Dorothy Porter, On passion (Review)

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?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

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
hacking through
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.

Near the end she wonders if reading had been the greatest passion of her life. She says – reminiscent of Francesca Rendle-Short and Michael Sala’s comments that writing/reading is dangerous – that

… 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?

Porter, Dorothy
On passion
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2010
(Series: Little books on big themes)
ISBN: 9780522858358

24 thoughts on “Dorothy Porter, On passion (Review)

  1. Goodness! Thank you for this. I’ve just been reading up about Dorothy Porter and it seems I have missed a wonderful artist, woman, writer. Truly beautiful work and how unfair such a premature death. I would love to read more than the excerpts I have devoured online

    • Yes, she was pretty amazing I think. It’s awfully sad – as is any premature death like this, eh? My son did her verse novel The monkey’s mask at university and liked it. I thoroughly enjoyed The bee hut. Her partner was Australian writer Andrea Goldsmith.

  2. Thanks Sue, I read The Bee Hut, some wonderful poems. I must chase up Passion. Funnily enough I have just finished reading George Gissing short story, Christopherson The story is about a man’s passion for his books and wife. He has to make a choice.


    • Oh glad, Meg, that you like her poems too. How did you come across the George Gissing story. I’ve only read one novel of his which I did enjoy. This short story sounds worth reading … I won’t ask you to tell us what he decided!

    • What a great group name Meg. I’d almost like to join it except I couldn’t keep up! Thanks for the link … I found it at Project Gutenberg too. I’ll try to read it as you’ve intrigued me.

  3. One of these quotes in particular interests me for, in the book I’m currently reading, there’s a scene where the love interest says to the protagonist “I was trying to control my desire to come striding across the room and ravish you!” and I couldn’t help it – I laughed out loud. I think it can be rather a difficult thing for a “ravishing” passion to be conveyed well in a book.

    I think the most convincing and evocative descriptions of sexual passion that I’ve come across have almost always been by poets rather than novelists. And I can’t help myself: “Every day you play with the light of the universe / subtle visitor you arrive in the flower and the water…”

  4. Sounds delicious. Thanks for sharing. I had the pleasure of browsing through a book shop last week – I was asked if I needed help and my reply was: “No, I’m supposed to be doing housework, but this is much more fun!” I realised afterwards that I hadn’t been into a bookshop for the longest time. I spent well over an hour flicking through books and it was divine. [I then had to go home to face the housework, but that is a discussion for a whole other type of blog].I was amazed to find that I had forgotten what it was like to fall into the pages of a book. So, I am with Porter – you don’t get the same effect with digital books, incidentally!

  5. What a wonderful sounding little book and the cover is quite arresting too. I think I’d have been tempted at the cash register as well! I wonder if these will be showing up in the States? I will keep my eye out for them in case they do.

  6. This sounds like a wonderful book. I’ve always described myself/been described as ‘passionate’. I think I’d relate. And you know, that DH Lawrence poem – I think I did that in high school and completely forgot about it until just now.

    And I certainly agree with her that books can move and unsettle us. The mood of a book often gets right under my skin while I’m reading it, if it’s a good book. I often get so involved with the characters, I really care about them. I was distraught this morning when I finished a book and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to! My partner said I seemed very ‘fragile’ afterwards.

    Thanks for a great review.

    • Know what you mean Angela … I can feel “fragile” after some books too. And my daughter, when, she was 15′ was so distraught by Gone with the wind that she refuses to see the movie! Mood/tone are very important to me … It’s what I remember long after I’ve forgotten the details of a book. One that has stayed with me is Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance …

  7. I’m a big fan of Dorothy Porter but I have not read Passion, but I will after this great review, thank you. I was lucky to be taught by her at university and I remember her talking about how she always wrote to music. Her teaching was passionate and inspired, like her poetry.

    • Oh so glad you commented Melita. If you do get to read it, I’d love you to come back and tell us what struck you most about what she says. How wonderful to have had her as a lecturer. I can imagine she would have been pretty inspiring.

  8. Oh, wow, I need to read this book. Huge respect for Dorothy Porter & grief we’ve already lost her. I love her writing, and she was such a wonderful reader/performer of her work, as well! Too much to lose, too soon.

    I’m going to hunt out this book right now.

    • I need to read more of her Deborah. I loved The bee hut, and greatly enjoyed this little (in size, not content) essay. Do let me know what you think if you manage to get it – and thanks for commenting. It’s nice to know when a post inspires someone to go find/read something!

    • Thanks, and welcome, Jo … I guess there are little books and little books aren’t there! Certainly this one is worth it … and, for me, those little Penguin and Bloomsbury ones have had some good works to read.

  9. I am a little book fan, I like to take them with me when I travel. Just finished Passion, and it is so good. Porter is so honest with her thoughts, and relates them so well. It was like having a one on one conversation with her that I enjoyed.


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