New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham, edited and introduced by Nathanael O’Reilly (Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2017). ISBN: 9871742589206
Nathanael O’Reilly, himself a poet and Australian Studies academic, has brought together a significant range of previously published and unpublished poems of Anna Wickham (1883-1947) in this new selection from UWAP. As well as including 100 poems chosen from the five books which Wickham published during her lifetime (Songs of John Oland 1911, The Contemplative Quarry 1915, The Man with a Hammer 1916, The Little Old House 1921 and Richard Shilling’s Selections 1936), O’Reilly introduces us to 150 new poems located in the British Library, thereby making widely available Wickham’s considerable oeuvre for a contemporary readership..
Born Edith Alice Mary Harper in London in 1883, Wickham had a turbulent childhood when her mother left an unhappy marriage, taking Edith with her to Australia. Although later to return to England, Wickham professed her connection to Australia, adopting her writer’s pseudonym from a Brisbane Street. Wickham’s adult life continued to be disrupted and peripatetic as she moved between London and Paris, to and from her own unhappy marriage and in and out of liaisons with other bohemian writers and artists such as D.H. Lawrence and Natalie Clifford Barney. Wickham’s life – and the prolific poetry which she produced – is in many respects emblematic of a time of modernist ferment and the political, social and aesthetic upheavals which attended it. Her poems are filled with the chafing and resisting of the pressure of old roles – especially those relating to women’s conventionally passive roles as wife, mother or muse – and the uncertainty of the new. This tension is evident in both the subject matter of the poetry and the styles in which they are written.
Reflecting the startling activity of the ‘New Woman,’ Wickham’s poems celebrate female desire and sexuality. The representation of sexual passion is quite graphically represented in poems such as ‘Surrender,’ serving to radically undermine nineteenth century notions of female passivity and compliance:
When you kiss me I am blind,
My senses are filled with ecstasy …
I am myself earthquake and eclipse
In ‘The Sculptor’s Hands,’ although the speaker positions herself seemingly conventionally as the muse or art work of her sculptor-lover, there is also a strong sense of the primacy of her own desire, even though that is represented through metaphors of the divine. In many ways, the poem can be seen as giving Donne’s ‘Mistriss’ a voice to speak her own desires, inverting the voice of colonial domination:
Your hands on me work a transcendent pleasure,
Myself becomes a universe, vast beyond measure
For a young neophyte within me stands
Adoring at your beauty-working hands;
And that strong skill so subjugates my mind,
I am a leaf in love’s uprising wind.
Wickham was not afraid to explore darker emotions and experiences as well, breaking multiple taboos about women who are able to imagine themselves outside the confines of patriarchal marriage and into a field of action determined by their own will. In the poem, ‘Divorce’ she imagines that world outside the comforts of conformity as being both frightening and compelling – and maybe even as necessary to survival:
A voice from the dark is calling me.
In the close house I nurse a fire.
Out in the dark cold winds rush free
To the rock heights of my desire.
I smother in the house in the valley below.
Let me out to the night, let me go let me go.
The motif of being smothered by the constraints of marriage and fixed gender roles reappears throughout her poetry, as in ‘Attempt at Analysis’:
Those who are wed
Should love one another,
Yet in the marriage bed,
So many young loves smother.
He does not love, who asks too strict control
Of his poor yoke mate’s soul.
Escape from the cage of marriage however, does not prove to be simple, and Wickham’s pursuit of love, as it can be tracked across her poems, doesn’t lead to release and relief. For example, in the later poem ‘The Love-Tired Woman,’ her voice has become jaded and despondent:
So many gentlemen have kissed me
I know the pressure of king hands and knees
When they were gone they never missed me
They found successors for their heart’s ease
I am tired of love – tired of embraces
Tired of men’s faces.
The motif of weariness appears to haunt the speaker, reflecting the undermining of her confidence. In the poem ‘I the most weary of all human-kind,’ this enervation appears to be linked to a failure to finally break free of the strait-jacket of conventional gender expectations:
I the most weary of all human-kind
Have woman’s body scourged for liberty
Broken for faith, bloody for victory –
But a man’s spirit and an angel’s mind.
Sadly, for Wickham, there seems no way out of the struggles of ambivalence, expectation and the literal hardships of life as a woman writer; her poems increasingly reflect the prospect of death as the only possibility of relief. In ‘Reverie,’ she laments the harsh conditions of her life – struggles which she acknowledges to be emotional as well as physical and economic:
O my tormented soul.
Snowing again and no coal.
There is one hope for me –
To sit for ages and write poetry.
And now there’ll be no heated room.
Come tomb –
In the poem ‘The Suicide,’ she is more explicit about seeking death – and prefiguring her own tragic death:
There is but one relief, for such as I;
That is the point of time when I shall die.
I trust to the caresses of this knife,
To give me pleasure, long denied in life.
Although much of the content or ideas of Wickham’s poetry offer challenges to conventional roles for women – rather figuring them as writers, as active, as autonomous sexual actors – a key way in which Wickham’s oeuvre might be seen to cleave to the expectations of the past is through the use of conventional rhyming and metrical patterns in her poetry. In many ways this tension places Wickham at something of a crossroads as her work evidences a tendency to reproduce aspects of the poetic forms of the nineteenth century while at the same time explicitly looking ahead to new, modernist ways of thinking about voice, gender and agency. The extent to which these constraints of style in fact inhibit the radical potential of her ideas, is something for readers and scholars to debate. It does, in my opinion, reinforce what all artists know at some level – that the specific nature of an idea is inextricably connected with the manner in which it’s said; the transmission and reception of the idea is of a piece with the form which it takes. Wickham’s oeuvre is prolific, her voice passionate and often confronting and disturbing in a way which marks out an historical turning in ideas about women and the production of art. Her willingness to explore the vicissitudes of her own life and longings, both tormented and passionate, looks far ahead to the rawness of mid-century confessional poetry. However, caught within a style which sometimes deteriorates into an anachronistic sing-song of rhythm and rhyme, or overplays its hand with a declarative voice or an obviosity of image and intent, Wickham’s poetry struggles to move beyond being a marker of such historical and political significance and into being an art which is able to cohere concept and form – and thus able to engage a reader most effectively.
Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet; her most recent collection is Unexpected Clearing (UWAP, 2016). She also teaches in the Graduate Research Centre at Victoria University.