A review of Dorothy Porter’s Other Worlds

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Other Worlds
by Dorothy Porter
Picador, Aug 2001
RRP $A$25.00
ISBN: 0330362860

Writing about good poetry is like trying to describe wine: the heavy full mouth astringency leaving a warm sweetness after swallowing. Poetry is as sensual as taste, smell, touch. It is elusive, internal, emotional, but also something is released – something new, which stays with you. Something changes. Dorothy Porter’s Other Worlds poems 1997-2001 is very good poetry. The imagery is rich and original, the mood intense. Each poem is relatively short, providing its gem or twist early, and leaving the reader connected with the picture, the feeling, the concept, in such a way that the words themselves become conduits to something else. The book is divided into four sections: Other Worlds, Poet in Medellin, The Northern Territory, and On Request. Aside from On Request, which is devoted to commissioned material, and which is perhaps the weakest part of the book, the poems all deal with a foreign exterior landscape, coupled with an intimate, and very familiar interior world.

The Other Worlds chapter contains big picture material. Comets, UFOs, Disasters, Jupiter’s moon Europa, Death, Faith, and the loss of faith are all touched upon. This is the heart of the book, with poems that are both intensely personal, and yet tap into something big, something universal. For example, there is the desperation for a heavenly voice or life’s meaning in the third poem of Comets: “Pick up, Heaven./Please pick up./It’s me.” The whole of Comets combines beautifully the need for a god, with a painful acceptance of the hopelessness in the desire, combined with that childlike inner voice:

After sunset
above the horizon
near the hunched bright arch
of the Westgate Bridge

you looked looked looked.

But what difference
does the looking
of a finite terrestrial
neutrally-aglow mammal
really make?

Let your own watery
chemistry’s delusions
for a pulsing moment

And believe
your squinting eyes
your warm breath
keep this fuzzy speck
blazing in and out
of the night clouds

While the poems are intense and powerful, they are never ugly. Even when “streaming locks of tube worms”, glowing “like a post-holocaust cockroach”, or “sneezing dead faces”, there is always beauty in the horror. Porter looks into the eye of the most terrible scenes; from disaster, death, hell, cruelty, murder, to the “dark matter” of the soul, or a “mind-bite to be scratched” and finds beauty, and fertility: “the chattering pregnancy/in every misery.” The poems read quickly, but leaves something in the reader, a kind of seed, which stays inside, and blossoms slowly as the poetry takes root: “one last trick/one last leap/of roses.” There is always a surprise, the hit of epiphany, as the poem comes to its meaning, Haiku like, as in Snakes and ladders, one of the more powerful poems in the book: “I climb the ladder/and scratch the snake/swallowing my head”, or everything becomes mysterious, which turns the poet into an extinct animal, not a death or diminution, but rather a launch into mysteriousness: “and you flow welcome/and unwelcome/into the awesome glitter/of their galaxy, their terrifying/arrival.”

The Poet in Medellin chapter obviously relates to the author’s visit to Columbia, and turns the reader into fellow traveller, witnessing the strange South American landscape, its poverty, food, mental patients, and lepers, while also trying to find a bigger meaning to the imagery. There is the fear and lure of poverty, and the unknown, in Gran Hotel, or the poet’s view of her audience in Inaugural Night Poetry Reading Teatro Carlos Vieco: “these uncut students/this hot diesel-scented night/clouding in my head/like a shaman’s narcotic.” The poems again tie together fear, beauty, pain, longing, and death with ghosts, shamans, and the danger lurking in beauty, such as in Calle 54, as the basket of avocados become a “bur in our eyes, too much delicious green”, or the dab of ointment on a leper’s leg, coupled with the longing for regrowth and regeneration.

In The Northern Territory we are back in Australia, but the landscape is still strange, always pointing in one way or another towards death as a kind of mother; a sea, or the broader universe to which we all return. From the underwater worlds of Deadly Sea, which equates the “lulling aqua” of the water to a seductive death, waiting patiently: “It has always known/I was on my way”, the venom of a death adder in Snake story, or the black tar dream in The stars: “Take/the terrifying medicine/and vomit yourself/free.” Porter is the master of death, her writing taking us into our own fears, and longing for god, and a spiritual picture that is intrinsically tied to death.

On Request includes a poem commissioned by the City of Sydney for the arrival of the Olympic Torch, Torch song for Sydney. There are also It’s raining diamonds on Neptune, written for Porter’s cousin on his naming day, Look no hands/one night stand, commissioned for the anthology Dick for a Day, Calling a Spade commissioned for the anthology Storykeepers, and Volcano Vertigo, commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald for Summer Fiction 1988. This last section contains poems that, while still well written and powerful, don’t match up to the intensity and universality of the rest of the work in this book. Torch Song for Sydney has some nice lines, but seems a little remote and strained in its focus on the power of a flame and its role in the history of Australia. It’s raining diamonds on Neptune is an interesting poem, which contrasts the extraordinary activity taking place in the universe with a simple Earthly domestic naming ceremony. Look no hands is sparse, leaving the reader with the insecurity of love and sex versus the smoothness of a one night stand, but without any of the jewels, or stunning lines which Porter’s work is known for. Calling a Spade is evocative; calling to mind the emptiness of faithlessness or a lapse into depression: “Forget the solace of nature./It’s a rustling void/that spills into your heart/the drink you will never forget./Loneliness./Best drunk chilled./With a sprig of grime.” The last two poems which end the book are the short verse story Volcano Vertico, which is too ambiguous and vague, too much of a story to work as a poem, and too much of a poem to work as a story, and the brief hit of Caldera Lullaby, which leaves us with the moving image of impending disaster deliberately chosen: And blessing her lump/of lucky sulphur, and blessing the luck/of hazy head counts.

Porter is one of Australia’s most powerful poets. Despite the few minor digressions, Other Words, poems 1997-2001 is a powerful book, filled with poems that have the power to move deeply. They are visual, grand, rich and intense, leaving the reader hungry and satiated at the same time.