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In which Netty takes a stroll on the sapphic side …

December 12, 2011

Australian poet Dorothy Porter, who died in 2008 aged 54, has been on, or thereabouts, the Reading Challenge radar for a couple of years now. I had originally wanted to read what is arguably her best-known work, the verse novel The Monkey’s Mask (also a 2000 film starring Susie Porter – no relation – and Kelly McGillis). Alas, Andy having already read it stymied that idea. “OK, well, she’s a poet, so let’s do her collected poems,” I suggested, over a drink or seven at some inner-city bar late last year.

Trouble was, when we went to look for Porter’s collected poems, we drew a blank. How ridiculous that one of Australia’s best-known contemporary poets does not have all her work collected in the one volume! But what Porter does have is this – Love Poems, released last year, and her ninth collection of poetry, the last two published posthumously (she also has five verse novels, two young adult books, two libretti – with composer Jonathan Mills – and a posthumous collection of literary criticism in print). 

Love Poems is a bit of a misnomer, however. There are also selections from three of Porter’s verse novels – Akhenaten (1991), The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and Wild Surmise (2002) – as well as song lyrics (taken from the 2005 album Before Time Could Change Us, by the Paul Grabowsky/Katie Noonen Quintet). The majority of the poems are organised into five chapters, eschewing chronological order but offering a good representation of Porter’s canon, spanning the length of her published work from 1975 to 2009. Porter’s long-time partner, writer Andrea Goldsmith, penned the succinct preface, noting that the poet “had a particular fascination for the unpredictable dangers that threaten when one gives into an all-consuming passion”.

Pardon me here for retreading ground that Andy has already traversed in his blog. I can’t remember ever having read a book – and certainly not an ANRC book – as quickly as I did Love Poems. I picked it up, bored, just to have a bit of a flick-through, while I was waiting for my iPod to sync one Saturday afternoon and then – almost in less time than it took for said iPod to do its thing – I had read the whole volume, cover to cover. Two hundred-odd pages, devoured. Just like that. And yes, that’s the thing about poetry collections, short-story collections as well – they are not really designed to be demolished in one hit. They are meant to be savoured, slowly, over time (well, perhaps in an ideal world, but certainly not when you’re on Planet Turn-This-Sucker-Round-Within-Four-Weeks-Max-On-Top-Of-Everything-Else-You’re-Reading-Or-More-Likely-Trying-To-Read).

It’s a fine line when writing poetry – between the oh-so-clever and the not-challenging-enough – and yes, at first glance Porter falls into the latter camp. But poetry, maybe more so than any other written medium, is a craft wrought with discipline; every word being honed to the nth degree. So with Porter’s poems – and I’m talking about her poems, not the verse-novel extracts, and certainly not the lyrics – what appears initially too simplistic reveals itself to be skilfully crafted on subsequent readings.

Andy gave you Comets I. Here is exhibit B:

Or Else

“No sensible woman eats poppies

or else

she’ll dance

she’ll fall over

she’ll wake up

with a woman in her arms.”

Simple? Yes. Skilful? No doubt. It takes, what, 10 seconds to read? Yes, but I can’t help but wonder how long it took Porter to write.

What I really found really impressive, though, were the extracts from the verse novels. Akhenaten, the Egyptian king, loved his god Aten, his desert city Akhet-Aten, his wife Nefertiti and – in Porter’s imagining – his younger brother Smenkhkare. The Monkey’s Mask charts the affair between detective Jill Fitzpatrick and poetry teacher Diana Maitland. And in Wild Surmise, astrobiologist Alex reignites an old coupling with American astrophysicist Phoebe, leaving her marriage to university lecturer Daniel floundering in its wake.

In Porter’s hands, these stories lose none of their clout presented as verse than they would in a conventional narrative structure. These excerpts are palpable in their eroticism, fervent in their keening obsessiveness, and yes – to paraphrase Goldsmith – all-consuming in their passion. Porter unapologetically wears her sapphic bent on her sleeve, but love in all its myriad forms is a universal concept; her work should never be categorised by, or dismissed for, its sexual orientation. I am a straight woman, Andy is a gay man – and we took pretty much the same things out of Porter’s poetry (although admittedly I can’t really say that the line “you’re a wet socket/of white sea” made me want to throw up in my own mouth. Chuck Palahniuk’s Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, on the other hand …)

In four years of ANRC, Porter’s is the third collection of poetry we have tackled, along with American poets Miller Williams (July 2009) and Thom Gunn (June 2010). All three have had their distinctive merits. Too often, I suspect, reading poetry is something we abandon as soon as we can – post-school, mostly. But we are poorer of spirit for doing so. Poetry definitely has its place beyond an English lit curriculum. And this definitely won’t be the last time you’ll be reading a poetry dissection on this blog.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get me one or two of Porter’s verse novels. And maybe a copy of The Monkey’s Mask on DVD. After all, just because you don’t want to jump in the pool, it doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally dip your toes in the water.

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