Whatever you think of her poetic style, Dorothy Porter was the contemporary godmother of narrative poetry in Australia. Having read and watched the Joanne Davis performance of The Monkey’s Mask, and having also thoroughly enjoyed What A Piece Of Work, I learned some important lessons about how to manipulate time and space using poetics in the writing of a verse novel. I was curious to read Porter’s collection The Bee Hut to find distinctions between the micro-narrative style that drives the plots of her novels and the standalone free verse of her other poetry.
The poems are mostly written within the final five years of her life, which partner Andrea Goldsmith in her foreword describes as being happy and satisfying – a time when Porter was ‘aware of a new depth to the way she inhabited her days’. As the often cynical author of two verse novels (both unpublished – perhaps there’s a connection there), one of which explores the all-illusive death drive and depends upon capturing moments of wonderment in the everyday and beauty for light to frame the brooding shadows that shape the focus of the novel, I was particularly interested to read this last collection of Porter’s. How do apparitions of the end – whether the end is desirable or tragic – evoke such intense sensitivity to the nuances of the everyday? When death is imminent and inevitable, the ‘now’ becomes very loud and luminous indeed.
The Bee Hut is divided into eight parts: Head of Astarte, The Enchanted Ass, Poems: January – August 2004, Smelling Tigers, Jerusalem, Africa, The Freak Songs, and Lucky.
The opening couplet of Egypt, the first poem in Head of Astarte, says it all:
The most powerful presence
These lines sum up the essence of Porter’s final collection. If you know Porter’s work at all, it is impossible to read these poems and not feel warmly haunted by each one. The immortality of the written word is strong here.
The poems in Head of Astarte are mystical representations of exotic places. The reader is lead through Egypt to Alexandria, into temples and back to the Mediterranean Sea. The voice is split between the reverie of youthfulness, and a contrastingly open and unabashed present perspective.
The Enchanted Ass is for the poets: Byron, Keats, Yeats, Woolf, Blake. It is for the process of giving words to the page. The tone is ghostly, charged by people and places that are long dead. ‘Blackberries’ is a poem about attempting a poem in a ghost-town pub and the stanzas deliver the mysteriousness of being from the previous section to new one:
Through its black windows,
and its strangled verandas
creaking with a terrifying
Darkness sets in during the following section, Poems: January – August 2004. These poems strike me as what comes of being confronted by impending death: the cold solitude of knowing something is about to end. Adorned with daggers such as ‘I have come to a river / of blood and vinegar’ in ‘The Ninth Hour’, and ‘I want to exhume Baudelaire / and give him his own / magnificent mercurial vault’ in ‘Charles Baudelaire’s grave’, this section speaks to the underbelly of grief and the desire for life.
Smelling Tigers is one of the most touching sections of poetry in the collection. Someone once said of Allen Ginsberg that ‘No one has made his poetry speak for the whole man, without inhibition of any kind, more than [him]’. Porter begins to have the same impact in the poems that make up Smelling Tigers, unveiling her vulnerabilities, varying reactions to danger, steaming romances with life and travel, and poetically observing the everyday that revived and energised her. ‘The Snow Line’, the opening poem of this section, is reminiscent of one of my all-time favourite poems, ‘Black March’ by Stevie Smith. Death is personified as a companion, a god, a gift in ‘The Snow Line’:
a good dose of death
if you truly drink it
is a gift
a fresh cold
a fresh dark
you’ll never sleep-walk
through your life again
Jerualem comprises eleven poems, titled and roman numeraled. The poems are about god, sex and death as much as they are sketches of the city itself. Likewise, the poems in the chapter Africa use wild animals in metaphors for ‘the circle of life’, so to speak: living, loving, dying. The poems in both sections bypass convoluted descriptions of travel and skip straight to the gut of how each experience connects the traveller to the world. These poems also connect Porter to some established (international) contemporary and modern poets, and their symbols routed in mythology and Indigenous cultures for death and the human condition. ‘The Bluebird of Death’ is reminiscent, for instance, of Charles Bukowski’s ‘Bluebird’ – the oft-used symbol for happiness.
Lucky, the final section in The Bee Hut, makes you feel like you’re reading Porter’s private letters. It’s short. It’s for the special ones. It’s the important goodbyes and thanks.
Each poem in The Bee Hut is raw, human – sometimes a little superhuman – as though the poet knew something about life we haven’t figured out yet. There is a freedom that emanates like a bright shaft of light in the ballsy truth that is not allowed the to hide in the shadows of the poetic form or vernacular. If the end has ever weaselled its way into the present for you, if sensitivity is your poison, you’ll feel this collection that strikes at the truth of everything it touches.