Just as her speakers tend to embody ideas or types (‘The Bystander’), Dobson’s mise en scène embodies her poetry’s grand themes: Time, Art, Age. The style of her ekphrasis poems and monologues is mannered: influenced not only in subject matter by the flat surfaces and indirect lighting of Flemish, Renaissance and Baroque painting, their settings are frequently antiquated or pastoral, glazed with dust and golden hew.
There’s no reason why Dobson’s poetics should have to be compared with those of Australian and female contemporaries such as Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood, but for some readers this collection might highlight the significant gaps and bridges between these poets’ respective fields of reference and vision. A couple of poems from Dobson’s book Cock Crow, seem to suggest the influences of Wright and Harwood on her poetic style.
For the most part, when Dobson wishes to indicate time she will choose, for example, Rostov and Babylon rather than, say, a bora or cycad as Wright does. In other words, her poetry’s cultural field tends toward urban and human tradition, usually historical and northern. However, along with ‘Country Press’, the poem ‘Ghost Town: New England’ represents a minor body of poems within the first half of Dobson’s oeuvre, which reflect the poet’s immediate world. In ‘Ghost Town’ Dobson squares up to the challenge of writing about Australian locality, specifically a prehistoric landscape:
Up the steep shoulder of the hill The wind goes scattering seeds of light. Here at the edge the mind goes on, The eyes go on, though steps must stop At plunging scarps where dizzily The plumes of haze shroud and unshroud Knife-edge and scree; and down and down Still sight must drop, be cut and grazed, To find at last the dry creek-bed.
Through striking imagery such as ‘seeds of light’ and a dizzying strata of lines to represent the scarp, Dobson’s poem is directly comparable to Wright’s close representations of the same region, most obviously ‘Nigger’s Leap, New England’. The noticeable contrast between their approaches to this task is Dobson’s avoidance of Indigenous presence – a loud silence throughout this entire collection, written and published through the second half of the Australian twentieth century and deeply engaged in other ways with culture and civilization.
What ‘Here and Now’ are to Dobson – even whether they are significant to her poetry’s themes – is unclear until her final poems. Those poems are anticipated by another piece of work from Cock Crow, ‘Interlude at a Primary School’, in which Dobson avoids her more expected mythic register and personae. Reminiscent of Harwood in its balance of whimsy and poignancy, this poem folds contemporary maternal experience, a subjective point of view and a sense of regional locality into its contemplative tenor:
A stone’s throw from the crowded street I stood beneath the bell-tower porch, The lazy dog snored on the mat, One raindrop fell, then we were still: A notice curled upon the wall. I knocked, stepped in, and twenty heads Curved round in twenty question-marks. I might have been a swaggie come For flour and tea and sugar, or A boundary-rider at the door So still it was in that church-hall Where twenty children learnt their books, So simple after rain the air, So far, so far the troubled streets: So much of country in the town.
‘Ghost Town: New England’ and ‘Interlude at a Primary School’ reflect the lyrical loosening of Dobson’s poetic voice, a shift that accelerates in the second half of her career. In Over the Frontier she allows her personality to enter her work more confidently (‘Oracles for a Childhood Journey’, ‘At Carcoar’), and it’s interesting that this movement continues to involve a closer cleaving to local place and time. Humour, too, appears more overtly in this phase of Dobson’s work (‘Autobiography’), and with it a sense of structural fragmentation (‘Essay for a French Class’, ‘New York Spring’).
In The Three Fates and Other Poems these qualities lead to a breaking open of new poetic spaces for Dobson. Her work swings toward the influence of Eastern poetic tradition and a new desire for fresh artlessness, which manifests in epigrammatic stanzas:
Our friend has gone To the northern beaches. He walks by the tide-line. In the shallow water Blue-green crystal, Swim leaf-thin minnows. Messages, leaves As thin as air-mail. They dart and quiver. Up here, he writes, Washed up on beaches The leaves of willows. (‘Daily Living’)
In her last two books, Untold Lives and Poems to Hold on or Let Go, Dobson reaches for a moving level of restraint and particularity. There is the thingness noticed by McCooey, and the balancing of composition with feeling. ‘Poems a Long Way after Basho’ and the suite ‘Poems of a Marriage’ carry the weight of her earlier books, but they step through those complicated frameworks in a quest for immediacy.
Perhaps the gradual construction of poetic identity is not so much ascendant or developmental, as it is a process whereby one’s art bends, breaks and is rebuilt through a lifetime. An artist comes into their art only at the moment it is made. Nevertheless, a reader may be permitted to wish for more of certain moments – such as the bright and breath-light sketches Dobson made after her great canvasses were done.