The second Dorothy Hewett Award for an unpublished manuscript will be announced at the 2017 Perth Writers Festival on Saturday 25 February, 11:30am-12:30pm, in the Tropical Grove. To celebrate the talented writers that made the shortlist, we will be sharing extracts on our blog and social media in the weeks leading up to the ceremony.
Ann-Marie Priest is a literary scholar, and the author of Great Writers, Great Loves: The Reinvention of Love in the Twentieth Century. Her essays have twice appeared in Best Australian Essays. She teaches at Central Queensland University.
Her manuscript shortlisted for the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award is called 'A Free Flame'.
The Dark Tower
In one of Hewett’s later poems, ‘Lines to the Dark Tower’, a girl moves into an empty wheat silo. There she lives alone, entranced by the view of blowing grass and flowing river and spinning windmills, and weaving what she sees into a magical web, like a twentieth-century West Australian Lady of Shalott. But unlike Tennyson’s Lady, she does not pretend to be indifferent to the passing parade. The moment a knight rides by—or, rather, ‘some talker/ . . . his helmet/ hanging on the back of his head’, or ‘one of the silent watchers/ ill met by moonlight/ his eyes flaming underneath his visor’—she runs from her sanctuary, irresistibly drawn by the promise and the possibility, the drama and the pleasure of love. ‘I was always ready to be inveigled/ out of the tower’, she confesses. She is a figure for Hewett herself, who at sixteen was as excited by the possibilities of her future as a lover as she was by those of her future as an artist. At that age, indeed, she saw no distinction between them. Tennyson’s poem had always been important to her. She says in an interview that when she was a child, Tennyson’s Collected Poems had been a favourite book: ‘it was one of those marvellous old books bound in embossed leather, with the illustrations, and I adored Tennyson.’ She learned ‘big chunks’ of this book by heart, including ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which would eventually come to permeate her own poetry. Each section of her 1975 poetry collection Rapunzel in Suburbia begins with an epigraph from Tennyson’s poem, and the first of her own poems in the collection, ‘Memoirs of a Protestant Girlhood’, pays tribute to it:
On the yellow farm
floated like The Lady down a creek,
lying on my back the sun motes danced,
black cockatoos massed shrieking in the sky.
This is another of the poems in which she transposes the mysterious Lady from Arthurian England to her own setting in twentieth-century rural Australia. There is something satisfyingly anti-romantic about taking the Lady from her willow-lined, sweetly eddying river and dumping her in a creek beneath a flock of shrieking cockatoos. ‘Lines to the Dark Tower’ has a similarly deflating feel, replacing the ‘four grey walls and four grey towers’ of the Lady’s castle with ‘a wheat silo/ stinking of mouldy straw/ and blood and bone’ and the beautiful Sir Lancelot with the dunnyman’s son. Nevertheless, the romance of the Lady survives her transportation to Australia. We are left in no doubt that the country girl who floats down the creek in imitation of her literary heroine and the teenager who creeps into the silo to dedicate herself to art are versions of the same tragic heroine: the Lady ensorcelled by her vocation, yet lured away by love.