Of past contemporary existential post-modernists, few have ever managed to capture and reflect Australia’s ever shifting cultural identity with such diversity as Gwen Harwood. Through her various works published between the early 1940’s and dawn of the new millennium, many largely unimpeded social issues common of the era were given original and often critical engagement that they may not have seen otherwise in the public limelight.
Choosing to appropriate her own style rather than adhere to pre-established connotations of form and genre, Harwood provokes peculiarity in an effort to promote change.
Below is the Petrarchan sonnet: ‘In The Park (1963)’ as extracted from Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems (2001);
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 Her clothes are out of date.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 passed 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.”
In direct contrast to the romanticised traditions of infatuation typical to 16th century modernism,
Harwood shy’s away from the conventional ‘love song’ motif that sonnets pertain in favour of a heavier-hearted reality. The woman portrayed haggles indefinitely with her sanity and soul, sacrificing all who she once was for the “joys” of partnerless Motherhood. In a kind of ironic dichotomy, ‘In The Park’ is more or less empathetically satirising the anguishing fate of single parents in the late 20th century.
Despite Harwood’s contentment with fulfilling domestic roles in her own life as wife and mother however, her poetry suggests it’s almost not worth the sacrifices of time and effort to glean said satisfaction; antagonistically alluding to her inescapable longing for the ‘what if’. Asking herself what could of been had she not conformed to the patriarchal roles presented to her. In portraying the scene in such a way to say “Her clothes are out of date. Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt” it can be presumed that what little money is had has gone to the children rather than the mother. Arguably a small sacrifice for the perceived joys of procreation, it is sacrifice nonetheless and not one that is mutually endured by the father. Frequently placing emphasis on the roles of stifled women in society, this is yet another expression of the bias Harwood see’s life having towards men.
Facing fascism in the figurative sense, feminism is woven into not only her literature but into its publishing also. Having to employ the use of male pseudonyms for much of her early career due to prejudice, Harwood at one point published an acrostic poem under the guise of ‘Walter Lehmann’ which spelt “Fuck AlL eDiToRs” in retaliation to C. B. Christesen; the editor of Meanjin, whom had stolen one of her phrases after refusing it publishing. Although years prior, Harwood had since married linguist Bill Harwood and moved to Hobart with him. Spending much of her time at the University of Tasmania where her husband lectured, becoming fixated on the work of analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Renowned for his inventive albeit eccentric lexical disposition, he believed it was impossible to comprehend the meaning of any word without acknowledging the perpetual metaphysical connotations it may also pertain to. It is evident Harwood adopted this attitude too by the existential undertones intrinsic to much if not all of her works, consistently utilising metaphors and imagery coupled with the sonnet form as a vessel for the vocalisation of her disdain towards romantic discourse; the audience is asked to stray from linearity and look upon themselves for an expanded understanding of the text.
Below is the concluding vignette to “that dowdy housewife’s” tales: ‘Later Texts I (1995)’ as it appeared in Gwen Harwood: Selected Poems (2001);
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.”
The line “She sits a while in flickering light rehearsing” references the passion or flame that had once inspired the woman’s romance and domesticity which has since dissipated. Holding on to an evanescent memory of a lost lover and entering that space once more, whether it be by witnessing another struggle similarly or encountering the person directly; a fleeting sense of turmoil and tranquility intertwine irreverently within. ‘In The Park’ serves as a prelude for ‘Later Texts I’, detailing a time of loneliness and despair unimpaired by hope. An obvious allusion to the reality of solo parenting and one that playfully captures these woes, it is both earnest and defeating. Like all people after time however, the woman has grown and learned to use her experiences constructively as a tool to further develop oneself; she rehearses the act of living in an attempt to hone her role in the play of life.
In stark contrast, the father depicted in ‘In The Park’ is portrayed as cowardly and lacking moral insight. “From his neat head unquestionably rises / a small balloon…“but for the grace of God…””
Ironically emphasising the childish thought process of the ex-lover, his consciousness is described as a cartoon-strip style thought balloon containing anything but remorse for the past. More a production of loathing than love, Harwood’s sonnets aim to shed light on the much more melancholy aspects of love. Intimacy can be observed as being mitigated through detachment in perspective, arguably an effort to capture the emotional schism since formed following their separation.
Below is my attempt at mirroring Gwen Harwood’s style and emulating this rift:
The sonnet is titled: Alone.
We pretend our lives don’t revolve around
despair, that fate is fair. Toiling in the rain,
my cigarette dances to the sombre candescence
of our drab street. The morning cool envelops
all, least my affection. And my heart lingers with
a sordid disposition. In the window,
I watch as she glances from behind the curtain.
Carried away, like spring leaves by the summer
breeze. I struggle to make sense of it all,
unable to make the transition to fall.
Two ‘overnight’ bags sit perched on the stairs,
a mother cradles her daughter. She moans:
“For fear that I might die, for fear that you might cry;
we can spend this morning, in mourning.”
Exploring the emotional consequence of separation and what it means for children caught in the crossfire, ‘Alone.’ focuses on similar concepts to that of Harwood’s vignettes; challenging conventional ideals about romance and the sonnet form, metaphor and simile are employed to actualise the opportunity for ulterior readings in both mine and Harwood’s work. Reflecting the pessimistic undertones of her style, a faint spark remains between the pair but not one which is able to keep them together for longer than a morning.