September 2009

Arts & Letters

‘The Bee Hut’ by Dorothy Porter

By Lisa Gorton

Dorothy Porter’s poems often work like blues songs. Their progress depends not on structures of logic but on patterns of imagery and sound. This gives her poetry a directness of feeling rare in the Australian tradition and Porter combines the blues-style looseness with a tough-minded, conversational tone. The Bee Hut is the most formally beautiful of her collections; it is also the most personal.

It is impossible to read The Bee Hut without a constant awareness of Porter’s early death. Gathering poems written in her last five years, it is explicitly concerned with last things: with travel and with deliberate joy – a collection, as her last poem puts it, “exorbitantly flamboyant / for a hospital room / landscape”. Porter was interested in the mythic dimension of individual human life. The Bee Hut suggests she found this, facing death, in her Romantic sense of the poet’s vocation:

William Blake / as he was dying / craned forward / towards a country / he’d always wanted to see. / His rapturous curiosity / always / an unsettling inspiration.

In her foreword, Andrea Goldsmith describes Porter carrying poetry with her everywhere. The Bee Hut’s range of influence shows how Porter regarded poetry as a vital tradition, a language of thought. For instance, Porter’s ‘The Hampstead Heath Toad’ recalls Marianne Moore’s definition of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. Porter’s poem ends, “The toad in the hand / stank real”. As this might suggest, there is a complex art to Porter’s clarity. Many of her two- or three-line opening stanzas could work as single five-beat lines, like the classic opening to a sonnet, but she breaks them up for emphasis. Her next stanzas open out the rhythm, giving the poems a sense of expansiveness – the formal equivalent of her directness. 

The Bee Hut has eight parts, reflecting stints in hospital, collaborations with musicians, and travels overseas. Questions run through all of them, a sign of Porter’s concern to open up places of feeling. In fact, the real places she describes here also serve as emblems: “Imagine a city/ where it’s mostly/ imagine”. Porter has no interest in the strictures of imagism. Her poems work because, if they often call on large nouns – the sea, death and life – their imagery is insistently sensuous: smells, wounds, heat and cold. The effect is a strangely physical sense of exposure.

In an obituary, Kristin Henry listed “feral” and “lucid” as Porter’s favourite words. This is a feral and lucid last collection. 

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