J. S. Harry: New and Selected Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2021, 306pp.

One of the really distinctive voices among those poets whose careers begin in the 1970s belongs to J.S. Harry. She shows no particular allegiances among the groups, anthologies and received influences (usually American) of that period, doing her own thing in her own way. This new, posthumous collection forms a kind of companion piece to Giramondo’s earlier Not Finding Wittgenstein – a gathering of her Peter Henry Lepus poems – and together the two provide an ideal introduction to an unusual and fascinating voice. In addition, this New and Selected has a valuable introduction by Nicolette Stasko which, although it provides little in the way of standard biographical information (dates, occupations, travels, correspondence, etc), does give a strong sense of what the author was actually like as a person (something lacking in the most scholarly of recent literary biographies, built out of months spent in a library among the subject’s papers).

She is a very hard poet to describe adequately even though fifty years have passed since the publication of her first book, The Deer Under the Skin in 1971 – the fifth book in the Paperback Poets series of the University of Queensland Press. I’ve been reading her work since that time and find myself coming up with shifting notions of what is at the core of her poetry. After looking at this Selected, I’m inclined to see its central tension as a drive towards lyrical forms tempered by a distrust of many of the features of that form. This distrust is something shared by the poets of her time, some fearful of the dominance of a homogenised “lyrical ego” (rather a straw man since good lyric poetry is likely to present the self as something even more complex than theoreticians of the unstable created self are apt to imagine), others preferring to attempt to adopt the models derived from such contemporary approaches as “field theory”. Most, perhaps all, seem to be fearful of a kind of lyric smugness, or even the lyric kitschiness of the worst of the Georgians. In Harry, dealing with this distrust takes many forms. Sometimes it is countered in the structure of the poems themselves while at other times it produces a whole series of balancing poems devoted to issues of language, logic, poetry and meaning: Wittgenstein, Russell and Ayer tend to make appearances here.

The very first poem of The Deer Under the Skin, “The What O’Clock”, looks like an attempt to write a contemporary conventional lyric poem:

A puff-ball
on a slim green stem
is more attached
to earth than I.

The wind will tear
its seeds away -
perhaps they’ll root - 
Words root. My words? Mine?
. . . . . 

If first poems in first books often establish a sort of keynote, I think this does exactly the opposite: it lays down an extreme beyond which the rest of the poet’s work will never go, in fact may even fight against. I think – although I haven’t checked exhaustively – it is the only poem in her entire corpus that uses the first person pronoun as expressive of a conventionally simplified personal voice. In dealing with dandelion seeds it also risks being twee: as I’ll show later there is a recurring element of what has to be called “tweeness” in Harry’s response to the world (ducklings, the soft noses of animals, mossy hollows, compound adjectives, etc) and one of the tensions in her poetry is how to allow this in as a genuine personal response to the world while at the same time exercising a poet’s toughness. Interestingly “The What O’Clock” is revisited in a later poem, “Whistling the Fluff” from the 1995 volume, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath. By that time the nature of Harry’s interest in levels and in the balance between creation and destruction had become a little clearer. This poem is interested in three elements: the breeze, the seed and the fluff which enables the seed to find a home before itself being destroyed. The seeds themselves can be carriers of new life if they are lucky to fall into mud (or, as in another poem, into a “clump of horseshit”) but they can also fail and end up as food for the local birds, “taken out” as a memorable phrase says, “by some / gutblocked Duck of Chance”. The structure of the poem is to abandon any simple celebration of “a whole new / green generation” of “gold-flowered / weed dandelions” and switch to focussing on the fluff which carries the seed and which, unlike the seed, is able to exist, if only briefly, in the air.

The tensions between the drive towards lyric and a more analytical poetry of forensic examination especially of language but also of poetry itself, is often expressed in the structuring of the poems within her books. In The Deer Under the Skin, that opening poem, “The What O’Clock”, is followed by “How Old Pity Left the Poem” which imagines the poet killing pity (one of the expressions of tweeness) by extreme GBH:

So then I smashed him up
bashed his face and bled him
he slid down the wall
The blood brightened
his greasy clothing . . .

It finishes with the identification of victim with abuser: pity is, of course, the poet herself: “I am the bugger he said / I am yourself”. This is followed by a three-line poem, “Guinea Pigs” – “on bad days / it is sweet to watch them / nibbling their lives like grass” – again lyrical but dangerously close to the cute. The fourth poem is the important “The Little Grenade” which is exactly about the tensions between lyricism and its opposite, though here the opposite is not a poetry investigating the philosophy of words and meaning, but a poetry of explosive action. It doesn’t, however, necessarily consider “explosive action” to be simply a politically incendiary result (the dream of many poet-activists of the sixties and seventies). It’s a bit more complex than that:

The little grenade
wanted poems that explodexplored
or pushed candles
inside the pumpkin people
to make flames sputter and drip
where their darkness bulged. . .

And the friend of the little grenade is on the side of a sensitive response though this isn’t described in terms that are entirely approving:

The he that was a friend of the little grenade
liked poems that sat fatly in the middle of stillness waving their feelers
The poems that he wrote were lumpy mattresses
stuffed with kapok. Or flock . . .

Although it is a poem of oppositions, the conclusion suggests a kind of compromise: “there will be room for explodexplore and stillness / in one of the corners”. It’s also intriguing that in tone and conception, this poem is designed to be read in Hans Christian Andersen mode – the ultimate in twee. Conceiving the central characters as “a little grenade” who has a friend described as “the he that was a friend of the little grenade” is not so far away from the world of ugly ducklings and little mermaids. Again, as with the decision to open her first book with “The What O’Clock”, I think it is a matter of deliberately raising an issue that the poet finds causes tension rather than suppressing it.

Evidence for this as a carefully evolved strategy is present in the way the next two books repeat the structure. Hold For a Little While and Turn Gently begins with its title poem, an overt discussion of kinds of poetry, perhaps expressly the “explodexplore type”

. . . . . 
He conceived of a style that could
                 rise up	off its page
and stop us cold as the steelpoint
sunk in, upto its hilt,
                  yet making fire
in the belly . . .

The poem further separates itself from lyrical assertion by using a technique Harry adopts in other poems: that of allowing the voice to be a parody of a bemused bureaucrat:

. . . . . 
What he did say was
that the Cora Indians	do not find it meaningful
            to distinguish
between the words of a man and his deeds	between
the sounds of a “mind”	and the moves of a body.
When we had proved, to our satisfaction,
that he was not	a Cora Indian, (and that there was,
            for him, some slight nuance
between the sound of the idea-knife in his
   “mind”	and the feel of a blade in his body)
                          he was quite dead . . .

At any rate, “Hold For a Little While, and Turn Gently” is followed by a poem in full lyrical mode, rabbits and all:

Already Someway Off

and peaceful
in the distance far
from the small fires
the smells
of the raw
meats cooking,
there is a clearing:

a rabbit
the stubble
on his cheek;
the sun
moves out
through a rift
and suddenly
it is evening

As with so many of Harry’s lyrics, this contains its own “anti-lyric” elements. A peaceful scene contains rabbits but also the smell of cooking (something rabbits, and other innocent animals, might well be subject to). Death and violence are always present in such apparently arcadian scenes in Harry’s poetry.

Not to over-emphasise this point, the same structural set-up occurs in her next book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh. The first poem is the first part of a diptych the second part of which turns up half-way through the book. “Parts of Speech as Parts of a Country” immediately follows an epigraph by Russell pointing out that the meaning of words is “distilled” from their use rather than the other way round. Both parts of the poem, “I as Desert” and “He/ He Tried” narrate the same surreal story in which someone escaping the accusation of consenting to conventions by breaking through a wall (“its alive / crustations of habit”) finds themselves beheaded by a single axe-stroke on the other side. Not a straightforward poem but it is followed by one of Harry’s best, straight-lyric pieces, “Temple-Viewing”,

mute as lovers
a pair of spotted turtle doves
enter the green silence

walking on round
brown wooden stones
sunk between
white pebbles

it is the japanese garden
to a japanese temple
the dwarf bamboos
sway in the wind
              to the soft
      of the windbells

& the doves
who are visitors
from india

nod & bow
at the ground as if
they were in accord

with both the customs
of the place
& matters invisible

It’s a wonderful poem in its own way even though, just as Harry probably didn’t want this to be the only kind of poem she is remembered by, so a reader wouldn’t want his or her entire poetic literature to be written in this mode. But, as in all good lyrics, the reader is invited (or expected) to contribute to the poem, fulfilling the wish of the poet quoted on the blurb of The Deer Under the Skin that “there should be room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to work in”. In the case of “Temple-Viewing” there are allegorical issues to be recognised: these doves are from India which is where Buddhism originated before spreading east in its Mahayana form. There are also contextual elements in the form of markers of those situations that, from the rest of her work, we can see that Harry is especially sensitive to: here it is the wind which sways the bamboos and activates the windchimes. In a sense it is the same wind as the one which disperses the seeds of the puffball in that first poem. It also brings sound into what seems to be an entirely visual representation and this is a technique used in the fourth poem of A Dandelion for Van Gogh (the alternating structure is continued) where a visual portrait of the goings on at a lakeside is finished with sound: “A crowcoloured dog / gallops over the hill / while the voice of his colour / caws above him”.

The idea of contextual elements in the form of distinctive responses by a particular poet leads me to look at some of Harry’s very distinctive, and endlessly repeated interests. These are not to be dignified by being called themes but they are, instead, I think, characteristic patterns of thought and, as such, take us closer to one area of Harry’s creativity. In fact one of the reasons for Harry’s remaining such an interesting poetic voice for a reader may well lie in the fact that we can see the shape of her mind a bit more clearly than we can for most other poets. Perhaps the most dominant element in her mental setup is a sensitivity to vertically organised layers, something forshadowed in “The What O’Clock”. Sometimes these layers are allegorised out into a simple binary of upper=life versus lower=death. But sometimes there is evidence of fertility-in-corruption in the dark underworld where, for example, in “Wind Painting”,

. . . . . 
there is one fat gold
dandelion for van gogh
tethered by its own sap
in the black damp shade
by a clump of horseshit

Here, as often, any tendency of lyric to move towards the cute is countered by a healthy linguistic vulgarity of image and word.

In the layering of these poems there is also the issue of death and destruction, something closer to a theme than the cast of a poet’s thought. “Navigating Around Things” from The Life on Water and the Life Beneath, begins as a typically Harry-ish lyric description of a scene, unusual only in that it is immediately declared to be “windless”. We meet cardboard cartons that seem to be imitating birds before meeting actual galahs themselves – “eyes only / on what is relevant to galahs”. The next to appear are galloping horses, typically, for Harry, producing “in the ovens of their bodies” steam from one end and dung from the other so that an object moving horizontally generates material that moves upwards and material that moves downwards. The horses are photographed by a man, fittingly described as a “downwardly mobile young professional” on

. . . . .
  an “indefinite
unpaid vacation” – from a job

with a broking office; not at all
suspicious he’s been

“floated”, on the air current,
outside a high-up window,
like a Kleenex with snot on it . . .

Eventually the poem turns to the life beneath the water which is comprised mainly of eels who have developed the unpleasant skill of sucking newborn ducklings down:

. . . . .
the large eels suck like centripetal force
that drags the water
out of the bathtub
                      & suddenly
in the dying dark
alone down an eel
goes a trusting fluffball . . .

This interest in layers and the various ways in which they can be allegorised is everpresent in Harry’s overtly lyrical pieces but it is present also in the non-lyrical ones. The title poem of The Life on Water and the Life Beneath is an extended narrative of a man taking a boat out into the waters over a town which has, Adaminaby-like, been flooded. We find, at the end, that it’s a suicide poem. The man has lived with the genetic scar of having had an axe-murderer for an uncle: the genetic heritage being conceived as something lying beneath the surface of an individual. The whole lengthy sequence is interwoven with references to Debussy’s tenth prelude, “The Sunken Cathedral”. And in the previous book, A Dandelion for Van Gogh, there are two poems which rework layers in a parody of bureaucratic incompetence. “This Explains” is a solemn denotative analysis – entirely misguided – of the difference between a chimney and a ferry presented as a kind of report:

. . . . .
You say	this explanation	does not fit	your problem’s appetite . . .
If only	you had told us sooner -
instead of hazing us	with that query, about
chimneys, ferries, & cargoes – what you needed to know
we could have projected
an entirely different	set of developments, specifically
designed to locate
                  “ideally suitable stocks”
of consenting human heads . . .

But the material of this faux proposal is based around issues familiar in Harry’s poetry: the interest in the horizontal motion of the ferry as opposed to the vertical motion of the smoke. The fact that the chimney stays still while the smoke passes vertically through it, reminds a reader of the comment in another poem, “it is strange to speak / of the hill as ‘rising’ / when the hill / stays exactly / as it always has”. “This Explains” is also a poem that tempts interpretation. I have always, for no real reason that I can justify, associated it with the Holocaust even though those victims were moved by rail rather than by ferry. But someone must have put in tenders in the correct impersonal prose, to actually build the extermination camps. On the other hand, it might be more humorous poem that it seems, something like the Monty Python sketch in which the architect presents the design of his housing block replete with rotating knives.

“The Gulf of Bothnia” also uses a deliberately non-lyric voice to deal with the levels peculiar to that upper branch of the Baltic Sea where water of the northern part is virtually fresh (from the large number of rivers feeding it) and that of the southern part is salt. At the same time the land is rising out of the sea with what, in geological terms, is considerable speed. This is a poem where the levels are not of earth to sky or of the above-water to the underwater world but rather of levels within the water itself. The anti-lyrical element is present in both the images used and the tone of the narrator’s voice:

. . . . .
boat houses sit in cow paddocks
falling green on their knees into grass
waiting for the sea to come back
& the boats to visit -
much as grandfather & grandmother
might’ve waited	for “life” to come back
to visit them 
on the old-age farm – had they lived
by the gulf of bothnia near the top . . .

Two poems from the “New Poems” section of an earlier Selected poems, “Brindabella a Shot for the Seventies” and “Mousepoem” are good examples of where this lyric vs anti-lyric opposition has developed later in Harry’s career. The former is a description of a complex scene that, for all the fact that it seems superficially like Harry’s other lyric descriptions (“Sleepers in a Park, Centennial . . .”, for example, or “Walking, When the Lake of the Air is Blue with Spring”) is drenched in blood and death. A trout is being gutted and inside it is a beetle which had fallen into the water and been swallowed; nearby is a fox which has been shot (the poem’s title puns on the two meanings of “shot”) while it was on its way to kill the young of a wood duck. But the processes of life go on: flies breed on the dead body and parrots feast in the trees:

. . . . . 
he hangs now in the poplar
ropestrung by that brush

flies make their reproductions 
where he swings red in the sun

red & green
king parrots gorging
on green apples

high	four thousand feet up

“Mousepoem” is an example of structure by misdirection. The context is one of erotic disappointment – “Her lover departed / to the warm purry / bed of his wife” – which has resulted in a poem. This poem is described as so slight that “if a mouse breathed on it, / it would collapse”. This common syntactic ambiguity (the poem would collapse, not the mouse) enables “Mousepoem” to move into the mouse world:

. . . . .
        the mouse which is made
of tough, mouse material, whiskers, ears,
small, quick, risk-assessing eyes
. . . . .
Who would wish for blind, hairless
mouse-children, but a mousy mother?
Does a mouse wish
or are children merely what happens to it
wishless but wanting?

and so on for the bulk of the poem until it returns to the character’s poem of loss in the final three lines. In other words, the excursion into the slightly twee world of the mouse is structured as a distraction from the mental anguish which is the real subject of the poem. This represents, I think, a later poem’s view of the temptations of cuteness which Harry fears.

Before I finish this brief report from the strange poetic world of J.S. Harry, I need to say something briefly about the Peter Henry Lepus poems because, although they are collected in Not Finding Wittgenstein and generally omitted from the chosen poems in book under review, this does have a section of new Peter Henry Lepus poems as its final section. These poems were a major development for Harry although they were, to me at least, puzzling when the first appeared. An imaginary rabbit, straight out of the world of Beatrix Potter is allowed to wander through texts, free in time and space, and meet up with those philosophers whose true subject is language and meaning. In having a “famous fat little British rabbit” as its protagonist, it brings into the world of analysis of meaning and the nature of words exactly that element of cuteness that marks popular culture of the late-Victorian/Edwardian ethos and still has attractions today. It is, I think, Harry’s way of dealing with this element in her approach to the world which is, in earlier work, dealt with by alternating the lyric with the forensic/surreal and it suited her well and produced a kind of poem that works for both poet and reader. In allowing a cute rabbit to wander among complex texts these poems symbolise the tension between tendencies in the lyric and explorations of meaning that I’ve been focussing on here. As poems they are, in keeping with Harry’s later work, rather bleak. They are set in the Iraq of the gulf wars among a cast not of philosophers but of journalists and scholars. Peter himself is engaged in a double comical quest: he is “researching” a book on the pre-socratic philosophers and, at the same time, trying to get into Iran because a friend of his, a huntsman spider named Clifta, has read Omar Khayam’s line about Jamshed and Bahram the great hunter and thinks that Bahram must be an ancestor of hers. The complex set-up of the Peter Henry Lepus poems ensures that these new (and final) ones cleverly balance the cute with the bleak.