The following article appeared in The Age, Saturday, 3rd November, 2012. Opening night of Wild Surmise is Thursday 15th November at The Malthouse in Melbourne.
WILD SURMISE AT THE MALTHOUSE
Dorothy Porter was fascinated by space. In the latter part of her life, stars, planets, our universe and the fabulous intrigue of deep space came to capture her imagination like nothing else.
In 1995 a new comet was discovered. It was called Hale-Bopp after its founders. Two years later it passed over Australian skies. Dorothy – Dot – was ecstatic. But then her excitement was always red hot.
One evening we drove out the Calder Highway to a location that, according to Dot’s highly idiosyncratic research, had been identified as ideal for viewing Hale-Bopp. No one else was there, and we congratulated ourselves on our good luck. We searched the night sky, all the while Dot describing what we ought to be seeing, what we’d soon be seeing, and what this meant both scientifically and metaphysically. For an hour she didn’t stop talking – and we did not see the comet.
Later we would discover we had gone to the wrong place – and not surprising given Dot’s inability to read maps and her
total lack of a sense of direction. It didn’t matter. Dot had seen that comet as surely as if it had stopped in front of her and waved its fiery tail. And as surely as if it had traced her own name across the skies, this became her comet.
The experience was translated into a series of 10 poems that appeared in Dorothy’s 2001 collection, Other Worlds – the precursor to Wild Surmise.
Stop trying to remember
the swarming pong
off extinct broth.
Stop scuttling obsessively
through antique shellgrit.
in the comet’s
blue tickling tail.
Snag its fever.
These punchy, throat-grabbing poems emerged from her fascination with the universe and ended in the messy ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. As she wrote them she wondered why it was that more poets had not drawn on astronomy in their work. The metaphorical possibilities were, she said, as infinite as space itself.
Two years after Hale-Bopp, and with both of us embarked on new novels, we made a trip to Hawaii. I went for Kilauea, the longest continually active volcano on earth, and Dot went for the Keck telescope, perched atop of Mauna Kea and the second largest in existence. Our exploration
of Kilauea found its way into my 2002 novel, The Prosperous Thief, dedicated to Dot. Our expedition to the Keck Telescope, stopping at 9,000 feet to acclimatise and then the last climb to 14,000 feet, made its way into Dot’s 2002 verse novel Wild Surmise, dedicated to me.
Such excitement when both novels were short-listed for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award. We threw a short-listing party. We celebrated for several weeks. And a final private relieved raising of glasses to each other when we learned neither of us had won.
Wild Surmise tells the age-old story of a long comfortable marriage threatened by an exhilarating affair. Alex Leefson is an astrobiologist, astronomy’s glamour girl, married to poetry lover and disenchanted English literature academic, Daniel. Alex is searching for ‘life elsewhere’ in her work. When American astrophysicist Phoebe reappears in her life, Alex falls for an alien life far closer to home. All it takes is a glimpse of Phoebe,
And my old desire wakes up
like a desiccated Martian
sniffing a huge fresh flood.
What new germs
will her lightning strikes
in my parched thin soil?
It was several years earlier when Alex was on her way to work at the Keck telescope that first she met Phoebe. She had stopped to acclimatise. Later/ Alex would say/ at nine thousand feet/ no one has any judgment.
When Dot and I stopped to acclimatise at 9000 feet, we spent the hours wandering the volcanic terrain (for me) and gazing skywards through powerful telescopes (for her). It was at 9,000 feet that Dot had her first sighting of Europa.
Like Alex in Wild Surmise, Dot, too, became besotted with Europa. It is one of the moons of Jupiter. Ice sheets are visible on its surface. Ice means water, and water suggests life – a prospect that Dot found wildly tantalising. Europa remained her own special moon, but as she read through the mounting piles of books, as she trekked through websites devoted to astronomy, she ventured far further than Europa. She went astral travelling from her desk – through her imagination, and exactly the way she liked it.
This reading was particularly difficult for someone like her whose only scientific training came during her high school years via the very patient tutoring of her chemistry teacher mother. Dot’s was not a scientific brain, but her imagination found a way through. Wild Surmise effortlessly weaves the science through a story of explosive passion, enduring love, delusion and loss. Dot also made use of the science as a source of metaphor for the corrosive tangle in which Alex, Phoebe and Daniel find themselves.
Wild Surmise reveals Dot’s fascination with space, but as well, through the character of Daniel, it’s a vehicle for her most enduring love – poetry. The book finishes with an appendix containing Daniel’s poetry reading list. Dot looked very pleased with herself when she first mentioned the list to me. She knew it was cheeky, but who knows, she said, it might persuade more people to read poetry. The list includes many of her own favourites: Dante, Auden, Blake, Cavafy, Dickinson, Sappho, Shakespeare. (The title, Wild Surmise, is of course drawn from Keats’ ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’.)
It is easy to see why this particular verse novel was a joy for her to write. Love, danger, death, a toxic affair set against two of her great passions: astronomy and poetry. And it is such a knowing book, too. Here is Alex.
I’m drinking too much Phoebe
my stomach just rains acid
when it tries to digest you.
When Venus erupted
she was smothered in lava
when Venus erupted
all her oceans boiled away
did she harbour life?
did she turn fierily sterile
to spite herself?
All affairs are like this.
You choke on your own run-away
When Jane Montgomery Griffiths approached me regarding a stage adaptation I was thrilled. It was not simply that Wild Surmise is my favourite of Dot’s novels, nor was it Jane’s reputation, there was a third reason: Dot loved adaptations of her work, loved seeing how other artists would interpret it. There have been stage productions of The Monkey’s Mask and What a Piece of Work, and Samantha Lang’s film of The Monkey’s Mask. Dot wrote two libretti for composer Jonathan Mills, The Ghost Wife and The Eternity Man. The latter was made into a movie by Julien Temple. I knew Dot would jump at a stage version of Wild Surmise.
This adaptation, the first since Dot’s death, has deep significance for me. Like all writers, Dot would muse about the longevity of her work, like all writers she hoped her work would live on after her. Not that she had any intention of going soon, she used to say. But she did, and much sooner than she or I expected.
I have deliberately kept my distance from this production. I want to be surprised, I want to be transported, I want to experience this passionate work in a new way. Through Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ interpretation and Marion Potts production all of us can connect with the ever-vibrant poetic imagination of Dorothy Porter.