Rehabilitation1 Getting there always, the difficulty of sensation and what its end result is, these lapses of confidence and purpose / all experience yawning, wanting escape and full abandonment, going off at high speed to some other phased reality / wanting more, more... Seeing the needle in your vein was a way of reassuring myself, of what I didn’t want, no half world of shadows, yours and my blood mingling through a glass syringe / I had to possess my little veins and know I wanted them totally, not rushing with ecstatic juice, not rushing to a world of nods, mumbles, aches, fevers and the ice of coming down... You see I’ve waded through this before, climbed spikey fences, gone under ladders, skinned the black cat, used voodoo and congolese mud to drive me towards the sun / I couldn’t turn back now, watch my shadow grow mammoth and out of proportion, I couldn’t carry this burden and smell death in the closets again... My veins carry red blood beautiful as it is, these rubies of innate life, my body a house on earth / I’ve found some unsown ground to plant these dream seeds in, to sing, dance, sunbathe, imbibe the juices and sounds which drift through trees and sky / either we keep the sun within us, or our wings are bitter destroyers, taking us further away...
Viidikas explores a crisis of liberation and confinement – the first three stanzas summarise the dilemmas of addiction, the desire for ‘escape and abandonment’, and the last stanza focuses on sobriety ‘either we keep the sun within / us, or our wings are bitter destroyers, taking us further / away…’. Liberating desires can be lethally unliberating, as Icarus proves.
Many Viidikas poems lament unrequited or unfulfillable loves, while in her stories women protagonists through their performative drag, often exploit others – a performance that Viidikas despises yet consciously employs, ensnared as Object. Thus her interest in Hinduism: the too grounded embodied self, objectified in patriarchal society, longs for loss of self, the occlusive ego desires its obliteration through transcendent nature.
Feminist agendas to move women’s writing from neglected margins to the centre of literary attention resulted in the publication of innovative work. Vicki Viidikas captures the sharp lines of external reality as well as subjective and psychological worlds in ‘Wrappings’ (1974). The collection is integrated by ‘unwrapping’ layers of defence, convention, illusion and repression to reveal the creativity and sensitivity inherent in characters’ oppressed consciousness.2
Viidikas’s sexual politics, as conveyed in her work, would have been an admonishment to many contemporaries, as she deletes previous assumptions of masculine superiority, most obviously in ‘The Artist without his body’, and the much-anthologised ‘Four poems on a Theme’.
As for many women poets, anthologists reenact the lagging sexism of assuming the romantic, the sexual, are women’s realm, and so those poems continue to be the most anthologised. Yet equally as memorable are those poems that evince a more complicated, destabilising interiority, such as ‘White Poem’3:
White light, the day breaks open the stark shell, in the mirror seven reflections I’m all of them, but can’t summon one; the true bird flies into snow and the coldness of history - too many ice claws, arms, lips I went to fire and am not even Phoenix, I’m not being pretentious... Winter has been here for too long seeing you immolate in fire drugs and fluid - no wonder you crave white and I colour, to dance with me, and space a crucial element; in the mirror I change into striped tiger-face, gold fur, I was once not so vicious... I turn out from where I’ve been clawed and darkened, attempt to recapture some brightness all your coldness has led me to sea - I should have been a sailor I should have been selfish not a woman, but learnt to violate myself too, so I could fit the boat, twentieth century and rock...
White also refers to heroin. ‘White light, the day breaks / open the stark shell… // I should have been selfish / not a woman…’, this acknowledges that addiction has diminished the narrator, has in fact incongruously made her fit the boat, fit in. Its last line unfolds further ambiguities, with ‘rock’ as either noun or verb. The first two stanzas also end with chiming similarly blunt avowals: ‘I am not being pretentious’ / ‘I was once not so vicious’.
The Artist without his body4 A long gloved hand with broken fingernails inside the cloth A message in magic chalk on a woman’s slate You have forgotten my face / how a voice persisted, pushed us silently through nights You have forgotten as the flowers of your words grow old, fade broken stems / linkages of rhetoric meaningless without their bodies Whatever art you forged was away from physical closeness / an escape somewhere bodiless without your sex Broken vessels and poems scatter around my feet / love letters without scent / advertisements without faces And you live somewhere with a mother holding you in ancient bondage Live afraid of your skin’s demand / phantom lover who always looks back You remain an artist with a legend to maintain / and suddenly I’m an ogre giant sorceress to kill your image, laying claim to your life of fame. I want my pen filled with gold I want your tongue paying back what it stole I want clean sheets, an honest bed So tell me you’re out of jail, that I exist beyond walls of your mind / Pain was the motivator pain your pale muse / without suffering you stand defenceless Now I’m outside your walls reading poems and looking for noise / waiting past your silence for the lovesong you swore existed
Here also are two vying opposed states, of contentious subjectivity and excluding transcendence, though here the apparent transcendence that the man artist has reached is seen as a consequence of denial: ‘You have forgotten my face … / You have forgotten… / You remain an artist…’, the implication being that the man artist remains because he is able to forget. For the woman artist however: ‘Broken vessels and poems / scatter around my feet / love letters without scent / advertisements without faces’, whereas he is contained within a legend, within walls, a kind of jail. So the writer here becomes the Romantic artist, free from those restraints she criticises in others (mainly men), but also messy, both corrupt and disruptive, perpetually fuori le mura (as churches ‘outside the walls’ of a city are designated), both a temptation and a warning.
Note: parts of this essay have been reworked from my other writings on Vicki Viidikas: Obituary, The Age, 12.2.99; ‘Australian Poetry in the 1970s’, Craft Wars Symposium, Cape Town, September 2014; and an informal talk on some Viidikas poems presented to Melbourne University poetry students, November 2014.
Vicki Viidikas, Condition Red, UQP, 1973.
Vicki Viidikas, Wrappings, Wild & Woolley, 1974.
Vicki Viidikas, Knabel, Wild and Woolley, 1978.
Vicki Viidikas, India Ink: A collection of prose poems written in India, Hale & Iremonger, 1984.
Vicki Viidikas: New and Rediscovered, Transit Lounge Publishing, 2010.