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.
I’m glad I read Dorothy Hewett (in the invaluable Aus Lit course at Sydney University) and I’ll certainly never forget her writing, but MY GOODNESS she did rub me up the wrong way. It’s very true that her narcissism is of the merciless variety, not unlike Sylvia Plath’s, I guess, and I found myself thinking, as I was reading the above, firstly, that you are very tolerant of objectionable women and secondly whether there is something qualitatively different about female as opposed to male narcissism in a writer. What I mean is, I wonder if I only lack tolerance for it (unjustly of course) when the writer happens to be female? But then maybe that also depends on one’s tendency to be more tolerant of the opposite sex, I mean as a function of heterosexuality… Maybe you (for example) would be less tolerant of narcissism in a male writer?
I think Dorothy was very generously open to young people – I was amazed that she took any notice of me, an eighteen year old friend of her teenage daughters.
Cassandra: I don’t know that tolerance comes into it. I suppose Dorothy must have been objectionable, since so many people objected, but that’s not how I experienced her. I didn’t see her as narcissistic at all — on the contrary, she was intensely alert to what was going on in the people around her, and vastly generous. If this blog entry reads as tolerant, it’s a function of the poverty of my writing.
Oh, no, I didn’t mean that the entry “read as tolerant” — not at all. It reads like someone completely delighted with the person they’re celebrating. I suppose it just sent me into a reverie about my own intolerance. I loved this post — I thought it was one of your best. I responded rather late last night, and rather spontaneously, because I was so interested by the memories it stirred up. I never knew her, so the narcissism I’m referring to was something I experienced in her writing, as with Sylvia Plath. Again, as with Sylvia Plath, it’s in no way incompatible with merciless self-criticism. They may even tend to go together, especially in women writers.
P. S. I shared a link to this on Facebook but forgot to tag you. x CG
I’m reassured, Cassandra. And Jane, I think that openness must have made her a wonderful teacher.
Thanks for these postings, Jonathan. We are very proud to be publishing Dorothy: in 2011 a selected prose, and in 2012 we are anticipating releasing Wild Card–about time it was back in print.
best wishes, Terri-ann White, UWAP
Keep blathering Jonathan. She was my tutor in 1968 at UWA and I miss her still, all these decades later.
I knew her and Merv so well over all those years; my second husband and I followed her through from Perth to Sydney. I saw her last in poor physical health, in Sydney, and I didn’t hold much hope out for Merv.
Oh dear – and now I am 67 and have limited time. I fear I will not stand as tall as my Dorothy.