Do you read “little” books? You know those small books that are carefully placed on bookstore sales counters where you are buying the book you really came for? I don’t often, but every now and then one catches my eye. Today’s review is of such a book from Melbourne University Press‘s Little books on big themes series. It’s by Dorothy Porter and is titled On passion. She finished it just before she died in December 2008. I think I could be justified in calling that poignant, don’t you?
Dorothy Porter was (is, really) a well-regarded, successful Australian poet. I reviewed her last collection, The bee hut, a couple of years ago. It’s a wonderful collection full of the pains and joys of living. It is, you could say, a passionate book. One of the poems I quoted in that review is about the passion for writing, for finding the perfect way to express an 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
So, writing, of course, was one of her passions but in this little essay Porter explores all sorts of meanings of the word (for her). She starts with her adolescent passions – her youthful religious faith which was replaced by her “dark gods, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix” whose “daemonic songs” were her “new hymns”.
From here she explores the various ways passion has been part of her life … woven always with poetry, hers and others, and music:
Music has been my draught of intoxication since the very moment I first heard the Beatles in early 1964 […] I have been a Beatles pop/rock music maniac ever since, and have written virtually all my poems to rock riffs and rhythm – the catchier, the darker, the louder, the gutsier the better.
She talks in one section of Dionysus and moderation, strange bedfellows, eh? She argues that Euripides best understood the Dionysian, by exploring “how best to respect and live with it”. She admits, though, that “moderation was not something I embraced with Delphic calm, but something I gutlessly and gracelessly caved into” because, for example, she and drugs did not mix!
Nature too features, snakes in particular. “Real and living snakes are sacred to me” she says and then explores Minoan snake worship versus “the debased and diabolical serpent-demon of the Judaeo-Christian Garden of Eden”. She talks of the Rainbow Serpent in Australian Aboriginal Dreaming but admits that, when she actually confronts a King Brown snake in the desert, her worship did not stop her getting “the shock of my life”. She also refers to DH Lawrence‘s poem “Snake”, which I fell in love with in my teens. Lawrence describes the visit of the snake as “a sacred event”. Porter says she always forgets the ending, how Lawrence’s fear gets the better of him so that he scares the snake away. She remembers only the vision of the wild thing being watched (and appreciated) by the poet.
There are other passions, but I’d like to conclude on the one dear to the heart of readers. She writes
I wonder if some of the most deeply passionate experiences of my life have happened between the covers of a book.
Not only do I love the idea that books have such an effect on us, but I also like her qualification: “some”, she says! Life is, after all, important too!
She describes Wuthering Heights as “the most scorching novel in the English language”; says that “there is, paradoxically, much more convincing grown up sex in Jane Austen than in Emily Brontë“. Oh, yes! She talks of Sappho’s love songs; admires one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, for “pushing language as hard as it will go into ecstasy – and despair”; and describes Ginsberg as convincing her “of the power of language to shock”. She talks of love and desire, of wanting “to find and deliver scenarios, characters and poems that are magnetic with sexual energy” but asks, provocatively,
… how many readers have we lost because we have ignored the ancient silent cry: ravish me.
… at a more profound level I recognise that there is something very unsettling about a book.
Absolutely … but what say you about books, reading, passion?
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2010
(Series: Little books on big themes)