‘The Bee Hut’ by Dorothy Porter

2009, 139 p.

I wasn’t going to write this post. I was going to write about my own experience of poetry as a reader, the frustrations of reading a collection of poetry in an online environment etc. etc. But I’ve just been crying as I turn the page on the last poem in The Bee Hut, the collection of Dorothy Porter’s poetry that was completed just before she died in December 2008.  I feel so very sad at the thought that this is, literally, the last poem. I’ve been thinking, too, of my friend Dot Mac (everyone knew her that way)- another Dot, my Dot-  who also died of breast cancer a few years ago, at much the same age.  I still can’t quite believe that my life goes on, day after day, and yet she is not here.

While I was reading this book, I found myself wondering about the interweaving of the poet’s life and her poetry. It seemed to me that the whole book was pervaded by a clearness of vision- a close, intense, way of looking- that had been sharpened by her cancer and confrontation with death. In the final poems there is a closing around and a drawing inwards that I think even someone unaware of Dorothy Porter’s own biography would detect.

The book itself is divided into sections, almost like the acts of a play. In this way, it has its own narrative thread, as a collection.  There are travel poems- dust-laden poems about Egypt, cold green poems about London; there are theatrical poems written as lyrics for stage performance.  There’s a section of poems about illness, reflecting the first bout of cancer years earlier, then there are the final, quiet poems at the end. There’s a sense of movement through the poems as a whole, rather than just one self-contained poem after another.

I read this book as part of an online book group that I’m in that focuses on Australian literature-http://groups.yahoo.com/group/AustralianLiterature if you’re interested in joining us. We read and discuss (rather desultorily I must admit) one book a month. This was the first poetry book we have read, and I found it hard to actually comment on it during the process of reading, beyond saying “I liked this bit….” and quoting particular phrases and stanzas.  But there’s an artificiality about reading a book over a month like this, and I don’t think it serves poetry well.   I think that poetry has to be purchased, rather than borrowed; I think that you need to have it at hand for dipping into, rather than reading straight from cover to cover.  I think it needs to be read out loud, rather than read through. It stands on its own two feet: anything that I could add is superfluous.

I really didn’t think that I’d be in tears at the end of it.  The opening poem has been well chosen: the first words you encounter are:

The most powerful presence/is absence.

And what a powerful presence this is.

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One response to “‘The Bee Hut’ by Dorothy Porter

  1. Lovely review Janine. I like the way you talk about the movement through the book. You should have said THAT in our discussion! It’s not too late? (Or have you – you hadn’t yesterday I think). I too had a friend die of cancer – last year – she was 57 and we four left (we were a group who’ve been dining together every couple of months since the late 80s) are finding it difficult. Her regular chair at our respective places – what do we do with it?

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