Dorothy Hewett and the Terror of the First Trimester
Biographies of Dorothy Hewett (1923–2002) usually include a short section like this: ‘In 1944 she married communist lawyer Lloyd Davies and had a son who died of leukemia at age three. The marriage ended in divorce in 1948, following Hewett’s departure to Sydney to live with Les Flood, a boilermaker, with whom she had three sons over five years.’ That was from Wikipedia. It’s just a few sentences, a handful of facts notable for many reasons, working backwards: the quick succession of births, the shift from a middle-class marriage into a working-class one, the death of a child. He was her first child, named Clancy after the Aboriginal activist Clancy McKenna. Clancy, the child, was born in Perth and died tragically in Melbourne in 1950. The thing that snippet from Wikipedia doesn’t make clear—that few biographies explore further than the bare facts—is that when Hewett left Davies, she left Clancy too. His sickness and death came the following year.
The silences in stories have always fascinated me. An empty space in a biography seems to contain more compelling questions than the information surrounding it. Clancy’s death is omitted altogether in the briefer biographies.
There is so much to discuss on the topic of Dorothy Hewett. She was controversial, highly political and prolific, publishing 15 poetry collections, 15 play scripts, three novels, a collection of short stories, a libretto and an autobiography. Her work explores the fecund terrain of female desire and subjectivity, bridges genres and blurs the line between fiction and autobiography—that term that writers, especially female writers, often hate because it assumes a dearth of imagination and a restriction to the intimate, domestic realms of one’s own life. But read Hewett’s autobiography, Wild Card: An Autobiography 1923–1958 (1990), and you’ll find that the events of her play The Chapel Perilous (1972) or the poetry in Kate Lilley’s Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett (2010) form a sort of abridged sequence of key events from Hewett’s real life. But that’s not what I want to investigate. Not really.
It’s that little biographical detail, big enough to define a life, which is only ever granted a sentence or three in the telling. It’s that boy. It’s her leaving him. It’s the tragic luck of his subsequent illness. What would drive Dorothy Hewett, the ‘grande dame of Australian literature’, to leave her child? Was it the weight of the domestic that she couldn’t bear, the quotidian movements of home and care? Did it sit like a snuff over the flame of her sensuality? Did it smother her drive to write?
Something is prompting me to think along these lines. It’s late autumn 2016 and I’m pregnant. I’ve done the test at work and told my partner Stu in the car that night. I’ve seen the whites of his eyes and the wide row of his teeth glowing in the twilight, exclaiming wonder, taking in air, mirroring my own. We have lived together for a month.
The first weeks are giddy, but soon terror takes hold. The future springs suddenly forward, like coiled streamers from our hands. Autumn becomes winter. Our hitherto bright Coburg rental house seems cold and dank. The bedroom begins to nauseate me, as does brushing my teeth, egg cooked in any way and even the thought of certain cafés that I used to write in. There’s damp in the old chimney and the floor is sinking at one end, so that lying in bed gives the impression of slowly being dispatched towards the street. At my insistence, Stu drags the mattress from the bed-base and we set up camp on the living-room floor, where we sleep for two months, not really knowing why.
We argue. Not about the baby but about lots of other things. We’re both scared. We want the child very much and yet we’re terrified. We aren’t ground in to the other’s habits and don’t know how to live together. We have 18 months experience of each other, broken by a long separation in which we saw each other on Tinder and swiped left (he claims he swiped right but he didn’t call). Then we were two single people again, living in two very small flats with a lot of books in them, 15 minutes apart on High Street. But now we are together. We want to be together, had hoped to stay together. But there’s really no going back. We frighten each other with our strangeness and ignorance. We know, if we’re going to make it, we have a long way to go.
I’m also partway through my first novel. I fear that a productive writing career may be incompatible with motherhood. Apparently this is a particularly unpopular fear to have. I learn this from the comments section on an Atlantic article by Lauren Sandberg, ‘The secret to being both a successful writer and a mother: Have just one kid’. Sandberg’s contention was eviscerated by readers, admonishing the Atlantic for publishing such an outdated perspective, and by literary heavyweights such as Jane Smiley and Zadie Smith. Smith argued that it was ‘absurd’ to equate motherhood with diminishing creativity and that the real threat to any post-child/ren career was limited time, which could be combated with excellent day care, partners who do their share and a supportive network. These sentiments are reassuring but only slightly, given that Zadie Smith is speaking from the unique perspective of being Zadie Smith: brilliant with a best-selling international career and, I’d guess, a bunch of nannies.
Besides, being an artist is not like other careers. It can be approached that way to seemingly good effect (set hours, a work space, etc.), but there’s a greater crossover into the private self than there is with many other jobs. The demand for your labour doesn’t exist unless you create it and keep creating it, unlike, say a heart surgeon or an IT manager. Productivity depends not only on time management but also on freedom of mind, emotional composition, capacity to gain distance from an idea as well as to immerse yourself in it. As a writer—the kind of writer I would like to be—I feel that I need to be clear and cool in my creative temperament, hard-edged enough to be precise but soft-centred enough to have real empathy with a character. I’m scared that birthing and loving my child will tilt the balance too dramatically and I will become too soft to write well. I’m 33 and have lived long enough to observe that life is not a series of gains but of transactions, some leaving you a little bigger and some a little smaller but all apparently richer, if you can summon that kind of philosophical optimism. I wonder what part of myself I will need to give over to being a mother, let alone the kind of mother I would like to be.
I look for work by other writers about their first trimester. I want to read their doubts and fears, how they didn’t know if their partnerships would survive, if the craft they were working to hone would grow soggy and disintegrate while their hands were busy elsewhere. Ideally, I want to discover that they lived through it, became better, more refined, determined artists, partners and people. But I’ll take what I can get. I don’t need a happy ending. I just need company.
I can’t find much. Women online write of the glory and power of pregnancy. Stu finds the book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood in an op-shop and brings it home for me. I’m unhappy with the present. It’s a book I’ve been avoiding for many years, chiefly because of the connotations of the title. Must I have a divided heart if I wish to write and have a child? I begin the book during winter baths and am relieved at the possibility of productivity described by the interviewees, but by the final chapters I’m depressed. Everyone, even the famous artists, agrees it’s hard, exhausting and that they experience guilt.
Everyone also says that it’s worth it, but they have to say that, don’t they? (I’ve only ever met one woman who told me, unprompted, frank-faced—almost challenging me to be surprised—that she loved her children but regretted having them.) Those women in The Divided Heart seem so practical, so capable and attuned to life on this earth as hard-working, multi-tasking people, already successful before the birth of their children, their partnerships watertight. But I have the taste for something a little darker, a little more ragged-ended, a little less well-held together. Then I remember Dorothy Hewett.
I first encountered Hewett’s writing in the La Trobe Student Theatre. They were staging The Chapel Perilous and I went along, not expecting much, to tick off a requirement of a uni subject.
The play charts the life of its heroine, Sally Banner, a poet who insists ‘blood and the flesh are wiser than the intellect’ and is determined to ‘walk naked through the world’. Subject to a series of constrictions drawn from Hewett’s life, Banner strives to assert her sexuality and individuality. From a precocious 15-year-old at a 1930s Catholic school in Perth, writing amorous poetry, having a lesbian affair with a schoolmate, refusing to bow down in the school chapel; to a young woman becoming involved in the Communist Party, having a string of lovers, marrying but abandoning her husband and child, losing two babies, one to abortion and one to illness; to a mature woman attempting suicide and later moving in with Michael, the man she sees as her moral and sexual equal, only to be rejected by his stating: ‘I’m a plain, uncomplicated man and I like my women virtuous. It’s as simple as that.’ Sally is eventually tried and found guilty of all her sexual, political and social transgressions in a purgatorial court of law. She is left alone and with nothing.
The lead student actor played a fierce and vital schoolgirl Banner, whose doom seemed to hang over her while Michael—who can’t promise anything, saying, ‘We’re alive now. You’re in my arms. That’s enough. Nobody can promise past that.’—undressed her and she sang lines of Hewett’s poetry: ‘Without love, I lay with you / Without love we coupled / Where the grass was wet with dew / And my body troubled’. Her voice harnessed the foreboding quality of the scene, conjuring the danger that her sexual abandon presented to an ordered life. ‘Was she doomed?’ asked Kristin Williamson in her introduction to the play. ‘Almost certainly. She was emotional, sexually aggressive and her honesty made her far too vulnerable …’
I sat transfixed, utterly moved. When I left the theatre it was dark and the Bundoora campus smelt of dewy grass and cold, clear night. My body and my mind felt loaded, full of sad passion, like a plucked string, reverberating with the rhythms and themes Hewett’s play had filled me with.
Determined to discover more of Hewett’s work, I would later read the crime thriller verse-novel The Monkey’s Mask, having a case of mistaken Dorothies. But then I found Hewett’s poem ‘Legend of the Green Country’, and pinned up its seven pages side-by-side so that they spanned the length of my tiny studio. I read what I could of her biography online. Discovered that little fact: left her husband and her child and the child died soon afterwards. A footnote, really, to a prodigious biography and bibliography.
I decide that Dorothy Hewett will be my heart’s ease. I buy a train ticket to the Blue Mountains and a copy of her autobiography, Wild Card. Her young face stares back at me from the cover in grainy black and white but the lips are painted red. Volumes of Hewett’s work nearly always feature her face on the front—young and sultry with a forties bob or old and sultry with long silver hair—seeming to demand, as Susan Lever observed, ‘that her life and art be read together’. I don’t expect answers. I certainly don’t want to follow Hewett’s lead. I just want to know what she felt. She will meet me posthumously and echo to me the terror that I’m experiencing. I will live through her pregnancy, her early parenting and find out if she felt it too. In her raw and elegant imagery and her tumbling metre, Hewett will speak to me of the difficulty, the pain, the pressure and the grief that she underwent. Her truth will be my balm. Her journey will hurt more than my journey could and in reading her life, I hope for catharsis.
The train trip to Sydney is 11 hours. I plan to read Wild Card on the way. I could have flown in a fraction of the time, but I imagine that this journey will conjure the solo travel of my twenties, that feeling of coursing away on adventure with no-one to depend on, a true, strident feeling. But I am exhausted. I sleep for half the journey and feel too ill to read. I arrive at night in the golden-lit Grand Central Station, feeling vulnerable and missing Stu. I find a hotel, eat potato skins with cheese in the pub downstairs and retire early.
Hotel rooms have always given me a kind of thrill. It’s not about the glamour—even motor inns will do it—but the independence. Here is a microcosm of life in which all of my immediate needs are met in a basic, comfortable way and I am entirely self-contained. But tonight the room seems dull and airtight. I get into the enormous bed and pull up the paltry fleece. Already things have changed. Already I am not alone. Someone is within me, sharing my energy and someone is without me, sharing his energy with me. These ties make me both safe and unsafe, in the same way that having a lot of money would. There’s no going back to that free-wheeling girl, though I can almost conjure her hauling her luggage into the overhead compartment and striking up a conversation with the Dutch backpacker. I had to ask someone to haul my bag for me today and did my best to avoid any chats.
The next morning another train takes me into the Blue Mountains. The foliage thickens and the air chills. The train rocks me like a sleepy infant. I’m on my way to Katoomba, where I’ll complete a residency at Varuna, the writers house. There I plan to make a start on this essay and finish my novel. I watch the scrub expand into the foothills, wondering what discoveries the week will hold. Hewett spent the last decade of her life in these mountains, creating major works including several in the years before her death: a novel, Neap Tide (1999); a collection of poetry, Halfway up the Mountain (2001); a play, Nowhere (2001); and she was partway through a second volume of her autobiography when she died. It was called ‘The Empty Room’.
From Varuna, I wake early, tie my sneakers and walk down a steep track through the trees, into the misty morning. Within minutes, a staggering view of the mountains is before me, the lookout so high that my eyes struggle to adjust. The early sun is catching the treetops on the opposite mountain and a bird soars in the immense space between them. It’s been a while since I’ve been this far out of Coburg and a while since I’ve seen anything from such a height. I head back to the homestead, determined to squeeze the most from this concentrated week of work. But by ten my body is heavy and my mind is soggy and slow. I lie down on the carpet in my studio and fall asleep for an hour. This happens every day.
I still haven’t told my friends about the pregnancy but my curious eating habits prompt a confession to the other writers at Varuna. The women are excited for me but soon lapse into their own reverie, safe on the other bank of having had young children. ‘You can never anticipate how much your life will change,’ they say, passing the soft cheese between them. ‘I thought my husband and I could both have careers but, before you know it, you’re getting passed up for that promotion. I thought I’d have time to do things while the child slept, but there are always bottles to sterilise, other things to do. Then there’s chicken pox, always something.’
But here they are now, up at six and working until late, published novels and second-book deals, other careers behind them. They know what it means to have time to write. One of them lights the fire in the living room so we can sit around it in the evening. I watch her lever the logs into place, stoke the flame and finally sit back.
I read a bit of Wild Card every night. It covers the first 35 years of Hewett’s life and was intended as a first volume. Amazing, I think, from two years her junior, to have enough material for an autobiography at such an early point. Her life contained so much. In addition to her literary output, Hewett had six children to three men and at least another three pregnancies not brought to term: ‘so many how could there have been / so many rocked in the fluid warmth’ (‘The Children’); two formal marriages, a de facto marriage and many lovers; a decade of work for the Communist Party as well as day jobs as a factory worker, political journalist and copywriter; frequent moves between states—from Perth to Sydney to Melbourne, to Sydney, to Perth, to Sydney and finally to Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains.
She was prodigious in every sense. From the outside, her life seems to swell in its capaciousness. Extremes are embodied without surprise; poverty and fecundity, desire and wretchedness move in a kind of maelstrom through those 35 years. Some lives contain more than others, their protagonists seeming to attract great drama, commit to great action and metabolise the richest matter without need for hiatus. To wrangle that chaotic story into the sausage-maker of a narrative is a feat for someone adept at ordering, omitting, adhering to a chosen aesthetic. Hewett is a master of mythologising the self. But more of that later.
From my bedroom at Varuna, I find that Wild Card doesn’t paint a particularly sympathetic character. Hewett comes across as interesting, passionate, certainly a beautiful writer, but her chief interest seems to be her sensuous and sensual existence in the world. There are long accounts of the workings of the Communist Party, political magazines and editors, but the story always returns to the powerful home terrain of Hewett the lover. Her daughter Kate Lilley noted that Hewett’s poetry was also chiefly concerned with ‘the career of desire and its objects’. This seems to act as a guiding force over moral or logical reason or care for close relationships. It’s a kind of Écriture féminine approach, except that it overflows from her literature to encompass her whole life. I recognise that from The Chapel Perilous. Sally Banner says, ‘The intellect is only a bit and bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood direct without fribbling intervention of mind or moral or whatnot.’ Something about that is incredibly attractive, definitely enviable but also kind of repugnant.
Trees brush against my window and the old homestead creaks. I close the book and wriggle down under the single quilt. This is not working out quite as I had imagined.
‘I will be avoiding any judgement,’ I had written in my original pitch for this essay, ‘and instead looking to Hewett’s writing and biography for clues that she felt the terror too.’ But that bit-and-bridle approach to life doesn’t seem to change when Hewett has Clancy, nor the next three boys and I’m horrified to find that I am judging her as a mother. That was the last thing I wanted to do to her or to anyone and it’s the last thing I want anyone to do to me. I’m judging her apparent lack of interest in her small children, the long spells she leaves them with other women and her assumption that her mother/housemate/friend will look after the child while she has better things to do. I understand. At least I think I do. But I’m still judging. I’m aware that this is a bit rich, given that I’ve never birthed, never mothered, never kept anything alive except for a small succulent garden and even that is tenuous (do the long-stemmed flowers mean that it’s dying?). Walking back from the pub with one of the other writers, a woman older than me, I confess this to her. ‘Well that’s part of your story,’ she says as we descend the steep road from town back to the homestead. The stars are out. We duck under a low-hanging bush dripping with rain. No way round it.
Hewett left her child. She fell in love with Flood, that boiler-maker from the Communist Party, when she was 26 and gave up everything to be with him. ‘It’s got to be worth it. I’ve strewn the world with wreckage to get to you,’ says Sally Banner to Michael, that man who could promise nothing but the present moment. The wreckage, in Hewett’s case, consisted of: material security, physical safety, some social prestige, the support of her family, her husband, Lloyd Davies (‘a joyful person with a wonderful, eccentric sense of humour…’) and, of course, her son.
She and Davies were friends and lovers and had married in what Hewett called ‘a viable alternative to promiscuity’. Viable because they shared the same politics, were ‘temperamentally very different but the differences seem[ed] complementary’ and, aside from her infidelities, appeared to treat each other with kindness and tolerance. At the time Hewett left him, they were living in a small house in the ranges, renovated by Davies and Hewett’s father. Davies was working long hours to complete his law articles, while Hewett had been home full-time with Clancy, but had since returned to work three days a week at the Workers’ Star. She was an active member of the Communist Party and met Flood at a party picnic.
Leading up to the episode of her departure, I’m looking for an explanation, glimpses of gritty self-reflection, some deeper honesty on the motivation for that dramatic act. Technically it is all there: the drudgery of the early months of ‘boiling up endless nappies’ and ‘obsessively scrubbing out the baby’s room with disinfectant’; the painstaking efforts with a colicky baby who is slow to put on weight (‘The baby cries louder. I walk him up and down … My baby is starving and neither of us is getting any sleep’); the inevitably strained marriage; unwanted advice and pressure from her mother and health professionals; the intolerable sense that her self, her future and her artistry are disappearing:
Everyone is going somewhere or changing their lives … But here everything revolves around the baby. He is like a monster in the house, beautiful and implacable. My mother is obsessive. I should have no other life but my child.…‘I could have joined the New Theatre,’ I tell him. I am twenty-five. Time is passing and all my dreams are dissolving in dust. Soon it will be too late. I sit on the front step with Clancy, watching the lights come out across the valley, feeling intolerably lonely and isolated. Obviously I am not cut out to be a full-time mother.
And of course, there is the emergence of a new passion, Flood. ‘He has awakened me from my long domestic sleep. Work and the Party, husband and child, friends, family—everything I have shored up against my ruin.’
But the thing is, by the time Hewett met Flood, she already had her ‘out’. Clancy was a year old and a friend had moved in with them to care for him while Hewett worked and attended night-time meetings and weekend events for the party. She had already had one love affair, with the party secretary, before making love to Flood.
When Hewett’s departure comes, and a page is devoted to her vacillating over whether to leave or not—only a page when it could easily form the basis of an entire book—it sort of makes sense. She explains that it never occurred to her that leaving Lloyd would mean leaving Clancy too, and that Lloyd insisted that the child stay with him (the corresponding incident in The Chapel Perilous sees the husband threatening legal action). But these sentiments strike me as slightly disingenuous, almost afterthoughts. She describes booking a hotel room and deliberating over which course of action to take, standing on the balcony and willing herself to jump. But she does decide to leave with Flood.
I have all kinds of secret plans to grab Clancy and run away where none of them will ever find us. Instead I kiss him and turn quickly and walk out the front gate, believing that I will probably never set eyes on him again.
So it’s all there and it all makes sense, really, when you weigh up those factors. Except that it doesn’t. There’s a lacuna, a missing piece. It’s the kernel of truth at the centre of it, the one I’ve been seeking. What was the deciding factor? What was the tipping point that tilted her body back from that balcony and moved it towards Flood, away on an impromptu honeymoon in Yanchep? What was it that kept her away until the boy’s illness, a year or so later? (She relented once, pregnant again and ‘sick with longing for Clancy’, left Flood and flew to her family’s new home in Melbourne, where she asked Davies to take her back, miscarried, changed her mind, wired ‘too late’ to Davies and returned with Flood to Sydney without seeing Clancy.)
Hewett tells us that she felt ‘consumed with guilt’ but doesn’t elaborate. Of regret, there seems only one admission: ‘Twenty years later, my sister asks me have I ever regretted that choice. “I’d never leave a child for any man again,” I tell her.’ We are broadly advised of but not admitted to Hewett’s innermost workings. The story has the sense of having been told many times, somewhat rehearsed, so that the rawest part of it is obscured. The narrative acts as a shield to the centre and not a path to it.
I can’t help but think of Sally Banner and wonder, was it worth it? It seems a cruel question, given the eventual turn of events. In Hewett’s world, gain and loss aren’t measured in usual terms because each phase is so embodied and sensual experience is so highly prized: ‘I never could keep count by modern methods, the ring of the till / Is profit and loss, the ledger, hasped with gold, sits in its heavy dust (‘Legend of the Green Country’). The stakes are always high, the losses and gains always great. With Flood she lived in a series of ramshackle houses in Sydney and Melbourne’s working-class suburbs, was subject to his paranoia and psychosis and then to physical violence, returned to Clancy’s bedside for several months before he died, didn’t write creatively for the nine years she and Flood were together but gained experience working in the Alexandra Spinning Mills, which was the basis of her first novel, Bobbin Up (1959). She also had three more sons.
The episode of Clancy’s death reads as an incredibly sad record of events. Even now I can’t bear to look over that part of Wild Card again, the brief window of time Hewett has in Melbourne with a very sick three-year-old before he passes away in hospital. Incredibly, it’s during that time that she also gives birth to her second son, Joe. If there had been doubt, it’s obvious now, through Hewett’s account of what she said and did, that she loves Clancy. From my single bed at Varuna with the wind howling outside, I feel deep sympathy for her and for him and for her parents who have helped care for him. ‘“That’s the end of it,” my father says bitterly. “I’ll never love another child again,” and I don’t believe he ever did.’ But a record of events is what it is and what much of Wild Card seems to be: what happened and what was said. What Hewett honestly felt remains elusive. Some critics felt the same. Susan Lever wrote:
Immediately, Wild Card demonstrates the contention that autobiography offers little more direct access to the self than open fiction … Hewett displays an astonishing ability to sympathise with her younger self, participating with gusto in the passions of her past—no matter how silly or unjust … Hewett resists self-assessment and self-knowledge. In her hands the autobiography becomes an unironic mode, which refuses to pass judgement on her younger self.
It’s worth noting that critical reception spanned the appropriate extremes and John Pilger called the book ‘brilliant … passionate, eloquent and above all, wise’.
When I leave Varuna, I’ve barely made a dint in the next draft of my novel, this essay is still a few scribbled notes on a page, and I have a sense of irritation with this writer–mother who was supposed to offer me salve. She didn’t let me in. Far from the satiation of a long and heartfelt conversation with a mentor, I feel instead that a grand life has been paraded before me but at a distance, impressive in its breadth.
I ditch the train for the journey back. The flight is short. I do admire Hewett’s refusal to be a lamb to the slaughter. I can take something of that, I think, as the plane lifts off. She held tight to her notion of herself as passionate and wild-blooded, alive to the moment. She hewed her own rough path for that. Hers truly seems to have been a blazing life, lived in the thickest, most fertile seam, unencumbered by dwelling on the past or worry for the future.
I’m relieved to land, to find Stu waiting, to go home to Coburg and step over the violets to tread the rickety boards of our front porch. We close ourselves in our bedroom, make love like people who have missed each other and fall asleep together. When I wake there’s a golden light coming through the front windows and my body in the cool air feels simple, rested, at home.
This is the beginning of my second trimester. We start to tell people soon. The women I know are overjoyed. They love me and know me and they are pleased for me. They don’t sweat their brow and say, Sheesh, this is going to be interesting … Their eyes alight when I tell them and I wish heartily that I had done so sooner. Some part of me can’t help but wonder if they call to me as sirens in the water of parenthood, Come in, come in, the water’s fine. But something has changed.
Things get steadily better after that. I start to feel well again and a lot happier. Stu borrows a collection of rugs from a friend and covers the draughty bedroom floor. He cuts rubber squares to bolster the bed. We move back into our room. I have some excellent counselling and we learn ways other than fighting to wrestle with our differences. The weather gets warmer. I start to show. Soon it’s spring and our Coburg garden blossoms in the most beautiful and surprising way. Every week a new plant is in flower. Snowdrops and bluebells emerge along the fence, tiny yellow roses fill the thorny bush by the verandah. Giant blue flowers hang on drooping stems and sing with bees. A magnificent plum tree blossoms in the front garden and, beside it, a magnolia. We had no idea what was growing in our yard. We start to plant things here, to make it our own, even though it’s just a rental. We go to the nursery and choose plants that will spread and flower and withstand hot summers. It’s glorious to be pregnant in spring.
Our daughter is born in January. Pulled out of my body and laid on my chest. She must have been crying but I can’t remember the crying. Only the earth-shaking beauty and tenderness of her and that she is real. I adore her.
I hold these thoughts for a long time. I hold them for a year, while I tend to our baby and wonder how best to write about those things I never spoke about. The terror of the first trimester. ‘I’m not devastated,’ I had told my counsellor back then and she had been bemused. ‘Do you see how you’re exaggerating?’ she had asked. But I didn’t feel that I was. At night I would lie on our mattress in the lounge room, feeling a hopeless dark open inside me.
It is hard, my first year of parenthood, in many ways. Stu and I do argue a lot and feel estranged at times. The sleep deprivation exhausts me, makes me desperate and fractious. It’s often hard to think clearly let alone creatively. It’s also a lot of fun, a profoundly bonding experience for Stu and me, frequently fascinating, and a catalyst for new friendships. But the main thing, the thing I wasn’t accounting for—the thing they always tell you—is true. I hadn’t realised how much I would love my child. It’s a boring thing to read, I imagine, so often is it stated, but it isn’t a bit boring to feel. In my pre-birth, cost-benefit analysis, I priced the potential losses too richly, not realising how heavily weighted that new love would be.
Life in the first year is pared back to the essentials. I’m driven by my love, my biology, a strong routine and intensely immersed. Ideal conditions for a writer, only I don’t have much time or energy to write. Sleep deprivation continues beyond the first year. Night sleeps are broken and day sleeps are elusive. Realising it could be a long time before I have real work hours, I begin to take what I can get. I write for ten minutes each night on the bedroom floor, typing quietly so as not to wake the baby. At around nine months, her day sleeps become longer and more regular and I return to work with abit more regularity.
I return to Dorothy Hewett, to try to understand. I borrow once more the book that I’ve borrowed four times in nine months, without ever managing to do more than flick through. Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett was published posthumously with an introduction by Kate Lilley, Hewett’s eldest daughter with her third husband, Merv Lilley. It says a lot about my state of mind in these months that I failed to find the thing that I now find. It’s what I’ve been looking for, right there on page 7: ‘Anniversary, included here, is an elegy to Clancy written almost twenty years later.’ I turn eagerly to the poem, begin reading but turn away after the first stanza.
Death is in the air—
today is the anniversary of his death in
(he would have been thirty-one)
I went home to High Street
& couldn’t feed the new baby
my milk had dried up
so I sat holding him dumbly
looking for the soft spot on the top of his
(from Dorothy Hewett, ‘Anniversary’)
It goes on to describe the progress of his illness and death, the isolation of Hewett and Flood waiting months in an unfurnished house in Melbourne, Hewett’s mother’s rejection of her attempts to regain responsibility for her son, ‘… Home she said you left / home a long time ago to go with that man’, and the strange contrast of caring for the new baby while attempting to care for the dying boy.
I pushed them both through the park
over the dropped leaves (his legs were
a magpie swooped down black out of the
and pecked his forehead a drop of blood
his wrist he started to cry
The poem ends in futility. After the child’s death, Hewett sits by the gas fire, turning over photographs and ‘wondering why I’d drunk all that stout / & massaged my breasts each morning to be / a good mother’.
I read it in full, after a few attempts. It is rawer than the recount in Wild Card, though it deals with the same events. Here is a grief that has found a place to live in the body but still smarts. The rhythm and irregular pauses in the poetry cause that grief to catch in the reader’s throat. Lever recognised this intimate, disarming power of Hewett’s poetry, compared with her other forms. ‘This poetry establishes a closer relationship between the poet’s voice and the reader, and invites a sympathy for the predicament of the sexual woman, as mother, daughter, lover and raging body.’ It is the kernel. It absolutely breaks my heart.
Now I get it. It’s too painful to read that poem now. It makes me afraid that wild misfortune could touch what I love. I know that soft spot, the fear of milk drying up, the feeling of holding your baby with her downy hair and blue-veined temple, knowing that her survival rests with you. Hewett knew what it was like to lose a child. To leave him and then to lose him, which in effect was to lose him twice. She knew what it was to be unable to meet his needs.
Hewett was only 26 when she left Clancy and was subject to a range of pressures, not least of which was the pull of her own passion. She was new at trying to reconcile her role as a mother with her very sensual, impulsive nature. She was, herself, a divided heart. If I had to guess, I’d say that her departure wasn’t so much a choice between mothering and writing (she went on to have five more children and a long hiatus from writing), but between a prescribed life and a wild life. Perhaps it was an immature decision—the kind that grows less reversible the more time passes—made by a young adult still attempting to balance her unwieldy pieces, not fathoming the full consequences, which, in fairness, turned out to be far worse than any mature mind might have predicted.
I think Hewett had a sense of her sexuality being a kind of tragic flaw. Certainly the downfall of Sally Banner was that willingness to slip into the heat of the moment: ‘A condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything’ (T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, as quoted in The Chapel Perilous). It’s there in Wild Card, the way Hewett describes her domestic life as ‘everything I have shored up against my ruin’, as if a tide within her flows towards annihilation. ‘Poetry, for Hewett,’ wrote Lilley, ‘and especially her command of rhythm and enargia (‘vivid description’), was a potential bulwark against annihilation, an ace up her sleeve.’ I wonder how this sense of her own ruin might have affected the decisions she made early in her adult life.
But I think now that it doesn’t really matter why Hewett left. It doesn’t matter what was at the heart of her decision. It doesn’t even matter how deeply she regretted it. It only matters that it happened. She suffered and Clancy suffered and everyone around them suffered.
Now I see that suffering in all of her work. Where before I searched and couldn’t see, now I am finding it everywhere and in unexpected poems. ‘Unanswered Love Letter’ is a poem ostensibly about just that, but now I wonder: ‘“There is no transience in love,” I said, “and you will be with me, / And I with you, until we can’t remember anymore.”’ Lyn McCredden argued that Hewett’s grand, garrulous language and use of myth are concomitant with a thread of loss, haunting and longing. ‘Whatever the causes of this tragic preoccupation,’ she wrote, ‘it is undeniable as a strain, a tragic—because finally impotent, silenced, unsatisfiable—lament threaded through Hewett’s work.’ I re-read Wild Card and The Chapel Perilous and find them both laden with grief:
SALLY: Both my children are dead.
JUDITH: Why did you destroy them?
SALLY: [challenging but despairing] For a great love. [The CHORUS court members nudge each other, snicker, rock with laughter.]
… JUDITH: What was that great love?
SALLY: Love of myself. I wanted to live so completely a dozen lives, to suffer everything … I wasted my substance.
How did I miss this strain in my pre-birth reading? I can’t help but wonder now if the lacuna was in me. What more did I want? In Wild Card, Hewett offered the facts as she remembered them. The raw material regarding Clancy is so private and painful. Who could blame Hewett for taking an emotional distance in her telling? Did I want her to grovel, to prostrate herself? For what? I dislike the ignorant girl I was, who searched for the open wound of that mother, greedy to know the other woman’s shame and repentance. Why should she bare the soft part of her heart for me to devour? Why shouldn’t she build an armour of myth and fiction around herself?
But I get it now. I understand why she hardly wrote about it and why, when she did—before she was ready to write that one poem, 20 years later—it seemed rehearsed and invulnerable. People tell stories about their lives because they need to survive. They memorise the words because it makes it easier to rub up against the abrasive wordlessness of the felt memory. In Hewett’s oeuvre there is a consistent, mythic sense of herself. Her birth is described thus: ‘The roof of the hospital cracked like purgatory, / At sunset the birth blood dried on the sheets’ (‘Legend of the Green Country’). In a 1983 interview Hewett said, ‘I really don’t understand how people survive in the world in its terrible chaotic frenzied multitudinousness—how they survive if they’re not artists, and can’t make a pattern for themselves. Because I don’t think I could have. I don’t think I could have lived in a world I couldn’t make a pattern out of.’
The mythic sensibility brings the feeling of her work closer, so that it sears and smarts, but holds it at a remove at the same time. This dance between closeness and distance is so familiar to us as humans, how we love and hate our partners (the counsellor called it ‘normal marital hatred’), are attracted and repelled by them, how we are filled with gratitude for those closest to us but also resent their closeness, how we need to be loved and need desperately to love, but also yearn for our freedom, to follow our impulses and travel unconstrained. How one might need children and fear having children in the same moment. How we can stand for only a certain amount of time with the rawest, unstoried part of ourselves before we need to put it in order: ‘Very few of my acquaintances ever looked very good naked. Minds seem to be much the same. Those I know who go about being brutally honest … are a nuisance’ (The Chapel Perilous).
I’m doing it too. The way I frame this period of 18 months in sequential order, as if my emotional journey were obediently espaliered to a traditional story arc, when really it was ragged and uneven, making less sense than the words I now use to describe it. As if any love can be explained in sentences. As if we work through things neatly and put them to bed, fresh patterns formed like new boots ready to step into.
The other thing I didn’t get beforehand, as well as the extent of the love, is the extent of the terror that remains. It doesn’t go away, it only shifts. Intensifies, maybe, as love grows. I’m terrified that something will happen to her or to him. I feel it so acutely in the early weeks of her life that I can barely speak as the sun goes down and she is asleep in her cot and we sit at the table with forks in our hand and food someone else has cooked for us and stare at each other. It’s that terror that cracked Hewett’s world open for me, made it almost impossible to read about the worst possible thing happening to her and her son.
It also made it impossible to overlook the grief that travels through her work, holding her oeuvre like branches of a tree holding heavy, ripe fruit. I can’t name the source of that grief with any authority, but I can have a guess. Perhaps grief, like terror, only shifts. Perhaps they are inevitable accompaniments to a great love, be it for a child or a lover or for one’s own courageous journey to live authentically. There seems no way to ‘shore up’ against these dark, nervous undersides. Perhaps the only option is to try to be present, to sit with the strangeness of ourselves and others, the inevitable wildness of life and death and try to walk naked through the world.
That was autumn 2016. It’s now winter 2018. This year’s revelations by Dorothy Hewett’s daughters Kate and Rozanna Lilley cast new light on my explorations. In an interview with the Australian, the sisters revealed the sexual abuse they endured as young teenagers at the hands of visitors to their family home. Sex with older men was encouraged and sometimes facilitated by their mother. They described their home as ‘unbearable’ and likened it to ‘a brothel without payment’. It’s coincidental that this essay was due to be published at the time these stories emerged, but they do seem to offer something of an answer to a question I posed. My own daughter is nearly 18 months old. I’m edified and made fiercer by my desire to protect her and sickened at the thought of child abuse. I’ve sought too eagerly the heroine in Hewett. Despite her trauma, Kate Lilley claims that she and her mother ‘loved each other hugely’ and supposes that ‘… she genuinely believed she was offering this unfettered, uninhibited lifestyle to us’. I suspect it is true that Hewett wished freedom for her daughters, away from the strictures that had bound her own youth. But I don’t think she considered their welfare deeply enough. Sex, desire and sensuality run like a live-wire through Hewett’s work and it seems she valued them above all else.•
Jane Jervis-Read’s novella Midnight Blue and Endlessly Tall won the inaugural Viva La Novella award. She lives in country Victoria with her partner and child and is working on her first novel.
Poems reproduced with kind permission of the Dorothy Hewett estate.
Dorothy Hewett, The Chapel Perilous (1972), in Collected Plays, Volume 1, Currency Press Sydney, 1992.
Dorothy Hewett, Wildcard: An Autobiography 1923–1958, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1990.
Dorothy Hewett, Wikipedia entry, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Hewett>, accessed 3 July 2018.
Paul Kavanagh, ‘An Interview with Dorothy Hewett’, Southerly 44, no. 2 (1984), pp. 123–142.
Susan Lever, ‘Seeking Woman: Dorothy Hewett’s Shifting Genres’, in Bruce Bennet (ed.), Dorothy Hewett: Selected Critical Essays, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992, pp. 147–61.
Kate Lilley (ed.), Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett, UWAP, Perth, 2010.
Lyn McCredden, ‘The Tragedy of Desire: Dorothy Hewett’s Poetics’, Heat, no. 6 (2003), pp. 203–13.
Rosemary Neill, ‘Playwright Dorothy Hewett’s daughters say their mother’s men used them for sex’, Australian, 9 June 2018, <https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/dorothy-hewetts-daughters-rozanna-and-kate-lilley/news-story/750912cd027217f4181a2fc1b558f440>, accessed 3 July 2018.
John Pilger, quotation on the cover of Wildcard, 1990 (first edn).
Rachel Power (ed.), The Divided Heart, Affirm Press, Melbourne, 2015.
Lauren Sandberg, ‘The secret to being both a successful writer and a mother: Have just one kid’, Atlantic, June 2013, <https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/the-secret-to-being-both-a-successful-writer-and-a-mother-have-just-one-kid/276642/>, accessed 3 July 2018.
Kristin Williamson, Introduction to Dorothy Hewett, Collected Plays, Volume 1, Currency Press, Sydney, 1992.