[This introduction to Vicki Viidikas: New and Rediscovered by Kerry Leves was commissioned in 2010. It is reprinted here in the memory of Kerry Leves and Vicki Viidikas with the generous permission of Transit Lounge Publishing – KM]
John Tranter, renowned Australian poet and occasional but incisive chronicler of the driving forces behind those Australian poets now classified as ‘The Generation of ‘68’ once wrote that the ‘Generation of ‘68’ was all about:
not the replacing of the old by the new (which soon becomes the established), but by the continual recognition of the need to ‘make it new’, to break down the urge to establish reputations and an entrenched position.1
Anecdotes surround Vicki Viidikas. None is definitive.
She is leaving a small house on a sprawling mountain. She is wearing a headscarf, a long skirt. She’s explaining that if we don’t take a bantam rooster and an orpington hen with us, the other hens will kill them. It’s true. In the dust of the chicken yard, the white hens surround the much smaller bantam, scuffing and pecking. Only one white orpington stands up to the others, using her baritone to back them off.
We’re on Doctor George Mountain, near Bega NSW. It’s May, 1975. Vicki’s partner at the time, a fantastically handsome white Rhodesian, knows how to hypnotise chooks. He picks one up, cradles it gently under his armpit. Vicki and I watch fascinated, mesmerised if not hypnotised.
But Vicki has her way; we pack the bantam and his defender, the white orpington who stands up to the others, into a large, anonymous-looking cardboard box in the car. Then we drive to Sydney.
We stay overnight at a caravan park. ‘No pets! Definitely NO ANIMALS!’ says the sign. We manoeuvre the chooks in their cardboard box inside the caravan, and feel like smugglers. We put in a tense, mostly sleepless night keeping vigil so as not to set the fowls off. We repack and leave before dawn, knowing that when the sun rises, the bantam will crow.
We make it to Sydney, the passengers – Vicki and I – reading poems aloud to entertain the driver. One of the poems was ‘Getting There’ by Sylvia Plath.
When we arrive at the large house rented by poet Ken Bolton and a group of other writers and academics including myself, it’s my job to ask if it’s okay for Vicki and her partner and the chooks to stay. Ken seems quite pleased, quite interested to have Vicki Viidikas, poet and short story writer, famous for Wrappings, a story collection published the previous year, living in the house.
Vicki’s partner builds a chicken run out of old wire and wood scraps in the backyard, so the chooks will have a protected space to scratch about in. Soon enough, the bantam and the white hen are running around freely on the untrimmed lawn of the backyard. Meanwhile Vicki has made friends with a very large cat whom we call Butch. The cat comes to visit Vicki through the bathroom window. Never quite part of that household, he is nonetheless Vicki’s cat.
There’s a wooden wheel lying flat on its side in the yard. The fowls like to fly up and strut about on it. Butch the cat likes to recline there. This situation results in some very mild confrontations. When the fowls arrive, Butch raises a paw as if to biff the bantam off the wheel; the white hen uses her baritone to back him off. Eventually Ken Bolton writes a poem which refers to these behaviours. Months later, at Balmain, I recite some lines from Ken’s poem, from memory, to Vicki. She puts on a wry expression, raises an ironic eyebrow. ‘D’you think they’re safe?’ she asks, referring to the fowls and the cat; like, is being written into Ken’s poem quite healthy for them? Is it an animal welfare issue, perhaps? I laugh. I’m an easy laugher.
But I’m getting ahead of this story. Not long after moving in, Vicki and her partner start fighting in the downstairs room they’ve been allocated. The fights are hair-raisingly loud and fierce. They’re also pretty frequent. Months pass. One day Ken asks me if I’ll ask Vicki and her partner to leave. So I ask. Vicki hits the roof and calls her fellow house-occupants voyeurs. ‘Everyone can’t help hearing,’ I protest. She gives me her daggered look.
A friend, Bill Beard, shows up. He offers to set Vicki up, by herself (without the partner), in a house. Vicki agrees; then changes her mind. She and the partner want to continue living together. Bill invites me, without Vicki or the partner, to dinner at the house that Vicki’s ex-husband, Bob Finlayson, is renting with his new partner and their children at Hunters Hill. Plied with vodka and a great dinner, I agree to move in with the fighting couple. The fowls and Butch the cat come with us to a house at Ennis Street, Balmain.
By November Vicki has thrown the Rhodesian out; the hen has died, apparently of old age; and a new home has been found for the bantam at a farm in the Northern Rivers district. Vicki and I buried the hen with honours in the Balmain backyard.
What has all this to do with Vicki’s writing? A writer has a life. Not all of it goes into the writing. Vicki tended to write about – her own words – ‘emotional experiences’ and some of her poems could be declamatory, but her best poems are oblique and compressed; and her prose can be exceptionally subtle. Jennifer Maiden commented in Australian Book Review that Vicki’s prose ‘was limpid and disciplined, with a more private, exploratory ontology than most of her poetry’ (Jennifer Maiden, ‘Death by Persona’, ABR April 1999). In the same article Jenny Maiden also opined that Vicki was ‘over-defined early as the wayward, kind-hearted, promiscuous druggie Valda in Michael Wilding’s prose’; but Michael’s ‘Valda’ – an uncannily accurate mimesis of Vicki’s vocal cadences, of the way she spoke– didn’t seem to bother the model. When I tried to quiz her about ‘Valda’, Vicki shrugged – writing was (is) an open field.
Vicki lived a full life; she embraced experience, even flung herself into or out of experiences, but not in search of something to write about. Her living, like her writing, was guided by a commitment to going against the grain, Against Nature, as the title of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ most famous book was translated for Penguin Classics. In French it’s A rebours (1884), perhaps connoting less a turn ‘against nature’ than a kind of contrariness, an opposition, going against the accepted way/s of doing things, linked conceptually to the ‘wrong side’ of a fabric, or to stroking a cat’s fur backwards. Huysmans’ title announces itself in French as ‘the wrong way’, which of course suggests that Huysmans was practising some irony about the opposed ‘right way’. Late in her life, Vicki told me A rebours was a major influence on/ contribution to her life and her writing. Certainly the Penguin English translation was in her bookshelves, already somewhat battered – ‘Oh, you must read that!’ – when I first met her in 1968.
- John Tranter, ‘Four Notes on the Practice of Revolution’, Australian Literary Studies, Volume 8 Number 2, October 1977: 134 ↩