Jean-Luc Nancy, in his book The Inoperative Community, argues that ‘community is revealed in the death of others’. This is community in a more ineffable sense, the way I like to think of myself in terms of feeling part of a poetic community: perhaps the kind of poetic community that, as Dorothy Porter wrote, ‘is actually marvellously good at honouring its dead’. There’s no doubt that contemporary community is also intrinsically linked to communication, often literally these days using communications technologies. I heard that Dorothy Porter had died in an email from Overland‘s editor Jeff Sparrow, and then put ‘Vale Dorothy Porter’ as my Facebook status. This triggered a rash of comments: of shock (‘Dorothy Porter is DEAD?!’), of disbelief (‘she seemed so strong, unassailable’), garnering responses both globally and locally (‘there I was in the middle of Kalgoorlie and I realised that there was nowhere where her words didn’t work – I wanted to be the night parrot and wreak havoc with that news’).
I think that Nancy is right about the way in which it takes death to jolt us into a fleeting sense of being part of, in a broader sense, a community of the living. For women especially, this is the case with a death from breast cancer. It makes us check anxiously for lumps, but it also sutures us together on an affective level as (sentient) mortal beings. Dorothy Porter’s death reverberated throughout the literary community in particular, and into the extra-literary community. This news touched people who hadn’t read a poem since they were Arts students in the early 1990s, or for whom Dorothy Porter books remain the sole poetry collections on their bookshelves (often given to them by an ex-lover or tied to memories of desire). I was an ardent Dorothy Porter fan as an undergraduate and my friends and I would watch her read at the Harold Park Hotel and then try to imitate her reading style afterwards, enunciating every word slowly, flatly and suggestively. She once read out a poem of mine called ‘Classified’ when she was launching a Sydney University Women’s Writing anthology. My poem ended with the lines: ‘My clit is a simple light fuse, in a bulb of epidermal cells. / Replies on impulse most welcome’ and her riposte ‘I was tempted to respond to that one myself’, made my day/year.
I’ve decided not to write a conventional literary obituary, as you will have read them in all the newspapers by now (listing Dorothy’s significant achievements and biography). I’ll always remember Dorothy’s image on her first book of poetry Little Hoodlum; she was over a decade older me in faded denims and had an aura of coming of age in the 70s that I could never really aspire to, but which remained tantalising. It seems Dorothy is especially an inspiration to emerging poets. A friend and young poet, Sarah-Jane Norman, while a high school student doing extension English, re-wrote The Iliad as a verse novel. Its every bit as camp as vintage Dorothy Porter, and I’m sad that she’ll never get to read it.