National Poetry Week’s second serving from Culture Mulcher is by the iconic Dorothy Hewett. Communist, feminist, rabblerouser, nonconformist, writer: novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet.

Earlier this year I was reading the new Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett (edited by her daughter Kate Lilley, 2011) to prepare for making an etching of her. (Above is a pencil study I didn’t use.) One poem that hooked me and is strange enough to keep me hooked — I remain in doubt quite what and how many things she is on about — is ‘I’ve Made My Bed, I’ll Lie On It’ from 1975’s Rapunzel in Suburbia: it’s full of vivid, gothickish imagery that makes me think of John Tenniel’s illustrations for the Alice books at their most macabre; their innate perversity made audible. Or a mad mix of Balthus and Paula Rego.

The collection was full of confessionals, as hinted by the title — Hewett was very proud of her long hair. Also from this set, John Tranter’s (see previous post) favourite poem by Hewett, ‘This Version of Love’ celebrates that, and other, assets of the poet:

I have seen her, wonderful!
A waterfall of hair, body like glass,
Wading through the goldfish pools in winter,
Her white shark-skin dress dark-wet above her thighs,
The very shape and effigy of love . . .

Tranter: It “shows her vigorous self-dramatising persona at its most cinematic.” I figure ‘I’ve Made My Bed…’ is even more self-dramatising, and mythologising. Kate Lilley writes, in her introduction to the Selected Poems, of the kind of poem Dorothy Hewett “would make her own: an elegiac, almost-sonnet, brooding on desire, death and memory — powerfully melismatic and suffused with anticipated nostalgia.’ Which fits this poem pretty well:


I’  V E   MA D E   M Y   B E D,  I’ L L   L I E   O N   I T

by Dorothy Hewett

With legs apart I lie on mother’s bed,
disturbing dust that shrouds the mighty dead.
You stake me out; as I begin to moan
her hairbrush beat us like a metronome.
She snicks her death’s head over us with pins,
we fall apart, the bed’s small hell begins.
An epitaph to end the fearful ride,
my heart, recalcitrant, leaps from my side:
seizing a chance I plagiarize a line,
“With thee contending I forget all time;”
staking a bid for permanence I weep,
you give me up, roll over, fall asleep.

My tongue’s a broken clapper in a bell,
with book and candle I roll down to Hell,
and circling back upon my mother’s bed,
gift-wrapped receive the Kingdom of the Dead.

+ + +

I find that fully magnetic and enigmatic. And cinematic too. The hairbrush beating down, metronymically; the “death’s head” snicking?; “fearful ride” — mmm; “staking a bid for permancence” by weeping?; her tongue, a broken clapper in a bell — nevertheless, nevertheless, she doth still write well.
Tomorrow: something contemporary.

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