Libby Hart reviews Dorothy Porter

1 December 2009

The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter
Black Inc., 2009

The Bee Hut is Dorothy Porter's posthumous volume of poetry and her seventh collection to date, although her agent has indicated there are more books to come. Most poems assembled here were written in the last five years of her life and the final poem, ‘View from 417' was written only two weeks before her death from complications associated with breast cancer. In many ways The Bee Hut is a celebration of vitality and inquisitiveness. It brings us a lucid and intimate portrait of a life well lived.

The Bee Hut comprises eight concise parts. These highly sensitive and astute segments build a momentum that is not unlike a musical score. The first poem of the book, ‘Egypt,' heralds what is at the crux of The Bee Hut by declaring, ‘You are singing dying songs / that hurt, but make you'. These ‘songs' both real and metaphorical are full of spirit, even though death or the looming threat of death makes its presence known throughout the book.

The first part, ‘Head of Astarte' combines poems on the Mediterranean and Middle East that are full of ancient cities and towns, mythological figures, and a response to the British Museum's exhibition dedicated to Cleopatra. Travel is also explored through religious symbolism in the poems ‘Wine' and ‘Walking on Water,' while ‘On Reading E.M. Forster's Guide to Alexandria' the poet becomes armchair traveller. Porter returns to some of these themes throughout the collection.

Part two, ‘The Enchanted Ass,' is concerned with the act of writing and writers, myths and mythmaking, as well as curses and terrors. There are the Queen of Fairies and other mischief-makers that hint at mortality, such as the good folk of ‘The Silver Bracelet':

We pushed through an old gate
into a meadow
dancing with green light.
And found
the stone circle…

On the ferry back to Holyhead
my bare wrist pinged
where my silver bracelet used to be.

Was it just something superstitious
young Yeats said
that made me believe
the fairies had taken
the silver bracelet
instead of me?

Porter writes of living, of being fully alive in the moment. As Andrea Goldsmith explains in her foreword, Dorothy Porter was ‘always captivated by the wonder of existence', but in her last years she ‘learned to live each moment as it occurred, to linger and dwell'.

‘Poems: January – August 2004' is dedicated to Goldsmith and contains eight pieces written while Porter was undergoing cancer treatment. These poems cover illness and being a patient, the threat of death and its encroaching darkness, burial, and encountering the ‘invisible' mysteries of life when staying on a friend's farm. Such meditation lends us the collection's title and centres on the poet's fascination with an old hut that had become a home to a colony of bees. From here the reader begins to see a pattern emerging, one where Porter becomes ‘aware of a new depth' to her life. The next part, ‘Smelling Tigers,' begins such a phase with ‘The Snow Line':

…this
glimmering
young man
who was talking to me
about death
how
a good dose of death
if you truly drink it
is a gift

a gift
a fresh cold
slap
a fresh dark
creek
you'll never sleep-walk
through your life
again

‘Smelling Tigers' is, at times, raw and full with the fragility of life – as well as love. Porter also manages to throw in some of the humour she is best known for, when she writes of her regret for not reading Rimbaud when she was younger. What follows are sections dedicated to Jerusalem, Africa and the series written for performance, ‘The Freak Songs'.

Jerusalem covers Old and New Testament subjects, as well as other religious entities and rituals. Porter takes us back in time to a rich and bustling life of danger and menace alive with Israelite sadness and untested retribution, of sacrifice and loss on several levels. But there are also poems of private myth and memories that weave themselves into this ancient place, ‘where the soldiers teased / mysterious Jesus'. Porter then turns to Africa and we encounter the wild and brutal through depictions of vultures and crocodiles, but the poet's attraction to Africa is clear after reading ‘The Fish Eagle,' a poem about David Livingstone:

the blessed mouth
                     that mauled his arm
and killed
                      his fear of death…

                   without a dreg of fear
he felt nothing but
                             restless gratitude

And this ‘restless gratitude' is busy inside The Bee Hut; it buzzes over pages just like the bees Porter was so taken with. But if this collection is a musical score of one kind or another then ‘The Freak Songs' is surely the interval. We take a break from reality and enter a surreal and humorous world where its subjects are a male (and pregnant) seahorse, a winged human, fruits of original sin, cat woman, a veiled lady, imagination itself and the bluebird of death. This series is made up of seven songs written for performance to be accompanied by the music of Jonathan Mills.

‘Lucky,' the final part of this collection, is ultimately about the journey someone takes through life and the bonds that are made during such transience including partners, family members, and celebratory moments such as weddings or more precisely that ‘magical space / that love creates'. This selection of six pieces is arranged so that it feels as if Porter is saying goodbye slowly and with great grace. It therefore seems fitting that this section includes the last aria from the chamber opera, ‘The Eternity Man,' another collaborative work between the poet and Jonathan Mills.

This aria is placed second last in the collection and continues with the theme of farewell. It is a blustery leave-taking that is of biblical proportions, quite unlike Porter's own quiet farewell of ‘View from 417,' written on 26 November 2008 in Melbourne's Mercy Hospital. Newly admitted she finds a hint of dusky sky from her hospital room window that seems convivial and enigmatic. The room is hushed by the poet's contemplative mood, even though she is clearly taken by the flamboyant art deco design of the room. Again, Porter's humour shines through:

Something in me
despite everything
can't believe my luck

I could hear Dorothy Porter in every line of this collection as if she were reading this book aloud to me over my shoulder. I think this is the true success of a volume of poetry, to hear the authentic voice of the poet loud and clear. The Bee Hut is a fine testament to a unique voice of Australian poetry.

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About Libby Hart


Libby Hart is the author of Fresh News from the Arctic, This Floating World and Wild. Fresh News from the Arctic won the Anne Elder Award and was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize. This Floating World was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and The Age Book of the Year Awards, and longlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. This Floating World was also devised for stage and received the Shelton Lea Award. Wild was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and it was named one of the Books of the Year for the Australian Book Review, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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