Dorothy Hewett is a fascinating poet insofar as her work seems to convey a direct interaction between poet and subject matter. It is as if poetry is an entirely intimate experience for her and is an exploration of hidden “truths”. The mythology of self is considered by some to be her primary project, but it could be argued also that there is a far more conscious play with the notions of what actually constitutes a poetry; that is, there is something going on at the meta-level that may not at first be obvious to the reader overwhelmed by her intense lyrical I.
A fundamental problem with trying to pin Hewett down to a particular modus operandi or voice is that she is in many ways also a public poet. During the fifties she was probably best known, in the literary sense at least, for her great political ballad, “Clancy and Dooley and Don McLeod”, which many in the working class knew by heart at that time. It should be noted that while the boundaries between “classes” are extremely blurred and increasingly irrelevant in Australian society (other segregations have taken and are taking their place), during the fifties “class” was a physical reality.
In both her plays and poetry, Hewett explores relationships of the individual and the community with the land. Her “land” is the south-west of Western Australia, particularly the wheatbelt area around Wickepin, where she spent her childhood. Hers is an exploration of spirit, modulated through the very idiosyncratic eye of self. What makes this more interesting is that much of her poetry and drama on this subject was written while she lived in Sydney. Hewett spent much of the fifties and sixties in Sydney, though it was not until her return from another period in Western Australia that the energies of “the new poetry” of Sydney during the early seventies fully stimulated her writing career. Hewett now lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and despite her many years away from her home, still unearths the secrets of that first landscape. On the use of memory, Hewett recently said in an interview with myself:
Because I’ve lived quite a long while now I’ve got a lot of stuff that I can refer to, backwards and forwards. I think that what happens as you get older – or old! – is that the past becomes remarkably clear. I didn’t realise this would happen, but it does . . . Like seeing something, not in a glass darkly at all, but illuminated in the most extraordinary fashion. If you can take that and move it to now, you’ve got that patterning, self-referential sort of method which to me is what binds my poetry together. I’ve got to have a binding agency, and that to me is the central binding agency of what I do. So it becomes a pattern of the world, of life . . .(JK) So instead of a poetry of autobiography which is about recounting what has happened, itÕs a poetry about the qualifying nature of time, about how a history actually comes into focus with its passing Ñ the opposite to autobiography in a way, because itÕs reinventing every moment.
It is. It’s also playing ducks and drakes with time. Time, in the sense of static time, doesn’t really exist at all. It’s like a tremendous game.
Her use of mythology and fairytales both to stimulate archetypal links and intensify her reading of the self’s relationship, or lack of, with reality has become synonymous with her work of the seventies and eighties. Nim, Alice, Lilith, become figures that play the real parts to the poet’s shadow puppets. Through such figures Hewett challenges authority, preconceptions of behaviour, and questions of fate and belief. Of the role of myth and fairytale in her formative years Hewett has said:
… [T]he imagination and books were our lives, as well as typical things like riding horses, naming everything in the creek… We made this whole life, and looking back I realise that it was a very strange life in a way, because for me there’d never been a split (as I think there is for lots of people, for Australians) between the mythology of other countries and my own. In other words, reading Grimm’s fairytales, and Hans Andersen’s, I quite unselfconsciously transferred those myths into the Australian bush with no sense of strain… So that the gum trees might become Grimm’s giant.
Hewett is also fascinating in her defining of a poetry that exists outside the normal patriarchal modes of delivery. Her voice is decidedly “feminine” but not merely a woman’s voice laid over a template of patriarchal form. She doesn’t imitate, but writes it as she “experiences” it. Hewett, familiar with controversy, doesn’t compromise. She is not, however, comfortable with the notion of being in any way a feminist “icon”, saying the idea makes her “nervous”: “I don’t really believe that one human being can have that much effect on a period or a whole lot of people. I think I had some, sure…”
For the uninitiated reader, one of the joys of discovering Hewett is to experience the unfolding of the “mysterious” and its link with voice. Her themes of love and isolation, family and individuality have extended into her verse of recent years. Her studies of ageing, of the loss associated with this but also the gains that hindsight and wisdom bring, grow stronger. Her debt to poets such as Lowell, Berryman, and Crane is obvious, and also, as she often attests, the debt to the voice of the Australian poet Robert Adamson. In a recent poem, “Inheritance” (Collected Poems) she asks:
I have travelled a long way from my origins
is there anything left of the child
with the wheaten hair who listened for owls
loved poetry and winter fires remembered
the strange moment in the dark fields
when the pet lambs grown into ewes and wethers
trotted along the fence lines bleating to be let in?