Bunny tales know how to bewitch
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