Essay by Peter Goldsworthy
‘Wonder’ is probably Rosemary Dobson’s second most favourite word. As David McCooey points out in his excellent introduction to her Collected Poems, her all-time favourite is probably ‘light’. Her poems are always well lit, often radiantly so, as befits a poet who began her creative life as a visual artist. But wonderment best expresses her poetic approach to the world. Her early poems, especially, are suffused by wonder as much as light. ‘Wonder is music heard in the heart, is voiceless’ she writes in one of those early poems (titled, in fact, ‘Wonder’) as the narrator of the poem stands, momentarily speechless, in front of a work by the Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck. In another poem from the same book, ‘In My End is My Beginning’, it’s the first word in a list of what lies within the poet’s perceptual world:
In this small orb is compassed wonder,
Passion, despair, and state of grace.
And again, from ‘Every Man His Own Sculptor’, as an artist chisels a self-portrait in stone: ‘My blade of Wonder shapes my brows/Into this arch of high surprise.’
Wondering can also be thinking – or pondering, to change a single consonant – but in these early poems it’s a near-spiritual mix of amazement and awe; a kind of rapture. The word is singled out again in her playful ‘The Alphabet’, which carries an epigraph for the poem from Benjamin Franklin: ‘With Twenty Six Soldiers of Lead I Shall Conquer the World’. In Dobson’s riff on this homage to the power of the printed word, the letters of the alphabet are sleeping after a day’s hard soldiering – but one letter is chosen to keep watch overnight. Guess who?
Let him be O who wonder cries
While A to Z lie down and sleep.
Of course a poet can’t live on wonder alone. A monk, perhaps. Or a Basho, the Japanese master of the haiku form, to whom Dobson, like all intensely visual poets, felt a kinship. Haiku are fifty per cent miniatures of wonderment, and fifty per cent voicelessness. Dobson’s ‘voiceless’ Van Dyck poem ends: ‘Wonder is lastly in finding the Pole, with only/amazement flowering in a waste of snow’, a detachable haiku itself, shorn of the fleece of a few syllables. But sooner or later, even for a Basho, those moments of private, spiritual communion – the ‘O’ moments – have to be shared. The sentry has to find voice; the other twenty-five letters in the alphabet must do their share of the heavy lifting. Dobson is always an economical writer, and a powerful imagist. (Imagism was a school of poetry in the early twentieth century that produced a clear, tightly focused poetry, concentrating, in Ezra Pound’s words, on the idea of the image as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’.) But those moments of haiku-like subjectivity are always set in an objective wider context. As well as reliving the pure sensation of wonder, she likes to wonder about the process: what wonder is, what it means. Even in her earliest, and in some ways simplest (or at least most song-like) poems, she will always take a step back and turn things this way and that, thinking about the process of writing even as she writes.
‘The Tiger’ is a sophisticated early statement of this, and it has a wonderful – and clairvoyant – resonance with the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ magnificent poem ‘El Otro Tigre’ (‘The Other Tiger’) written a few years later. Both also stand comparison with the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Panther’ in their intensity, and of course with William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ in their purpose. Borges and Dobson are both hunting tiger with nets of words, and both poets doubt the ability of their own, very mortal hand or eye to ‘frame that fearful symmetrie’.
Borges’ futile search for the ‘real’ tiger as against his literary tiger – ‘a shadowy beast, a tiger of symbols/And scraps picked up at random out of books’ – ends in a typical paradox:
Yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me
In this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest
And I go on pursuing through the hours
Another tiger, the beast not found in verse.
Dobson starts from a similar premise:
The tiger paces up and down
Behind the black bars of the page,
He pads on silent angry feet,
His heart is smouldering with rage.
Captive within the lines of type
He seeks, and yet can never find,
The world where he was free to range:
He is the poet’s furious mind.
Her poem is as much about the poet being trapped by the bars of verse as the animal. In the end, she hands over the task to the reader:
His was the world to roam, who now
Is captive to the black-barred page.
Reader, unlock the lines and face
The splendid danger of his rage!
The early, beautiful poem ‘One Section’ – one of her greatest, in my opinion – has the poet watching a row of doorways from a passing tram, with a wondering, and wandering, eye. Each of the first three stanzas offers a simple, if intensely visual, glimpse of a person in a doorway – living people, if frozen as if in a still-life (or still-haiku) by the poet’s verbal snapshot. A child with cat is framed in the first stanza, a girl with romance on her mind in the second, a woman in slippers in the third, waiting anxiously for someone or something. And in the final doorway, in the fourth stanza? In a blink, we realise the three doorways were the same doorway, passed in time, not space, and the child became the girl, who became the woman:
Will you believe what I saw in the late afternoon from the tramway,
Going up William Street from the Past to the Future?
Who can deny it was Death in the final doorway?
Shut, shut, with the wind blowing outside from inside,
The bulb removed from the socket under the lampshade,
And the Vacancy notice swinging loose in the window.
Kapow! In fifteen lines she has written a poem with the density – and same dark terminus – of the American writer John Cheever’s justly celebrated short story ‘The Swimmer’.
This poem is also the first time she dips her toe into what will become a later, major preoccupation, when the wonder years of the younger poet are slowly weighed down by darker, more complex themes. Dobson will never stop wondering at the world, but wonder will become increasingly coloured by grief – as friends die, illnesses accumulate.
There is a clear-cut marker between these two Dobsons. The tone and diction of the early poems is often gentler, more painterly, more – watercolourish, perhaps. Which is not to diminish them at all. It is a deliberately humble poetry; she eschews look-at-me special effects. Her tone is even, her temperament calm – even allowing for the wonderment. And the light.
Her tone and her style underwent a radical change in the late sixties, somewhere between the publication of Cock Crow in 1965 and Over the Frontier in 1978. That was a long time between drinks for readers of her work, although individual poems had been appearing from time to time, including some new poems in her Selected Poems of 1973. That was the first book of hers I read, and it bowled me over. It also probably skewed my view of her earlier work when I came to read it for the first time later. Borges might like this paradox: I first read the poetry of Dobson’s middle-age when I was young; I first read the poetry of her youth when I was middle-aged. Perhaps this is a standard temporal relationship of younger to older poets. One thing is certain: we were clearly reading the same poets at the same time in the late sixties and early seventies, especially those that appeared monthly in the marvellous Penguin Modern European Poets series.
Under the influence of austere East European ironists like Zbigniew Herbert and Vasko Popa, Dobson moves away from the musical and metrical poems that gave her renown, to a more philosophically dense, ironic style. This struggle is still being fought in the collection Over the Frontier, where poems like ‘One Life’ and ‘Drowned Person’ seem overwhelmed by Herbert, while in others her innate poetic self fights back using a music Herbert never possessed. The subtitle of the poem ‘Over the Frontier’ (‘Reverie on a poem by Zbigniew Herbert’) acknowledges this influence. The poem in question is clearly Herbert’s ‘Study of the Object’, a rigorous examination of the quiddity (the essence) of things – of how we experience things, understand them, try to describe them in words – and of the tension between the thing and its Platonic essence. (The Greek philosopher Plato postulated a series of essences, or ideal forms, which were eternal, fixed, and perfect; for example, an ideal circle, to which any circle in the natural world could only be an approximation. This also applied to such abstract Platonic essences as love, goodness, and beauty.)
Of course, these preoccupations were also Dobson’s long before she read Herbert (the epistemology on display in ‘The Tiger’, for instance), but naturally she is drawn to his powerful poetic voice. ‘The most beautiful is the object/which does not exist’, Herbert writes; ‘neither/blindness/nor /death/can take away the object/that does not exist’. Dobson is not so pessimistic; her fresh sense of wonder at almost any particular object gets in the way of philosophical generalities. Her poem begins at the frontier between things that exist and things that don’t (or that exist as some imagined Platonic form), but by the final stanza the two are indivisible. The world of the tangible, and above all the visible, is where she hoists her epistemological (relating to the basis of knowledge) flag.
The fusion of old, more lyrical influences, and new tough-minded ones, becomes complete in the numerous elegiac poems that add a more sombre note to much of her later work. There are countless treasures among these later poems, but one stand-out is ‘The Continuance of Poetry’, a sequence in memory of her friend, the poet David Campbell. Here the shadows of grief are still dappled with her characteristic light. And Herbert’s pessimistic astringencies are tempered with the simple imagery of a Li Po, the Chinese poet whose style the poems both allude to and emulate. One of the most beautiful pieces – ‘At The Coast’ – might have been written by Li Po (or by Basho) himself. After a series of lovely images of girls emerging from trees at the edge of water, the poem finishes:
And which are girls and which are smooth-limbed saplings?
The light is trembling on them from the water.
They glow and flicker in and out of shadow
Like poetry behind the print on the page.
Like girls, like the Tiger, like the brief candles of our lives. And like the world we try to apprehend. Once again we are at the frontier between the phenomenon and its perception, struggling with those difficult questions that have plagued Dobson since her first scribblings. How do we know what we know? And after we get past that: how do we write about what wethink we know?
These later poems might have darker themes, but Dobson’s lightness of touch is still everywhere. As is her economy, and her distrust of rhetorical flourishes. One of her last (and best) books, Untold Lives & Later Poems, explores with restrained compassion – and occasional acerbity – the lives of what loosely might be described as the supporting cast of the world. Many of these are women, those who ‘live faithfully a hidden life’, but are also ‘those on whom the growing good of the world depends’ in the famous closing passages of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The archetype of these might be ‘Chekhov’s Sister’, a look at the dramatist’s long-suffering sister, who dedicated her life to his at some personal cost. Among these poems about others, we find, interestingly, ‘Autobiographical’, a hitherto untold fragment from her own life, in which the poet, aged seven, is reading her first poem aloud as her mother pegs out clothes on the line.
The rhymes went ‘click’ as rhymes, I knew, should go.
Click like the pegs as Mother pegged the clothes.
Her mother praises the poem, and the budding poet is left:
Proud and pleased,/Pink-faced, puffed-up, I thought of poetry
Blowing, bright, coloured, all about the world.
The very last poems in the book Untold Lives & Later Poems will always blow about the world. ‘Poems of a Marriage’ is a triptych of poems written as an elegy for Dobson’s husband, Alec Bolton. All of her great strengths are concentrated here, held in a restraint that only adds to their power. The last of the three poems struggles with ways to describe her late husband’s goodness, and could be read as another echo of those famous closing lines of Middlemarch. The telling of that goodness remains largely untold, or perhaps half told, but is even more moving because of it.
Dobson, R. Cock Crow. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965.
—. Selected Poems. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1973.
—. Over the Frontier. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1978.
—. Untold Lives & Later Poems. Rose Bay: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000.
—. Collected. St Lucia: UQP, 2012.
Herbert, Z. The Collected Poems: 1956–1998. HarperCollins, 2008.
© Copyright Peter Goldsworthy 2014