Tag Archives: Currency Press

Lesley Lebkowicz’s Petrov Poems

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems (2013)

1pp I was seven years old in 1954, and have dim memories of what Wikipedia bills as the Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, defected, and some days later his wife Evdokia followed suit, generating a dramatic front page photograph showing two burly Russians manhandling a distraught woman across the tarmac of Sydney aerodrome – tellingly, the woman has lost one of her shoes. It’s not clear that the Petrovs had anything substantial to reveal about Russian espionage, but their defection was a boon to the Menzies government’s anti-Communist machinations and has fired the national imagination, or sections of it, for decades.

The affair was the subject of Ralph Peterson’s 1959 play The Third Secretary, which was part of The Currency Press’s first Playtexts Series in 1971, in teh august company of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe.  Robert Manne’s exhaustive account, The Petrov Affair, was published in 1980, and again in a revised edition in 2004. The Petrovs feature offstage in Ursula Dubosarsky’s magnificent 2006 children’s book The Red Shoe. So far I was keeping up. Then Noelle Janaczewska’s Mrs Petrov’s Shoe won a Queensland Premiers Literary Award in 2006 (back in the days when the Queensland government gave money to the arts), and Andrew Croome’s Document Z got a gong in the NSW equivalent in 2010. How many books could one minor incident sustain?

I tried to read Andrew Croome’s book. It’s probably very good. But I couldn’t get past the first line of the first page, so strong was my reluctance to read one more word about the Petrovs. They may be our only spy scandal, I thought, but they’re just not that interesting. Yet when someone at our book club (the one where we swap books, not the one where we discuss them) offered Lesley Lebkowicz’ book of poems, I surprised myself by taking it home.

I don’t think any book could have completely dispelled my pre-emptive ennui, but this book came pretty close. It’s pretty much a verse novel, keeping a fairly tight focus on the two main characters, known mostly by their pet names Volodya and Dusya. It begins as they arrive in Sydney, seen from Dusya’s point of view:

Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness had long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water.

The narrative takes us through the process of disaffection to their defections, their interrogations and then their dislocated new life. It ends, after Volodya’s death, with Dusya living with her sister Tamara in suburban Melbourne:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
for diner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever

Tamara says makes Dusya happy – it’s hearing
her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

and Tamara looks at her
but says nothing. His name falls out of their lives.

So it’s as much the story of a relationship that plays out in extraordinary circumstances, a migrant story with higher stakes and the glare of publicity. The part of the story that struck home most forcefully for me is in the last two sections, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’ and ‘The Petrovs in Melbourne’, where they continue with their lives after the drama, neither celebrated nor left alone. From ‘Sentences’:

‘I am Petrov,’ he tells a fellow in Manly,
expecting some sign.
‘Congratulations,’ the man says and walks off.

His photograph regards him every day from The Herald.
What he’s done must mean something –

From ‘They know we are Petrovs’:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbour builds a gate in their fence
so when the journalist comes, they slip out
through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –

no one would have known who they were.

The verse is always clear and sharp as this. A lot of it is in unrhymed sonnets, but there’s much variety in form. If you haven’t read much about the Petrov Affair, and OK even if you have, this is a good story well told. If you want to read more about it, I recommend the excellent review by Sue at Whispering Gums.

awwbadge_2013This is the last title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013. I seem to have read 15, and it’s been fun. I’ve signed up for the 2014 challenge.

Dorothy Hewett’s Selected Poems

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
changing gear
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.

A Raffish Experiment launch

In my mid 20s I worked for The Currency Press. It was my first real job, and it spoiled me forever. Our offices were frequently visited by luminaries from Australia and beyond. David Williamson ducked to get under the lintel; Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna duelled with anecdotes over afternoon tea; Alex Buzo described one of his leading ladies as having a face like the back of a bus; Richard Eyre (whose Stage Beauty I watched on TV last night) dropped by on a visit from the UK; Aileen Corpus chatted about developments in Aboriginal theatre; Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley moved in just up the road. I don’t remember if I actually met Rex Cramphorn, but his Performance Syndicate was one of the most exciting things happening in Sydney theatre at that time. I remember editing a short piece he wrote for a little newsletter that Currency used to produce, in which he imagined a production of Don’s Party in which the actors wore masks and high platform soles. More to the point, his productions made a deep impression on me – I still find myself humming snatches of song from Muriel, a play he directed about a young woman with developmental delay.

Tonight at Gleebooks Louis Nowra, another occasional visitor to our office back then, launched A Raffish Experiment, a collection of Cramphorn’s writings, edited by Ian Maxwell and published by Currency Press. I got there early, bought a copy and sat in a corner browsing it, sipping on a glass of water (the only non-alcoholic drink on offer) while the crowd gathered. I didn’t see anyone I knew to talk to, though there were a number  faces familiar from stage, screen and the photographs in the book. I spent a lovely 20 minutes reading reviews of plays I saw more than 30 years ago. In 1970 Cramphorne (as he then spelled his name) described Hair as ‘the only doggedly good value in theatre here’, and ‘enjoyed the texts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Little Murders – though not the productions’. He describes the overture of a production of Reedy River as ‘a blackout in which the sonic hum of the air-conditioner contested for precedence with a medley of tunes hummed offstage’. Oh how one yearns for such a fearlessly opinionated reviewer these days.

As the speeches were about to begin, a tall silver-haired man sat next to me. we exchanged pleasantries, and then I recognised him and said, ‘Oh hello Arthur!’ It was the great Arthur Dignam who of course doesn’t know me from Adam. By the time we’d established that, the lights had dimmed and the launch was on.

Louis Nowra told charming tales of his collaborations with Cramphorn. Unlike almost everyone else in the theatre he didn’t pay much attention to opening nights – the show would come good eventually, and it didn’t really matter if that eventuality was three weeks into the season. (I must have been one lucky punter, as I have nothing but good memories of his shows, and looking at the list up the back of the book I can see that I did see quite a few.) Ian Maxwell read some excerpts from the second part of the book, which deals with Cramphorn’s own practice in the theatre and said he hopes it’s a book that will prove useful to anyone starting out on a career in the theatre – he wished he had been given a book like this when he was starting out to be a director: we can learn from Brecht and Artaud, and also from Rex Cramphorn.

Speaking as one whose role in the theatre is to put a bum on a seat, I do hope a lot of them on the supply side read the book, and are infected with its disdain for the dull. The launch was a muted celebration of exactly that infection.