Sydney Push and family pull
Elegy for Jan, For William his literary heroes, Stevens, who worked by day as an insurance executive, Lehmann wisely commits to a career ‘‘unconnected with literature’’ and becomes a taxation lawyer.
But while his professional orbit proves a far cry from the Push, Lehmann’s friendships with giants of Australian literature and art, among them Kenneth Slessor, Patrick White, Judith Wright and painter Charles Blackman, endure.
Comic revelations include the fact that Slessor bitterly hated the music of Bob Dylan and that poet Michael Dransfield misused his day job, a position at the tax office, by looking up fellow poets’ tax returns and quizzing them about their property holdings.
More fascinating is Lehmann’s account of his friendship with Murray, which was clearly a mutually appreciative and productive one for a number of years before eventually souring; and his enduring bond with Robert Gray, with whom he edited several influential anthologies that became pivotal shots across the bow in the so-called poetry wars.
Mercifully, the internecine squabbling that preoccupied Australian poetry for an inordinate stretch gets short shrift. Surprisingly, so too does Lehmann’s account of the breakdown of his first marriage in the wake of his wife Sally’s romance with the poet Peter Porter, an erstwhile friend. He documents the events matterof-factly, but concomitant emotion is muted.
While Leeward offers impressionistic accounts of the poet’s artistic friendships, it is not, at heart, a sustained reckoning with how and why Lehmann pursued a life in poetry. Rather, the most pressing material for the poet appears to be his family history, which occupies significant swaths of the text.
This produces a somewhat lopsided rhythm, as chapters oscillate between the frenetic swirl of artistic acquaintances and quieter meditations on the lives of Lehmann’s mother, sister, father and grandparents. He offers particularly sensitive and moving portraits of his father, an autodidactic, entrepreneurial type and an inveterate tinkerer who made a living taking picnickers out on his launch in Lavender Bay, and his sister Diana, who suffered from a congenital adrenal condition that cast a significant shadow across her life.
At the centre of it all, however, Lehmann himself remains elusive: he sidesteps much of the emotional vulnerability that is de rigueur in contemporary memoir, and is seemingly a more comfortable observer of others than of himself.
By far the most powerful passages are Lehmann’s reflections on his early childhood on