Geoff Page reviews Rosemary Dobson’s Collected
by Rosemary Dobson
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 Poems — with 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.