Innocence lovingly stolen within familiar verse
DOROTHY Porter’s El Dorado is her fifth published verse novel, a form she has made her own. It is every bit the equal of The Monkey’s Mask , her best- known verse novel, which has won awards and been adapted for stage, radio and film.
Like The Monkey’s Mask , El Dorado is a page- turner, a crime thriller counterpointed by a turbulent, yet compassionate, love relationship between two women.
El Dorado is a serial killer who lovingly murders children to protect their innocence: a symbolic protest against the sexualisation of society. The killer leaves a gold thumbprint on the victims’ bodies and sends a letter to Melbourne’s The Age newspaper: My hands made them gold. My hands made them never old. I am where they want to go. I am El Dorado.
El Dorado follows up the letter with a deliberately banal ( on Porter’s part) protest poem, also published in The Age , claiming that the polluted Yarra river is pure compared with putrid mainstream society.
Middle- aged bluff detective inspector Bill Buchanan is on the El Dorado case and decides he needs the help of a wildcard to find the killer.
He contacts his childhood friend Cath, an ‘‘ imaginary worlds specialist director’’ of films in Hollywood.
Bill figures that by bringing Cath back to Australia he’ll get someone who has:
. . . an imagination with guts enough to climb the beanstalk right into El Dorado’s evil head.
As soon as Cath returns, Bill’s childhood love for her revives, but Cath is of a different persuasion and promptly falls head over heels for a beautiful young herpetologist, Lily, whom she encounters in the ‘‘ warmishly thick’’ air of Melbourne Zoo’s reptile house.
Bill thinks that ‘‘ fifty year something’’ Cath’s love for Lily is doomed from the start.
He can’t understand what Cath sees in her. Of course Lily has a ‘‘ mandatory pretty face’’, though in Bill’s eyes this ‘‘ is a bit on the plump wog side’’, and he wonders what ‘‘ in f---’ s name’’ his ‘‘ flesh- is- always- weak’’ Cath talks about to this young ‘‘ rude bitch’’.
While the novel is never less than enthralling, about halfway through I was beginning to wonder whether the Cath and Lily affair would overwhelm the El Dorado narrative and whether Porter was writing two novels in one.
However, like an expert juggler who provokes the audience by pretending to drop a ball and then retrieve it from an impossible angle, by the end of her novel Porter manages to balance her themes: El Dorado’s frozen Neverland, to which the antithesis is Cath’s brimming, rumpled sexuality.
In the final few poems she brings home the bacon ( to use a Keatingism) and El Dorado, Cath’s and Bill’s childhood, and snakes converge in a stunning and human climax.
Why write verse novels? If you trawl the web, you can find Porter’s answer to this question. She has written: ‘‘ Like most poets I was sick of not being read.’’ She found there was no money in poetry or even children’s books. Writing verse novels was a high- risk strategy but, amazingly, it worked. I came to Porter’s verse novels with trepidation. As she says herself: ‘‘ Early poems of mine often didn’t make much sense, even to me.’’ I was afraid that her verse novels would be an extended version of her earlier poetry, with plenty of energy and a lot of confusion. Quite the opposite. Her verse novels are wonderfully lucid. To quote Porter: ‘‘ Lucidity can write with a tongue of fire.’’
Why not write novels in prose? Porter has an answer for that question, too: ‘‘ Poetry burns for longer than prose.’’ She also points out: ‘‘ A good verse novel is an impossible juggling act of narrative and poetry . . . You can’t have a successful verse novel where the story drags and the characters are tepidly drawn. The same rule of narrative enchantment applies to verse novels as applies to prose novels.’’
If only more prose novelists could achieve the narrative enchantment that Porter is able to infuse into her verse novels. Geoffrey Lehmann is a poet. He is also chairman of the Australian Tax Research Foundation.