Poetry review by Louise Waller
Edited by Barry Scott
With a Foreword by Kerry Leves
Transit Lounge Publishing
Barry Scott of Transit Lounge should be very pleased with this 2010 publication and deserves congratulations for undertaking the project. It is an insightful representation of the work of this wonderful Australian writer. Vicki Viidikas was born in Sydney on 25th September 1948 to an Estonian father and an Australian mother. She died on 27th November 1998.
Viidikas was a woman who fully engaged with some of the excesses of the late sixties and seventies. The generation of questioning and experimentation, sexual liberation and social consciousness. Experimentation through use of a varied array of mind altering drugs, and spiritual journeys seeking truths outside of the western cultural mainstream. She hooked up with lots of interesting people, lived with and loved a whole lot more, and she took a lot of drugs.
Viidikas wrote short stories and poems that were imbued with these experiences. She lived for several years in India (her spiritual home), and wrote about her experiences both there and in Australia with a fresh and open awareness. Her writing, particularly the stories, contains subject matter which (for those times) pushed at the edges of censorship laws, yet the writing was brave and contained honest reflections of the cultural choices she made and the people she felt most comfortable being around.
When reading her stories, the fragments and the story poems, I get a sense of Viidikas as the 'Jane Austen' of her times. No detail is too small to escape her notice, no experience too repetitive or banal to exclude, no act or situation too shameful to explore or tease out (and surprisingly), she writes without any overblown or unnecessary judgmental tone when capturing those moments. Her writing exposes, in minutiae, all of the significant differences between her chosen culture and that of the predominate mainstream. If it is sometimes difficult to read, or if it is sad to think about a woman in that situation or experience, then it is our own moralizing or judgments which ferment and spoil, not hers.
She was a gifted writer, an instinctive writer. In her short story 'The Incomplete Portrait' first published in Wrappings (Wild and Woolley 1974) she tackles some of the critical judgments, made about the content of her writing;” My resume could read: / I must not undress heroin pushers. / Reveal that (a) has small genitals. / (y) is obsessed by his mother. / (q) was being unfaithful (as I was probably his mistress).", and she continues citing a small litany of the distances and differences of perception, in how a woman writer handles "the idiosyncrasies of a 'masculine' logic, and measure up to its structures and laws."
Viidikas left school at fifteen and developed her writing without any formal training. Kerry Leves, in his introduction tells us that,” Vicki was a phenomenal reader. The poetry books on her shelves were well-thumbed; poems she respected were marked with an 'x'; others were subjected to critical comment in the margins." Leves states that "Her writing, like her life, strove against the normative." He also comments, "Anecdotes surround Vicki Viidikas. None is definitive."
Viidikas was one of the coterie of Sydney poets now known as the 'Generation of '68' and said poets, according to John Tranter ('Four Notes on the Practice of Revolution', Australian Literary Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, October 1977, p. 134) 'the Generation of '68 was all about: not the replacing of the old by the new (which soon becomes the established), but by the continual recognition of the need to 'make it new', to break down the urge to establish reputations and an entrenched position'.
For all the slightly intriguing good intention contained within this statement, (the aims were sound) the outcomes, over time, may prove or disprove the statement's intended success. It is very difficult to look at those poets associated with the 'G 68' and not find all, or nearly all, with mercurial reputations and well shored up, entrenched positions within the established contemporary writing and publishing mainstream, both in Australia and Overseas. It seems, though, that Viidikas, who had remarkable publishing support throughout the seventies and into the eighties in the Australian contemporary writing scene, was somewhat less than supported in the period thereafter.
This could be in part, aligned with the fact of her drug addiction, or possibly it may be reflective of the lack of formal qualifications from the 'Academy' which became increasingly necessary (for any writers/artists/creative folk who wanted to secure employment and publication) from the late eighties onwards. What is wonderful though; her writing did not cease when the opportunities to have it promoted and published did. Middle aged, drug taking, sexually active heterosexual women, who operate outside the academic nursery may not hold the same allure that their male counterparts do. In the Australian writing climate, post late eighties, this is a predictable and slightly nauseating fact.
The collection is organized in chronological fashion covering the period 1966 to 1998. The second last poem 'Lust' was written on 26th September 1998, the day after her fiftieth birthday and two months before the author's death. The last stanza of this poem, seems to encapsulate her defiance and her lack of bitterness or any kind of self consuming pity or dread or remorse;
Who will bring back the beauty,
the ecstasy, the mystery
I, for one, am not
a crackling pig on a spit;
I will not turn the handle
of burning with sin.
I would rather live on flowers,
and a diet of grace.
I may be the last spinster.
The last poem in the collection is 'Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu) first published in book form in India Ink (1984 Hale and Iremonger), and is included here, we are told in Barry Scott's Editorial Note and Acknowledgements because, "Viidikas often felt more spiritually at home in India than in Australia, and that particular poem echoes her optimism and belief about what might begin artistically, spiritually and personally 'where the structure ends'." Viidikas finishes the three stanza prose poem with the lightest of touches aimed at loosening her 'wandering sea'; ..."The ancient calendar revolves its / execution - there's no moment too small for the birth of / another dream."
Viidikas is fond of using the term 'structure/structures' and it occurs in her poems and titles for poems, at least eight times. I stopped counting at eight - so it might be interesting to explore her various uses of and interest in this word. A clue to its importance and relevance for her, could be connected to her relationship with the writer Michael Wilding. For a time he was her lover, her fellow writing colleague. Wilding loosely bases the character of 'Valda' in his writing on Viidikas, and she responds by writing, in his words, "at" him, in some of her own poetry and prose. In the superb and slightly acerbic prose poem 'Four Poems on a Theme" first published in Condition Red (1973 The University of Queensland Press) we find a total of four instances of the word 'structure/structures' occurring. Some excerpts;
Separately. So long into death. Into memories of your eye,
'how it was', the quarrels we never meant to have. My sagging
bed, 'our romance', 'our affair'. The bridges you'd built and the
water flowed under them. Each of us seeking belief thinking,
I am significant. Want no more lies. Loved us away from
structures, the closest thing to being free. Made us scent each
other's blood. Away from tired defenses. So we believe.
('Four Poems on a Theme' - A Trunkful of Structures p.125)
Madness is in your eye. I want to carry you off and say
yes, I've something more than a bed of straw. Yes, you're a
coward, I want to blow you up with words. Got a match? I
can't replace you. I'm saying there's more to life than love. Eh?
Yeah. Words. Structures.
('Four Poems on a Theme' - It's Natural p. 125)
I just love the way this prose poem strikes at the narrative, refusing to loosen its poetic, steaming and teeming it goes. It is true, I think, that what Viidikas is doing so early in her writing, (along with her writing colleagues of that time) is making first inroads into the postmodernist experiment in Australian writing. Her prose which is sometimes poetry, fragments as robust and complete as any prose could be, distilled almost into the pure essence of narrative, lacking nothing. And the poetry that is sometimes prose, an open field of clarity, sharp and tender, or as Robert Adamson, her colleague and friend says in his blurb on the back cover, "Her writing contains the peril of experience and yet miraculously her vision is optimistic - sparkling with "The spirit in speech"."
In the poem 'Listening Backwards' For Kerry first published in Knabel (Wild and Woolley 1978) Viidikas uses the word twice, 'Where have the readings led us? Into definitions, / structures... the last pillars of sound ... solidified, scarred,' and 'We meet again and agree these structures will poison / us.' It appears that Viidikas is not happy with an expectation of an accepted or valued pathway for literary fiction, she poses doubts and questions in her discontinuous narrative (For Kerry), finishing the poem poignantly; '... till each of us forgets our values, becomes an empty / gourd ... to be worded again, to be answered ... from a / deep memory, the jackal's howl.'
Before I complete the focus on the word, structure/structures contained in Viidikas's work, one more, which I think best situates this word in her writing. From the poem, 'The Whole Bag' first published in Knabel (1978 Wild and Woolley) where the word appears three times;
If the structures
are more important
than the meaning of the words,
why then do we speak at all?
('The Whole Bag' p. 176)
Many of the poems and stories in this collection reward and can be read again, offering additional surprise and wonder at Viidikas's skill and strength. It is her determination to capture the experience of a world she explored, in her own fashion; poems such as 'Fig', 'The Way of the Swaying Lantern', 'They Always Come', 'Darjeeling' and the stories/fragments 'Mice. In Dreams Perhaps.', 'Steve and the Big Smoke', 'Greasy Copper and the Adventure', and the extract from 'Kali and the Dung Beetle'. I'll end this review with an excerpt from one of my personal favorites, an early poem written when Viidikas was living in Victoria. This poem was first published in Condition Red (The University of Queensland Press 1973).
And no one is past, or has to be cordoned off;
going on, heads stacked with honeycomb,
sucking thoughts or green reminders -
everything sings if touched
('Shoreham, Victoria' p. 117/8)
Editor's note:I've read Louise's review
of Vicki Viidikas. It's right on the money. A whole book could be
written about why a male poet like Michael Dransfield (who died of
drug use) could be continuously lauded and republished while a woman
like VV was largely forgotten If you don't want a whole book, then
one word might do: Romanticism .I did meet VV on several occasions
though I wasn't really part of that circle. I think it's mostly true
too about the 'Gen of 68' thing (though you could put in editorial
brackets after the comment about these people now being in positions
of power 'one of them even edited this issue' ...)
- Laurie Duggan