The most powerful presence
The above lines open Australian poet Dorothy Porter‘s The bee hut, a collection of poems mostly writen in the last five years of her life. The lines are prophetic … and they appropriately open a collection which deals very much, though not exclusively, with the tension between life and death. The poems are, in turn, angry, resigned, beautiful, humorous even, and philosophical. Some draw on Christian and other mythology, some allude to other poets, and some are simply founded in the unembellished here-and-now. And, despite the fact that we and she know that death is coming sooner rather than later, they are life-affirming.
The collection is divided into eight groups:
- Head of Astarte
- The enchanted ass
- Poems: January – August 2004
- Smelling tigers
- The freak songs
The title poem, “The Bee Hut”, is in the “Poems: January – August 2004” group:
But do I love the lesson
of my thralldom
to the sweet dark things
that can do me harm?
In her brief introduction to the collection, novelist Andrea Goldsmith, Porter’s partner, writes that:
The bee hut became a metaphor for these last years of her life … She marvelled at the bees, as she had always marvelled at life, but she was also aware of the danger amid the sweetness and beauty.
Danger in life, the darkness that is found alongside beauty, is the defining paradox of the collection: “In living there is always/the terror/of being stung” (from “Bluebottles”). Not all poems explore this idea but many do.
There is some sort of thematic underpinning to the poem groupings, and there is a strong autobiographical flavour. The “Africa” section, for example, clearly relates to travels in Africa; “Poems: January – August 2004” were written about her time undergoing chemotherapy for the breast cancer that was to kill her; while “The Freak Songs” are “a song cycle written for performance with the music of Jonathan Mills“. These last are older poems, and therefore predate her diagnosis, but are an apt inclusion. They are wild and defiant: “I bite the apple/I lick the fire/I kiss the sweet sweet snake” (from “The Fruits of Original Sin”). But even here there’s recognition that death, in the end, has the upper hand: “You live your life/as if there’s a secure cage/for the clipped wings/you’re planning” (from “The Bluebird of Death”).
Even more than with a short story collection, it is impossible to discuss every poem in a collection – and, to be honest, I would find it hard to do so since while some spoke to me easily and some I could grasp with a little thought, there are others that elude me, mostly because their allusions are not familiar to me. I am not, for example, an expert on French poets like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, so when she invokes them I can guess at their meaning but am not totally sure I “got” it. Consequently, I’m just mentioning a few of the poems which particularly appealed to me.
Her poem “Blackberries” in “The enchanted ass” deals with the imperative to write poetry and the urgency to get it down, to locate and express the idea:
and your pen slashes ahead
like a pain-hungry prince
the bramble’s dragon teeth
to the heart’s most longed for
comatose, but ardently ready
Most of the poems are like this – strong, vivid and comprised of short active lines. There are quite a few recurrent images – blood, birds, incense. All very concrete and yet all highly evocative as well. I think that’s what I like about most of the poems – they work well on a visceral as well as a philosophical level. You feel them as well as hear them.
Also in “The enchanted ass” are “Three Sonnets”. The first refers to Byron, the second to Woolf and the third to Blake. In the Woolf one, she writes:
Life is so dangerous,
but this morning you can take
right to the sparkling shore
You can bear knowing
the street will one day dump you.
(from “What a plunge!”)
One day she finally is dumped … and yet, even then, just two-and-a-half weeks before her death she can write:
Something in me
can’t believe my luck.
(from “View from 417”)
There are poems here that are a little obscure to me – that I will need to read again with Google at my side to check the allusions – and there are no amazingly new revelations about life and death, but their passion and vigour engaged me from the get-go! I’m glad I’ve finally been introduced to Dorothy Porter.
The beet hut
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2009