Gwen Harwood (1920-1995) was a key figure in 20th century Australian poetry. Carcanet/Fyfield brought out a U.K. edition of her selected poems, titled Mappings of the Plane, in 2009, and I managed to get my hands on a copy last month.
A first reading hinted at a series of poets rolled into one - lots of different voices and techniques all fused by one mind. This impression was confirmed by background information: Gwen Harwood was renowned for adopting multiple personas and pseudonyms, using them to try out new masks, perspectives and techniques.
Although Mappings of the Plane brings these different threads together under her name, there's still a sense of these varying tangents working their way through her poems. Add this to the inevitable development undertaken by any poet throughout their life and you can see why this Selected displays such a wide range of qualities.
This above-mentioned range means that no reader's going to be taken with the whole book. Instead, there are gems which glitter every few pages. I particularly enjoyed "In The Park", for example, and feel it's worth reading alongside Larkin's "Afternoons". The latter poem exquisitely observes young mothers, while the former moves under one's skin:
"...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."
Placing this down-to-earth poem in the context of several explicitly metaphysical pieces, Harwood's variety becomes clear. In many poems she's unafraid of abstract nouns and imagery (many critics see her as a Romantic), often leaping from day-to-day contexts to concepts and then back again.
Something of her music reminds me of Keith Douglas, although her work is more slow-building than his. She doesn't manage the sudden acceleration and the rush of clarity that so characterise Douglas. Harwood's poems unwind more gradually, thus not lending themselves to outstanding quotes. Here, however, are the closing lines of "Nightfall", as it reaches high:
home with the child once quick
to mischief, grown to learn
what sorrows, in the end,
no words, no tears can mend."
Mappings of the Plane is the record of an exceptional poetic mind at work. Gwen Harwood deserves a wider U.K. readership for her poems, as all of us can find something to savour in them.
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