
drifting against the nap. (1,6,5)

Calm tune
“Midnight”
You sing everyone else
A sating sleep.

Burn

Light the purple fire
Burn the trembling tree
Build the furnace higher
Set the embers free. 

lockdown

I sat for a while in the Yarra River at Warrandyte last week. A woman and her small daughter waded in the shallows. A middle-aged couple huddled side by side on the shore a little way down, naked, soft and tanned.

I watched the water surging along, the infinite flow of dazzling reflections. I thought about the difference between looking at an object and experiencing an unfolding phenomenon, between thinking a thought and appreciating an idea, between saying I love you, and loving. Between what can be captured, and what cannot.

I thought about myself, my own pain. The unending loops my mind has been trained to chase. About the kind of isolation that serves no purpose.

I thought about this virus. I thought about those first few molecules that seeped into the human community. Invisible, organic, tiny.

I thought, if this is what a molecule can do, driven only by the raw instinct of natural laws, imagine the possibilities for a molecule made of love, ministered with intention.

I thought about the necessary solution to coronavirus. Prevent the spread by limiting the movement and interaction of potential hosts, which is everyone. Regular and thorough sanitising. Public education. Social shaming. Policing.

Lockdown: Isolate. Indoctrinate. Shame. Threaten. Arrest.

I thought about the viral entanglement that we call reality. I thought, if even the healthiest person could be invisibly infected with coronavirus, perhaps even the lowliest might be an unwitting carrier of that molecule of love. What if we’re all swimming in it, only most have never been allowed a test?

I thought, if there were ever a time to rail against lockdown, it’s now. The worst effect of coronavirus won’t be its tragic and indiscriminate death toll. It will be the vector that the virus itself provides to viruses long established.

All the while, I ran my hands across the slippery bedrock at my feet. I poked methodically at its crevices, liberating accumulations of silt to drift silently downstream. Perhaps something new would find a home here soon.

And I remembered the mountains of the Sacred Valley, their deep-cut wounds blooming like flowers for eternity.

Solving the unsolvable

* Spoiler alert *
The answer to this clue appears at the bottom of this post.

Some friends and I gathered online today to have a crack at the infamous “DA” cryptic in Melbourne’s Age newspaper. David Astle is a devilish setter, much revered and (gently) reviled on the crosswording scene. You’ll find him on twitter @DontAttempt – say no more.

This clue was our final solve:
7ac. Stable strap hurting head, stricken by beer (10)

We’d solved the cross letters as:
–A–T–N–A–E
(Pretty uninspiring cross letters, and, crucially, no first letter in place.)

At this late stage of a puzzle, if you’re still struggling even to confidently identify a clue’s definition element you know you’re looking at something pretty difficult — likely an obscure final answer, or tricky wordplay or misdirection, or all of the above! When you come up against this from a setter with a penchant for the diabolical, it’s easy to get mentally overwhelmed by the possibilities.

We’d scratched our heads over this a few times throughout the solve. Following our best intuition for DA’s misdirecting ways, we were inclined to see “Stable strap” as the definition, meaning some kind of equipment used on horses (ie in stables).

This was a hunch, but it lead us to an idea. If this was really the definition, the final answer seemed likely to be a niche piece of vocabulary that we might never have seen before. We wondered if DA, knowing the various impediments to solving this clue, might have tried to balance the clue with less difficult wordplay. Perhaps he might exploit some more run-of-the-mill cryptic-ese, or at least some of his more common Astle-isms. #benevolent-creator

Running with this, we reasoned that BEER could simply represent ALE — one of the most common synonym pairs used in cryptics — which fit nicely at the end of the answer to give us –A–T–N–ALE. Seemed reasonable.

Next, perhaps we needed a synonym for HURTING, with its first (“head”) letter removed (“stricken”)? A bit more complex, but not an uncommon construction. If correct, we might expect an ING in the answer, which also fit for -A-TINGALE.

Finally, we needed a synonym for HURTING that fit ––A–TING (with that first letter to be removed.) Since DA fairly regularly exploits the synonym pair hurting/smarting, we wound up with MARTINGALE.

At this point, one of us recognised the word, but thought it related to gambling. A Google search confirmed that martingale can mean both a method of gambling or a strap connected to a horse’s bridle!

This all goes to show that with a bit of careful thinking about a setter’s process you might be able to crack a few of those seemingly intractable clues, and learn some fancy new vocab in the process.

But, hmm… could we really call DA a benevolent creator? I think the neighs have it.

Please… (Cryptic #6, 15×15)

DIVE IN!

Complete or Print “Please…” at AmuseLabs.com

… and keep your eyes peeled for a theme-appropriate Easter Egg!

DIFFICULTY

I’ve tried to closely manage the difficulty of the clues. I’d say there’s a good handful of tricky clues, with the rest ranging from easy to middling.

The main difficulty with this crossword is the specificity of the theme, although clue solving it not affected by the theme. British solvers are most likely to clock the theme early on, and to solve all of the missing letters. Resolving the theme will be tricky for solvers unfamiliar with the subject matter, though not impossible.

Watch out for one clue that introduces an uncommon (or completely novel?) wordplay that relies on translation between different English language accents. This one will be easiest for Australian solvers to crack.

And FYI international solvers, 34-across’s wordplay involves a 2-letter Australian reference.

THE BACK STORY

The original version of this crossword, built at the beginning of 2018, was perhaps my third or fourth attempt at cryptic construction, and my first attempt at a themer. Returning to the idea this year I was aghast at the poor quality of the original! About the only convention upheld was grid symmetry. Otherwise it was a right dog’s breakfast! Grid structure was a disaster, with many double-unches, including 4-letter answers with only one checked letter. And clueing was questionable, to be charitable.

I set about to rebuild it, but was fairly confident it would be impossible. The theme placed unusually rigid constraints on what theme words I could deploy, and how they could be placed in the grid. In a number of cases there were only one or two options available, often entailing some kind of compromise, most notably with the 2-letter answer that forms part of 16-down. I was on the verge of abandoning the cause, after a few premature declarations of success, when finally it came together. The grid is by no means neat, but it meets all the conventions… just! If you look closely you’ll see the central white square is the lone bridge between the two halves of the puzzle, without which the grid would be invalid.

I was very much in love with this theme when I first conceived it. My enthusiasm has waned a little since, and it’s definitely not my favourite, but I still think it’s a pretty cool concept and presented me with an interesting grid setting challenge.

I’m still feeling quite green in my clueing skills, with my wordplays a little constrained, though as usual I think there’s a few standouts to be proud of. And I’ve started a more concerted process of building a stronger repertoire of indicator words, abbreviations and so on.

edge

Last night
In a dream
A distant lover
From years ago
Lay next to me.

She didn’t speak.

She held me
In silence
And let me find my own outline
Against her body.

Today
Sadness
You are welcome.

Sit with me.

Press against my skin
And know yourself
At last.

collapse

I stand on the crowded floor of the top storey of a tall office building. My body is heavy. My nerves sting. My mind gasps for air, flailing in a dark ocean surging through from some place beyond.

The floors and walls shake and crack. The empty space between us crunches and heaves. Bodies, desks, chairs and machines are flung across the office. I look fearfully out, beyond the sprawling metropolis, toward the distant fields and mountains. The land is unexpectedly still, rippling only gently as the storm mounts.

The office management, heavyset men with thick brows and swollen, clenched fists, are unmoved. No air swirls in their lungs, nor blood in their hearts. Their voices, low and disdainful, boom forth. “Return to your work, you damned fools. Pay no heed to your childish hallucinations.”

Most of the staff fall into line, though their desks and chairs remain scattered and the storm tugs no less forcefully at their bodies. Some join in the management’s refrain, shaming the disloyalty of those who resist compliance. But some are unable to acquiesce to this suicide pact. Our hearts are too sensitive to yield to such blunt coercion. Our fear is our strength. It commandeers our bodies, drawing us toward escape, however fraught.

The contractions come stronger and faster now. A large inflatable dinghy appears in the middle of the floor, a small group of sensitive souls already aboard, beckoning to me. I sense a violent battle for survival ahead. As the remainers hurl their righteous indignation, I climb aboard. I feel the warmth and fleshiness of my fellow passengers’ bodies against mine. I feel our shared terror and our shared conviction. Enmeshed in the womb of a new paradigm, deaf and blind to the demands of the old, we begin our journey.

The floor gives way and our boat free falls along an expansive lift shaft some twenty metres across. The space is dark, dotted with specks of starlight, and I can barely make out a steel supporting structure. Whilst my fellow passengers panic, I experience a subtle breath of calm, an almost smiling fascination with the intensity of our predicament.

We are now outside and on the run. I move through the city with two women from the boat. I feel lost. It slowly dawns that this is not Melbourne, as I had assumed, but rather a city in Tasmania. One of the women takes the lead and is determined to make for an airport. I follow, though I know this will be futile. At best we might hope to come across a local airfield and make our own way back to the mainland in a stolen light aircraft.

What little hope of a retreat to some familiar sense of safety, to a place or a community or a state of awareness fortified against the storm, ebbs away as I attune to the depth of sensation tearing through my heart and the Earth below. My friends and I are now fugitives on the run not from one discernible enemy, not from beast or weapon or disease or fire, not even from our own inner demons, but from the unraveling totality of an untenable world. This is the Collapse. A long-simmering reckoning has finally breached the walls of this world’s flimsy dams. The elemental fabric of a world drowning in the echo of booming voices is dissolving into dust. Seized with terror, the deep animals of our souls drive our bodies blindly into a vast unknown, to some place either so novel as to be unimaginable or so ancient as to have long since disappeared from the collective memory – if not death itself, then some place indistinguishable from death when seen from the darkened road toward it.

As my friends run ahead toward a descending subway escalator I find myself all of a sudden swept some ten metres into the air. I am especially self-conscious of this spontaneous flight, concerned that the women expect me to follow them. Reaching the escalator, they turn back to find me floating above. They fall to their knees, awestruck, almost horrified with astonishment. I am taken aback. In hundreds of dream flight experiences I cannot recall an occasion when entities within the dream were aware of my flight. This feels like the first time the wonder of my flight experience has been witnessed by anyone but myself. A brief rush of wholeness sweeps like a breath of wind through my body.

I descend and rejoin the women. We enter a cavernous underground tunnel and proceed across a steel mesh walkway. I notice a dozen or so naked bodies around the base of the tunnel. They are suspended in unusual postures, some slumped against walls, others over railings, some mounted one atop the other. Their skin is pale and flabby. They are not dead, but their behaviour appears numb and mindless. More bodies appear, floating face down in still water in an intersecting tunnel ahead. We turn back to find more emerging into view in swarms, pursuing us like zombies. The scene is ghastly. It feels as if these souls have become incorporated into the body of some satanic overlord and now act as limbs under its control in a depraved game of torture and terror.

Outside, the Collapse steadily deepens. The ground beneath us swells and belches like an ocean. Buildings crumble. Terror-stricken individuals scatter in all directions, screaming like animals, lashing out at one another. The people, the buildings, the Earth, the air, the very laws of physics and consciousness and community – Everything – is in the throes of death.

An unusual phenomenon is arising from the ashes of the old world. The Collapse is catalysing special powers, many of them violent, in certain individuals. A heavyset woman up ahead, her behaviour aggressive, violent, and psychotic, has developed the power to fire tree branches from her arms with a flick of the wrist. As she practices her new-found skill on helpless victims, her lips curl upward in sadistic pleasure. As we move through the city, more such individuals emerge, each with their own violent power.

At this moment, hyper-conscious to threats from all directions, from within and without, a confronting and humbling awareness suffuses my blood. The unfolding terror, the unrelenting bombardment of my innermost terrains – this is nothing new. This, now, is the experience of the asylum seeker. The family pelted by bombs. The abused and starving child. The woman raped and enslaved. The elder pleading through merciless pain for a dignified passing. The animal penned, violated and murdered under the guise of biological need and cultural sophistication. The soldier hurling their life to the grave in an unknown land. The Stolen Generations and all their brutalised indigenous counterparts throughout the world. What I am watching and experiencing, this shredding of all sense of place and self and belonging, of birthright, has been the felt truth of experience of individuals and communities stretching far into history. This, now, this impossibility, this lethal danger from all quarters – this end of time, end of matter, end of community, end of self – this sheer obliteration of the vast, hitherto unrecognised ground of experience itself – This, is the long-marginalised truth of those systematically terrorised, controlled and extinguished. Today, the coalescence of all their trauma within mind-at-large has finally triggered this unstoppable moment of brutal deliverance.

I scan my environment. I need a space. Something is stirring. The Collapse has unlocked an inner doorway to my own special power, a power woven into my spirit from my very beginnings. Flight.

I come by a clearing shielded from immediate danger. Here, in the shadows of concrete walls yet to fall, I begin my practice. While dream flight was once a spontaneous action, now a special technique must be cultivated. I stretch my hands in front of me, wrists against my chest. Between them sparks into life a delicate, vibrating energetic filament, iridescent like oil. Subtle gyrations of my hands give rise to rhythmic fluctuations in this force. This moment has been too long coming, and despite the overwhelming focus required I know I must integrate my birthright here and now. This power is sacred and potent. The violence will perish with the worlds it killed. From here, if possible at all, it is the students of the sacred gifts who might stir new worlds into life.

And then, up I go. My whole life force is in my hands, and as unstable as things feel, I am up. For now that is all I know. Where this leads I cannot say. Below, the world continues to crumble, silently now, under darkening skies.

There appears below me a dark figure standing some five metres tall, her disfigured face concealed under her black cloak. A witch, or a banshee? She scampers about, clutching at the air, intent on upsetting my work. But I remain aloft, beyond her reach, and she soon fades.

Finally, returning to solid Earth, I notice a couch in the clearing. A young woman is trapped inside, sewn tightly under the leather cover. Her flesh is enmeshed with the fabric, like roots with soil, the border between captor and captive almost indiscernible. I struggle to release her, tugging at the fabric. I ask her questions: Do you know how you got this way? Where are your arms? Do you have a complete body? Though she is stiff with fear, I sense she is conscious of my benevolent intent. She responds with barely perceptible gestures and breathless single-word utterances, her eyes wide open, staring blankly past me.

26 May 2019

One Down (Cryptic #5, 15×15)

Dive in!

Hint version: This version highlights the themed clues, and offers an additional hint to kick start your solve.
Complete or print “One Down (Hint version)” at AmuseLabs.com

Expert version: You’re on your own!
Complete or print “One Down (Expert version)” at AmuseLabs.com

(…keep your eyes peeled for one of my famous theme-appropriate Easter Eggs…)

The back story

I’ve been sitting on this crossword for quite a while. My most recently published crossword, High Definition, was my most accessible so far, so I thought it was a good moment to release a more challenging one.

I’m really pleased with this one. Something LR (@LRxword) mentioned last year put me onto the idea, and it proved as challenging to clue as I expected! The upside was that the gimmick permitted a surprising range of possible themed answers (thanks to Tristan at @xwd_bot for his automated dictionary search wizardry). This gave me the flexibility to pick the answers that offered up the niftiest clues, and avoided any compromises on grid structure – there’s no double up of checked or unchecked letters; all answers have at least half of their letters checked; and most answers start with a checked letter. The grid has more 3-letter answers than I would prefer, but there were so many great 3-letter theme options I couldn’t pass them up!

Difficulty

I’d probably rate this as my hardest puzzle to date, primarily because of the theme. Double definition clues can be challenging at the best of times, so this puzzle’s reliance on them – in a themed way, no less! – will likely present some head-scratchers. For this reason I have provided both an expert version and a hint version of the puzzle. The hint version identifies the themed clues, and offers a bonus opening hint to get you underway. Expert leaves you to fend for yourself.

Outside of the theme, I feel most clueing is pretty fair and manageable. I might have pushed the boat out a little with 29-down… I’ll let you be the judge!

And FYI international solvers, 34-across involves an informal Australian term.

High Definition (Cryptic #4, 11×11)

Dive in!

Complete or print “High Definition” at AmuseLabs.com

The back story

I had the idea for this crossword a while back and am pleased to have finally pieced it together. With a somewhat limited range of well-known theme words to choose from, it was looking difficult to theme all the across answers of a full-size grid, so I went with another 11×11. By theming all across answers, I spare the solver the problem of distinguishing the themers from the standards. Although I could equally achieve this by flagging themed clues with an asterisk, there is something neat about theming the full cohort of across clues.

This approach did, of course, facilitate a quicker build. I found the grid a little harder to compile than I expected, but once complete I wrote the clues in one sitting of maybe a couple of hours. Miles quicker than usual! The task was made a little easier by the reasonably high number of short answers and the lack of themed wordplay, and not having to concern myself with definitions for the across answers was useful, but I think my speed is also a sign of progress in my clue writing skill.

Difficulty

The lack of definitions for across answers introduces a certain level of difficulty, but once the theme is spotted the solver has an additional piece of information to assist. There are some very simple themed answers, too, which should help in cracking it open early in the piece.

In most cases I feel the wordplay is pretty uncomplicated, with little in the way of unusual indicators or obscure synonyms. There is a single clue (4-down) requiring very specific local Australian knowledge – which even many locals will lack – but I think it’s nice to include local references, particularly cruciverbalist in-crowd stuff. In any case, it’s a short answer that’s well solvable from the cross letters and the definition.