- In a Convex Mirror, Dymock’s Book Arcade, Sydney, 1944.
- Untold Lives first published as a limited edition by Brindabella Press, Canberra, 1992; later as Untold Lives and Later Poems, Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2000.
- The Ship of Ice, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948.
- Rosemary Dobson Collected, UQP, St Lucia, 2012. p.51.
- Collected, p.45.
- Pam Brown, “20th century”, Dear Deliria, Salt, Cambridge, 2002.
- Kenneth Slessor, “Five Bells”, Five Bells, Frank C. Johnson, Sydney, 1939.
- Les Murray, “The Quality of Sprawl”, The People’s Otherworld, A&R, Sydney, 1983.
- Judith Beveridge, “Appaloosa”, Storm and Honey, Giramondo, Sydney, 2009.
- Collected, p.47.
- Collected, p.27.
- Collected, p.87.
- Collected, p.312. 14. Child with a Cockatoo, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1955.
- See, for example, James McAuley, A Vision of Ceremony, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956. 16. Cock Crow, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1965.
- “The Raising of the Dead”, Collected, p.67.
- “Paintings”, Collected, p. 69.
- Collected, p.78.
- Collected, p.70.
- Collected, p.73.
- Collected, p.74.
- Collected, p.81.
- Over the Frontier, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1978.
- Moscow Trefoil: Poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, with David Campbell and Natalie Staples, ANU Press, Canberra, 1975.
- Collected, p.166.
- The Three Fates, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1984.
- Collected, p.208. 29. Collected, p.210.
- Collected, p.219.
- Seeing and Believing, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1990.
- Collected, p.246.
Rosemary Dobson Collected, UQP, 357pp, $27.95.
Rosemary Dobson’s life spanned so many cultural changes that her oeuvre inevitably became a negotiation between shifts in poetics, changes in beliefs, and her own resilient attentiveness, with its excellent radar for the weight and quality of emotion.
Her first book, In a Convex Mirror, was published in 19441; her last, Untold Lives, in 20002. She began writing when the flag for a sophisticated Australian poetry was being carried by what was still a small number of poets, and was still writing at a time when poetry had become so multifaceted, that no-one could say what it was anymore. And Dobson herself was a part of the process by which poetry ramified. One critical—and simplistic—view of her work is that she was someone who began writing at a time when poets were asserting an Australian high-style, that she learnt that style well, and that despite later anxieties and refinements, she never really outgrew it.To sit down and read her through, however, is to see how much and how long she wrestled with the style she had grown up with: the bulk of her later work is a play of resistances against it, an exploration of what she could still believe in once the implications of its language had become too difficult to assert. And to see, also, how her achievements were a product of this dialectic—not an avoidance of it.
The Ship of Ice was her first full collection (1948)3. Influenced, no doubt by the poets around her (Slessor, Fitzgerald, McAuley, Stewart, Webb), the title poem explores a story from the age of exploration: although the mid-twentieth-century was supposedly a high-water mark for Anglo self-assurance, to judge by the subject matter of its poets, it could be very anxious about its origins. Elsewhere, in the strange way that early books sometimes have of prefiguring the lifetime’s concerns, there are ideas she would still be worrying away at in poems at the end of the Collected. “Country Press”5 is one of perhaps half-a-dozen of her poems which—however ironically—locate security and home not in belief, but in language. It must have been a shocking thing to do, at the time. But if it was difficult to state overtly, one could still find a way to say some awkward things in a low-key, almost hokey-sounding poem about a regional newspaper. From the beginning, readers understood how troubling its principal idea was: that all lives, all events come homewards to the Western Star (and—so the subtext goes—only there); that it was language and only language which provided such continuities as there were in those big empty spaces. The poem was speaking not to the beliefs the readers would claim in public, but to the understandings they barely acknowledged to themselves. In doing so, Dobson just about laid permanent claim to “homewards”, in the way that poets sometimes do when they find a particularly memorable or resonant use for a word (Pam Brown’s “tootle”6, for instance, or Slessor’s “ferry” (v)7; Murray’s “sprawl”8, or Judith Beveridge’s “appaloosa”9). “Country Press” was not the only anachronistically Derridean poem lurking in her imagination, but it has become the best known. It was immediately followed, in Ship of Ice, by the almost completely parallel “Monumental Mason”10 whose medium of incomplete permanence was stone, rather than paper:
Come moss, come lichen, fire and flood and time I turn all weathers like a sculptured saint And intercede for human frailty With graven latters on a steadfast stone.
It is difficult to say why this poem doesn’t work as well. There is nothing that it particularly gets wrong. It may just be that the flimsiness of paper—or the frailty of news itself—unsettles us more than the slower-wearing but still transient stone. Dobson’s oeuvre is sporadically dotted with poems about the powerful but limited nature of the trust she placed in writing, and in the context of the long struggle with belief her poems display, they are significant pieces. In “Devil and Angel” 11, it is the the figure of the poet who breaks through the inconclusive arguments of the antagonists by promising to write them into his poem for all eternity. “The Alphabet”,12 from Child with a Cockatoo, is a dream-chirpy, nursery-rhyme-solid poem about letters: “With Twenty-six Soldiers of Lead I Shall Conquer the World.” And “The Book”13, one of her last poems, and one of her best, is a fitting book-end to an arc which began with “Country Press”:
She takes it in her hands Turns it about with pleasure and a cry As though to say ‘I know this is a thing I know, but cannot name.’ She lets the page fall open where it may And smooths her fist over the black on white Knowing that while she holds this in her hands She yet might be a person, in a place.
Whatever the exact nature of her personal beliefs, it is clear from the poems that the anxieties which attended them consistently occupied her imagination. Apart from the occasional quiet bombs of the poems about writing, the first place this clearly emerged was in the ekphrastic poems of Child with a Cockatoo (1955)14. In the paintings of the Italian masters, Dobson found just the material she needed to explore her anxieties. The pieces she composed in response to them comprise her first substantial and sustained group of poems—not so much a sequence as a loose, multi-faceted meditation: prompted, one suspects, by the physical examination of the paintings themselves. It is as if, when she looked at them closely, she saw how constructed they were—and this, in turn, became a way of talking about her own belief. She was, after all, writing at a time when McAuley, the Catholic polemicist15, was a powerful presence—and she herself may not have wanted to confront her anxieties too openly. But as with the newspaper of “Country Press”, she had discovered a way to write about a confronting topic in a difficult environment. Something, moreover, about the fact of having located her argument in the themes and physicalities of paintings gave an edge to her voice, one she was never quite able to capture in the same way again. She had wrestled with the generic poetic language of mid-century high style previously, and would do so in the next volume, Cock-Crow (1965)16, but the specificity of the paintings released her, if only temporarily, from the unwieldy scale of its gestures.
Everywhere, there is a sense of artifice:
They lift the hand left limp by death And stir the stiffly painted gown, The wind of life is on their lips, The holy gold about their heads: Thus has the painter set them down.17
Climate of stillness: though I hear No sound that falls on mortal ear Yet in the intricate, devised Hearing of sight these waves that break In thunder on a barren shore Will foam and crash for evermore18
Some of these poems (eg “Painter of Umbria”19) straightforwardly affirm belief. But the majority are about its complications: “Detail from an Annunciation by Crivelli”20 is about the credibility of witnesses; “An Apology”21 about a monk falsely raised to sainthood by the ignorance of believers. “Commissioned Altar-piece”22 is about an artist who wants to paint Life—not the Virgin; “The Converts”23 about accessing the sacred through art. Irrespective of the intellectual claim it makes, it leaves the reader with an indelible sense of the way the sacred has been constructed:
The painter out of summer sun Hammered metal thin and fine, Made a leaf-thin plate of gold, Clapped it to the young man’s head, Gave him staff and scrip to hold.
After Child with a Cockatoo, however, there were long middle years of searching, both in terms of belief, and poetics. The next book, Cock-Crow, is one of her least successful collections. Its diction, though now diminished in ambition, was still so laden with the invocation of presences that were increasingly difficult to assert without argument, that it must itself have been an impediment to the management of the poem. A substantial number of poems in Cock-Crow are attempts to make classical myths available in modern situations. Mostly, they do this successfully. But they still raise the question of why they should have wanted to do so.
There is a turning point in Over the Frontier (1978)24. It still contains a sense of her casting around for the things she really wanted to write. What has changed, however, is the sharpness of her language. Prior to its release, Dobson had collaborated with David Campbell on “imitations” of Russian poems, “recreations” of Ahkmatova and Mandelstam25. Whether through influence or convergent evolution, something of Campbell’s spare style starts to appear in Dobson’s work. Increasingly, she jettisons the large meanings she had previously been so reluctant to let go of. A sense of humour appears: it had always been latent in the archness of her voice, but now she gave it its head:
Mrs Potts the Flat-iron
In late afternoon she obtrudes into conversations with a hiss as she ploughs along like an iron tanker or rocks on her heels. This is what must meant be meant by standing akimbo.
Oh she is dark and angry. She comes down hard on lace and frivolous garments…
At night the air is cool outside by the water-tank. Peppercorns hang in clusters, buzzing and humming, talking to Mrs Potts, put out to simmer down, on the back veranda.26
Even in The Three Fates (1984)27, there are still poems of creative anxiety: “Ravines and Fireflies”28, for instance, and “Flute Music”29. In “Letter to Lydia”30, she named austerity and light as her pre-eminent virtues, and these were reflected in the direction her writing increasingly took. By the time she wrote Seeing and Believing (1990)31, a chapbook of poems—including the masterful “Foot-soldier”32—about the confrontation with age, she had found both her mature material and her style. It had been a long journey. It was as if the bluntness of the questions raised by age had burnt off her anxiety about meanings: she became one of a small but distinguished number of recent poets, most of them women, who charted this strange new territory: Dorothy Hewett, Vera Newsom, Gwen Harwood.
Seeing and Believing was followed by Untold Lives, whose principal sequence is one of condensed, lyric biographies, attempts to capture the most important tightropes and dilemmas in people’s lives—untold, because they were of Dobson’s family and acquaintances. They could only have been written in old age: after the lives had been lived, and their themes laid bare. So successful was Dobson in isolating their central tensions, that one is left wondering what there might be left for prose biography to do—apart from fill in the details. There has been a long history of poetry that meditates on personality, but the contemporary world allowed her to pursue a slightly different line of attack for these lives. This was partly a matter of the way in which lives are now weighed. We used to resist judgment at a personal level: judgment was God’s province. But if God is taken out of the equation, then people become visible in terms of their own most intimate—and often, apparently, inescapable—gestures. It is these which Dobson teased into poetry. She is always generous towards her subjects, but there is an unsettling sense that these behaviours are fates, and that lives which seemed to offer familiar shapes are stranger than they may have looked at first.
Dobson did not create new perspectives, so much as attend to the world with acuity, as it changed beneath her feet. This attentiveness was her honesty: a willingness to test what she knew against what she felt and what was said, and to keep on doing that. There is a sense of labour and quest about this book. For all their quietness of demeanour, its poems trace what is surely one of the biggest imaginative transformations any society has had to deal with. And in the end she wrote of the things she trusted most: her readings of her friends’ lives, her own experiences laid bare by the passage of time. The Collected is not just the record of a time and a society, but of a culture in transition. And as with all good records, it is grounded, the hard way, in individual experience.
© Martin Langford 2012