A Review of Wild Surmise by Dorothy Porter

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Wild Surmise
by Dorothy Porter
October 2002, paperback
ISBN 0-220-26280-8, RRP A$22

“This is the roof, the shield
of a black liquid word,
where you may one day
drop like a warm stone.

A new world
where you might learn
colder lessons
than nothing.”

Alex Leefson is a well known astrobiologist, a woman whose public face has made astronomy popular, and who has become obsessed with finding life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. In addition to her astronomical work, Alex is also obsessed with a fellow astronomer, Phoebe, with whom she is having a dead end but intense affair. Meanwhile, her husband, who she continues to love, is dying of cancer. These are the bones of the work around which the poetry is built. Or perhaps the poetry forms the bones and the narrative is built around that. Dorothy Porter’s latest “novel” is composed in a series of poems, pieces which, in most cases, work perfectly well on their own, but together, add up to a complete narrative work which includes traditional narrative elements such as characterisation, plot, suspense and setting. It is very effective.

The power and beauty of Porter’s poetry takes the reader instantly deeper into the character than a more traditional narrative prose would. It skips the conjunction, the “dialogue” and the external world, and goes straight for the emotional response, revealing the story in the personal pain and longings of the characters inner voices. The poems move forward as rapidly as any narrative fiction would, maybe faster, and centre around Alex and Daniel, her husband, alternatively taking one or the other’s perspective, and sometimes first person. There are other characters as well, from Phoebe, the love interest, also a dramatic and glamorous astronomer who has discovered, along with dark matter, that the universe is moving apart, Alex’s sexless friend and colleague Rachel, who is more a biologist than an astronomer, and Daniel’s boss Brian Howard. These additional characters sit on the outside of the poems, teasing out the bigger issues which underlie the story – love, loss, passion, lust and mediocrity. Daniel’s struggles with his illness, his life’s work which has become meaningless to him, and most of all, with Alex’s infidelity, both metaphorically and literally are an important part of the underlying narrative, as are Alex’s struggles with her desperate passions, her calmer more pedestrian love for Daniel, and her alternative feelings of guilt and desire.

In characteristic Porter style, each of the poems is extremely powerful, using language in its most intense form, each word chosen for maximum impact. It doesn’t take long to read Wild Surmise. Despite the richness of its language and the intensity of every word, the story progresses forward very rapidly, suspense building with each poem. The overall word count is probably a lot lower than a traditional prose novel would be, but the impact is higher, since the language is stripped of anything unnecessary. Each poem is almost an entire pulse or epiphany, a mini chapter, with its painful twist or revelation at the ending, funny, repulsive, but always meaningful:

“Nothing like fresh dogshit
to make the present
punch back.”

The words are immediate, unsentimental, and harsh at times but mostly beautiful, leaving a lingering impression that the reader carries around after the book is finished.

“But you, darling,
were no ice-crusted
teasing me
from a cold night sky.
You were always
ardently present.”

Porter’s fourth verse novel contains everything – love, death, passion, pain, loss and above all, the beauty and limitations of human frailty in a cosmological setting. Her astronomy is accurate and evocative – and Porter does make the reader feel the excitement and possibility of our most likely source of life in the solar system, the pathos of our quest and clumsiness as we destroy a living sea, and the very human need for passion, and peace. In a world where poetry is considered the unsaleable poor cousin of prose, Porter’s books continue to sell, and compete for the big fiction awards. Her previous verse novel, The Monkey’s Mask won the Age Book of the Year for Poetry, the National Book Council Award for Poetry and the Braille Book of the Year and was made into an international film in 2001. Her verse novel What a Piece of Work was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. It isn’t that surprising. Although her poetry has a Plath type of wry inner power which simultaneously tortures and caresses the reader, it is very accessible and immediate. This is not “bush poetry”, nor does it fit into any kind of academic or formal form. Wild Surmise is powerful because it combines the very best of fiction – its ability to create tension and a lasting and powerful narrative world, with the very best of poetry – where the most exacting, carefully chosen words, rhythms and structures allows the reader to bypass the limitations of sentence structure and get immediately under the skin of her characters and the story’s themes.