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Lip Verse: Gwen Harwood

This month we revisit the work of Gwen Harwood (1920–1995), a great Australian poet who wrote many astounding pieces, a number of them feminist, which continue to resonate today. Harwood’s poetry criticized idealised concepts of motherhood and exposed the frustration and isolation faced by women, especially young women with children. She wrote under a variety of pseudonyms and is famous for a sonnet published in the Bulletin under the name Walter Lehmann in 1961 with the acrostic ‘Fuck AlL eDiToRs’. She made national headlines when she was discovered to be the true author—‘Tas Housewife in Hoax of the Year’. She wrote under pseudonyms because she believed that male poets were more likely to be accepted for publication and that editors and the public did not take ‘lady poets’ seriously. So, to honour the memory of this incredibly spunky lady poet, this column will highlight excerpts from a few of her feminist pieces, as featured in Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems (2009).

Interestingly, In the Park was one of the poems Harwood originally published under the pseudonym Walter Lehmann. It describes a scene wherein a woman encounters a man that she once loved while she is sitting in the park with her young children, who are whining and bickering:

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ‘It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive,’
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, ‘They have eaten me alive’.

Burning Sappho, on the other hand, was published under the name Miriam Stone, Harwood’s only female pseudonym:

The clothes are washed, the house is clean.
I find my pen and start to write.
Something like hatred forks between
my child and me. She kicks her good
new well-selected toys with spite
around the room, and whines for food.
Inside my smile a monster grins
and sticks her image through with pins.

What strikes me about these poems, published in the 1960s, is that they bravely voice the hardships of motherhood, at a time when the traditional role of women in the home involved more than 50 hours of housework. There is a tremendous sense of sacrifice and sisterhood in Harwood’s work, as can be felt in the poem An Impromptu for Ann Jennings:

think of it, woman: each of us gave birth to
    four children, our new lords whose beautiful
tyrannic kingdom might restore the earth to
    that fullness we thought lost beyond recall

and also in Mother Who Gave Me Life:

I think of women bearing
women. Forgive me the wisdom
I would not learn from you.

In the 1980s, the image of women was changing dramatically, as career women began strutting their stuff in high heels and colourful suits. Harwood’s 1981 poem The Lion’s Bride reflects the contrasting ideals of womanhood and the Madonna-whore dichotomy. It tells the story of a lion kept in a cage that loved the ‘tender woman’ with ‘human smell’ and hair ‘flowing loose’, who used to visit the lion ‘barefoot’, but did not recognise her when she came to him in different dress and scent:

Until today: an icy spectre sheathed
in silk minced to my side on pointed feet.
I ripped the scented veil from its unreal
head and engorged the painted lips that breathed
our secret names….

In the poem A Quartet for Dorothy Hewett, Harwood, who had studied piano and composition in her youth, writes an amusing piece about a visiting conductor who tried to seduce her in his hotel room when she was seventeen:

He spread my score on the counterpane
      with classic casualness,
and put one hand on the manuscript
      and the other down my dress.

But he underestimated the bright young lady in his company and didn’t take the composition she had written seriously:

… he shuffled it all together,
+++and said, ‘That’s
lovely, dear,’
as he put it down on the washstand
+++in a way that made it clear

that I was no composer.
+++And I being young and vain,
removed my lovely body
+++from one who’d scorned my brain.

Harwood writes about moving from her hometown of Brisbane to Tasmania, as well as the journey from single woman to housewife, in her poem 1945:

My husband’s waiting in civilian clothes.
Another name now. All those burning glances
cancelled, all those raging letters burned.
And my mocking friends—‘Holy MaTRIMony!’
‘You’ve had your wings trimmed. You’ll be Mother Goose’.

Certainly, Harwood mocked the institution of marriage herself in poems like Emporium, wherein the protagonist buys her husband from a store and attempts to return him:

My dear young lady, back already?
So the model got out of control in the dark?
And the words he used didn’t seem to suit your lovely home?
And your parents insist on trading him in?

Well, may I suggest our regular number,
our knitting-book type, as cool and smooth
as his cigarette, in Alpine drag,
germ-free, complete with sag-proof smile.

Her poem the Frog Prince is much darker, wherein, the ‘honeymoon went swimmingly’ but after a year, the princess’s husband ‘grew / stouter, suffered from warts, drank more’, until:

One night something appalling flopped
on top of her. Her parents came
next day to visit, and found all
the ceilings weeping, their girl raped,
her mouth stuffed with a golden ball.

Songs of Eve I, which appeared in a collection published the same year as Harwood’s death, hauntingly explores the universal suffering of women through the Biblical symbolism of Eve:

All Seasons through all centuries
+++as mistress, whore and wife,
my body like a hollow reed
+++has shaped the sound of life.

 

Mappings of the Plane: New Selected Poems is published by Carcanet Press.

Bronwyn Lovell is an emerging poet living in Melbourne. Her poetry has been published in Antipodes, Cordite Poetry Review and the Global Poetry Anthology. She was shortlisted for the 2011 Montreal International Poetry Prize.

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