In­no­cence lov­ingly stolen within familiar verse

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­of­frey Lehmann

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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