- The Rest on the Flight: Selected Poems by Peter Porter
Picador, 421 pp, £12.99, May 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 52218 2
One of the greatest elegies of the 20th century was written in a flat-roofed Australian beach house beside scribbly-gums and banksias in 1975. The poem and the circumstances out of which it grew are painful. Nearly 20 years ago the poet allowed an Australian academic, Bruce Bennett, to publish details of the events behind it in Spirit in Exile.
In the 1950s Jannice Henry, an 18-year-old doctor’s daughter from Surrey, fell in love with her father’s locum, Neil Micklem. Their affair lasted for years; Jannice hoped it would end in marriage. It did not. She married instead a 30-year-old advertising copywriter called Peter Porter. He was an Australian immigrant in London, and had written a lot of poems, but published relatively few; she was a nurse who seemed ‘very English’ in accent and tastes, and was admired for having a figure like a ballet dancer. They set up home together in a London flat below that of Porter’s former partner, the Australian novelist Jill Neville. After a fight which seems to have involved Porter throwing Neville into the Thames, the couple had split up. In her 1966 novel Fall-Girl, Neville depicted Porter as Seth, a knuckle-cracking, gawky Australian detester of ‘the English Class Thing’.
Jannice went on writing to Micklem after her marriage. She and Porter had two daughters, but there were quarrels, resentments, silences. Each had affairs. By the 1970s, when Porter was establishing himself as a poet, the marriage was in trouble. Jannice, who had appeared to be happy at home with the children, was suffering from depression and developing a serious alcohol problem. Among her close friends had been Assia Wevill, who in 1969 murdered the daughter she had had with Ted Hughes then killed herself. Jannice was also fascinated by the story of the artist Dora Carrington, another suicide. Worried about the situation, Porter accompanied his wife to a psychoanalyst, but the encounter was disastrous. Jannice refused to go back; Porter did and was told by the doctor (I quote from Bruce Bennett’s book, which gives Porter’s 1988 recollection of the doctor’s words):
From what I have read of your wife’s history, it looks to me as though when you got married … you were both on the rebound from other sexual disasters and misalliances. You were both highly neurotic, highly disturbed, highly nervous, probably to the point of near psychosis. You couldn’t cope, you thought there would be a kind of collective support in this. In practice, what has happened is that you have healed in the marriage and your wife has got worse. She has enabled you to grow strong and become healthy. You have caused her to be destroyed.
In 1974, by which time he had published several accomplished collections, Porter went off to Australia, leaving his wife in London looking after their daughters. He had accepted an invitation to read at the Adelaide Arts Festival, and while in Australia he fell in love with Sally Lehmann, the wife of the poet Geoff Lehmann. Just after he returned to London, Jannice told her husband she wanted to go to her parents’ place for some time alone. He waved her off from Paddington. She phoned London on her first night away; two days later, Porter tried to ring her. No reply. She had gone into the attic where she had slept as a child, had written a note (which Porter was not shown), then downed sleeping pills and a bottle of gin. An open verdict was recorded by the coroner, but Porter was sure she had killed herself. Early in 1975 he returned to Australia and to Sally Lehmann, and wrote ‘An Exequy’, which is patterned on the 17th-century poem of the same title in which ‘Bishop King/Once hymned in tetrametric rhyme/His young wife, lost before her time.’
Porter’s poem begins by acknowledging separation, remorse, confusion and affection:
In wet May, in the months of change,
In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange
Dreams pursue me in my sleep,
Black creatures of the upper deep –
Though you are five months dead, I see
You in guilt’s iconography,
Dear Wife, lost beast, beleaguered child
As the poem builds, it moves towards a heartbreaking simplicity in lines that were quoted by several obituarists when Porter died in May last year:
The channels of our lives are blocked,
The hand is stopped upon the clock,
No one can say why hearts will break
And marriages are all opaque:
A map of loss, some posted cards,
The living house reduced to shards,
The abstract hell of memory,
The pointlessness of poetry –
These are the instances which tell
Of something which I know full well,
I owe a death to you – one day
The time will come for me to pay
When your slim shape from photographs
Stands at my door and gently asks
If I have any work to do
Or will I come to bed with you.
‘Exequy’ changes direction several times. It has moments of humour as well as of ‘black responsibility’. It deploys but also subdues the clever irony that at once hallmarks and holds back so many of Porter’s other poems, allowing his most masterly piece of verse to reach a measured yet unexpected conclusion: