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Book Review: Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett, Edited by Kate Lilley

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Dorothy Hewett is a hard poet to review. She has such an iconic role in the Australian canon and comes across as so assured and strong in her work that you almost feel duty bound to nod your head at her words. The work almost reads like an autobiography in verse, with the work chosen and edited with obvious care and reverence by Hewett’s daughter Kate Lilly. Lilly’s placement is intimate and tender, even when the work isn’t, following Hewett’s entire poetic career, moving from her first unpublished poem, through each of her major collections: Windmill Country, Rapunzel in Suburbia, Greenhouse, Alice in Wormland, Peninsula, and Halfway up the Mountain. This covers a broad period of time from the early 1960s to 2001, just prior to Hewett’s death, and the progression in the poetry, and the way it reflects Hewett’s life is almost as fascinating as the poetry itself.

Aesthetically, I found the earlier work far less compelling and original than later poems, though there are flashes of what will come in it as Hewett reflects on her life, influences, and personal history. The earlier work plays with form, reference and mirroring – picking up the rough bush stylistics of Henry Lawson, mingled with a slightly unstructured sonnet style that hints at the Romantics: Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge, and even Shakespeare’s Macbeth at one point:

O when shall we two meet again
In thurnder and in lightning and in rain,
By what strange waters and by what dry docks,
By what mean streets alive with summer frocks,
And girls, and men with grease across their lips,
Who fire the broilers on what lonely ships? (17, “Go Down Red Roses”)

Throughout the work are references to TS Eliot, especially The Waste Land which is both subtly referenced in the openings and images of much of the poetry and openly referenced in work like “Memoirs of a Protestant Girlhood”: “I was brought up on Tennyson and Eliot.” (51) While some of this earlier poetry loses power, I felt, in a silent reading, read aloud, the work makes for great theatrical scenes that prefigure the plays that Hewett was to write. Looking at poetry quality of work like “Legend of the Green Country” (another nod to The Waste Land) takes the reader into the “common” scene of the working man and woman – the publican and till, the gambler and washing up that make up history.

Even at this stage, Hewett’s imagery is striking: from the grandmother’s “bite like a sour green apple,” or eyes “remote as pennies.” The work roams without boundaries between mythology, politics – especially as it works across Hewett’s communism both as ideologue and as cynical doubter — realism and reference. Even when the imagery sits in a context that is less powerful, the work clearly opened doors to other writers, especially female ones. Nothing was off limits to Hewett: not her own life (even when libel was the result), not the government and its policies, not the daily details of the working man and woman’s life in general, and not the intimate frailties of the human body.

The work begins to move from play and imitation towards dark literary power around the Alice in Wormland period. Unlike her Wonderland counterpart, Hewett’s Alice is no sweet innocent child. Many of other critics have identified the link with the confessional poets Lowell, Plath and Sexton in these poems, and certainly there is plenty of that in this work, especially in the opening, with its sweet pastoral transitioning to the old lady “in a darned cardigan/with a carving knife mouths.” The horrible grandmother and equally horrible mother are straight out of Hitchcock, and Alice hardly better with her “flogging hammer” and changeling’s perception. By the time the work gets to “Days of Violence days of Rages,” the extended poem becomes an incantation of pain moving Alice through an entire lifetime of sex, communism, childbirth, betrayal, loneliness, illness and death. It’s both intensely powerful and at the same time, self-indulgent and bitter.

The best work is the last, taken from Halfway up the Mountain. While the writing is still dark, it moves away from bitterness and self-reflection towards something larger – a kind of synthesis. There is also tender motion here, between longing and regret which is depicted with honesty and subtlety. The sense of the body is always present as the work, charting the decline and loss that comes with age, mingling sensory power with the rich imagery of pastoral:

one ovary left to swing
like a bell
like a petal blowing
alone in the dark
the black hole
that spreads and flowers
under the flesh
in the first brush
with death. (145, “The Last Peninsula”)

Here Hewett finds deeper meaning beyond the immediate and personal, creating a human mythology, instead of mirroring it:

What is the distance
Between
bone and inifinity?
Bliss pain solitude
A breath of air (150, “The Last Peninsula”)

Just from an editorial point of view, it would be useful to have the poetry identified by its period and book. Even an index of poems and the collections to which they belonged would have been valuable, helping to position each piece in the overall context of the original books with their strong thematics and history. This may have been a deliberate attempt on the part of Lilly to focus the reader on Hewett’s work rather than on her life – moving away from the ‘confessional’ label that was to dog Hewett through her work, as if life somehow trumped art. Who could possibly, for example, read anything from Rapunzel in Suburbia without calling to mind the successful libel action of ex-husband Lloyd Davies against the book?  Nevertheless, this is a powerful collection that spans the poetic life of one of Australia’s most influential poets. It’s both an excellent introduction to the span and breadth of Hewett’s work and a good way of showcasing Hewett’s growth and metamorphosis, both in her life and work. This is a rich, complex, and rewarding collection, especially the later poetry with all its mature insight.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.