In an essay on her poetry, A.D. Hope—ever the most courteous of men—referred to Rosemary Dobson as “this impudent … young woman”. I read the Hope essay at about the same time I met Rosemary, and that adjective impudent gave me a jolt. Both the woman I perceived at our poetry events, and the poems I heard her recite, seemed more notable for their composure than their impudence. Now, at ninety-two, and a fortnight after the issue of a new edition of her Collected Poems, Rosemary Dobson becomes the last of that conspicuous generation of Australian poets to pass on.
But I think it worth keeping Hope’s word impudent pendent like a surveillance camera near her reputation to discomfit readers. For her poems do resist an easy “take”. They tend towards an outlook both singular and luminous, but one not easily translated into commentary.
Indeed the Hope essay, “Rosemary Dobson: A Portrait in a Mirror”, is an act of restitution after Alec had dismissed her third book—Child with a Cockatoo (1955)—as too dependent on the cousin-art of painting. Ruefully, lucidly, Hope exposes his original brash judgment to disclose the Dobson vision. This he identifies as one of “passionate serenity”, confident in its substance drawn from Western art, antiquity, anthropology, together with the sharp, sometimes impish observations of contemporary life, resourceful in its adapting classical meters to natural speech rhythms.
I call her generation of poets “conspicuous” because, in my acquaintance with Rosemary, David Campbell, Hope, more glancingly with Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood, I observed how, for them, a commitment to poetry entailed, not so much the scheduling of an interest, as the orientation of one’s living. This meant that in the everyday there were university courses in anthropology, ancient history, Chinese and Japanese literature, courses in life-drawing and ceramics—Rosemary enrolled for the former, Campbell for the latter. But there was also the sense that these studies were pursued in order to bear upon the writing of poems and the ongoing formation of the poetry between the poems. This continuum in a life’s work, the way poetic incident makes towards a poetic whole, is distinct to each poet, and particularly nuanced in the Dobson Collected Poems. For such nuance does one re-orient the very basis of one’s living and one example of this might be the immersion in Russian poetry that resulted in her collaborative translations with Campbell from Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others in Moscow Trefoil and Seven Russian Poets.
I knew Rosemary for forty years but cannot say I knew her well. Ours was the casual acquaintance of literary events in that weird familiarity where folk with kindred interests somehow miss exchanging useful observations. Usually she had new poems to try on our audiences. I recall convivial occasions of poets at the Bolton dinner table, invariably centred by the several oranges in the fruit bowl, each patiently pierced by cloves into an exquisitely armoured citrus, a sobering focus as Rosemary’s husband, Alec Bolton, with most wonderful attention, refilled the wineglasses each time a sip was taken.
These times of fierce poetry politics provided one delightful instance of her impishness. “You look like a pair of conspirators,” she leaned across to where I nattered with a colleague. “What mischief are you cooking up?” More usually however, Rosemary was withheld, my abiding sense of her being one of a reserved person, watchful of others, mindful of others.
We shared one interest, in the books of the British oral historian George Ewart Evans. Evans recognised that the modern epoch was extinguishing not only the usages of venerable human occupations—farming, mining, maritime trade—but also the mystery attached to them. With the newly invented tape-recorder, he recorded the veterans of these occupations, then took their testimony to create books that disclosed, not merely the record of old practice, but the very fabric of lives in the vernacular native to them.
When Rosemary lent me Evans’s book Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, I recognised the vividness with which this book created a tableau of East Anglia’s old agricultural life, that part of England where I was schooled. But further, I saw how Evans’s interest was native to her own interests as she expresses them, say, in a poem like “Country Press”.
For “Country Press” is a poem warm with the life of one era persisting precariously into another. And in this it touches the delicacy, the resilient interest behind so much of her work. For her search was to identify a ground of continuity by which humans can place value in existence. If Evans’s work was to identify in exact testimony a value integral to the very texture and necessity of what lives had once been, likewise Rosemary Dobson’s work goes to art, antiquity, the academic and curatorial disciplines to locate continuance and value against time’s effacements.
This is not an academic intelligence at work, but the unsettled mind seeking wholeness-of-being in a world where there is also havoc. In the title poem of her first book, published in 1944, the poet looks into a convex mirror and asks,
Shall we be fixed within the frame,
This breathing light to clear-cold glass
Until our images are selves
And words to wiser silence pass?
The inquiry here is informed by Plato, by Christian mysticism, and by that characteristic Dobson tone of “passionate serenity”. In other poems she shares with the poets of early modernism, Eliot, Slessor, that fascination with Time, but to which, in poems like “The Three Fates” she brings her own fabulist sense of how strange the temporal fabric is. But there is also the fun. It pervades “Country Press” and the gentle caricatures of “Captain Svenson” or “Piltdown Man”, the recollection of mysterious merriment in the late poem “Who?”
In company, I visited Rosemary on her ninety-second birthday, nine days before she died. Our conversation was mostly lucid if a little disjointed. I knew she had been blind for some time and, as others led the talk, I looked along the few books on the shelves of her room. I was taken a little aback, for I spied, not one copy of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, but three! What was going on?
I pondered this. Evidently Evans, with his creation of verbatim records of peaceable, useful lives, had once enchanted Rosemary Dobson. What was this notable enchantment? I cannot say. I did not know her well. But I do know her poems move, intrigue, enchant with their substance of peaceable modest lives conscious they exist on a fabric of time that is often strange to them. No, hers is not an impudent poetry, but one natural to an imagination whose life is now whole. Nonetheless, that surveillance camera, impudent, is useful to watch that this life’s work is never taken for less than it is.
Rosemary Dobson died in June. This article was originally commissioned by the ACT Writers’ Centre and appeared in the Centre’s monthly newsletter.
Alan Gould’s latest novel, The Seaglass Spiral, parts of which first appeared in the fiction pages of Quadrant, was published last month by Finlay Lloyd Publishing.