I accumulate books the way a ship accumulates barnacles. They just seem to attach themselves as I go about my daily life. Where do they come from? Chain stores, independents, used book stores, discounters, library sales; who knows. I look on my shelves these days and wonder in surprise, when did I get that? I've been trying to work the backlog of odd books acquired and then shelved unread. This weekend I pulled out a paperback edition of the Selected Poems of the late Australian poet, Gwen Harwood. I had never encountered her work before the book showed up on the library discard shelf. A quick check of Amazon.com shows that her work is out of print, or of "limited availability." This is a shame. She has a unique voice; erudite, passionate, cynical, sentimental and wise. She is also a master of form. Born in 1920, it is hard to think of many other poets of her generation who are as unselfconsciously at home with the stresses and rhythms of traditional verse. Yet, she is unmistakably modern. Let me bend fair use by typing out a poem from one of her later volumes. It is probably not one of her best, but it does capture some of what appeals about her work.
As always after partings, I
get from its place the Oxford Donne,
inked in with aches from adolescence.
Who needs drugs if she has enough
uppers and downers in her head?
Though names are not engraved herein,
who can be literally dead
if he leaps from an underlining
into my flesh at The Sunne Rising?
Lou Salome in her old age: "Whether
I kissed Nietzsche on Monte Sacro
I find I do not now remember."
Young Saint Therese of Lisieux, writing
"When I love, it is forever."
One mistress of half Europe, one
enclosed with a transcendent lover.
Dear ladies, shall we meet halfway
between sanctity and liberation?
Today I leave the book unopened.
Strangely, this farewell's left me joyful.
Can ghosts die? Yes, old ghosts are summoned
back to their shades of ink. My lover
will come again to me, my body
to its true end will give him joy.
Now in his absence let me walk
at peaceful sunset in the pasture
feeding my geese, my latter children,
and when the afterglow is gone
Lou's ravishing forgetfulness
will rock my soul with saving laughter,
and the singlehearted saint will braid
all loves into one everlasting.
Then, if I need a lullaby,
good Doctor Donne, will you attend?