Geoff Page reviews Rosemary Dobson’s Collected


by Rose­mary Dobson

UQP, 2012


Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE



Read­ing Rose­mary Dobson’s Col­lected in those few short (and now poignant) weeks between its delayed appear­ance and her death at 92, I was par­tic­u­larly struck by how lit­tle these poems, begin­ning in the mid-1940s, have aged.

Most of the cru­cial ones, I was famil­iar with from hav­ing read her ear­lier col­lec­tions and hear­ing the poet read them quite often over the four decades she lived in Can­berra. It’s always a par­tic­u­lar plea­sure for a reviewer to be able to have in his or her audi­tory mem­ory the sound of the poet pre­sent­ing and inter­pret­ing her own work.

In Dobson’s case it was invari­ably a quiet, unassertive voice, almost shy but with an under­ly­ing con­fi­dence in the mate­r­ial — which she felt no need to “tart up” with histri­on­ics of any kind. The Oxford Com­pan­ion to Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture called this being “restrained and deco­rous” but this is to sell her way too short. Some oth­ers were inclined to mut­ter at poetry read­ings about “poets not read­ing their own works well” (not as well as Shake­spearean actors, for instance) but in Dobson’s case this crit­i­cism was mis­ap­plied. She read qui­etly because (unlike much of, say, Dorothy Hewett’s oeu­vre) Dobson’s are quiet poems. Quiet — and thought­ful. Quiet — and often wryly witty.

It is prob­a­bly this deci­bel defi­ciency that caused her to be some­what over­looked at times among that remark­able gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralian poets who emerged just after World War II — and who pro­ceeded to dom­i­nate our poetry scene until the late 1960s (and beyond, in some cases). Many of them, such as David Camp­bell, Judith Wright, Fran­cis Webb and Dou­glas Stew­art were Dobson’s close friends. Oth­ers included James McAuley and A.D. Hope. Still oth­ers, such as Gwen Har­wood and Dorothy Hewett (also born in the early-1920s and delayed by house­wifery and pol­i­tics respec­tively) were to emerge later — in the early 1960s.

While all these poets had dis­tinc­tive and per­sonal voices (that was a part of their great­ness) they also shared some impor­tant val­ues and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Most had a meta­phys­i­cal dimen­sion to their poetry (even the athe­ists); many were con­cerned with art in its broad­est sense — and with Aus­tralian his­tory (par­tic­u­larly the role of voy­agers and explor­ers). Dobson’s inter­est in art was per­haps more intense than that of the oth­ers since she, unlike them for the most part, wrote ekphras­ti­cally about par­tic­u­lar paint­ings — often from the Renais­sance period. Indeed, A.D. Hope, as a critic, was ini­tially inclined to under­value Dobson’s work for pre­cisely this reason.

Look­ing back now with almost sev­enty years’ hind­sight, we can see that it was only in her first book, In a Con­vex Mir­ror, that Dobson’s work appears at all dated. Here, at the age of 24 in the last two years of World War II, she was very much part of the zeit­geist and one can fairly read­ily imag­ine a num­ber of the poems in In a Con­vex Mir­ror being writ­ten by some­one else in the group.

Dob­son, in this book, con­sis­tently uses the strict forms char­ac­ter­is­tic of Aus­tralian poetry at the time (though not nec­es­sar­ily of Amer­i­can poetry). There are phrases, even in highly suc­cess­ful poems like the title one, that could almost as well be attrib­uted to, say, Judith Wright or A.D. Hope (“The hid­den spaces of the heart”, for instance, or “Time’s still waters deeply flow”). There are inver­sions of word order — not intrin­si­cally objec­tion­able but much more pop­u­lar then than now (“And words to wiser silence pass”).

On the other hand, in this same poem, we also have an exam­ple of Dobson’s evoca­tive com­pres­sion when she writes of how angels “Inflame a Dutch inte­rior”. Such images already fore­shadow the mature Dob­son who was to appear so con­vinc­ingly in her next book, The Ship of Ice (1948). Although the title poem can seem melo­dra­matic in parts (“a bride of ice in a ship set south­wards”) it is in Dobson’s sec­ond col­lec­tion that we encounter the poet who will present through to her last full col­lec­tion, Untold Lives and Later Poemswith which she won, at the age of eighty, The Age Book of the Year award. It is in The Ship of Ice too where we first see Dobson’s best-known, though some­what atyp­i­cal, poem, “Coun­try Press” — which, fit­tingly, was read at her funeral.

Read­ing Dobson’s Col­lected from that sec­ond vol­ume onwards, one is struck by the sheer con­sis­tency of its artistry, its author’s per­sonal qual­i­ties and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. There is a tone of voice (quiet, med­i­ta­tive, wry at times) which is effort­lessly main­tained. There is an unstrained range of cul­tural ref­er­ence. And there is her con­stant feel for nar­ra­tive (even within the lyric) — cul­mi­nat­ing in  Untold Lives and Later Poems (2001), arguably her best book (though not as tech­ni­cally for­mal as her ear­lier ones).

It was in this last full col­lec­tion that Dobson’s empa­thy for oth­ers became most appar­ent. It com­prises a per­sua­sive set of obser­va­tions of, or vignettes about, a con­sid­er­able range of peo­ple. They are not types but indi­vid­u­als whose often low-key lives (and fates)  have some­thing impor­tant to tell us. Writ­ten in a flex­i­ble blank verse and in rel­a­tively plain dic­tion, enlivened occa­sion­ally by a more colour­ful image or turn of phrase, these poems are very dif­fer­ent from, and much  more relaxed than, the ones with which Dob­son began her career back in 1944.

In this con­text we can see that David McCooey is cor­rect, in his Intro­duc­tion to Col­lected, in stress­ing  Dobson’s con­cern with the “the half-seen, the ghostly, and the half-understood”. Dob­son, despite her insis­tence on the “sim­ple” was never one for the trite. It is like­wise appro­pri­ate for McCooey to quote from an inter­view he con­ducted some years back with Dob­son where she insisted: “Sim­plic­ity, clar­ity and aus­ter­ity are qual­i­ties I hold to.” She had no desire to com­pli­cate or extend poems unnec­es­sar­ily — or to set up false bar­ri­ers for read­ers. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion was impor­tant to her but so was the com­plex­ity and elu­sive­ness of what was to be communicated.

In Col­lected’s final poem, “Divin­ing Colan­der”, Dob­son says: “And here, in Age, I feel the need / Of some Divin­ing Colan­der / To hold the best of all since done / And let the rest slip through.” In some ways, despite her  char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty, this was a false prob­lem. The divin­ing had already been done in com­pil­ing the indi­vid­ual col­lec­tions. Inevitably, there is some small vari­a­tion in qual­ity through­out the book but it is mov­ing to see that, at the end, Dob­son had so much that was worth retain­ing, that met the two cri­te­ria men­tioned in “Divin­ing Colan­der”, namely “style and worth”. It’s grat­i­fy­ing, too, that a small but indica­tive sam­ple of the trans­la­tions she did (in tan­dem) from the Russ­ian of Man­del­stam and Akhma­tova and oth­ers dur­ing the 1970s has been added at the end.

Even if In a Con­vex Mir­ror is less remark­able than its suc­ces­sors, it is prob­a­bly the right deci­sion to have included it — not just to make a con­trast with the more authen­ti­cally per­sonal poems to fol­low but to empha­sise with what assur­ance Dob­son began her career (even if some of that first collection’s tech­niques and con­cerns were bor­rowed or shared).

At 358 pages, Rose­mary Dobson’s Col­lected is a book to be savoured over sev­eral weeks; then shelved for ready and repeated ref­er­ence. With the (now often unavail­able) “Col­lect­eds” of her other emi­nent friends and con­tem­po­raries, this com­pre­hen­sive and well-designed book, issued just a few weeks before its author’s death, will remain an impor­tant part of our lit­er­ary her­itage. Indeed, in the first few weeks after Dobson’s pass­ing her Col­lected was on a best-seller list or two.