Poetry Journal

Latest writing / 8 Feb, 2016

JS Harry (1939–2015)

Nicolette Stasko

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:

  screaming without words
  she runs through the tunnel
  straight at them
  shock   opening like flowers
  on the faces of the oncoming
  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
  her feet were busted
  by the road—they were
  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
  become ‘feminised’:
  a female
          its flesh & rags
  in fragments
          is fished
  out of the
  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.

  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
  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
  (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
  then the bees
  arrived in the kitchen
  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
  early spring-
  behind  it
  you don’t
  need money
  to imagine
  the rain
  making rooster-red steps
  on the roof
  over the kitchen
  through the iron roof’s
  russet lace
                         to the floor below
             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
  Say anything
  to win, m’boy,
  and afterwards we’ll see
  if we can come good
  with a few
  bacon rinds
  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
  yer treasurer
  ’ll strip
  the wasteful
  and trim
  the porky
  party platform fat
  off the ‘beast’ y’ve promised.
  He’ll pop it in his costing oven
  and bring it out –
   well- cooked –
  cooled –
  dried –
  shrunk –
  a  twentieth of
  promissory size –
  no matter –
  a sniff
  is as good 
  as a feast
  of smells
  to the hungry, m’boy, 
  and sure
  we’ll all be that
  after a bit
  of time’s
  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
  whoever is
  the carving,
  know this –
  y’ being
  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
  as elders or royal relations
  by an absence of light
  stand formal
  like knives & forks
  stuck upright
  in mud for the night
  day will have them up
  using themselves
  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—
  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
  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.


[^1] Mrs Noah and the Minoan Queen, ed. Judith Rodriguez, Sisters Publishing, Carlton, 1983.

[^2] Peter Porter, review of JS Harry, ‘Not Finding Wittgenstein’, Australian Book Review, no. 294, 2007, p. 46.

[^3] Ivor Indyk, Sydney Review of Books,, 05/06/2015.

[^4] 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, but when the water dries up, the lakebed is used for grazing.