Tag Archives: Dorothy Hewett

Dorothy Porter’s Bee Hut

Dorothy Porter, The Bee Hut (Black Inc 2009)

1863954465 I found it hard when reading this book to separate the poetry out from the circumstances in which it was written, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The doctrine that the author’s biography is irrelevant to an understanding of her work may be useful in the classroom but not so much anywhere else.

Most of the poems collected here were written when Dorothy Porter was dealing with cancer – diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, remission, recurrence and the expectation of imminent death. The poetry is permeated by a sense of mortality and – as with the last poems of Dorothy Hewett and any number of other poets – the knowledge of the real-life situation adds tremendous poignancy for the reader.

Some of the poems address the cancer story directly – as in ‘The Ninth Hour’ (‘it’s your shriveling / flesh / that has the whip hand’), or ‘Not the Same’ (‘When you climb / out a black well / you are not the same’), or ‘View from 437’, written days before her death (‘Something in me / despite everything / can’t believe my luck’). Others, possibly most of the poems in the book, might otherwise seem elegant meditations or slender lyrics, but in this context read as heroic moments of facing reality. I particularly like ‘Numbers’, otherwise a slight, self-derogatory reflection, for the way it is transformed by knowledge of the circumstances of its creation:

I get magic
sometimes I get more
than I bargain for

but I don’t get
numbers.

Numbers do worse
than humiliate
or elude me

they don’t add up.

I am no algebra tart
ravished
by the meretricious music
of the spheres.

My eyes and nose
never streamed
with incontinent ecstasy
through geometry classes
as my disastrous triangles
collapsed in a cacophony
around me.

Perhaps it’s a failing
to grasp
or even want
the utterly perfect number
burning through my retina
like the utterly perfect morning.

Instead I peer
with nauseating vertigo
into the deep dark pitch
of numbers
like an exhausted mammoth
dangerously tottering
on the edge
of a bottomless mystery.

I may be playing a version of that game where you add ‘in bed’ to the quotes on a desk calendar, and almost without exception the quotes still make sense, usually quite a different sense from the original. But is it too far-fetched to read ‘Numbers’ as responding obliquely to all the calculation of percentages and probabilities that accompanies cancer diagnosis and treatment? Or is it just that, as I’m sure someone has said, all true art deals with mortality?

This isn’t a gloomy or single-minded book. There are traveller’s tales, some of them recalling moments from the poet’s variously brash, optimistic and judgmental youth; love poems; lyrics commissioned for performance; responses to other poets, including Byron, Blake, Bruce Beaver, Baudelaire, some that don’t start with B, and a possibly ironic lament for not having read enough Rimbaud (or more accurately not having read Rimbaud enough); and more.

My previous acquaintance with Dorothy Porter’s work has been through the forgettable movie made from her verse novel The Monkey’s Paw, and her verse novel What a Piece of Work, which I hated for its vilely misogynistic Francis Webb figure. I’m glad I decided to have another go at reading her work.

awwbadge_2014The Bee Hut is the second book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. (Evidently I was one of the two most prolific reviewers of poetry for last year’s challenge. I confess to feeling like a fraud, since a number of the poetry books I reviewed had fewer than 20 pages.)

Southerly 72/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 1 2012: Mid-century Women Writers

20121018-203833.jpgSpring is here – ‘a box where sweets compacted lie’ as George Herbert called it, in a phrase that could apply just as well to this issue of Southerly. (Or to put it prosaically, this post is an annotated list.)

There’s a new Jennifer Maiden poem, ‘George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’. This series of poems has had to find a new focus now that George W Bush is no longer reliably on the television obsessing about Iraq as he was for the first poems. George and his kind of girlfriend Clare seem to be travelling the world, waking up in one troubled locale after another, having adventures involving guns, fires and pirate ships as well as discussing politics, morality, philosophy etc. It’s not a verse novel, or even a discontinuous narrative really, but it is never uninteresting. In this poem George and Clare meet with a recently released Chinese dissident in the Forbidden City where they are joined by Confucius and the Duke of Zhou.

There’s Fiona Morrison’s excellent essay, ‘Leaving the Party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’. Like many Communists, Hewett stayed in the Party after the 1956 invasion of Hungary despite serious misgivings, then left when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In effect this essay traces the movement of her mind between those two events as revealed in her writing. Strikingly though, it doesn’t refer to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia, restricting itself to literary matters. Some of the essay’s specialist scholarly language took my fancy, and revived my love of double dactyls:

Higamun hogamun,
Fíona Morrison,
writing in Southerly,
gathers no moss:

says that our Dorothy
ex-Marxist-Leninist
wrote a sustained tropo-
logics of loss.

There’s Karen Lamb’s ‘“Yrs Patrick”: Thea Astley’s brush with timely advice on “the rackety career of novel writing”’, an inside look at the relationship between Astley and other writers, with a focus on a particularly unsparing letter from Patrick White. I once heard Astley quote a dollop of writerly advice she had received from White: ‘If you’re going to write about a shit, Thea, you have to make him a really big shit.’ This article is fascinating but doesn’t include anything quite that colourful. Karen Lamb is writing a biography of Astley. Reading her account of Astley’s approach to friendship, I wondered if biographers don’t run the risk of coming to dislike their subjects through knowing too much:

Karen Lamb
surely doesn’t mean to slam
Thea Astley
but she makes her seem ghastly.

I’ll refrain from doggerel for the rest of this post.

There’s the other piece I turned to the day the journal arrived in the mail, David Musgrave’s review of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788. In a measured and judicious manner, Musgrave joins the line of anthologists, poets and publishers who give this anthology the thumbs down. (Incidentally, I note that neither David Brooks, Southerly‘s co-editor, nor Kate Lilley, its poetry editor, got a guernsey in the anthology, but that didn’t stop them from including an elegant narrative poem by Gray elsewhere in this issue.)

Of the theme essays on mid-century women writers other than the two I’ve already mentioned, Helen O’Reilly’s ‘“Dazzling” Dark – Lantana Lane (1959)’ and Susan Sheridan’s ‘“Cranford at Moreton Bay”: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant‘ persuaded me to add the books they discuss to my To Be Read pile. I skimmed the essays on Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower, and a second one on Jessica Anderson, which are intended for specialist readers. I mean no irony when I say I was grateful to read this near the start of an essay: ‘In her well-known formulation of performativity, Judith Butler argues that repetition of a discourse actually produces the phenomena that it seeks to control.’ Such sentences serve as warnings: what follows is intended not just for readers who can understand the warning sentence, but readers to whom its contents are familiar.

Off theme, there’s Ed Scheer’s ‘“Non-places for non-people”: Social sculpture in Minto’, an account of a performance art event, Big Pinko, in which two artists painted a house pink. It sounds like an interesting project, but I found article a little disturbing in the way it talked about the people of Minto. Perhaps the Judith Butler formulation is relevant: the phrase ‘non-places for non-people’ is meant to encapsulate a criticism of the dysfunctional environment in this outer western suburb, but as it is repeated in this essay it comes to read like a dismissal of the people who live there. The essay has a lot in it that’s beautiful and evocative, but in this respect it makes me appreciate all over again Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s at Westside’s labours to foster writers in Western Sydney.

This issue has abundant rich poetry. I love B. R. Dionysius’ ‘Ghouls’, a set of five sonnets about the Brisbane floods.

The white festiva shunted like a tinny, half-tonne maggot into
O’Hanlon Street’s winter bulb cul-de-sac. The Bremer’s brown
Muzzle investigated the bottom stairs of a corner house, sniffing
For the scent of past flood levels left by more malicious beasts.

Of the other poems, I particular liked ‘Rose Bay Airport, 1944’ and ‘Standing Soldiers’ by Margaret Bradstock (both after Russell Drysdale wartime paintings), ‘Holiday snap’ by Andrew Taylor, ‘Hardware 1953’ by Geoff Page, and ‘The Roadside Bramble’ by Peter Minter.

Of the fifty pages of reviews, John Kinsella on David Brooks’s The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry andPam Brown on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike stood out for me, Kinsella for fascinating ruminations on the nature of literary hoaxes, and Brown for her usual generous intelligence.

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.

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.