In Proportion

She knew what she was doing

Poetry review by Caren Florancebook cover

Collected Poems

Lesbia Harford
Edited by Oliver Dennis
UWA Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781742585352
152pp AU$29.99

This volume is the largest dedicated collection of the poems of Lesbia Harford (1891-1927), and it is still, in the editor’s introduction, only ‘just over half’ of her manuscript output, the ones deemed to be her ‘poetry of value’ (xx). There is no doubt of Harford’s value as a romantic and tragic figure in Australia’s literary history, with her feminista underdog status, her political and sexual proclivities, her bad health and her early death. She has been compared to Shaw Neilson, to Sappho, to Emily Dickinson, and it is easy to see why through these pages, which chronicle a distinct and individual personality inwardly singing (for better or worse) through her particular world.

Harford’s supporters are solid: literary powerhouse Nettie Palmer posthumously published 54 poems in 1941; the only surviving manuscripts of the poems were given to the Mitchell Library by Majorie Pizer, who published a hearty selection with Drusilla Modjeska in 1985, when Australian literature was digging deeper for fellow travellers. Les Murray also included a swathe of Harford’s work in a 2005 anthology, Hell and after, and he provides a warm and affectionate foreword for this volume.

Every scrap of surviving poetry written by Lesbia Harford (nearly four hundred, according to Dennis’s note on selection and punctuation (xxvii)) was contained in three handwritten notebooks, the first poem dated August 1910, the last January 1927, with ‘her most productive years … 1915 and 1917’ (xxvii). The strength of this collection is that it is chronological, which not only supports the strong narrative arc of her short life that is her ‘selling point’, but also underlines the importance of writing as a diaristic process that helped her negotiate the complex world around her. She worked lyrically and performatively within her notebook pages (and sometimes literally, with both Dennis and Murray retelling the story of Harford singing her poems on the Manly Ferry when she moved to Sydney). Her Dickinson-like punctuation of ‘a comma and a dash together to indicate parenthesis, a pause or an abrupt change of thought’ has been restored in this volume, with the recognition that ‘her use of punctuation was on the whole deliberate and sophisticated – she knew what she was doing’ and ‘it meant something particular to her’ (xxvii).

To look at Moira gives me pleasure.
She has a red tape measure.

Her dress is black and all the workroom’s dreary,
And I am weary.

But that’s like blood, — like a thin blood stream trickling, —
Like a fire quickening.

It’s Revolution. Ohé, I take pleasure
In Moira’s red tape measure.
[89]

It is a shame that one or even a few images of Harford’s notebook pages were not included; one can be found on page 83 of Dever, Vickery and Newman’s The Intimate Archive: Journeys Through Private Papers (NLA, 2009) and we can only surmise that there is much to be yet gleaned from the materiality of Harford’s handwritten notebook entries.

Harford … shared Shaw Neilson’s gift for examining small, forgotten subjects in a way that lends her poetry an unusually well-developed sense of continuity – her choice of subject matter was, to some degree, simply a peg for purity of utterance. [xxiii]

Harford’s poems outwardly seem lightweight; they were for her a private, pleasurable pursuit, but she valued them – and herself. Dennis quotes her refusal for one of her poems to be anthologized by Percival Serle: ‘Your anthology will be read in many places for many years. I would not care to be recalled to the memory of distant friends by the poem you have chosen … you see, I take my poetry seriously and I am in no hurry to be read’ (xx). To read her now is to enter into nursery rhymes, fairy tales, folk songs: words without time that are usually assumed – wrongly – to have no teeth.

The Tyrant

When I was a child,
I felt the fairies’ power.
Of a sudden my dry life
Would burst into flower.

The skies were my path,
The sun my comrade fair,
And the night was a dark rose
I wore in my hair.

But thou camest, love,
Who madest me unfree,
I will dig myself a grave
And hide there from thee.  (12)

This volume has moments of saccharine, but it is exquisitely balanced with fierceness and joy. The collection’s performativity of utterance — and purity of punctuation — is not to be underestimated.

 

Caren Florance's biography —>