Friday, March 10, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

And in the wake of International Women's Day –

Five years ago I shared with you the following poem by the famous and beloved Australian poet, Gwen Harwood, which was first published in 1963:

In the Park
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 Her clothes are out of date.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.”

Now I have come across her follow-up, published in 1995, the year she died:

Later Texts

She sits in the park, wishing she'd never written
about that dowdy housewife and her brood.
Better, the Memoirs of a Mad Sex-Kitten,
or a high-minded Ode to Motherhood
in common metre with a grand doxology.
'They have eaten me alive.' Did she write that?
The sonnet nestles in a new anthology
safe in its basket as a favoured cat.

She sits a while in flickering light rehearsing
the family's birthdays. 'Stop, you bloody fool!'
A young house-father with a pram is cursing
a child who's pushed another in the pool.
She helps him calm them. 'Eating you alive?
Look at me. I've lived through it. You'll survive.'

('I.' because she also offered 'later texts' of a couple of other earlier pieces.)

The span of thirty-odd years offers a different perspective –
both in the woman protagonist's life and in the society she inhabits. Some things, however, remain much the same. (Parenting young children can be a trial, no matter which gender is attempting it!) 

One small point of interest: in the first poem, the man feels thankful, and perhaps superior, at not sharing the woman's plight. In the second, the woman goes to the aid of the young man in her old position. A matter of gender, or the mark of changes in society, I wonder? What if the positions were reversed in the later poem? We can only speculate.

I don't think either poem needs any further comment from me. Harwood wrote both with great clarity, and with wry humour – able to laugh, above all, at herself.  

To find out more about her, please click the link on her name, above, for the Wikipedia article, and/or my post of five years ago, which has further information and some more links.

This photo of Gwen Harwood is taken from Directory of Australian Poets 1980, of which I was one of the editors. The quality of the print isn't great, but I'm using it because I don't need to seek permission, and because she selected it herself as how she wished to portray herself. It's how many of us remember her, vibrant and full of fun. (And yes, she was a pianist too.)


Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright)


  1. Love both these poems and the differences the years make. They stand alone as both are delightful and deep, but putting them together makes me want to read the other observations/poems that intervened. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Rosemary :) Many years ago I was fortunate to hear Gwen Harwood read some of her magical poems in an ancient building in Stanley in NW Tasmania. It was a winter's afternoon, and as she read the setting sun illuminated her beautiful and humane features. Your intriguing post brought back lovely memories.

  3. I love both poems and wish she had written a third from the perspective of old age, when we realize how important and precious those young years are. Very cool to look at this feature this morning, Rosemary.

    1. Well, she was 75 when she wrote the second, and although her protagonist appears to have the mental vigour of middle age, perhaps old age is hinted at in 'rehearsing / the family's birthdays'. You are right; neither poem looks at the blessings of having children – but, as Wikipedia says: 'others of her poems treat motherhood in a more complex and nuanced way.'

    2. Of course, the first poem DOES mention how 'sweet / to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive' – but we know immediately that the woman is parroting what she is supposed to think and feel – how skilled is this poet that we do immediately know that! Perhaps she does feel it sometimes, but not in this moment, faced with the reminder of who she used to be before motherhood swallowed her.

  4. I loved the poems and the differet perspective as time goes by....makes sense. We don't always see things the same...

  5. Thank you, Rosemary, I have always loved her work. I taught her poems often when I taught Senior English.

  6. An interesting post, Rosemary. Gwen Harwood must have been a fascinating woman - to say nothing of talented. The poems you've featured here have a compelling synergy. Thanks for this!

  7. Nice how she responds to herself at a later time, with a different perspective. Made me think of giving this to my daughter, who is now raising her two children, and i think at times feels she's being eaten alive. i enjoyed both poems. What a telented woman she was.

  8. The first poem reminds me of Philip Larkin's " Afternoon". Same setting..making a similar point.Enjoyed.

    1. I didn't know that one. Just looked it up. Yes, I see what you mean –  and wow, what a punch-line it, too, has!

  9. Thanks,Rosemary. I really enjoyed these two poems in their different perspectives. Interesting, talented woman.

  10. Dear Rosemary

    I love the poems you have featured - as a working mother, a writer and a wife…I have had my moments of 'being eaten alive'. This resonates, and the second poem is a great comfort.

  11. the long gap makes both the poems intriguing..thanks for the share Rosemary..


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