By Gwen Harwood (1920-1995)
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt.
Someone she loved once passes by – too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
When I was a schoolgirl, my Dad used to bring home Meanjin Papers, now called simply Meanjin and still one of Australia’s foremost literary magazines. Back then it was one of very few. It was new, and published nothing but poetry. (Now it is much broader in scope.) It was an exciting publication, introducing new work by brilliant poets such as Judith Wright. I still remember reading the issue in which they introduced the promising young Brisbane poet, Gwen Harwood. I was impressed enough to remember the name when I came across more of her work some years later, by which time she was living in my own home State of Tasmania. By then she was already acknowledged as one of our most important poets. Now, many consider her our greatest.
I got to know her a little in person, through the Poets Union of Australia to which we both belonged. Also we had mutual friends with whom she corresponded, so we heard of each other in a more personal way too. Once I shared a stage with her. She was first on the bill and I was second; quite a challenge to have to follow such an eminent poet! (Her poetry, while often passionate and intense, is characteristically beautiful, formal and intellectual, and what she read that day was no exception. I did the only thing I could do — completely changed the pace with my most dynamic performance piece.) I last saw her only a few years before her death, at a poetry festival in 1992. She had been ill but was in remission, and everyone was happy that she was better. We had a few companionable moments alone, and she hugged me in genuine delight on learning I was about to remarry.
In person Gwen was warm, lively, down-to-earth, interested in everything and everyone — and perfectly modest and unassuming.
The poem I’ve chosen is one of her best-known, written at a time when sacrosanct motherhood was rarely questioned or treated unsentimentally. I first came across it when I was a young mother of pre-schoolers, and sometimes felt I was locked up alone every day with a couple of wild animals!
She was a prolific poet but her poetry is rather hard to find online, and there are only a few pieces. They are at Poem Hunter, All Poetry and Tumblr.
There is a detailed biography and critical discussion of her poems from the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, as well as a more affectionate analysis by Australian poet Katherine Gallagher. She had an interesting poetic career, for a number of years publishing under several pseudonyms, mostly male, as well as her own name. Later she reclaimed those poems. Her work was much influenced by her loves of philosophy and music (she was also a librettist).
Her Collected Poems and other books are available from Amazon.
Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).