Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett, edited and introduced by Kate Lilley (UWA Press 2010)
When she launched this book at Gleebooks Gail Jones warned against becoming so fascinated by the iconic figure of Dorothy herself that we forget to actually read her poetry. Good advice, no doubt, but I’m probably no different from anyone who knew Dorothy at all in being completely incapable of reading these poems without feeling that I’m in the presence, not so much an icon as a … well, a presence.
Dorothy was a frequent visitor to Currency Press, where I worked in the 1970s. She commanded attention, was never dull, and was never stuck for words. Her first appearance in my time there was by way of a letter written to her good friend our editor in chief Philip Parsons, which he read aloud to the staff (all three of us). She was approaching 50, and wrote that she wanted to celebrate her birthday on a beach in Bali, laid out in a coffin surrounded by black candles. We were amused. When she saw the Currency edition of her play The Chapel Perilous (on the front cover a glamorous photo of Dorothy when young, on the back a pensive Dorothy in her late 40s), she exclaimed, ‘Time’s cruel!’ I really don’t need to say this, but Dorothy approaching 50 didn’t exactly lack glamour. We were amused again. In 1976 we published her much earlier play, This Old Man Comes Rolling Home, and I marked up the typescript for the printer. When you mark up a text you take it one word at a time and if it’s a play it tends to perform itself in your head. As I neared the end of my pencil-wielding way through This Old Man, tears were streaming down my cheeks. Dorothy walked into the office soon after I’d finished it, and I told her, with feeling, how much I loved the play. ‘Ah well,’ she said, rolling her eyes, ‘you work away for ten years and they still say your first thing was the best.’ Once, impertinent pup that I was, I told her she had misused a word in a piece published in Overland (writing bisexual but meaning, I said, androgynous). She didn’t slap me down: her eyes lit up, and we had an animated conversation. The last time I saw her was at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner in 2000, where she received the Special Award, and though she was ill and walked with difficulty, she was as commanding and glamorous a presence as ever, her hair still wild.
If you said that none of those random memories had anything to do with the poetry I couldn’t say confidently that you were wrong. But it would be odd to quarantine Dorothy’s poetry from her plays and prose, or from what we know of her life. The subject matter of her plays and autobiographical writing is revisited here: her childhood in the Western Australian wheat belt, her sexual adventures and ordeals, her history with the Communist Party. As Kate Lilley writes in her introduction, Dorothy was a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. (She’s also a magnificently unabashed poet of Australian Communism and disillusion with Communism.) In the poems, even more explicitly than in the plays, she puts herself on the … I was going to say ‘on the chopping block’, and I think I’ll stick with that. If this is narcissism, it’s a ruthless variety; if sometimes her laments over her suffering as a woman sound like self pity, there’s a pitilessness in the way she holds that emotion up to the light. Nothing is quarantined in these poems, and when I read them, I hear Dorothy’s voice.
I think I’m blathering.
Excerpts from the autobiographical ‘The Alice Poems’ take up about a third of the book, and fill me with chagrin that the book Alice in Wormland is out of print. But the quieter poems of the last 20 pages, which look squarely at old age, the effects of cancer, and the approach of death, are the real treasure. From ‘The Last Peninsula’:
death in his blue cowl
takes one reluctant step away
while the suffering flesh
cut sewn and sealed
lies still in its narrow bed
the spirit looks down and is healed
Healed for what? says the voice
More of the same?
And the currawong sings Rejoice
I have called your name.
I find the last poem in the book, ‘What I Do Now’, intensely moving. After a quote from Frank O’Hara (‘I always wanted my life / to have some kind of meaning’), the poem walks us through the speaker’s day – lying in bed reading, getting up at 6 pm, watching television until midnight, and staggering back to bed. Then, with what might be read as desolation, but which to me sounds like a reprise in a minor key of Dorothy’s grimly stoic, eye-rolling response to the Chapel Perilous photos or my response to her early play:
–––––––––the wind howls
ripping my poems to shreds
the paper lantern whirls
I listen to the semis
to tackle the 40 Bends
in the tapestry chair
the cat snores loudly
will I live to a great old age?
there are lots of mad old women
in these mountains
shut up in their houses dying.