We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Poetic Images Suzy McKee Charnas & Judith Wright (3) · 18 October 05

Dear Fanny,

I’ve yet to align what I wrote about Charnas’s Dorothea Dreams in two postings with two poems by Judith Wright.

Dorothea Dreams is at its heart a poetic image, one from which the plot-design has been unravelled out. Two people, old, one dying and very tired indeed of the vicious results he’s seen of revolution, the other in retreat from society when in stasis, commercial, petty, venial, all industrialized. An analogy can also be made with Margaret Atwood’s poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie: they picture the desolation and inhumanity of the human-caused monumental mechanized anonymous environment we live in. Judith Wright’s poetry seems closer since she has at the center of her poems a modern consciousness. At the center of both is human loneliness, isolation, but Wright’s poetic self is less austere, and more open to suggest vulnerability. It interests me that all three women writers write out of a vast still untamed, maybe untamable landscape: Australia, Canada, the southwestern US. The images of Georgia O’Keeffe were what I put on WWTTA’s groupsite page during the reading and discussion of Dorothea Dreams, e.g., My Backyard (at http://www.mystudios.com/women/klmno/okeefe-small-purple-hills.html).

So a vast landscape, a wall, into which the artist hammers the junk of the technological world. Really the garbage. The wires. Electricity is what flowed through this stuff to make this modern society of power. This junk came out of nature; it’s nature transformed, and so the artist hammers it back in as best she can. She is visited by three young people fleeing a police action who resort to violence to control her and other young people, students of a dense woman of this society. The one out they can think of is take a train to Canada.

And so here is Judith Wright’s analogous vision to Dorothea’s in two poems:

The Trains

Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass
in a splendour of power, with a sound like thunder
shaking the orchards, waking
the young from a dream, scattering like glass
the old men’s sleep; laying
a black trail over the still bloom of the orchards.
The trains go north with guns.

Strange primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet
hearing their cry pierce through its thin-walled cave
recalls the forgotten tiger
and leaps awake in its old panic riot;
and how shall the mind be sober,
since blood’s red thread still bind us fast in history?
Tiger, you walk through all our past and future,
troubling the children’s sleep; laying
a reeking trail across our dream of orchards.

Racing on iron errands, the trains go by,
and over the white acres of our orchards
hurl their wild summong cry, their animal cry …
the trains go north with guns.

For New England

Your trees, the homesick and the swarthy native,
blow all one way to me, this southern wather
that smells of early snow:

And I remember
The house closed in with sycamore and chestnut
fighting the foreign wind.
Here I will stay, she said; be done with the black north,
the harsh horizon rimmed with drought
Planted the island there and drew it round her.
Thereore I find in me the double tree.
And therefore I, deserted on the wharves,
have watched the ships fan out their web of steamers
(thinking of how the look out at the heads
leadned out towards the dubious rins of sea
to find a sail blown over like message
you are not forgotten),
or followd through the taproot of the poplar …
But look, oh look, the Gothic tree’s on fire
with blown galahs, and fuming with wild wings.

The hard inquiring wind strikes to the bone
and whines division.

Many roads meet here
in me, the traveller and the way I travel.
All the hills’ gathered waters feed my seas
who am the swimmer and the mountain river;
and the long slopes’ concurrence is my flesh
who am the gazer and the land I stare on;
and dogwood blooms within my winter blood,
and orchards fruit in me and need no season.
But sullenly the jealous bones recall
what other earth is shaped and hoarded in them.

Where’s home, Ulysess? Cuckolded by lewd time
he never found again the girl he sailed from,
but at his fireside met the islands waiting
and died there, twice a strange.

Wind, blow through me
till the nostalgic candles of laburnum
fuse with the dogwood in a single glame
to touch alight these sapless memories.
Then will my land turn sweetly from the plough
and all my pastures rise as green as spring.

by Judith Wright


The second poem ends on a note of hope of renewal or fulfillment through time in natural processes.

In Persuasion through Anne Elliot Jane Austen said that the men have had the pens in their hands and so she won’t listen to what literature tells us. Literature thus tells but half a story and that not women’s.

I sometimes think men’s books also have garnered some of the best archetypal characters: Odysseus or Ulysses is one of them, that continual liar who returns home to murder all those seeking to take his place (and thus power), his women. And when he’s murdered enough people and found this strange wife (changed by time), what then? Reminds me of the stories I’ve read of Nelson Mandela and his wife when he "came home" to her. She had lived by becoming the head of a band of thugs; she couldn’t have survived knitting—nor did any real Penelope ever. Like Charnas’s Blanca and Joyce, she’d have been turned upon and beaten.

True enough in Dorothea Dreams it may be said the central character is really Ricky, a displaced hero. He and the man who flees the French revolution, and whose advice Dorothea obeys, are given the three central letters of the book. We end the book on Ricky’s vision.

In the book itself Charnas never cites one women’s memoir from the period. She appears not to have read any.

I see a kind of betrayal in some women’s books—and we glimpse it in Charnas’s Dorothea Dreams. The woman author pretends to be a male narrator, has male heroes, writes male picaro adventure stories or apparently misogynist plays (Aphra Behn for example) from a masculinist standpoint. In her essay on the Net, ‘Magic, Theft, Time and Money’, Charnas says she preferred these to the Little Women type stories. Only once on Litalk-l while we were discussing her Vampire Tapestry with her did Charnas bristle: when I suggested The Vampire Tapestry had a Jane Austen surface. The Vampire Tapestry keeps Flora, the strong woman psychiatrist who is the only match for Weyland, to the fourth chapter. Flora’s daughter, who leaves her husband and experiences much distress in returning to her mother and needing her, is the character analogous to Blanca in Vampire Tapestry. In Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World apparently all the actors are men.

Yet the story is Dorothea’s, she is the artist here. In this novel Charnas has written within the tradition once again (as she did in Vampire Tapestry) Austen, Frances Sheridan (mid-18th century writer, her epistolary novel, The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, her important work, Charlotte Smith, Bronte, Gaskell, Alcott, Patchett’s Bel Canto, Piercy’s Three Women, to name only those books I’ve discussed or cited lately. Perhaps both Charnas’s Dorothea & Ricky both may be said to be Charnas’s composite Odysseus. Both come home to one another, at least for time making-love—very poignant these scenes. And then after weathering yet another violent sombering intrusion from the world, they part.

Both of Wright’s poems come from an early collection called The Moving Image, some of which have been reprinted in Judith Wright, The Double Tree, Selected Poems, 1942-1976. I put her "Extinct Birds" on this blog together with Fleur Adcock’s bird poem, "The Way Out" this past April. I think I will now also put on this blog some of Margaret Atwood’s poems to Susanna Moodie. Not today but soon. I haven’t forgotten my promise to show how Anne Seierstat’s The Bookseller of Kabul uncovers the cruelties and tragedies of home life in traditional "communities" as an addendum to my blogs, The Power-hungry & their hired and coerced Pests, and The Motley Ties & the Cash Nexus.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


commenting closed for this article