Tag Archives: Dorothy Porter

Southerly 75/2

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 2 2015: The Naked Writer 2 (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger)

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John Kinsella and Charmaine Papertalk-Green have a collaborative poem in this Southerly. The son of an Anglo-Celtic farmer, Kinsella lived in Geraldton, Western Australia, for the last three years of high school. Papertalk-Green is a Yamaji woman who grew up in nearby Mallewa and now lives just outside Geraldton. The poem – actually a sequence of poems written by the two poets alternately – responds to the works of Western Australian religious architect Monsignor John Hawes as enduring symbols of colonisation.

In what looks like an anxious concern that readers appreciate the significance of the poem, it is embedded in an article by Kinsella, ‘Eclogue Failure or Success: the Collaborative Activism of Poetry’, which among other things spells out the back story, makes learned observations about Virgil’s Eclogues, quotes Wikipedia, throws in a few Greek words, and makes sure we don’t confuse the poem’s first-person elements with the ‘entirely self-interested and subjective’ phenomenon of the selfie. Kinsella is willing to risk being annoyingly self-important if that’s what it takes to ensure that we take him and his collaboration with Papertalk-Green seriously.

Maybe it worked, or maybe the poems would have spoken for themselves, but it’s the kind of project that makes one glad to be alive in the time that it is happening. (Of course, it’s not unique: another stunning example is My Darling Patricia’s 2011 theatrical work, Posts in the Paddock, a collaboration between descendants of Jimmy Governor and descendants of a white family he murdered. That one seems to have sunk without a trace, so maybe all such works do need a John Kinsella to tell us how important they are.)

The challenge of unsparing conversation between Aboriginal peoples and settler Australians is also the subject of Maggie Nolan’s essay ‘Shedding Clothes: Performing cross-cultural exchange through costume and writing in Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance‘. Apart from calling to mind the pleasure of reading the novel and quoting from it generously, Nolan suggests that, though Bobby/Wabalanginy’s failure to communicate to the colonisers by means of dance may end the book, ‘perhaps his invitation remains open, and Kim Scott, through this novel, is re-extending it to his readers’. I think she’s hit the nail on the head.

There is plenty else here to exercise and delight the mind. In no particular order:

  • David Brooks bids an idiosyncratic and clearly deeply felt farewell to his friend the literary critic Veronica Brady, who died last year.
  • Fiona McFarlane’s ‘On Reading The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White’, originally a Sydney Ideas lecture, is a warmly intelligent revisiting of that novel.
  • Hayley Katzen’s personal essay ‘On Privacy’ rings the changes on the perennial theme of its title, interestingly resonating with John Kinsella’s distinction between the writerly ‘I’ and the facebook or selfie ‘I’, and also with Kim Scott’s meditations on what happens when you write things down.
  • Jill Dimond and Helen O’Reilly delve into their respective family histories, the former with an engrossing tale of failed literary aspirations, the latter with the story of the connection between her second cousin Eleanor Dark and poet Christopher Brennan.
  • Joe Dolce, whom I should be able to mention without referring to ‘Shuddupaya Face’, interviews the late Dorothy Porter about C P Cavafy and they discuss his poetry’s importance to both of them.
  • Of the wide-ranging selection of poems, I particularly enjoyed Alan Gould’s ‘The Epochs Must Go Chatterbox’ and ‘The Insistent Face to Face’, Geoff Page’s genial ‘A Drinking Song for A D Hope’, and Mark Mordue’s Sydney train journey, ‘A Letter for The Emperor’.
  • Craig Billingham’s ‘The Final Cast’ reads like a slice of wryly observed Glebe literary life, though its ‘Fiction’ label should spare embarrassment all round.
  • Nasrin Mahoutchi’s story of widowerhood, ‘Standing in the Cold’, evokes a bitter Iranian winter with just the right amount of twist at the end.
  • In the review section, A J Carruthers discusses Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy and Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past, justifying this unlikely pairing by claiming both poets as ‘experimental’, and arguing that experimental poetry is mainstream in Australia now (and as I write that I realise that the four poems I have singled out above are probably the least ‘experimental’ in this Southerly – ah well, I’m now in my 70th year, so I hope I may be forgiven).
  • In The Long Paddock, the journal’s online extension, Jonathan Dunk gives what he describes as a ‘gloves off’ review of Jennifer Maiden’s Drone and Phantoms, and elicits a bare-knuckled response from Maiden. Good on you, Southerly, for putting the conversation out in the open.

I tend to skip the densely scholarly articles (the ones that use words like chronotopic), or at best dip into them. Dipping can come up with some pleasant oddities. In this issue I stumbled on a quote from one Eric Berlatsky to the effect that in some ways ‘the institution of heterosexual marriage is “always already queer”‘. How far we’ve come since William Buckley Junior caused an uproar by calling openly gay Gore Vidal a ‘queer’ on US television in 1968. Now, it seems, in academic parlance, even those ensconced in heterosexual marriages are queer.

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.)

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.