In 1985 I was so insecure about my writing that when I picked up marked essays from the English department I carried them around for hours, or days, then tentatively peeked at the blank back page before working up courage to decipher the impress of the grade, the academic mark, through paper. End 1988, when I got my final results for my degree, I could not bear to open the envelope till late 1991.
Apart from my very first essay, which was an A-, and an A- from a Leavis-ite lecturer the next year, all my English marks were High Distinctions. In first year I won five awards or scholarships and in second year I topped the year. My professors were having conversations with me about winning the University medal and scholarships to Princeton. Scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I was fairly sure Ivy League did not feature.
Against this background, it might come as no surprise that when my poetry book Other People (and other poems) was self-published in 1985 I did not seek out reviews. I was aware that one of my Associate Professors, Don Anderson, who the following year became my tutor and mentor, mentioned my little book kindly in his literary column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I knew my writing hero Helen Garner bought my book. I knew the poet Dorothy Hewett liked me (we’d met one rainy day sharing a table in a Kings Cross coffee shop and Dorothy opened her home to me). I knew Brenda Walker at the University of Western Australia was interested, because she’d asked her brother, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, if he knew me as a fellow habitue of Kings Cross (he did). Also, Brenda was on the editorial board of Westerly, the literary journal, which published half a dozen of my poems, and she asked me to contribute to a study she was co-editing, Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. My correspondence with Brenda in the mid-80s contributed immensely to my confidence as a writer and a student.
But real reviews? Reviews by critics? Spare me.
And so it happened that it was not till 31 years later, in 2016, that in hunting out a missing poem of mine on the austlit.edu.au Australian Literature database I discovered reviews exist for Other People. One was written by Judith Rodriguez, who had awarded me First Prize in a short story competition. When I printed out Judith’s review (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985) the sentence that leapt out was “McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces”, but I consider that friendly fire: the truth is my book was laden with duds. The other review was written by Barbara Giles (Australian Book Review #81, June 1986). Barbara’s review is so generous I’m overcome.
What really surprises me is that the four poems Judith and Barbara chose to quote were poems I considered weak – two of them so weak I haven’t bothered posting them on this blog site (even though one was anthologised). Forgive my hubris, but it’s rather nice to reappraise work I had long since dismissed.
Barbara. Judith. Helen. Brenda. Don. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to Dorothy and Merv, you are in my heart, always.
Judith Rodriguez, ‘New poets show power amid the complexity’ – Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985 p.46
Two very young poets are Elly McDonald, whose Other People (and other poems) can be had from PO Box 1230, Potts Point, and Adam Aitken with Letter to Marco Polo (Island, $5.95). Both are in their mid-twenties.
McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces, but her interest in people carries brightly through most of her short poems of encounters, confrontations, and overheard talk. Messalina at the Beach-House is a piquant description of a cat with personality; Telling catches a difficult tone of dull obsession, and old woman’s muttering:
My friend called Alice baked bread;
she baked bread, every day.
She was ill, and never told anyone
(I never told anyone
this, but she never did.)
Barbara Giles, ‘The Virtues of Simplicity’ – Australian Book Review, June 1986 p.23
Elly McDonald is another poet who writes with simplicity, yet with striking force. Apt metaphors, sparingly used, illuminate and enrich her verse. She also has something to say worth listening to. Other People, she calls her book, and the ‘I’ who surfaces occasionally must be she.
The people of whom she writes are lively and various, some successful, some unsuccessful; her own life as rock music, film and theatre writer offers her many slices of life. A continuing theme is the separateness, the self-possession, of women; a woman owns herself no matter what. ‘Alone in this place / where everything is his / through lips still thick with his body’s roughness / I whisper to shadows / He’s not a part of me.’ Again, ‘Two thighs / knees together / insolent autonomy’. These women are gentle, are brave, are cynical: ‘Swimming or flying; it’s exhausting / a lurching struggle to keep on top’.
Her portraits, both of men and women, are witty and she can take the mickey out of herself as well. Hers is a poetry that’s bright, tough, incisive, intelligent, and I’m glad she had the courage to self-publish.