Bunny tales know how to be­witch

Barry Hill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SINCE 1971, J. S. Harry has been pub­lish­ing her droll, pithy books, build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as the writer most likely to get the laughs at po­etry fes­ti­vals. At her best she is an odd mix of Lewis Car­roll and Tom Stop­pard. There is no one else like her in Aus­tralia.

She also re­minds me of English poet Ste­vie Smith, whom I heard read in Hamp­stead one cold win­ter night in the 1970s. Smith, an old lady by then, seemed to be dis­guised as a tramp, but she was a sur­re­al­ist poet with a tricky black hu­mour. As she drawled her fa­mous poem, Not Wav­ing but Drown­ing , you were not sure if a raven or a dove would fly out of her mouth.

Over­all, Harry seems to speak more doves than ravens. This is partly be­cause she has in­vented a char­ac­ter called Peter Henry Le­pus, a shy, gen­tle, plump English rab­bit. It would be mis­lead­ing, I sup­pose, to think of a rab­bit as a poet’s al­ter ego, but there is no es­cap­ing the mileage Harry gets from Peter once he has set­tled in this cruel, drought- rid­den coun­try, where rabbits have been as per­se­cuted for as long as they can re­mem­ber.

Peter’s mother, Harry tells us in the bi­o­graph­i­cal note, was ‘‘ an ex­tremely well- read and welle­d­u­cated rab­bit of Cre­ole an­ces­try’’, who named her son ‘‘ af­ter a char­ac­ter in a book of old Cre­ole folk­tales, L’His­toire de Pierre Henri Le­pus ’’. As a re­sult there are var­i­ous French re­fine­ments to Peter’s names and their pro­nun­ci­a­tions. Peter ‘‘ has be­come ac­cus­tomed to prick­ing his ears to all of th­ese names’’.

And so should we, the read­ers of Harry, who is be­set by the strange­ness of nam­ing and of lan­guage, hence the ti­tle of this funny- sad yet not en­tirely suc­cess­ful book. As Peter hops about look­ing for grass as green as he re­mem­bers from Eng­land, he dis­cov­ers that other crea­tures share the mys­tery of how lan­guage con­nects with the world. Take Chair­man Miaow, for in­stance, who sits in the moon­light re­gard­ing ‘‘ an as yet un­opened sar­dine can’’. He is CAT who is white as the moon is white. As hunger grows, he lashes his tail. But qui­etly. His eyes watch the can as if it is a work of art. He is a white cat but empty. The moon is full. The small sealed can gleams se­duc­tively. He is in­trigued by the cun­ning art of its clo­sure.

Read­ers familiar with Bri­tish phi­los­o­phy in the first half of the 20th cen­tury will get the echoes here. Wittgen­stein fa­mously re­marked that ‘‘ the world is all that is the case’’, and went on to prac­tise a method premised on the idea that philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems are the re­sult of our be­witch­ment by lan­guage, thus open­ing the gate for nim­ble po­ets. Harry scores at the par­o­dic ex­pense of Wittgen­stein, Ber­trand Rus­sell and A. J. Ayer, whose Lan­guage, Truth and Logic was once a model for em­pir­i­cal rea­son­ing, or ‘‘ sun­dried ra­tio­nal­ism’’, as Peter calls it.

Af­ter a while the joke wears thin ( as it did with Stop­pard). But then, hav­ing said that, the de­li­cious poignancy of Peter takes over.

For this gen­tle, sen­si­tive rab­bit, full of guile and in­no­cence, is open to the suf­fer­ing of many crea­tures as he wan­ders off logic’s beaten track.

Ants, cock­a­toos, fruit bats: their sit­u­a­tions come to his eco­log­i­cally at­tuned at­ten­tion. Poignan­cies deepen as we re­alise that he is des­tined to un­der­stand the na­ture of dis­ap­pear­ance, de­struc­tion and death.

Of course Peter knows, as a post­mod­ernist rab­bit, that much of his knowl­edge is not first­hand; he must fall in and out of holes known as

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