When my friend Jann Harry died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday morning 20 May 2015, after a long and debilitating illness, I realised that I had ‘known’ her for almost thirty years. When the Age obituary editor asked me what her date of birth was, I wondered if I knew her at all—I certainly did not know her birthday or much about her for that matter. Her poetry often deals with that conundrum: how little any of us really knows about each other. This suggests a few things. First, that personal detail was unimportant; for Harry it was the poetry that mattered—it was all she had to say and as much as she was willing to reveal. (It has been remarked that she was a poet first and person after.) Secondly, as suggested by her use of initials, she was a very private person. An early bio note tells a great deal about the poet’s modesty and this intense sense of privacy: ‘The elusive JS Harry was born in […] South Australia […]. Since then she has been sighted at odd festivals and seminars but never pinned down. When conversed with, she is usually on her way out. She hides in a post office box in Randwick’.1 In a speech at a Sydney memorial gathering held for JS Harry, on 9 June 2015, Emeritus Professor of Australian Literature, Elizabeth Webby rightly noted that Harry’s reticence and dislike of publicity meant that perhaps she was far less recognised than she might have been otherwise.
The use of initials also fulfilled another purpose. I remember when Harry was to launch my first collection in 1992. A couple of well known male poets came—as they told me—not because of my book but because they wanted to see if JS Harry was male or female! It seems there were bets on about this. Harry used JS as a pen name from the beginning of her career. Besides protecting her privacy, it was a way to shield herself from the anti-female attitudes of the then rather chauvinist poetry establishment. When she began publishing in the early 70s, there were very stereotypical ideas about the way women wrote and what they wrote about. Harry smashed through these prejudices. Bev Roberts described her as ‘one of Australian poetry’s “great transgressors”, and reading an early poem from the 1985 collection A Dandelion for Van Gogh reminded me how shocking and somewhat disturbing her poetry could be and yet how acute.
do you really want to stick neon lights in my cunt & worship there for the 364 other days? (from ‘mrs mothers’ day’)
Or the confronting ‘tunnel vision’, one of her best-known poems here quoted in full:
SUPPORT SYD VICIOUS CUT A SLUT JESUS SAVES AT THE WALES WHO ARE YOU IF YOU’RE NOT? CREAMINESS CONTROLS YOU OR YOU CONTROL THE CREAMINESS screaming without words she runs through the tunnel straight at them shock opening like flowers on the faces of the oncoming motorists her purple dress is ripped to the waist so it has become skirt only her bare round creamy breasts assault the pity & the rapist behind the many masks of ‘motorist’ her face is contorted in the scream everything in her life is concentrated behind it she is either stoned out of her mind just raped so hopeless in her life that whatever happens will be better drivers make stories up to fit some fiction to the picture it is 12 o’clock noon tube white fluorescent inside the road tunnel she is running on into the citybound traffic cars part noiselessly around her the traffic streams into the city & her bare feet & bare breasts & scream continue outwards towards rushcutters bay & later on to rose bay if she makes it drivers leaving the tunnel blink at the sunlight her image is off their eyes but she is running inside them as they enter the city all day they wonder did somebody rape her? again? did she find shelter? her feet were busted by the road—they were bleeding did some christ-of-the-tunnel get out of his car & kiss & wash her feet? risking causing a chain of deaths to do so? she is gone . . . going home through the tunnel drivers see SUPPORT SYD VICIOUS CUT A SLUT’S become ‘feminised’: SUPPORT C.S.R ROT SYD VICIOUS WITH SUGAR & JESUS FUCKS AT THE WALES WHO ARE YOU IF YOU’RE NOT MY GREAT AUNT FANNY a female form its flesh & rags in fragments sea-sucked purple is fished out of the gap- wash by the calm voice of-the-evening-news a fortnight later
Another simple fact I didn’t know was that Harry was born in Adelaide and eventually moved to Sydney in early adulthood. It seemed as if she had always lived in Sydney, although the poetry again reveals that there was no doubt extensive travel at some time. A perhaps little-known poem ‘Working in the Clichés of the “Apple”’ indicates a familiarity with New York that is probably not coincidental, as are the numerous poems about California and Japan. I did know that at a young age she began submitting her stories and poetry to children’s magazines with notable success—often the prizes being much-coveted books. This was clearly something she thought important as her nephew and niece recall that her ‘love of language, philosophy and intellectual thought was infectious […]. Every birthday and Christmas, we would receive a pile of carefully chosen books suited to our age and interests’.
Although she had a variety of jobs, including educational bookselling, ‘writing between them and sometimes during them’, Harry’s first allegiance was always to poetry. Eventually, she was able to devote herself full time to writing. Her first volume, Deer Under the Skin, published in 1971 as one of the first in the ‘epochal’ UQP paperback series edited by David Malouf, was awarded the Harri Jones Memorial Prize and chosen as the Poetry Society’s Book of Year. This important volume helped pave the way for poets trying to discover new ways to translate the Australian experience. Harry went on to produce eight more books to continued admiration and critical acclaim: A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985) was shortlisted for the National Book Council and the Adelaide Festival Poetry Awards. The title poem of her fourth book, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath (1995) won the PEN International Lynne Phillips Poetry Prize; and the 1995 Penguin New and Selected was co-winner of the NSW Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize.
JS Harry’s study of grammar and philosophy prompted some of her most original and imaginative poetry. As early as 1989, she conceived of the eponymous Peter Henry Lepus, a philosopher rabbit of insatiable curiosity. According to Harry, ‘it was a way of looking at different kinds of situations and in some ways of inviting readers to look at things from different points of view, to imagine what it would be like to be this creature, this rabbit who is trying to understand humans, and starts out very naive and gradually changes as he encounters things’. She first took Peter to Antarctica and Japan, then through meetings with Mother Teresa, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and the vagaries of the Australian literary scene and landscape. The first Peter Lepus poem she actually sent me was ‘Calcutta’, and I can remember my amazement at the originality of the rabbit concept, finding myself laughing out loud as I read it. Little did I know it was the beginning of many such incredible poems. Peter Henry did not in fact start out as a ‘Creole of mixed ancestry’. Harry originally had in mind the Peter Rabbit of the children’s books, but her attempt to gain permission from the Beatrix Potter estate was rejected with such ferocity and threat of lawsuits that it left her with a life-long terror of copyright.
‘Calcutta’ French beans think they are on the wrong land mass & wither into dessications of homesickness. Peter Henry Lepus gets lost in ‘Calcutta’ on his way to visit Farmer McGruber’s vegetable patch. It is not clement for lettuces in ‘Calcutta’ or carrots either. Unfortunately it is very unclement there for the famous fat little British rabbit. He is pursued by hordes, who have bones poking through the lines of their arms. Very unfriendly. While running lappity lappity—rather fast—to get away— he cannons into the lower portion of some hard legs hiding under a sari. When Peter looks up—he sees a warm face rumpled with brown hillocks & little friendly furrows like a dug vegetable patch in Farmer McGruber’s garden. Peter is pleased to see it—& is ‘rescued’— grabbed by his ears—rather roughly—he feels— by Mother Teresa, who plonks him sternly into a liquid-textured lapin version of the miracle of the bread & the fishes. Peter isn’t hungry anymore—& neither is ‘Calcutta’. No one has camomile tea, after supper. French beans have finished withering. They are dead. ‘Calcutta’ is doing very nicely & thanks you for asking.
Harry’s sympathies for the plight of victims in the Middle Eastern conflicts eventually landed Peter Lepus in Baghdad, where he experiences—along with such companions as news reporter Max, Clifta, a huntsman spider and environmentalist Braid—the horrors, violence and inhumanity of war, in contrast to his encounters with Oxford philosophers AJ Ayer and JL Austin. Peter Porter commented that ‘the further Harry seems from taking the horror and extremity seriously, the more the poem insists that, while language can never intercept an incoming missile, it can light up a moral scene as nothing else can’. 2 These poems were eventually collected in Not Finding Wittengenstein, which won the Age poetry Book of the Year in 2008.
Dorothy Hewett described her as ‘a skylarker with language, stylish, intense and original’. Harry’s interest was always in the way language is used or actually ‘uses’ us, and she was impatient with muddy or clichéd thinking (‘the baby, with the bath-water, thrown out’) and the reliance on slogans and platitudes that are prevalent today. For Harry, ‘meaning’ (whatever that is) was on a relative continuum from one to ten, and, more than once, she quotes Bertrand Russell as an epigraph:
A word has meaning, more or less vague; but the meaning is only to be discovered by observing its use; the use comes first, and the meaning is distilled out of it.
So many poems are concerned with this subject that it’s only possible to give a few examples:
Her bottom – like a Sherman tank? What would that look like? . . . Those words, directed towards her flesh, suggest a drift backwards into history Imaginations, travelling out, dredge pictures of Vehicles – Military. Mind as reader runs through memory: which famous Sherman was the tank named after? How did it move? Which model Sherman WAS THE PASSERBY THINKING OF? (from ‘Drift’)
The difference between a chimney & a ferry is that one carries an insubstantial ‘substance’ in a vertical direction without moving upward & the other carries solids in a horizontal direction by its own movement When a ferry moves the people on it are ‘funnelled horizontally’ through space to a point that may be measured with a piece of string & found to be a measurable distance from the place the ferry-with-the-people-on-it started from (from ‘This explains . . .’)
it is strange to speak of the hill as ‘rising’ when the hill stays exactly as it always has (from ‘the hill’)
For Harry, every poem is a testing ground for the meaning of words or ideas and no syllable is treated lightly. This exactitude, which was not an affectation but an indication of her moral integrity, resulted in the unusual typography she deployed, which so delighted her readers and exasperated her critics. She also had a remarkable sense of cadence. Anyone who ever heard her read knows what I mean. Even when she was very ill, and her poems were read aloud to her, she could pick a misstep or a false line break. Her use of the line is/was masterful—moving easily from the shortest, one word only, to the very long—often necessitating a turn (depending on the size of the page), which was sometimes a real frustration for her. Harry could naturally employ slang and scatology in her poetry but just as easily shift into a lyrical mode, as in the end of ‘tunnel vision’ (quoted above). ‘Roost’ from her last published collection PublicPrivate (Vagabond, 2014) is one of many examples of this lyricism:
the rain making little brown steps on the roof henlike one following after another then the bees arrived in the kitchen clambering round the weathered edges of the crack through the crack behind each bee as it climbed you could see a wide splinter of the pearl-grey sky some early spring- sun behind it you don’t need money to imagine the rain making rooster-red steps on the roof over the kitchen then through the iron roof’s russet lace on to the floor below water slowly dripping
JS Harry was also the most human of poets. Her nephew and niece remember her not so much as an award winning poet but ‘our somewhat eccentric Aunt’ who was their babysitter for much of their childhood. ‘Like all good aunts she didn’t worry too much about usual childhood restrictions; bed times, dietary requirements, and programed entertainment, were out the window. If we wanted chips and chocolate for dinner, generally that is what we got!’
As the title suggests, PublicPrivate contains beautiful and poignant lyrics and an elegy for her late partner and fellow poet Kerry Leves and illustrates her wicked humour and thoughtful critique of government machinations:
Past Politics East Coast Crude
to win, m’boy,
and afterwards we’ll see
if we can come good
with a few
for the ‘ham’
of y’ promises.
Whatever the size
of the next fella’s ham
before the election
say what y’hafta
to make YOURS
look bigger heftier –
doesn’t matter –
when y’r in
party platform fat
off the ‘beast’ y’ve promised.
He’ll pop it in his costing oven
and bring it out –
well- cooked –
a twentieth of
promissory size –
no matter –
is as good
as a feast
to the hungry, m’boy,
we’ll all be that
after a bit
gone by – and things
’ve got worse
as we knew they would – course y’ll hafta
throw us a few choice cuts
after y’ get there –
with a lean beast
y’ get less meat
know this –
by the country.
This last volume also confirms Harry’s great love and respect for Australia’s flora and fauna, which characterised her poetic career. Her attentiveness and extraordinary descriptive abilities bring to life even the most minute seed or insect, all of which she found equally important in the grand scheme of things. The brilliant poems observing the antic behaviour of birds alone could form a substantial volume. Concern for the environment and nature’s innocent creatures were essential to her poetry, as was her sometimes ferocious criticism of unthinking destruction caused by technology and mass progress.
the deer under the skin Standing at the top of the hill pricked by the wind/ pricking to it the sun shooting weirdly/ flashes of silver the light through the clouds/ like a glare off ice With the clouds/ herded-heavy/ grey-white/ wind-harried/ running before it/ flat as a dog Trying to take in the light/ to clasp the wind and grasp hold/ Skin . . . the pine-patterned plain/ dark green miles of it/ goldlakes of cleared-land the sneaking pines circling upon it Somewhere there — deer too/ feeling this wind standing breathing listening hearing . . . no sound/ brown pine-needle-soft/ nothing but the wind the green shushu . . . sudden/ the whack of a rotten-limb’s drop/ the startling pine-shielded on a path apart/ . . . when startled for the top barbs of all the fences palpitating gently they run turn stand and are smashed Soft-dead they flow to the guns
In a recent tribute, Ivor Indyk insightfully recognises that ‘if one were to make a single claim for Harry’s significance in Australian poetry, it should be that she was our first and foremost ecological poet. She wasn’t a “nature poet”, in the way that this term is used to describe poets of an earlier generation like David Campbell or Judith Wright. Though she shared the visual acuity of the one, and the passion of the other, her poetic idiom is distinctively contemporary’.3 Indyk explains that Harry’s poetry ‘is a movement outwards from nature to everything which impinges on it, including the imagination and its contents. It is this movement, this expansiveness, which […] describe[s] her achievement as ecological’. A poem from Dandelion is a striking example of this. Rather than a simple description of pelicans on a lake, Harry follows the observation through to the consequence of human actions, which besides affecting the water quality and therefore the pelicans, in turn ripples outward to note the effect on the human offenders as well. Whether or not they are able to imagine such a thing, the poet has done so. And it is important that the lake is not just any lake but the famous ‘disappearing’ Lake George (outside Canberra), which is a complex micro eco-system of its own.4
time in a pelican’s wing lake george’s pelicans stationary as elders or royal relations immobilised by an absence of light stand formal like knives & forks stuck upright in mud for the night day will have them up using themselves differently spooning mud water vegetables & fish so what if they’ve been having the flavours of the lakes they fished in changed as the nameless brands of water were formed & disappeared on this continent for 30 or 40 million years they have followed water scooping fish frogs crabs to live to here— today lake george is the clearest of soups— unknowing as the tide’s pollutants move on the shore-crabs as the effluent flows down the rivers & creeks as the agricultural chemicals wash off the land into streams what time is left in the flight of their wings— unlike humans or sun they are not big drinkers of lakes they will dribble back the water keep the fish we are joined to them by ignorance what time is left in anyone’s drink
For Harry, ‘humans’ (I can’t recall her ever using the word ‘being’), in spite of all their power and stupidity, were simply part of the ecosystem, no more no less, and she often observed them as curious creatures strangely bent on their own destruction. The three-part scathing, but often hilarious description of a car collision, ‘Report, From The Outlands, Mating Habits There Being In A State Of Flux’ begins:
They’ve learnt to humanise machines & build their people out of used, car-parts—the spares; their car ’s ‘an almost friendly beast’. They bolt their people’s quick-fiat hearts still to a frame of mechanised lies.’
And finishes ‘This poem ends by a pile of cooling scrap’.
Always generous with her time and attention, the extent to which Harry supported literary journals and fellow poets would probably be little known. She subscribed to most of the publications in Australia and often did not accept payment for her published poems. A member of many organisations, including the Australian Society of Authors and Pen International, Harry also bought (and frequently read) almost every book of poetry published in the last decades, whether she knew the poet or not. She edited the Friendly Street Poets’ anthology and, until she was unable to do so, regularly attended their annual events. She was often asked to judge poetry contests, which I tried to discourage since her empathy for poets enabled her to find something good in every poem regardless of its faults, much to the neglect of her own work. Like the ‘comma wars’ described by her friend John Stephenson or what I called ‘battles of the full stop’ concerning her own poetry, it might result in weeks of debating the pros and cons. This hesitation to judge and resistance to closure is expressed in numerous poems:
now if you could… when the poem is finished it is set hard like a hot pour of errant Wollongong Crude that’s been, inadvertently, trapped, flowed, slowed, cooled — & impossibly surprised — by itself —at itself — at finding a roughcast pig-iron self — in a part-cracked one-off mould. it is too set. now if you could you would ruffle its surface up poke a gum twig where three or four hot disturbed black biting ants’re angrily rushing about — there — for it to chew on — into its mouth — & plant a wad of pliant drawl-enriched minty-green chewie somewhere about that an imaginary hand has just removed, from an imaginary mouth.
Never didactic, Harry maintained throughout her career that she wrote ‘with the hope that there should be room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to work in’. Robert Adamson remarked ‘I remember reading poems of hers twenty years ago […] her poetry haunts and invigorates […] her work has enriched the way we write poetry in this country’. Associate Professor of Literature and author, James Tulip, wrote early on that ‘her intellect and literary sense are close to virtuosity and establish her claim as successor to Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood’. JS Harry fulfilled that promise. Until the end, in spite of increasing physical difficulty, she continued to work on what will now be her final book and the last adventure of Peter Henry (Giramondo Publishing, forthcoming). Her loss to Australian literature is immense, and she will be greatly missed by her family, friends and many admirers. Fortunately, we have been left with the gift of her astonishing poetry.
Books by JS Harry
The Deer Under the Skin. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1971.
Hold for a Little While and Turn Gently. Sydney: Island Press, 1979.
A Dandelion for Van Gogh. Sydney: Island Press, 1985.
Selected Poems. Ringwood: Penguin, 1995.
The Life of Water and the Life Beneath. Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1995.
Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow. Sydney: Vagabond, 2000.
If… And the Moveable Ground and Other Poems. Warners Bay: Picaro Press, 2004.
Not Finding Wittgenstein: Peter Henry Lepus Poems. Artarmon: Giramondo, 2007.
PublicPrivate. Sydney: Vagabond, 2014.
Mrs Noah and the Minoan Queen, ed. Judith Rodriguez, Sisters Publishing, Carlton, 1983. ↩
Peter Porter, review of JS Harry, ‘Not Finding Wittgenstein’, Australian Book Review, no. 294, 2007, p. 46. ↩
Lake George is actually a geographical depression that turns into a lake when it fills due to heavy rainfall. There is always water, which is surprisingly saline, below the lake floor. Changes in water levels, while not instantaneous, are dramatic. When full, the lake reaches a size of about 155sq.km, but when the water dries up, the lakebed is used for grazing. ↩