Vicki Viidikas’s first book Condition Red (UQP, 1973) – which most likely took its title from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) in which Condition Red means war – burst with unsettling depictions of contemporary life and the status of women, a year after Equal Pay had become law. ‘It’s not enough, looking at you blundering like a turtle against the stream … Last night my heart was a cheap flag waving to the nearest mirror in sight. I couldn’t believe anything, seeing you drive away into others’ arms. I’m no sweet virgin sock-washer either …’ (‘Four Poems On A Theme’). Her second book, Wrappings (Wild & Woolley, 1974), was a collection of stories in a tone that twenty years later could have been marketed as grunge realism. As writer and colleague Michael Wilding wrote: ‘the world of publishers and editors found her difficult, and she in turn found them contemptible … In recent years she became a myth, lost to view of the literary world that she had inspired, stimulated, informed and reviled’. Behind the ‘great man’ we could now hear the mistress and the ‘sock-washer’ as Viidikas sourly calls a lover’s wife in her most-anthologised prose-poems. But there’s also buoyant spontaneity in poems such as ‘Loaded hearts’: ‘Oh boy Ken the smiling mountain is playing his guitar / The beautiful trembling Irene is taking another pill… / Oh boy to the phallic teeshirt / Oh sigh to the Baba breadknife / Oh gee to the landlord’s prayer…’. Along with the intense political and social tumult of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the dynamically modernising upheavals wrought by the first Labor Government in 23 years (Australian troops withdrawn from Vietnam; Equal Pay legislation; Single Mother’s Pension; voting age lowered from 21 to 18 years, free university education, etc.) the influence of recent anthologies, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960) and Donald Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry (1963), had reinforced and revitalised this new generation of Australian poets, and Viidikas may have been influenced by the adventurously jaunty spiritualisms of Kerouac and Whalen among others.
The revolt against institutional constraints would extend to the rules of syntax, grammar, poetic form, and genre.1
Most reviews and commentaries on Viidikas’s work emphasise the anti-intellectualism of her poetry, its immediacy and transparency, in a way that is not used of contemporary men poets such as Michael Dransfield, and that in fact dismisses closer reading.
As long as she’s dead we may sabotage and rape (‘They Always Come’)2
Her poems often revolve around internal argument as images accrete interspersed with blunt or vatic statements, her deliberate artlessness composed into gradual assault or enigmatically drifting reflections. Statements are proffered to provoke and defy, but also to resolve a position, or to be absolved, in poems that are impressionistic, semi-narrative, ambiguous, often proceeding through repetition of tenses, nouns, vowels, such as the ‘o’ sounds dropped through ‘At East Balmain’3:
It’s hard to imagine that over there the city is roaring and sledging her iron name into the ground. And here there is clear water washing million-year-old stones and the sun does not fall sheepishly between buildings but blasts straight down. Oblong rocks are texture paintings, without curse or paint or time spent, just lolling, baking under the fine sun. Two dots upright as tin soldiers putt past in their happy world of tug on water. A hermit dog lives here, in a burnt-out boiler turning orange. He stays inside all day - I’ve seen his eyes glint in the dark, he is huge and black and solemn... Dried weed hangs from a bleached stick, like a dead rat swinging...I found one here yesterday. So cold and grey and stiff with his tiny mouth open, arms stretched above his head. I felt very quiet because his bead eyes had lost their sparkle.
Oblong, rocks, dots, dogs, lolling, rolling, etc. ‘Oblong rocks are texture paintings…’ so art then is the equivalent to nature, or alternatively, nature’s effortlessness is seen as true art. The momentary is celebrated in itself, as if it can be unfiltered, unmodified, by interrupting thought. Poems are embedded with longing for oblivion, for floating into nature where fretful tainting consciousness, and self-consciousness, might somehow be erased. This desire, mirrored by her interest in Hinduism, is propelled by the objectification of women, as Viidikas often illustrates the feminist tenet that femininity is a socio-politically imposed construct, is drag. There’s a constant tussle between desire to disappear into nature, to abide in an eternal wordless stream, and to inscribe.
The Flow Of Them All4 What huge wooden grasshopper is crawling the hill? What turtleness of feeling slid off the satin reeds? Blue dragonflies are singing in clouds of transparent light. Cows bellow and waddle leaving their footprints in mud. Am I part of the river, the deck, or the willow? The grey cranes are sleek and elegant and fly without fear. Plain sailing is dead. The wind arcs and hums and hooks itself round trees. Geckos rise forward offering their throats to the sun. Tails swish and flip. Water reflections slip off green and luminous. Ferns chuckle in their skirts. And I compete with sadness, having only my memory, a string of words, a definition.
Descriptions of frolicking nature seem to make this a poem of joy: each animal or insect affects the thing it burrows through; each living thing interacts with, and contrasts with, its environment, ‘Ferns chuckle in their skirts’. The unexpected conclusion turns from this perceived, but unreachable, idyll: ‘And I compete with sadness’, so even in sorrow there is the energetic act of competing, ‘having only my memory, a string of words, a definition’, that is, the flow of life is, bizarrely, hindered, fenced in, by words, hence the dramatic to and fro of passive (sadness) with active (competition). The poet, classically, envies nature’s supposed thoughtless bliss that she is unable to mimic, and must instead hew definition, ruinously affix meaning. Yet the conclusion is deliberately, and traditionally, ambiguous, as the act of writing is also depicted as triumph over dumb nature, as she competes, assisted by heightening sadness, with prized memory and words to forge a corresponding beauty.
The country as an answer5 Endlessly walking the green hills in wet agitated galoshes, trees lean outwards...they are nothing but leaves, beautiful. coloured, falling and dying. The hills rise up, breasts faces hands, their silence is complete. I sit down and mud falls from my boots. Cows plod towards a creek. Not a single person is visible as the landscape flows and dips...invisible dyings...no answer but what it is. I have come a thousand miles to be here. Peace, they tell me, sending messages from the black city. This is what peace is? No use for the earth but as a place to lie down in...faceless bodies...passive with adoration? There is no love or hate here, the contrast is so subtle. I feel the mud in my hands, the wet bright grass. I understand I am meaningless here, merely another presence ...the trees do not recognise me, the cows do not remember. the landscape has absorbed me, giving nothing to be desired.
The landscape, complete in itself, or in itself a summation of all desires, leaves ‘nothing to be desired’, and only here can the poet’s restless subjectivity be entirely trammelled. Yet Viidikas also mocks such aspiration to serene self-effacement as impossibly unsatisfying as well as ludicrously impossible.
I … always felt that her work revealed a distinct sensibility and considerable craft. But while people seemed to want to commemorate a poet like Michael Dransfield (sex and drugs and Gustav Mahler) the Romantic myth didn’t serve a woman like Viidikas so well, despite her clear superiority as a poet.6
Viidikas’s voice is always recognisable, always effortless. There is nothing that sounds rehearsed or overproduced. She aimed for spontaneity… Her whole project was to be free of affectation, of manner, of precedent. But her clarity, directness, visionary evocations and surreal connections have the characteristic note of an assured, spare, vividly colourful modernism … She chronicles the era of what seemed at the time like liberation … (and) eagerly seized the opportunity to record what had rarely been written about explicitly before – a world of gays, lesbians, prostitutes, rapists and their victims, drug dealers and their junkie clients. These are sketches from the life, not narratives manufactured for commercial gain or propagandist agenda. Viidikas presented no agenda, other than the agenda of the clear-eyed writer, the Isherwood ‘I am a camera’. There were precedents, of course – Rimbaud, Anna Kavan, Leroi Jones – and she knew their work. As with every serious writer, she read widely and intensely … Thirty-five years after they were written, her searing attacks on male self-involvement and overall unsatisfactoriness still make me flinch. No doubt they should, since a couple were written at me. Not written for me, or to me, but confrontationally at me.’7
Viidikas’s frames of repetition are employed in many poems: the untitled ‘red is the colour’ (‘red were the shoes … red was the imprint … red was the silence … red were the flowers … red is the eye …’) and in the statements through ‘Keeping watch on the heart’8:
I have seen those hands die as they touched me, pressed at my skin’s edge dreaming of another I’ve encircled their sighs like a wolf on the hunt, ripped on a highland, the gentle blood flow before light came Heard the dull tack tack in the veins, drawn into them without a shield I have wanted to replace the hollowness in things, besides the body and the heart, besides the silence after love, withdrawal into singleness How the butterfly screams as it breaks from its cocoon The sad shutters bang tracing the hungry eye Laughing at the madness of clocks, I’ve been buried in minutes, expecting each face to be refined finally, like silk And disobeyed time, wanting a revolution in spirit, the boundaries of the self broken down and flooded with joy Does the wind celebrate as it moans along the hill?
‘I have seen those hands die as they touched me… / I’ve encircled their sighs like a wolf on the hunt… / I have wanted to replace the hollowness in things… / I’ve been buried in minutes…’ – all in perfect tense, then ‘How the butterfly screams…’ and the final question ‘Does the wind celebrate / as it moans along the hill?’ all present tense that extinguishes the past with transforming velocity. Yet her present tense also reveals a nature, sequestered from time, that discards and disdains the quotidian. In Viidikas, nature offers purifying benediction that dissolves ‘this too too solid flesh’. Many poems hinge on a ‘To be or not to be’ quandary, whether to pass into oblivion via nature or addiction or whether to act, that is, to write. Formalising repetitions are also used in ‘Swamp City’: ‘One leaves…One cuts…’, and ‘Family Images’ with its accusatory, or even exultant, vocatives: ‘You who have no name…You who have no home’, and in ‘Knives’: ‘I take the first and scalp the sunlight from the sky…I take the second…’, and also in ‘The Whole Bag’: ‘Why did we sit…Why did we argue…Offer me something…Offer me fusion’.
- Ann Vickery, ‘The Rise of ‘Women’s Poetry’ in the 1970s’, Australian Feminist Studies, 2007 ↩
- Condition Red, University of Queensland Press, 1973 ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid ↩
- ibid ↩
- Laurie Duggan, graveneymarsh blog, January 2011 ↩
- Michael Wilding, ‘Vivid Sketches from an Age of Liberation’, SMH, 15.5.10 ↩
- Ibid ↩