Friday, May 11, 2012

I Wish I'd Written This

from This Time
by Dorothy Hewett (1923 - 2002)


I’ve made it once again,
gone past the pitch of grief,
each time it’s easier and nonchalant.
Slip into it, Old Friend; a fatal treaty.
I stretch my limbs, knowing the stages
of withdrawal, irony contributes,
(but not much) it’s giving yourself to pain,
no twilight sleep, cold turkey!
It helps to be a woman, not in God’s image.
I weep in terminals and public libraries.

It’s over now,
the waking up to pain,
the compensatory eating’s almost stopped.
On a diet I’m even interested in other men.
My calendar measures months.
My capacity for faithfulness was always limited.
Yet there’s a dreariness, not visionary at all,
old flicks, old times,
the sepia snapshots in my family album:
Watergate breaks
its stoney teeth and bridge of sighs
flying Old Glory, the wiretappers’ lament.
Flesh fails,
my bones are stiff, yet winter passes,
spring builds its hopes.
I find the same face in the bathroom mirror.
Hard to sink back again to middle age. 

Now that the pain has gone
I’m lost without it,
no rhythm to my days, no sense of purpose;
brute force a wheel to break on
balanced time, but that’s all lost.
I turn your letters in a drawer,
and think of words I wrote,
know the old itch for permanence
made these sly icons of ephemera.

But here’s the proof we lived
to write each other from our distant cities,
suffered alone in motel rooms,
put out a hand, smiled, sat up naked,
shared each other’s bodes . . .
phony libertines and beautiful fucks!

Somewhere in a far city the night comes down,
                                       (two hours early)
sound waves crackle, you die in bed
of a broken heart, your hand reaching
                                      for the telephone
before the blackness cuts the last receiver;
I would have answered one long distance call.
You lie with the Sisters of Mercy
under the dangling man,
your ribcage cracked,
your side open to their hands.
“Jesus! but that was close!”
“We prefer, my son, to call it the will of God.”
(We two non-believers, atheists to the end.)

I walk in the garden in the last light
and hear a bird call, but no soul sings out.
Your books are on my shelf, on the dust jackets
I trace your beardless face,

                                   younger . . . more vulnerable . . .
The engaged signal beeps mournfully through the house.

(From the book, Rapunzel in Suburbia. Sydney, Prism 1975.) 

(Note: ‘flicks’ is old slang for movies.)

This is the final section of a longer poem about a relationship. I love the way that, although very personal to the point of being almost obscure in places, and very specific, in its allusions, to the time it was written, it evokes the universal. What woman who has loved and lost doesn’t understand, ‘I weep in terminals and public libraries’ or, ‘the compensatory eating’s almost stopped’?

Her range of topics is eclectic. I particularly love her poems about the Australian countryside.
Dorothy Hewett was a colourful, legendary figure in Australian literature. Yes, I did know her, very slightly — conversed with her at poetry festivals, and replaced her in one when she had to cancel: a great honour! (Australian poets were a small community in those days; we mostly knew each other.) She was old then, and obese due to her crippling arthritis, but still with remarkable facial beauty, great presence and charisma, and no affectations whatsoever.

Wikipedia describes her as ‘ feminist poet, novelist, librettist and playwright’. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to literature in 1986. 

She was famously a member of the Communist Party when that seemed to embody humanitarian ideals — and, like so many, became disillusioned with it later. She was also famous for being sexually liberated when that was a very daring thing for a woman — and writing about it!

She and her poetry were startling originals. Of course everyone is unique, but, as George Orwell didn't quite say, some are more unique than others.

Here’s an interview with her. There’s a list of her publications at Australian Poetry Library and you’ll find 792 of her poems there too, all wonderful. The latest book of her work is Selected Poems, edited by her daughter, poet Kate Lilley, and it is reviewed here. (A review which is as much a reminiscence.) Enjoy!

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Rosemary,, I like this poem very much. She definitely does find the right words to capture grief. And I like its personal quality. I could easily be tempted to read more of her writing. Thank yo

    1. Oh, do let yourself be tempted, Mary! The rewards of indulgence will be great. :)

  2. I so love this poem. It truly does speak to the universal: grief and loss, and remembering. "I...hear a bird call but no soul sings out." Truly wonderful writing. Thanks, Rosemary for bringing these fabulous poets to our attention. I always love this column!

  3. Thank you both yet again, dear devoted readers! Your comments always warm my heart. In the clear light of morning I have fixed a few typos — including the correction 'dreariness' rather than 'dearness' in first verse! (Though 'dearness' kinda worked too.) Glad you enjoyed this despite them.


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