Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Reading "The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood"

Harwood, Gwen. The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood. Black Inc. November, 2014. Print.
ISBN: 9781863956987, RRP: AUD $24.99 

What is there to besiege
but an old woman lying
alone, past hope or caring,
with voices in her head
“Not all of us shall die
My love, come to my bed,
and I will give you children. (Reed Voices)

Articulating the poignant power and tension of the female experience—particularly the fraught and rich journey of having children—is perhaps Gwen Harwood's most treasured and brave legacy in this collection of poems. Gwen Harwood, "the outstanding Australian poet of the twentieth century" according to Peter Porter was, alongside Judith Wright, a motherpoet—Harwood wrote in the midst of, and often in spite of raising four children at a time when to be a married mother was to navigate the social norms of burying oneself in the domestic sphere; and certainly it was neither expected nor encouraged that such a woman would write poetry. Harwood, however, not only wrote a vast volume of poetry, librettos and lectures but garnered multiple prestigious awards, including the Officer of Australia, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, and the Patrick White Award, before her death in 1995, aged 75. In this collection, as in so much of her poetry, Harwood plunged deeply into the tangled, often unspoken/hidden and powerful world of being simultaneously female artist and mother in a culture and time that was arguably unsupportive of both roles—let alone taken on together.

Harwood trained as a professional musician, becoming an organist and music teacher while in her twenties. In realizing that she would never be a “great” musician, however, she turned to writing poetry professionally—an art her grandmother had introduced her to as a child and that she had been quietly developing for several years. Throughout her life Harwood would publish over 430 poems, 100 of which have been selected in this volume by her son (and writer) John Harwood. Many of the poems feature several motifs that layer upon and revisit one another throughout the collection; this symphonic aspect strengthens their intensity, allowing for a fugal effect as the elements of water, sky, exile, motherhood, death and yearning coalesce, separate, then return in different keys and moods.

Despite Harwood's “giving up” of music as a profession, music runs strongly through this collection: in the explicit references of the several poems about the defeated and alcoholic piano teacher and performer Kröte, who “is drunk, but still can play” (At the Arts Club), references to Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt. There are also the many subtler references—the way her images of sky, landscape and death appear and return in rhythms, the compositional quality of many of her line break patterns, the way the syllables are strung together almost like song lyrics. In a sense it seems as if poetry has taken Harwood beyond the limits what her own music could express, indeed she writes that her “heart leapt beyond music, past the span/ of human hands and human skill/ to affirm what is." (Littoral)

The style changes across the work, and this may reflect her choice to publish under several different names at different times (including masculine noms de plume). There certainly seems a playfulness in the exploration of different voices; some of her poems are lyrical, the phrasing full and redolent, as in Dust to Dust where she writes:

I dream I stand once more
in Ann Street by the old
fire station. The palms
like feather dusters move
idly in stifling air.
The sky’s dusted with gold.
A footfall; someone comes.

Frequently, however that same playfulness possesses a jagged thematic edge that snatches at us, testing the emotional and linguistic boundaries of her voice. In Night Thoughts: Baby and Demon there emerges an ironic tonal shift and a more aggressive rhythm:

Baby I’m sick. I need
nursing. Give me your
My orifices bleed


Demon, we’re old, old
Born under the same sign
after some classic rape.

Harwood’s relationship with her own motherhood is fraught and complex—it is at once a joy and a means of immortality and also a prison sentence, a site of anguish in which the motherpoet ages, turning into a body from which her artist soul feels disconnected. It is, at times, as if a hidden life of Harwood as poet continues, watching her mother body with acerbic eyes, punishing this mother part for giving herself so completely to domestic life and children. Sometimes the language courses from a deep, almost primeval cry (think Whitman's barbaric Yawp) in Oyster Cove where we feel an urgent creative passion that laments and rages against the unresolved, violent always-rendering between mother and poet:

watch the sun prise
their life apart: flesh, memory, language all
split open, featureless, to feed the wild
hunger of history. A woman lies
coughing her life out. There’s still blood to fall,
but all blood’s spilt that could have made a child.

We see this also in her poem In the Park, where her “clothes are out of date. Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt” yet two stanzas later “it’s so sweet to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive.” The female speaker converses in tense repartee with “someone she loved once” who passes her in the park, someone from 

From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon … “but for the grace of God …”

In the speaker's final words: “to the wind she says, “they have eaten me alive.” Again, mother and poet inhabit the same body, alternately—and simultaneously—yearning, regretting and grounding those same urges to fly and dream in the concrete tasks (and pleasures) of raising other lives. There is both consumption and life, a strange duality existing within the female body, where no one outcome is certain or ever achieved; the site of/in the motherpoet body is one of constant, artistically fruitful struggle. 

Sometimes this conflict is explored through a male voice, oftentimes through Harwood's creation Kröte, as he struggles with his feelings of mediocrity and being undervalued as a musician and the battle between this and his artistic drive. Release, or comfort, takes the face of an imagined child in Monday, where Kröte

dreams himself a 
with smoky hair, whose
spirit’s wild
as wind, whose inmost 

mirrors his love.

This character desires a child who is, in reality, himself, and who can lift up his own music and self, joining and supporting his dedication to art. This child, however, is a phantom only, and Harwood dispels Kröte’s dream with an image of disdain and violence when a real child comes up to him and “with her metal spade/ she bangs / sharply on Kröte's shin.” That same child, when Kröte grabs the spade from her, becomes instantly “a vicious child [who] lets loose a / torrent of lies.” 

This dichotomy infuses so much of Harwood’s work—but perhaps it is less a binary than a courageous and unflinching exploration of the complexities, nuances and dangers of motherhood. Harwood wrestles repeatedly with the question as to whether repulsion and intense love can actually inhabit the same heart, the same body—and that it is particularly the motherpoet’s psyche that is tormented but also fed by the act of birthing and nurturing. This liminal, sometimes tortured space (at this point the word ravishing comes to mind, in the way we use it to describe both being made captive and submissive by inordinate beauty but also as a synonym for rape) is a catalyst for Harwood's art, where

Some old, lost self strikes from time’s shallows, crying
“Beyond habit, household, children, I am I.
Who knows my original estate, my name?
Give me my atmosphere, or let me die.” (Iris)

This collection is no one-sided, simplistic rant against children and domesticity, simply seeing them as millstones or a sort of artistic curse, but the poetry in this edition provides us with a textured, sonic journey into a place where there are always the two forces of mother and poet meeting, fighting, seducing, soothing, creating—these juxtapositions are captured in the following lines from An impromptu for Ann Jennings:

think of it, woman: each of
us gave birth to
four children, our new
lords whose beautiful 
tyrannic kingdom might 
restore the earth to
that fullness we
thought lost beyond
when, in the midst of life,
we could not name to,
when spirit cried in
darkness, “I will have 
but what? have what?
There was no word to
frame it,
though spirit beat at
flesh as in a grave.

In Littoral, as well as many other of her poems, this space is given a name and a landscape, so that we are kept grounded in a visceral, body-based experience of moving through her ideas—they are real, felt emotions and actual paths traveled, not simply ethereal abstractions. For Harwood, her 

children call
across the wind for me to 
come; the tide streams through a honeycomb
of rock and air. This littoral margin of land and water
vibrates with life, where
life began” (Littoral)

If Harwood’s pains and ecstasies are the air in this excerpt, then children and home are for Harwood perhaps the rock; she traverses this borderland where the two meet, and although painful, it is the place where "life"—and artistic life—is both birthed and sustained. 

Throughout this moving and powerful collection Harwood traces—map would be too certain a verb for this exploration that reveals no absolutes, no certainties—a humane, authentic, but piercing journey for us along this margin of land and water, whereby we might feel with her the “fractured rock, where / water had its birth,/ and stood in silence, at the / roots of dreams.”