Dear B : Jennifer Harrison

Book Description

Book Sample

Book Reviews

Australian Womens Book Review
Five Bells
Metropolitan News
Australian Book Review
Geelong Advertiser
The Big Issue

...moving and highly impressive poetry
Greg McLaren, Southerly

....a volume of immense compassion and razor-sharp observation, of dark under-edges and disturbing beauty

Ian McBryde, Five Bellsy

Jennifer Harrison, in
Dear B, writes as if poetry were invented to put dressings on poetic wounds, while all along the poet is serving language and its properly selfish concerns. There is a strange formality of her own in this book.
Peter Porter, The Age

Book Description

Jennifer Harrison’s fourth book opens and closes with the wisdom of older women. The first is the family lore of grandmothers and mothers, the last the wry observations of a gambling addict in ‘Casino’ where

the invented world stalls
like smoke over Asia.

‘Casino’ is one of four major sequences. The memory of an incident trekking in the Himalayas transforms into a haunting love song in Dear B; epigrams of daily life form ‘Miniatures’; in ‘Boston Poems’ crisp tragic lyrics face the diagnosis and early treatment of breast cancer. Throughout these sequences and the individual poems which separate them, Harrison writes an understated poetry of great humanity, fineness and often wit.

In the end, Harrison’s poetry impresses with its intelligence and its containment. There is something admirable and poised... the restraint and detail are perfectly matched, reminding one of Randall Jarrell's comment on Elizabeth Bishop’s first collection: all her poems have written underneath, I have seen it.

Peter Rose, Australian Book Review

ISBN 1876044276
Published 1999
68 pgs

Book Sample

The Getting of Wisdom

As my mother said,
If you don’t ask you won’t learn
the squeaky wheel gets oiled
and then again don’t trust men
who wear white dress-up shoes.
Always carry money for a phone-call
and never go to bed without reconciliation
that was one of my grandmother’s
favourites.Treat others as you’d have
done unto you, never boil abalone
in the presssure cooker, a little Ajax
on the teeth for whiteness, we’ll buy
them a present but let’s only give it
to them if they’ve got one for us.


Am I late he asked
arriving late, behind him
the small deaths of each town
he had passed, in his eyes
the tired light as it had, all day,
fallen across the tar’s curve
as it had burned at sunset
across the farmlands and fences
the dry paddocks and
the rivers’ nodal esturaries
until evening, when,
in anticipation
of lessening distances,
of tomorrows beginning freshly,
he had hurried home,
late, to she
who, by the fire sewing,
had turned to him
who asked.

Lightning Ridge

Shale heaps picked clean of opal chips.
Children pan for potch in an ocean of rubble.
Sprinklers create an oval of green
for the dogs. And the sun drinks colour from fences.

An emblem of the town’s history,
a shack made of beer bottles becomes a museum.
Easy to imagine someone down on their luck
slapping the cement on an empty.

And the wildest parties? You see them
in those parts of the wall which tilt like crazy talking
about the black opal flecked with blood that lies
in the earth, in the dregs, in the wattle.

- in 1709, a Brazilian priest invented an airship containing an agate which he believed would fly to heaven

Today she reads about tiny agates
inscribed with verses,
the Koran written into toe-rings
herdsmen crossing the desert.

Priests invent their airships
obsessing over faith
but she thinks of the usual advice
given in regard to old mines:

Her metaphors share the career
of other river gravels; they are carried along
and, according to the Romans, we were all
to be skilled in carving cameos.

Penderecki flies further
than the sun’s thunder egg
further than mineral lovers
imprisoned in green chrysophase.

A fossicker
spikes his violent gad into the land
— now he loves the gem
gently with tweezers
as though it were a heart
suddenly lonely in the human palm.

Invincible, held
within ropes of chalcedony,
a blue agate from Agate Creek
— the eye of a Queensland cyclops.

Lucky strikes apart, theft is usually
a straight forward political pick up.
Delight, here, is to read the past first
and then the future.

She writes: a moss agate made of grey
milky silica whose ferny designs
resemble the hennaed skin
of the poetess Mirabai.


No camps or movements : Recent Poetry
Tracy Ryan
Westerly, No. 45, November 2000

There’s a slight injustice done too, to Jennifer Harrison’s accomplished volume, Dear B, though the physical problem here, aside from the appalling cover, is an apparent carelessness in proofreading and copy-editing which no publisher should let slip by if it can be helped. We all get typos, and we all know how easy it is to swear they weren’t there at the time, but a special signed edition somehow seems to invite greater care.

This minor point cannot destroy the work, however; the poems themselves are interesting and deftly handled. The sequence ‘Boston Poems’ deals with breast cancer, but where Kissane spoke of it inevitably from the outside, this is the insider’s view:

you wrap-around smile
everything I hate

control-freak machine
you radiotherapy

don’t forget
everyday I walk out on you…

There is rarely anything obvious about where Harrison’s poems are taking you. They can range from the quietly understated diction of ‘Doubtful Sound’ to the sudden manic quality of ‘Lot’s Wife’:

I’ve been ambiguous
I’ve lied about my motives
I’ve smoked a cigarette
I’ve burned my palms
with the well bucket
I’ve sorted olives
and scented men
You might say I’m not so different
from other women
I’ve looked into puddles
and seen my face shatter
and reform…

There is the odd poem that falls a bit flat, like ‘The Society of Psychotherapist’s [sic] Fantasy Ball’, being little more than an extended joke - but generally the poems, typically short and well-shaped lyrics, or pieces in sequence, do not disappoint. Harrison’s humour works best when it is wry and implied, as in ‘Ceremony’, which describes the taking of Australian citizenship, with participants each given ‘a native plant, a plastic bag of roots’:

...I overheard a Malaysian
woman say that she would like to plant
her tree in the bush somewhere
so that, if she moved house, her gift
would be safe - and then somebody asked
how she knew which part of the bush would be safe
from fire or development and did that mean
she would be needing advice concerning Australian
property law...

Naming/Scapes: Jennifer Harrison’s Dear B
Richard Hillman
Sidewalk, No. 4, December 1999

Jennifer Harrison’s Dear B is a strangely ambivalent and enticingly foreign collection of sound postcards in a new language album. Press to open and watch its pages turn with the care held for old black and whites and family histories. A diary of sorts (suggesting ‘a lack of restraint. There is no map’ - from ‘Diarist’). Turn the pages before the words fall out. Stand back from places half remembered on ‘waking, a camera dangling from a neck captures a foot just out of focus. Adjust the lens - write home to friends, lovers, a world gone mad with habit. Dear B is an uncertain series of seductive slides, evocative serjise data matching service, a displaced poet in curious places, wherein lie two poems which deserve wider critical appraisal: ‘Boston Poems’, and ‘Dear B’.

‘Boston Poems’ prepares us for what we don’t expect, allows us to question the obvious: ‘a traveller like us making excursions / into cultures we trust will / accommodate our oddities’ and nothing is taken for granted. Boston has its own quirky mythology (‘History pins names to cafes and fountains’) which underpins a people caught up in a desperate struggle for recognition. With lightness of, touch Harrison treats this struggle as if it were a skin disease, a cancer, a form of oppression spreading over a glass and concrete epidermis - names on billboards, walls and street signs are viral infections smothering the life those names articulate - and there is a fever sweating on the surface of things, forcing the resident to compete against the mirror-like liquidity of otherness, a full immersion in someone else’s desire to be recognised; perhaps the traveller is drowning, also, and the movement towards stillness (which the poem approaches) is not unlike death; or, a moment of revelation, witnessing the cancer which lies at the heart of the poet’s own awareness (a desire to name what names).

Then there is the title poem, ‘Dear B’. A powerful doubling back on self-history, retracing memories of a trip through the Himalayas in 1980. A rite of passage examining the rituals that have constructed memory, or simply left ‘an impression’. Harrison’s self-deprecating style allows us to examine the poet as a signifying presence, an entity writing itself upon the surface of its own choosing. Yet, something definitely meditative, chanting on this surface, includes the listener - the often repetitive statement that she is ‘writing’ her way through this dream/memory journey, this soundscape, forces the reader to think as if s/he were part of that journey too - part of the ritual, the ceremony that has become the poem:

I’m writing a path through the mountains
to the festival of Holi
the stone walls of the village
are splashed with dye
so that the village
which bleeds bleeds all day
to the sound of laughter
and the smell of clay-baked bread
when children throw a bucket of dye
over you
you are stained with the first blood
of a woman
and I taste you like a ceremony
I don’t understand what it is
to be foreign.

Harrison listens to her words as much as they are listening to her - her poems are like shells brought to an ear - at some point they begin calling her back from the edge of sound, away from the enigma that is the edge of the human sea surging towards her feet:

I hear you calling to come and see
the fossil you have found in the sand

‘Doubtful Sound’

Routines & Revelations: New Poetry- Dear B
Kerry Leves
Overland, No. 157, Summer 1999

Very con­centrated - some readers may feel there’s a community with Pushkin: fables take shape like constellations against the dark. And the wit’s informed by worldliness -’dancing in ever-widening folk dresses / the self-help book snaps open and shut, the chinks / in theory now so overgrown with narrative / you’d never know where to find a neurosis’ thirsty roots.’ Harrison knows how to cast an image that’ll hold, engage; it’s a talent well used - for suggestion and sensuousness, nothing overwrought. There’s a difference, however, between the flow of images that gives dimen­sion to longer poems like ‘Dear B’ or the’Boston’ sequence (both spellbinders, incidentally) and the set-piece meta­phors or similes that close - and diminish - some of the shorter ones (e.g.’That Place’). But the book’s final sequence, ‘Casino’, has cogency to spare - its gambler convinces and involves: ‘the most pure lurching / human thing I do each morning / is to scheme, even in church / I daydream poker’.

The Geography of Non-sense - Dear B
Bev Braune
Australian Women’s Book Review, Vol. 11, 1999

Two-and-half decades ago Xavière Gauthier’s short essay ‘Is there such a thing as women’s writing’ was published in Tel Quel after it was rejected by Le monde des livres apparently because it was considered ‘completely incomprehensible, absurd and meaningless’. Gauthier pursued (and, it seems, demonstrated too well for one editor) the line of argument that women’s writing disrupts a norm considered established by a history of writing dominated by men whose tradition marginalised women’s writing. Here, in Jennifer Harrison’s words, ‘in the margins / of a slightly-known text / I am a paradox’ (‘Lot’s Wife’).

The act of writing by women (by its nature), argued Gauthier, must be non-sense in comparison with a sense-making, sensible, reasonable tradition which excluded women. She then went on to suggest that writers who are women must also be very clever indeed if they are to make themselves heard and read. This is especially so since, in recording their words and meanings, they are adding disruptive texts of ‘non-sense’ to the linguistic ‘order’ of established norms. If women speak they break or disrupt that order. And since they were not part of the ‘sensible’ in the order, when they speak it must be ‘non-sense’. At the very least, these notions are part of the process of an evaluation of writing by women relevant to our generation familiar with Gauthier, Cixous, Kristeva and Wittig.

The new poetry collections by Caddy [editing the moon], Cronin [Everything Holy] and Harrison show that Gauthier’s essay remains relevant. The poetic voice in all three (to the least extent in Caddy’s) is determined to identify itself as ‘a woman’. If writers never fully agreed (aloud, anyway) with what Gauthier et al said, the sometimes extreme non-sense made women sit up and consider what they were doing as writers. These three volumes may themselves serve to bear out an investigation into the activity to which Gauthier referred - disruptive texts of non-sense.

If nothing else, these poets show that poetry is an ideal medium for examining the aetiology of non-sense. Oftentimes, attending to meaning in poetry is indelibly circular or, as all three poets suggest, in imitation of life’s natural processes - birth to death, embedded in moon tides and cycles. And if women’s work is circular, these three volumes celebrate the circular argument without flinching at the dilemma of the reductionist in the wheel. They seem compelled to pursue ‘what makes me examine / the point of annihilation?’ (‘Negritude’, Caddy). The purpose of this might be provided by Harrison:

If there is a riddle to decipher
it will not despair on its own

‘The Thought’

They agree that riding the wheel without getting caught in the spokes is nothing less than ‘moving / through the clamour, unused to freedom, unsure of the corner’ (Harrison) or searching for ‘lost... music in the chaos’ (Cronin).

Jennifer Harrison’s Dear B celebrates the fact that landscape has the power to sweep itself clean of humans who cannot sense its needs…

For me, it is Harrison who has captured the marriage between intellection and passion with Dear B. She is attracted to smooth, solid and magical objects - the embryonic, agates, gravel, the woman whose labour and body reflect the stones she was worn to their smoothness (‘Dear B’). In Harrison’s world, ‘her metaphors share the career / of other river gravels.’ Here ‘sand slicks to your skin’ (‘A Serious Case’). And her imaginative detours are grounded, as in ‘The Society of Psychotherapist’s Fantasy Ball.’ We are always likely to meet the most marvellous women:

I’m a woman who wears her jaguar tooth
sealed in silver, I tumble over rocks
I live underground. Mountains of the Moon.

‘Mountains of the Moon’

Harrison consistently achieves an openness perhaps because she maintains so well what she calls ‘the shape of anticipation’ in one of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘Lot’s Wife.’ I wished the ‘Doubtful Sound’ series went on for more than 2 sections. A traveller ‘into cultures ‘we trust will / accommodate our oddities’ (‘Boston Poems’), she leaves me feeling that she understands her intellectual and sensual territory, and is never impatient even though she’s ‘got a wheel to spin / and detours to deal with’ (‘Casino’).

We might regard these poets as Gauthier’s witches because they ‘dance’, ‘sing’, ‘are alive’ and ‘rapturous’ with it or within a broad consideration of perception, definition and the phenomenon of interviews with the self. Perception and self-definition, with as much certainty as we can glean from experience, are parts of the body (literally) of who we are. Eye and mind - the two (or the one) - enclose any world we describe, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty would have argued.

It seems to me that Caddy, Cronin and Harrison make the point of the significance of their perception as women: Caddy, meditating on the rhythm of landscape; Cronin, breaking every rule in the book; Harrison, studying the unsteady progress of the self.

It may be best to regard these volumes in the way that Julia Kristeva, in an interview in 1974, suggested one ought to consider making a trip to China - ’if you don’t care about women, if you don’t like women, you needn’t bother going’.

I think I must write this down
Greg McLaren
Southerly, Vol. 59, No. 3-4, Spring/Summer 1999

Of a number of newer poets consolidating or establishing their reputation (Tracy Ryan another among these, as well as MTC Cronin, Peter Minter and Coral Hull), Jennifer Harrison displays perhaps the most interest in the use of the sequence. Although Coral Hull’s work represents a continuous open-ended sequence of sorts, Harrison has made sequences something of a signature. Her first book, Michelangelo’s Prisoners, includes several extended pieces, most notably ‘Skin’ (featured also in Picador New Writing 2) and ‘Maturana Songs’, while Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, her second, opens with the long poem ‘Cabramatta’. Harrison is equally comfortable with shorter pieces, which in their wider context sometimes take on a punchy quality. The poems in Dear B are inhabited by a variety of characters, their individual voices captured with a precise but light touch.

If you don’t ask you won’t learn
...we’ll buy
them a present but let’s only give it
to them if they’ve got one for us.

‘The Getting of Wisdom’

The voice of the poems’ characters at times acts as a point from which Harrison’s imagery departs on cleanly-observed tangents:

Am I late he asked
arriving late, behind him
the small deaths of each town
he had passed, in his eyes
the tired light, as it had, all day,
fallen across the tar’s curve


Elsewhere Harrison’s persona speaks for the people in the poems:

Sometimes he is afraid
of everything that ends
Primum non nocere
first do no harm... poets, too


By speaking in the voices of others, Harrison also receives something of the authority and resonance of that voice. In ‘Hippocrates’ Harrison’s double-career of poet and psychiatrist forms a symbiosis in which each adds to and benefits from the discipline of the other. The book’s title poem is a series of verse letters to a lover, ‘writing a path through the mountains / through the Himalayan snows’. The writing of the letters acts as an aid to memory, hence the leitmotif ‘I’m writing a path through the mountains’, which transforms through ‘I’m writing a path through memory’ and ‘she was carving a path through the mountains’ into

I think I must write this down
now before morning
before I forget

The sequence’s concern with the self’s otherness relies on continual splitting that self off from what is identified with the self. This is achieved partly through the formal fragmentedness of the short letters, incorporated into the larger framework of the sequence in a manner that retains the integrity of the individual parts. The greatest split is that of self from other: ‘I don’t understand what it is / to be foreign’. There is a certain foreignness and isolation inherent in not understanding, one emphasised by reference to the national groupings of the speaker’s fellow (western) tourists:

we have been stranded in Jomson
with the Swiss and Germans
we are waiting for the plane
which can’t land we
are helpless out of place here


here we might die
among the evil fairies we conjure
because we are so far from home

A sense of collectivity remains in the repeated assertion of ‘we’, but this also acts as an attempt to impose belonging where there is none.

The speaker is also temporally apart from herself and physically and emotionally distant from her lover:

I’m writing a path through memory
and it’s as though I send you
a photo of ourselves years ago
Machupuchare in the background

Collecting these fragments of poetry and memory together counts as a bringing together and acknowledgement of the disparate parts which make up the self - the past, those who one loves and has loved, the places one has been - and through the writing restoring them in some sense to the whole.

‘The Boston Poems’ is an extended piece comprised of a variety of forms: individual poems, diary entries (‘Diary / Boston, October 1990-June 1991’) and recollections of place. The sequence is a meditation on the poet’s illness, likening the experience of cancer to a journey:

It was always arriving, although we didn’t realise
until it had arrived, how far
it had travelled, how weary the cancer must have been
to sleep so tenderly, not bothering anyone

and how quickly the word
fitted our lives, easily, as the Charles river
or Thanksgiving or the story of Martin Luther King


To ‘have’ cancer is a cultural shift: it opens up geographical and psychological spaces. Cancer is not explicitly mentioned in ‘The Bridge’, Harrison’s elegy for Andrew Ziolkowsky. There is only ‘a point of view / that transcends the camera obscura of cells’ that intimates his illness and death. The poem succeeds in bridging the gap between loss and meaning: the central motif of the poem performs precisely this function. Understatement is especially effective when it follows a string of metaphors:

Of your death
thirty years of birth remain a shelter of sorts
and I can speak of solid structures
anchored struts, of tollways, railways
of scientists and imagists of space and style.
Even grass feels the weight of grief

Harrison’s poetry crosses the space between death and birth with words containing images of travel and movement. Conversely, experience of the world provides ‘struts’ and ‘structures’ for a moving and highly impressive poetry that acknowledges its own origin in ‘the weight of grief’ and recognition of the poetic drive: ‘I think I must write this down’ (‘Dear B’).

Dear B
Ian McBryde
Five Bells, 1999

A refined and elegant precision has long been the hallmark of Jennifer Harrison’s poetry, as exemplified in Michelangelo’s Prisoners (Black Pepper, 1994), and further enhanced with Cabramatta/Cudmirrah (Black Pepper, 1996). Harrison’s latest collection, entitled Dear B, again from Melbourne’s brave and ambitious Black Pepper Press, continues to impress the reader with her poise and assurance.

As in her previous work, Harrison draws upon a wide range of themes, both modern and historical, personal and remote, for her subject matter. Again, there are several lengthy pieces in this collection; there can often be an inherent danger, for any poet, in holding the reader’s attention for the entire and extended length of ‘series’ poems, but in this collection Harrison’s treatment of longer pieces such as ‘Boston Poems’, ‘Dear B’, ‘Lot’s Wife’, and the closing poem, ‘Casino’, ensure that the quality of the work neither wavers nor loses potency.

Given Harrison’s profession, psychiatry, she is obviously well-acquainted with medical terminology, and I found myself reaching for the dictionary every now and then to learn the meaning of wonderful new (at least to me) words such as ‘auscultate’ (look it up yourself) but not only does this not detract from Dear B, but some of the language adds a new, slightly uneasy aspect to several of the poems which I found quite refreshing. One would have to term the majority of Harrison’s work as ‘serious’ in subject matter and execution, but every now and then a certain wryness surfaces, such as in ‘Local Astronomy’.

...the spellcheck can‘t pick out
those mistakes
we’ve meant to fix
for ages.

Dear B is a volume of immense compassion and razor-sharp observation, of dark under-edges and disturbing beauty, from the dreamy reminiscences of the title poem, ‘Dear B’

...your tall shadow slipping
at sunset
between tussocks of grass...

to the spare, remarkable language of ‘The Abbey’

In the cloistered ruin, novices
share their thoughts with silence
their bare feet whisper upon stone.

and ‘Out of Body Experience’.

Last night I lay above myself in the dark
looking down upon a stranger beside him.

Jennifer Harrison reads her work around Melbourne at various venues, and her quiet, determined delivery only enhances the quality of her poetry. Do not miss the chance to see her perform if you can, and in the meantime get hold of a copy of Dear B, read it, and be drawn into her unique world.

Dear B
Amanda Hurley
Metropolitan News, 28 August 1999

Poet Jennifer Harrison explores physical and emotional scenery with her latest book of poetry, Dear B. The book, Harrison’s third, has been crafted from a variety of landscapes throughout the world, including the icicles of winter in Boston, the South Island of New Zealand’s waterfall beauty and the Himalayan wilderness.

However, scenic beauty is not the only landscape Harrison transverses; cancer, loneliness, multiculturalism and gambling are also subjects explored in some depth.

Harrison has created an intelligent and believable atmosphere in each of the 43 poems included in this anthology.

Whether her subject matter is imaginative, or not, appears irrelevant; Harrison’s style is cohesive, and her lines are strung together with some achingly beautiful parallels.

However, at times the beauty of the phrase appears to have been chosen over meaning - a woman who dabs the sky with turpentine, softens stars which dive into her mouth and are hardened together forever.

Overall, however, the Melbourne poet has created a cohesive anthology, although the cover does little to advertise the treasures inside.

Harrison was born in Liverpool, Sydney, in 1955 and is now based in Melbourne where she works part-time as a psychiatrist.

Her first collection Michelangelo’s Prisoners won the 1995 Anne Elder Award.

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Public Connotations
- Dear B
Peter Rose
Australian Book Review, No. 212, July 1999

Since the publication in 1995 of her first collection, Michelangelo’s Prisoners, Jennifer Harrison has continued to impress readers and to broaden her repertoire. Her fourth collection in as many years, the intimately entitled Dear B, consolidates her reputation and demonstrates sufficient difference and intensity to satisfy admirers of this sensitive, likeable poet.

As in her previous collections, there is no swagger or braggadocio. Falsity of tone or temperament is not a feature of this unassuming if yearning writer. The subjects are often modest, peripheral, domestic, yet they can reverberate with more public connotations. One such poem opens the collection: ‘The Getting of Wisdom’. The first line in the book is surely deliberately placed: ‘As my mother said’ - an unostentatious but pointed epigraph. Cabramatta/Cudmirrah, her previous book, revealed the extent of her filial mindfulness. In the new poem, a kind of muted sadness runs through these maternal legacies, which become bleaker with recollection, like a rueful dream:

...Treat others as you’d have
done unto you, never boil abalone
in the pressure cooker, a little Ajax
on the teeth for whiteness, we’ll buy
them a present but let’s only give it
to them if they’ve got one for us.

Elsewhere, as the poet moves around in this pleasingly peripatetic volume, there is a sense of defensiveness or defeat, if not defeatism. There is nothing romantic or redemptive about this identification with misfortune. Travel sharpens her innate sense of the mortal and the tawdry in the civic, as in ‘Lightning Ridge’:

An emblem of the town’s history,
a shack made of beer bottles becomes a museum.
Easy to imagine someone down on their luck
slapping the cement on an empty.

Harrison is always at her best when she is roaming, uprooted, somehow stateless. Even a fairly modest poem like ‘New Year’s Eve, Boston Common’ (part of the long sequence ‘Boston Poems’) opens up into something quite strange and isolating:

Children scratch their names into puddles.
Strangers hug each others gloves.
Shots of bourbon burn like Sydney.
I stay past midnight
when the kissing starts.

The influences in Harrison’s work are subtle, and various. In that third line, with its scorched notion of Sydney, one detects an echo of Gig Ryan. Two memorable lines in Harrison’s previous book - ‘like everything else, you / resemble bits of socialism’ - had a similar effect. The slight warp and staccato give the poetry a pleasing edginess and variety, moderating the personal. Good poets jolt us intermittently with the unexpected. Lines like ‘She’ll be describing a third party, a white noise’ and ‘And the sun drinks colour from the fences’ compel us to respond long after the poet has restlessly departed.

Clearly, though, some of the strongest poems in this new collection are unambiguously direct. There is a long cancer poem, frank and observant, but also done with considerable restraint. It reminds me in its spareness and insight of early Hodgins, and late Hodgins, on the same subject. ‘It must have been arriving, always’. The unpunctuated plainness of some of the poems in this cycle heightens the shock, the existential affront.

I ask questions
but more arrive
later when I’m at home
alone in the dark with my cells

Yet even in this state of numbness or dislocation the poet achieves a sort of timeless weirdness which presents her with some of the best images in the book:

you hold me
like a circle like a clock

I sew the hem of a dress
and now you keep away

Reference to Akhmatova in an earlier poem surely offers one possible clue to poems such as ‘The Abbey’:

If I were to say the river has broken its bank
they would open their laps
and cradle my lips which speak the truth.

For me, the long title-poem, another travelogue, possibly too epistolary, seems less successful than poems such as ‘The Light Itself’, ‘The Society of Psychotherapists’ Ball’, and ‘The Remains of the Day’.

‘Loneliness is a habit,’ one of the poems suggests, but Harrison’s sensibility is rarely apolitical or unengaged. Notwithstanding the intimate settings and themes, the poet is conscious of broader implications. In ‘Sewing’, the second poem in the book, a driver, arriving home late, is haunted by landscape and evening and ‘the small deaths of each town’. There is a marvellous, funny, and somehow very apropos poem about a naturalisation ceremony in Collingwood in 1992. ‘Ceremony’ is acute in its detail and understatement. ‘The mayoress gave everyone / a native plant, a plastic bag of roots.’ In the end, after the rhetoric and the allegiances and the kangaroo paw, we are stranded, almost ominously, in an empty hall:

...On the floor, left behind,
lay all the plastic flags
people had dropped in their hurry.

Best of all in this context is the long poem ‘Casino’, which ends the collection. Here the poet achieves a memorable overview:

Rumours will not be believed
but can we trust yet
the weird sciences of our future?
This roll, this deal, this incoherence

Incoherent and compulsive indeed, but there is something almost oracular in the closing figure of the cracked gambler spinning her wheel and bailing out her widowhood:

I’m content with the drift
the microcosm of strangers
their voices like gravel
my gin & tonic minding
my machine, my people.

Readers will admire this vulnerable and exposed poet, many of whose creations demonstrate the kind of ‘nervous heart’ diagnosed in one poem. In a longer, tripartite poem, ‘Lot’s Wife’, the figure of the woman ‘unwraps and sorts the look of death’:

More petrified than ever before
she paces inside her sea-shell calm.
What can she do to undo fear?
She can only look.

In her fatalism, her isolation, and her openness to both, Jennifer Harrison continues to offer a distinctive and questioning voice in our poetry.

Women’s business in verse

Edward Reilly
Geelong Advertiser, 13 February 1999

If there are any secrets or hidden wisdom in what we men call ‘women’s business’, then they are to be found in daily ordinariness of home, family and friends. Jennifer Harrison rightly celebrates these qualities in a series of four major sequences and shorter pieces.

The collection starts quietly with a series of occasional poems, ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, ‘The Light Itself and Hippocrates’, before the tender and sensitive ‘Boston Poems’. In these Harrison generates immediate impressions from her 1990-91 experiences there, her pregnancy and illness.

But she is no mere cultural gawker, realising that her ‘oddities’ need to be ‘accomodated’ by the host society, that in turn she must ‘trust’ the medico who checks her out in the public Outpatients’ ward.

It is a point of political correctness in this country not to express fears or concerns about what ethnic group lives in what suburb. Australian writers, as a flock, do not accurately report what ordinary people really feel on this topic, either out of their own idealism or for fear of being associated with a particular form of foolishness. Harrison accurately reflects American concerns in ‘White Boston’. Her friend: ‘where are the blacks in Boston? / She’s looking for a place to live / after Chicago’. A jarring note, but reality to be sure, just as are her references to radiotherapy treament, a ‘shooting Chernobyl / from a silent shrivel gun’

The central sequence, ‘Dear B’, is an extended verse-letter between friends, dwelling on the incongruities of trekking to impossible places. Central to her poem are images of the women of the high villages of Nepal. How strong they are is conveyed deftly: ‘she carries five foot planks of timber / across her shoulders, eggs / in her forehead basket / to the village of Tatapani / four days ahead’.

Harrison’s eye for the incongrous is sharpened in shorter poems such as ‘Freud’s Daughter Writes a Story Called Revenge’, ‘Diarist’ and ‘In the Park’. These are nicely constructed and quickly home in on their subjects, while somewhat longer poems, such as ‘Lot’s Wife’ and ‘Ceremony’, merely skirt around their subjects. ‘Out of Body Experience’ begs for expansion and elaboration of its subject. I found little satisfaction though in the questionable publication of ‘Miniatures’, a set of notes taken while reading the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji by Shikibu. They fall short of being English-language haiku by a syllable or two, and lack the incision of Harrison’s formal pieces.

This collection closes with the sequence ‘Casino’, which observes that ‘loneliness is a habit’, and how the blackjack and other flashing machines draw in their victims. Harrison’s return to compassion and acute depiction of human frailties in this poem is welcome, and perhaps may prompt our local writers to more closely observe local foibles and tragedies.

Book Briefs
- Dear B
Chris Boyd
The Big Issue

Poet and part-time psychiatrist Jennifer Harrison is at her very best when she refers to nothing but the words and sounds she assembles. Harrison must have a fine collection of inkblots, ’cos what you see, here, is what you project. The stand-out poems in this volume (the fourth in Black Pepper’s signed and numbered Special Editions series) are rich and complex, pregnant with meaning, but no less direct or fathomable for that.