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Love Poems – Andy doesn’t quite fall for the poetry of Dorothy Porter

December 11, 2011

I first encountered Dorothy Porter in the mid- to late-’90s, when my then best friend (who hasn’t spoken to me for longer than we knew each other in the first place, but then lesbians are like that sometimes) loaned me a copy of The Monkey’s Mask. I remember being impressed, rather than blown away.

The same could be said for this volume of love poetry. Impressive, but not explosively so.

Some poets – Thom Gunn springs to mind, especially in his early phase – are difficult. Possibly deliberately difficult, certainly noticeably so. Porter isn’t that kind of poet. She lurks at the other end of the spectrum, her words deceptively simple, easy in fact almost too easy to read, poems you feel you’ve devoured in a few seconds, sometimes a minute or two. Easy peasy.

Thom Gunn’s difficult poems don’t always unlock when you read them again. And even if you feel you’re making some headway into what’s going on often what you get doesn’t seem just reward for the effort you’ve invested. I’m talking about Gunn’s earlier stuff here, obviously; his later poetry is often much more accessible on first reading, and richly rewards revisitation.

Porter’s poems can seem slight. OK, so you went for a drive along the beach with some chick – oh yeah, you’re a lesbian, yeah we got that bit – and you smoked some cigarettes and then you did something in the back of the car or maybe you didn’t maybe you just had a quick snog on the doorstep of this flat she lives in or that maybe you live in or possibly someone else  anyway it’s got a great view of Sydney Harbour although that beach we were driving along before that beach was in Manly.

None of Porter’s poems contains all of these elements,  although I think you’ll find all of them if you read all of this volume. Still, you read a poem about two people in a car and you get to the end and it’s just a poem about a couple of people in a car. Rewind, re-read, and it’s still a poem about two people in a car – but there’s a delicious surreptitiousness to the imagery she employs, there’s almost a deception going on sometimes. Re-read her poetry and realise that what look like throwaway lines are carefully constructed and richly imagined. Almost invisibly poetic.

Some people will tell you – tell me – that’s what poetry is supposed to be, you fucking moron. And deliciously surreptitious sounds like something Matt Preston would say on fucking MasterChef. Dickhead. They’re probably right. It’s just that a lot of poetry isn’t remotely like that at all. Porter’s is, though.

An example – probably not the best, but a favourite from early in the collection and very short, so easily reproduced:

COMETS I

There’s a white-blue nerve burning

across my night sky

I wish it hurt to watch

because then

I might stop.

Not impressed? Read it again.

Still not impressed? Read it again.

Porter has some interesting obsessions. Birds. Minoan mythology (one of her books was called Crete). Astronomy. Oh, and flange, obviously. Her poetry is littered – though not heavily – with references to lesbian sex. It’s not often explicit, although lines three and four of the first poem in this collection – “you’re a wet socket/of white sea” made me upchuck in my mouth if only very slightly. Problematically for me, being a) gay, and therefore pathologically obsessed with sex; but also b) gay, and therefore not terribly interested in ladies’ bits, sometimes I read these poems and possibly placed an interpretation upon them that was not intended. As in, perhaps I’m  completely deluded, and references to white seas and wet sockets actually mean …

OK, let’s not go there.

This collection has a few weaknesses. For the most part the song lyrics don’t work. Netty wants to hear them in context, with Paul Grabowski’s music. Fine. Buy the CD. They shouldn’t be in a collection of poetry. I’m not sure that extracts from her lyric novels should be here either, although some of the poetry on display is blisteringly good. Akenhaten, in which she imagines a pharoah’s sexual obsession with his younger brother, is particularly impressive. And no, I don’t want to root my brothers. Either of them. Ever. Did you get that? EVER. Hopefully they won’t be too offended by that. There is good stuff in extracts from The Monkey’s Mask and Wild Surmise (the last two words of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, incidentally … Coincidence?) but if I am going to read a collection of Porter’s poetry I would prefer to read it as she intended it to be read.

Her songs should be available to listen to, and it is. Her verse novels should be available to read in their entirety, and they are. And her stand-alone poetry needs to be compiled as a collection. Presumably this is happening now and will be available in the next year or two. If it’s not happening it should be. She is significant enough an Aussie writer to be receive that honour.

And this collection, impressive as it is for the most part, does not quite do her the justice she deserves.

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