The Bee Hut, Dorothy Porter, IBSN 9781863954464. Black Inc Press, 2009, 146pp. RRP $24.95
reviewed by Jill Jones
As most people would know by now, this book brings together the poems Dorothy Porter wrote in the last five years of her life. It is always a difficult thing to approach a posthumous volume regarding which, you may wonder, the poet may not have had the final final say. Would Dorothy Porter have sanctioned all that is printed here, or not? In a sense, it is no matter. The book is what is in front of the reader. In it, there is the evidence of Porter’s enduring concerns and passions. It is a dance between the sensual inwardly-directed modern and the ancient classical sense of poetry as a serious public concern, as discourse, or as something even more archaic, talismanic. Certainly, the poetry is visceral, sensually vital, as we’ve come to expect from Porter, but follows a narrative, an argument, it debates itself. It is also, and inevitably, concerned with ‘last things’, with mortality and, in a sense, immortality, that living is ‘a sacred puzzle’ (‘The Male Seahorse’).
The book is in eight parts; possibly this was Porter’s decision, but maybe not. I find this arrangement chops the book up unnecessarily. The volume ends on the last poem Porter ever wrote, we are told, from her hospital bed. This is the inevitable structure of a book put together after a poet’s death. Of course, I am speculating.
There are a number of poems about travelling or appear to be the result of travels. But I hesitate to call them ‘travel poems’. It gives an impression of being touristic rather than set in places that have greater meaning in Porter’s world view, such as Egypt or Greece. They are, as I read her work, part of an inner landscape of influence and tradition that she constantly drew from: ‘Imagine a city/ where it’s mostly/ imagine’ (‘On Reading E.M. Forster’s Guide to Alexandria’) It is as though a kind of Borgesian library of ancients and moderns existed in Porter’s head as contemporaries, and that communing with them continues to happen on these pages.
The skin, the feelings, senses, are always along the surfaces of what these poems speak. Some of the poems overdo this, such as ‘Blackberries’, far too many adjectives, far too much layered in. If I could invoke the origin of the lyric poem, in song, in something airy, there is sometimes in Porter a lack of lightness, or air, though there is much fiery breath and earth, to be sure.
There is in this book, perhaps more noticeably than in previous books, an earnestness and a probing for certainty or statement, that then gives way to uncertainty – an eternal contradiction, perhaps. In this way, they are also performative. Certainly, anyone who has ever heard Dorothy read her work in public performance, could still ‘hear’ these works, and the strength of her delivery, the searching propulsion of the poem. The poems are constantly assertive, as can be seen in their forms of address, often as an apostrophe, or a conversation with the absent or the dead.
There is an almost anti-modernist slant, introduced at the very beginning of the book, a calling on ‘old gods’. The poems take their positioning, in many ways, from more ancient poetries. Their structures are modern, the patterning based on sound rather than strict metres, but there is something of the public debate of the soul in them. Although Porter is not a strictly metrical poet, being not so concerned with duration, she most certainly concerned with beats in her lines, which are far clearer than one gets in many currently published poems. Just as she uses repetition and sound structures, just as her poems are in, often, her characteristic shorter lines, and call on rhyme as well, to good effect in one of the best poems of the collection, ‘Ode To Agatha Christie’.
The modernist influences are also there, a number of them from other languages, or the less fashionable English-speaking modernists, such as Marianne Moore:
The toad in the hand / stank real
(‘The Hampstead Heath Toad’)
which is surely a direct reference to Moore’s famous definition of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. In fact, this could be regarded as a talismanic reference for Porter, the drift to the romantic (and Porter has a Romantic streak) always undercut by dirty ol’ reality.
To return to my first concerns, the book is an uneven one, possibly due to its posthumous nature. The inclusion of some songs and some slight occasional poems seems more a completist gesture rather than one that contributes strong work, though there are aspects of the ‘freak songs’ which are appealing, especially their stage directions. But the book is worth it alone for the strong poems, often somber rather than working in one of Porter’s usual default positions of ‘feral’. Amongst these more stark poems is the extraordinary rhythmic tolling of ‘The Ninth Hour’, stoic rather than self-pitying, with its ending that sounds of courage, rather than bravado:
I stand my ground
in the undaunted spray
of my own words.