I shake like poplar
a scream showers dry leaves
down the night sky
(Perry 1980, 31)
James Tulip, the Sydney University academic and generous supporter of Australian poetry, writes in a review of Grace Perry’s second book, Frozen Section: ‘At a time when Australian poetry is booming, and indeed seems on the point of exploding, [Perry] is leading the field not merely in production herself but in producing other poets as well … when the time comes for a history of poetry in the 1960s to be written, her place in the changing climate of opinion and taste will be a key one’ (Tulip 1968). Regrettably, by the time of Perry’s death in 1987 (when she passed away by suicide), this prediction by Tulip had not come to pass. Perry’s poetry and astute editorial / publishing ventures had become overlooked and devalued. She continues to be ignored today. Her poetry is out of print. She is not included in the online Australian Poetry Library and there is very little academic interest in her work. Perhaps now is the time to rediscover the voice of this dynamically forthright and leading mid-twentieth century poet and publisher.
One scholar who researched the artistic career of Grace Perry is Dot Jensen. In 1995 she was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney for her thesis entitled ‘Grace Perry: Australian poet and publisher, her dynamic role in the 1960s and 1970s’ (unfortunately this thesis has not been published or digitised). Jensen (2016) also wrote the entry on Perry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. She documents Perry’s work as editor of Poetry Magazine from 1962-1964, and the rift that saw her leave that journal and establish her own South Head Press where she published collections of poetry and essays as well as the journal Poetry Australia (edited by Perry from 1964 until 1987 and co-edited, at various times, by Les Murray and John Millett). Perry was forceful in her support of new voices and was the first to publish books by such poets as Bruce Beaver, Rodney Hall, John Millett, Craig Powell, Norman Talbot, John Tranter and Meredith Wattison; she also published an early collection by Jennifer Maiden. Along with supporting other poets, Perry published eight collections of her own. Another scholar, Lawrence Bourke writes that Perry ‘was a person of prodigious enthusiasm and vitality [who] found time not only to be a poet and physician but also to chase (and catch) sponsors for poetry prizes, organise poetry workshops and edit a poetry periodical’ (1992, 12). Bourke comments that Perry’s Poetry Australia ‘became one of the most important poetry periodicals in Australia’ (1992, 12).
In her publishing ventures, and in her own creative writing, Perry was a leading presence standing apart from the traditionalist regard for formal line and classical modes (as represented by such contemporaries as James McAuley and A.D. Hope) and in turning to American poetry (especially to William Carlos Williams) for new models of expression. Perry, for example, once advised the young John Tranter: ‘you should really think of going back and reading William Carlos Williams again, he’s really the best example you can have as a poet’ (Tranter 2000). Much has been made of Perry’s forceful and independent personality in advocating for this new writing. Bruce Beaver, for example, while expressing much admiration for Perry also agrees with John Tranter that she was utterly independent: ‘You couldn’t cross swords with her unless you were prepared to get wounded. And she was always ready to have a tussle with anybody, and she was argumentative by nature’ (Tranter 2016). While expressing admiration for Perry’s book, Black Swans at Berrima (1972), Beaver criticises Perry’s earlier work as being ‘too strident’; he agrees with Tranter that Perry was a ‘second rate’ poetic talent (Tranter 2016). Les Murray worked with Perry at her journal Poetry Australia in the late 1960s and 1970s before he too had a personal disagreement with her. Murray believes that the origins of this conflict were Perry’s ‘jealousy’ of him and her ‘insecurity’ concerning his transformation of her journal ‘beyond her control, and more importantly beyond her talent’ (Alexander 2000, 195). Subsequently he has also been quoted as judging Perry’s talent to be second rate:
The peculiarity of Grace was that she had two voices. She had a kind of out-going extrovert charm and good humour and bounding energy that was expressed in one voice, and occasionally, mostly at poetry readings, when she read her poetry, there was a strange, lost-little-girl voice that she used to read in … that was the personality that wrote her poems (Alexander 2000, 194-5).
It is timely to move beyond gender binaries of male (strong, influential, seminal) and female (shrill, strident, argumentative), and to separate assessments of Perry’s personality from her poetic output. Ronald Dunlop argues, for example, that ‘Grace Perry’s poems are occasional: responses to a given moment, a given experience, hammered out hot, scarcely given time to cool before being put on paper’ (2016, online). Such an approach to poetic craft sounds remarkably contemporary and deserving of renewed assessment.
Considering the importance of William Carlos Williams on the development of avant-garde poetry in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s, Livio Dobrez writes:
The Williams which attracted Australian poets was probably by and large not the complex Williams seen through post-Williams eyes (Robert Duncan, for example), but the Williams who saw things simply and saw them anew, less the author of Paterson … than of the short pieces embodying, in the spirit of “no ideas but in things”, the sharp concreteness of spontaneous perception. This Williams, the poet of the red wheelbarrow, the plums in the icebox, the crumpled sheet of brown paper on the road, was amenable to the sixty-eighters’ desire to approach experience – the poem included – as it were head on (1990, 73).
Unfortunately, in illustrating this influence, he confines his attention to male poets: Michael Dransfield, John Forbes, Kris Hemensley, Nigel Roberts and Richard Tipping (Dobrez 1990, 73-74). It is arguable, however, that none did more than Grace Perry – in her publishing ventures and in her writing – to see that it was the American model – especially Williams – which set the pace for radically transforming Australian poetry.
Perry was poet / publisher and medical practitioner. In her early poetry she often explored this medical experience with all the impressionistic precision of William Carlos Williams. Jensen (2016) notes that these poems contained medical imagery that, to some readers in the 1960s, was quite ‘graphic’ and ‘shocking’. That these early poems did alarm some is evidence of how original Perry’s imagery and poetic approach were. In ‘Aneurysm’, Perry personifies the condition of a brain aneurysm in a most dramatic, and witty, exploration of human frailty:
Do you hear me hammering, hammering,
in the cave behind your inattentive eyes?
Go your way. Walk in the sun, and sing,
unaware my hidden horror lies
deep in the woven pathways of your brain
where vessels sinuous and slender keep
their tortuous, continual pulsation.
My red balloon hums, ominous in sleep,
dreaming the inevitable explosion,
in rising anger or in ecstasy,
when I shall sing the song to drown all singing;
I am your end, your unfuturity.
Feel insinuating rustles of distension,
the thrust, the hiss, the shiver and the tear
of penetrating fiery insistence.
But you rush onward, shouting, unaware
I shall destroy these writhing convolutions
sluicing the ordered furrows of your dreams,
ploughing across a field of flooded crimson
until you hold your head and your screams.
You do not hear the warning I am humming.
Go your way. Walk in the sun, and sing.
My climax brings unheralded eruption.
I loose my flame in blood red blossoming.
I am the final light, the flash of wings,
a golden sunburst in your aching head
as broken stars fall, spinning into darkness
and unwilling silence creeps upon the dead.
Perry juxtaposes the use of traditional quatrains and rhyming schemes with an original and dramatic personification of a serious medical condition, all the while maintaining a subtly comic tone. The final confluence of death, that traditional bearer of ‘eternity’, with cosmic imagery and the ‘flash of wings’ is cleverly undercut by a ‘golden sunburst’ and ‘broken stars … spinning into darkness’ as ‘unwilling silence creeps upon the dead’ – this is not the evangelical’s religious ecstasy but a very modern and scientific understanding of the materiality of life.
Perry also interrogates aspects of women’s health, sensitively writing of infertility and miscarriage. In ‘Centennial Park’, she subtly, and non-judgmentally, alludes to abortion in a way that challenges medical ethics and the role of the medical practitioner:
I stand accused that I have glimpsed
the message on the uncurled leaf,
and spied on folded lilies drifting
secret waterways of sleep.
I listened when the red-gum shook
flocks of stars from blossomed hair
while wind-tattered paperbark
washed nervous fingers in despair,
leaning over sword-crossed grass,
trailing thin hands upon the lake
continually, to remove
indelible and ancient stains.
I stand accused, for I have seen
my dim reflection in her grief;
for me the lilies may not fold
and secret water shall not sleep.
I find this poem unforgettable: those delicate allusions to Ophelia and Lady Macbeth relocated to Sydney’s Centennial Park and the empathy for the complexity of loss. Perry continues with this fraught subject matter in ‘Ovarian’, where the poem moves from ‘the pressure of imprisoned sea / revealing fimbriated arms / of resilient anemones / rooted where new life begins’, a kind of ‘hopeless ovulation’, to ‘the filamentous flesh / of this grotesque gestation / exploding macerated walls’ and ‘the crumbling honeycomb / of silently eroding bone’ (1963, 47).
Dramatic poems such as ‘Aneurysm’, ‘Centennial Park’ and ‘Ovarian’, written with traditional punctuation and regular stanza structures and rhyming schemes, are more typical of Perry’s early poetry. In her mature work, Perry moves in a more experimental direction, as she employs unpunctuated free-forms with a greater stress on spontaneity, even embracing a degree of irrationality as part of her imagist technique. This movement follows the example of William Carlos Williams. As James Scully writes, for Williams ‘ready-made forms were sinister cookie cutters impressed on the daily flux’ (1966, 69); he quotes Williams: ‘I was sick to my very pit with the order that cuts off the crab’s feelers to make it fit into the box’ (1966, 69). In describing this new movement in poetry – to which Perry belonged both as poet and publisher – Chris Wallace-Crabbe observes:
This verse is extremely free, the syntax is commonplace … Moreover, the verse follows no rational logic but that of the concurrence of observed images, images which are set down with a distinct immediate vividness (Wallace-Crabbe, cited by McAuley 1975, 304).
In this Williams’ tradition, Perry is a lyrical imagist who finds in medicine and the natural world the imagery she needs to explore her human concerns. At the same time, Perry is a poet who locates the human as part of nature (as complex biological system) and not as separate, or above, nature. She draws much of her imagery from the natural world of the rural Southern Highlands of NSW where she lived on a cattle and sheep stud from the late 1960s until her death. In Perry’s poetical work, the seasons of winter and autumn, the red and golden leaves of poplar trees, granite and limestone, cattle and water birds are all celebrated. They are praised, however, in order to explore her human concerns. Perry writes few poems of pure praise for the natural world. Nor does she write many poems that explore the question of dwelling. A poem such as ‘Michael’ (Perry 1984, 15), concerned with the practice of selling male calves to the slaughter yard as ‘vealers’, is an exception. Perry is an imagist, and the natural environment is the largest source of that imagery, but her subjects are the human concerns of mental health, love, regret, loss, bereavement and what is unattainable. Her fourth book, Black Swans at Berrima (1972), is a collection of around one hundred untitled lyrics that explore her specific rural location in just this way. The effect of this poetics of place is well described by Perry herself:
Those who read with the eye only
ignore the river
the raft scream
bumping in the churning dark
to the wider vision
the poem neither
shakes off significance
stepping out of associations and ambience
like wet clothes
nor calms the torrent with abundant gestures
offering anchorage in a harbour
where we are loved and known
downstream the continual cataract roar
the poet magnifies the reverberation
the desperate struggle
the animal curving backward and inward
and no word
no safe bridge over
intention meaning action outcome
wet fur nudges the bank
nose and tongue acknowledge
we have lived here
we have come home
So this is poetry that seeks to understand ‘place’ as ‘home’ but this desire is not born out of a sense of proprietorial entitlement. Perry is sensitive to the reality of risk and the stress of the uncontrollable. Depression scarring is one cost of living in this complicated and unpredictable world. There is no escape from colliding with the ‘churning dark’ and there is ‘downstream the continual cataract roar’. The scrap is ‘desperate’ but also rewarding. As Jensen (2016) argues: ‘[In Perry’s poetry] repetitions of sounds, words, themes, and phrases are juxtaposed in symphonic harmonies of language that create emotional highs and lows to express the paradoxes of vision and a move towards a sense of inner harmony’. Therefore, Perry continues to find imagery in the breakthroughs of biology and physics, to explore the human capacity for conflict and denial:
the monk is gone from the monastery garden
the double helix threads the beads of prayer …
daily we breathe the toxic vapour and go blue
from the ice age we are dubious survivors
a generation wandering from Hiroshima
to the surface of the moon …
The comparison of nuclear scientists with the high priests of a closed order and the location of imagery in twentieth-century science to interrogate the Cold War’s capacity for nuclear catastrophe is perhaps not all that novel, but it is a good example of Perry’s vivid and dramatic use of language. She is sensitive to frailty and the incapacity of material wealth to insure against emotional and psychic wounds:
always the emptiness
the hollow corpse hacked open like a tree
blade and skin …
the stones here
are veined with blood …
(Perry 1972, 56)
In the Southern Highlands of NSW the depths of winter are a seasonal shadow like the ‘fleece knotted on barbed wire’, when ‘three gaunt horses / huddled faces windward / unable to rise again and run’ and ‘the last stallion’ ponders ‘his lost reflection’. Poignantly, ‘the brown hills also shiver / and are cold’ (1972, 72). Perry is a winter poet, who sees in the loss of summer, vulnerability to mental health challenges and a thorny requirement for intimacy. For her, mental health is often something difficult to attain, an intractable problem, from which there are no easy reconciliations. Her portrayal of this is far from melodramatic as she documents decline and stubborn resignation: ‘We show ourselves to one another / partially and in secret / forgetting how much is already gone / how much the body wears the winter mask’ (Perry 1972, 81).
This exploration of an imagism, located in the natural world, to explore decline and the incapacity of humans to achieve meaningful and generous intimacy is direct and dramatic. While Perry can find great beauty in the natural world, as a window into the human psychic condition, she sees not ‘next year’s petals crumbled in the buds / that flourish unreleased’ but ‘shrivelled wings / the young oak / is unable to let go’. In the splendour of the garden she does not see hope or beneficence but rather subterfuge and subdued fellowship. That which is unobtainable is manifest in summer drought and burn, giving way to fragility, like moths, as a ‘slow smouldering’ (Perry 1972, 88).
The image of the hearth does not weaken the hold of winter because:
Even in the burning
I am cold
the poem hardens like a flower in ice
the eaves are wreathed in icicles
the grass is white haired overnight
Perry’s imagism connects such disparate elements in ways that are visually dramatic and expressive of a menacing tone. This exploration of fractious emotional interiors is continued in her later books. In Berrima Winter (1974) she writes of parting as a shrivelling and dying, but:
and a little
and in time sloughs off …
What is left is a ‘line of scar’ (1974, 40). A vivid starkness exists in the way Perry evokes mental health decline and the struggle to reconcile a healthy ‘inner life’ with a Cold War’s propensity for conflict and threat. Later she seems resigned, like Ophelia, to the transitory exquisiteness of death – ‘My comfort my darkness’, in a poem where the short broken lines and the spaces between words create a tone of uncertainty and vulnerability (1974, 61).
Perry knows the psychological tragedy of the besieged, where
advancing through glass
upon my small warm shell
my hand becoming transparent
I feel the wall give way …
only to find that
the fire mountain
long soothed under the sea
reversing the transmutation
so that the poet finds herself ‘again / alone / at the beginning’ (1974, 74).
In bearing witness to the scarring of depression, Perry might feel utterly alone but her struggle is not without consolation; she writes of the growth of ‘resurrection / grass / snaking under rock ledges / infiltrating strap leaves of jonquils’ (1974, 108). While she writes of ‘quiet music’, a lively and impulsive energy exists in the way Perry surprises with imagery suggestive of the dynamism of spring in a region well known for its winter cold. So, too, ‘the stones surprise’ with ‘chancels of freesia / chanting matins in crevices’ (1974, 108).
With Snow in Summer (1980) Perry continues to juxtapose her preoccupation with winter (decline and the struggle for mental health) and summer (the renewal of spring given way to bushfire and the paradox of ‘snow in summer’). In seventy untitled imagist lyrics are the heat and fury of passion but also the retreat into something cold, pure and white:
Now in full leaf poplar
green tipped gold
extremities begin to die
the bonewhite shaft
tree to my sky
Perry scatters her lines in a way suggestive of fragmented and besieged psychological states. In the paradoxes of the natural world she sees uncertainty, fragility and the tenuous chance of renewal: ‘earth opening / I lift I stretch / I bud gently upwards’ (1980, 17).
In her preoccupation with juxtaposition there can be a surrealist automatism where the natural world is celebrated for its obliquely connected fizz of imagery: ‘ You make a cup of tea / to calm the storm lock up the animals’, and later in the same poem: ‘I hang in the air a dress in the poplar tree / a clean dress drying where you have walked in me’ (1980, 29). For Dunlop (2016), in such poems:
… image tumbles over image till, like colours on a spinning wheel they fuse to present a whole apprehended in the imagination even if sometimes they baffle the mind. Her method has much in common with the painter … Conventional guidelines of logic and syntax take a subordinate place as the poem, exploiting to the full Perry’s rich resources in language responds to the quick shifts of her mind.
A nocturnal conjuring of spectral cold and fog can leave trees ‘shaking and wailing’ while resolve is cruelly wavering:
bird to my forest
muffled among mountains of leaves
ghost etchings over the water
casting no shadow
warm bird beating within me
lulled in high branches
soon enough sunrise and wind
the leaves shaking and wailing
a wild cry
shivering land and lake
a great opening of wings
and my hands torn apart
So ‘image tumbles over image’ to establish an ominous tone without descending into melodrama. In the final couplet, ‘a great opening of wings’ which might have suggested benevolence is skilfully undercut by the image of the ‘hands torn apart’. Smouldering vestiges of love are a granite chiselled eyrie:
The body of my beloved
out of riverbed
upholding burnt out trees
against the sky
caved and secret
is the body of my beloved
skull holes smouldering
where the eagles fly
Perry’s final book, Be Kind To Animals (1984) has a new focus on the ethics of modern farming practices and animal welfare but also contains the suite of poems called ‘Thunderegg’ (17-30). This opens with ‘Blackwattle’ and the expression of the classic Perry theme that life is like an ‘old riverbed’. Once you have ‘crossed to the far bank’ there will soon ‘be no sign’ of your presence as ‘each day fresh stars and signals / archive night animals’ and ‘grass crests / blackwattle lace // silent as a snowfield / over my body’ (1984, 17). The suite continues in ‘Drought’, not surprisingly a common preoccupation in Australian poetry. In Perry’s treatment: ‘at last they say the word / after long weeks’ when ‘black snakes warm red bellies / in hotfingered sand’ and ‘roofiron guncracks drive out the last starlings’ as ‘the house a grey blister about to burst’. The poem concludes with the search for survival, as the poet ‘looks for language sunblind’ (1984, 18).
In ‘Eidolon Valley’, Perry juxtaposes life against the hard surrounds of limestone, blackberry brambles and barbed wire as ‘this year regrowth has beaten me / too old to match myself against that force’ (1984, 19). ‘Bundanoon’ exemplifies how tightly controlled Perry’s free verse is by the sound of her words and their spoken rhythms, well illustrated in the poem’s opening stanza:
The gorge slips away under firetrail and tall bendingdown
cliffs and rain lines written into the earth where another
world’s ambiguity will fail in the sheer fall of rock as I
lie in idleness and shadow and die in the sight of a hawk
at the gates of the skimming free and wide as I love you
In ‘Bushfire’ (22), ‘After fire’ (22) and ‘Morning’ (23), Perry explores wild bush fire as that seemingly uncontrollable and destructive natural force leaving ‘earth burnt out’. Even here the hope for regeneration will eventually win out as ‘at last the fire is out’ and:
The sun comes down
to walk among ruins
a woman combing long hair after love
The possibility of love, but the acceptance of how difficult it is to hold on to is beautifully captured in ‘Song’ (24), where Perry shows her ability to use more traditional measures and rhymes:
When valleys were harbours
under green skies
my sailor was silver
the world in his eyes
The lighthouse no longer
guides great ships home
my lover shines silver
under smooth stone
The first stanza links the open horizons of young love by rhyming ‘skies’ and ‘eyes’; this idealism is then dramatically undercut in the second stanza by joining ‘home’ and ‘stone’ and the allusion to a graveside. The apparent simplicity of this short lyric belies its understated achievement.
The suite concludes with ‘Holograph’ (30), in which Perry gives voice to her pen which addresses the poet:
And still I talk to you
and you say nothing
let me be your word in your hand
black rivered hard
against crisp white sheets
Not only does Be Kind To Animals locate in the natural world the imagery needed to explore its human concerns, but the collection also begins an interrogation of pastoral and the ethics involved in modern farming practises. As Jensen (2016) argues: ‘the effect [of Perry’s final book] is a postmodern pastoral in which unhappy bulls roar in the paddock made irrelevant by the use of artificial insemination’. The book opens with ‘Eros in Moss Vale’ where ‘sure of himself’ ‘that tame bull knows where he is going … to join the whitefaced females’; its final lines startle:
those out of season
suffer the hammering of heated sisters
one by one he soothes them
in the dark places
This sympathetic approach continues in ‘Pieta’ where ‘the calf shivers’ and ‘she offers consolation / rough tongue / bodywall / broadside to storm’ and the ‘two forms’ are ‘one outline / mother and child’:
as a fountain bronze
Perry repeatedly searches for consolation: here amidst the fenced-in domesticity and freezing weather is a moment of solace as ‘the calf shivers / nuzzling thick fingers / to let down warmth’. The image of transient succour is as monumental ‘as a fountain bronze’. In ‘Michael’ Perry bears witness to the male born ‘out of season’ on the dairy farm leaving Perry to pray: ‘O Eidolon / let the fall be daughters’. With pathos Perry writes:
already the calf
suffered his first rejection
the bulging udder
sun of his world
A terrible inevitability is ushered by ‘crush gates’ and Perry’s hard pastoral focuses attention on this sanctioned cruelty in a way that is remarkably contemporary. She challenges boundaries between the non-human and human, inviting us to be kind to ourselves by being kind to animals. As she writes in the suite of poems called ‘Tea Leaves in a Willow Cup’:
Stop the year turning
draw the day out as silk thread
forget it is the day before death
let me be door
between the green outside
and the animal
I am cemetery
boat to lift you upstream
your birds escape my mouth
copper feathers fly over me
Perry’s juxtaposing of a poetics of place rich in rural beauty, of renewal and courage, with difficult and painful personal history, of cruelty and mental health decline, is impressively and dramatically evoked. The imagism, the precise scattering of her lines across each page, the non-stop flow of ideas that energises her free-form lyrics, the occasional experimentation with more traditional rhymes and stanza forms, is admirable artistry. Perry eliminates artificiality and in its place achieves a more flexible, modern and casual form demanding creativity. I consider us fortunate to have this rich river of words, this ‘smooth round script’ for Perry has shown us ‘if not reality / marginal possibility’ (1984, 30).