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Identity but Not as a Straitjacket

In particular, works of art born out of identity politics may seem like significant artistic statements when they are made.

· 12 min read
Identity but Not as a Straitjacket

Identity can enrich and also limit a writer’s repertoire. Who she is and where he comes from matter, but should not be an end in itself. In particular, works of art born out of identity politics may seem like significant artistic statements when they are made, but may quickly become dated. What lasts is where the personal becomes universal.

In pursuing these points, I shall contrast the lives and works of the African-American writers Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, then go on to discuss the experiences I had co-editing a 1090 page anthology of Australian poetry, when my co-editor and I serendipitously discovered the work of a poet Tricia Dearborn.

* * *

The African-American writer Richard Wright has been credited with helping to change race relations in the United States. This is not a small achievement.

Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African-American to be selected by the Book of the Month Club. The following year his play of the same name opened on Broadway with Orson Welles directing. Later he became a French citizen, was a friend of Sartre and Camus, recorded broadcasts for French radio, reported on the 1955 Bandung conference, lectured and traveled widely and wrote about his travels. When he died in 1960 in his early 50s, he was famous as a public intellectual and writer, although short of money.

In 1937 he reviewed the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by another African-American Zora Neale Hurston. He wrote:

The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race. (Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, The New Masses, October 5, 1937)

The phrase “sensory sweep”, which he used to describe Hurston’s masterpiece is an acknowledgment of its power, but the fact that it carried no message, or perhaps worse still, the wrong message, disqualified Hurston for Wright.

Hurston’s trajectory was very different from Wright’s. Born in 1891, she had setbacks in her attempts to get an education, eventually graduating with a B. A. in anthropology from Columbia University where she was the sole black student at Barnard College. From the 1920s until 1948 she published poetry, a play and fiction which was imbued with her ethnographic research. This research began when she was at Barnard College (working with the well-known anthropologist Frank Boas) and continued through the 1930s and resulted in works that have been called “literary anthropology” (with her interest in folklore and voodoo, and her possible plagiarisms and tendency to invent dialogue).

By the 1950s Hurston was a largely forgotten figure, working as a substitute teacher and even as a maid. When she died in the same year as Wright, in 1960, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Hurston did not fit in with political movements. She voted Republican, believed in self-help and opposed affirmative action, but was not socially conservative or religious, and opposed segregation. She called President Truman “the Butcher of Asia” for dropping atomic bombs on Japan.

Richard Wright was an autoditact, unlike the college educated Hurston, and a Communist when he attacked her great novel in 1937. But he was not inflexible and later abandoned Communism. Towards the end of his life he became a prolific writer of haiku (which transcend politics) such as:

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.


With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree.

He was an early master of identity politics. Unlike Hurston, he understood the importance of a clear message. He could read the telegrams on trees. His fame when he died contrasts with her obscurity.

Identity politics does not always win in the long term (when we are all dead). In 1973 the novelist Alice Walker and scholar Charlotte D. Hunt found Hurston’s grave and had it marked. Walker has championed a revival of interest in Hurston’s work.

Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with what is now a famous sentence: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Hurston goes on to say: “For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon . . .” Her heroine, Janie Crawford goes through two husbands, and it is only with her third man, Tea Cake, who is younger than Janie, and entertains and occasionally beats her, and dies to save her life, that she finds happiness and love. It does not last, but Janie finds the fulfilment she was seeking.

Hurston’s reputation has now come in with the tide, like her heroine Janie. In a foreword to Their Eyes Were Watching God the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat praises “the dead-on orality in both the narrative and dialogue” – things Wright dismissed as exploiting what was “quaint” in black lives. Danticat finds that many of Hurston’s themes resonate in the 21st century.

At the time of writing Their Eyes Were Watching God has 1,480 Amazon customer reviews and Richard Wright’s Native Son has 489 reviews.

* * *

The 1090 page anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 which Robert Gray and I co-edited was one of The Economist’s best books of 2011. It is about twice the length of its largest predecessor, and was the third anthology of Australian poetry we edited together. It was our third and last such anthology and we wanted it to be a book that had poems that would last and grow like Zora Neale Hurston’s novel and could be read with pleasure a hundred years from now – a tall order!

Identity and the Self in ‘Hamlet’
Sydney. London. Toronto.

We began editing anthologies of Australian poetry in the following way. In 1979 the Australian poet John Tranter edited an influential anthology The New Australian Poetry subtitled “the work of twenty-four poets from Australian poetry’s most exciting decade”. It must have been a very male decade as only two of the twenty-four poets were women. The anthology claimed to represent the “generation of ’68” (referencing the May 1968 French political unrest). Peter Goldsworthy has since satirised it in a poem that begins:

after John Tranter

He looks back over the gravestones
and his eyes grow misty again:
We Did It Our Way, boys he thinks,
oh, and you two girls.
We re-discovered things
that had not been re-discovered for …
well, months. How New it seemed, then,
like Sex perhaps, something else
we had to teach Them about –

Tranter’s “most exciting decade” omitted younger poets, such as Geoff Page, Robert Gray, Mark O’Connor, Kevin Hart, Jamie Grant, Alan Gould and Rhyll McMaster, who did not conform to Tranter’s political message. At that time no anthology adequately represented them. So Gray and I prepared our first anthology The Younger Australian Poets. This was published in 1983, and included the poets Tranter had ignored as well as some of Tranter’s “generation of ’68” – those we thought worthwhile, including Tranter himself.

When Gray and I began preparing our third anthology we decided to focus on poems, not poets. We had to be convinced by the quality of the poem, not the reputation of the poet. Where we were uncertain, we sometimes read the poems aloud to each other, commenting on them line by line. In this way we were saved from embarrassment, when a younger poet whose work was recommended to us, was later found to be a plagiarist. His poems were striking and unusual, but when read aloud, were strangely unconvincing. There was a troubling absence of identity.

The university press that was publishing our anthology (UNSW Press) was allowing us a thousand or so pages, and we decided to populate this with a diversity of types of poems – not a diversity of ethnicities and gender (a welcome outcome, if it happened, but not a criterion for selection).

With this in mind we decided to include limericks – a humble poetic form – if they were funny enough. Years earlier I had come across some “Ecclesiastical Limericks” published anonymously in a book of obscene verse. I had written to A. D. Hope, one of the eminences of Australian poetry, asking him if he was the author. He wrote back that he was, but requested I not mention his name as the author (in an anthology of comic verse I was editing), because he did not wish to offend his good friend the bishop of Goulburn. Hope died in 2000 (and perhaps the bishop of Goulburn too), so we were now free to reveal his authorship in our anthology of this limerick:

The bishop of Alexandretta
Loved a girl and couldn’t forget her,
So he thought he’d enshrine her
As the Holy Vagina
In the Church of the Sacred French Letter.

As well as comic verse, other types of poetry we included were translations (of a Greek Australian poet, and of Japanese haiku), concrete poetry and song cycles and short poems from Aboriginal languages (in translation). Naive poetry had never been represented in an anthology of “serious” Australian poetry. “Bellerive” (Joseph Tishler, 1871-1957) who ran a fancy goods stall in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Markets was a naive poet of great originality and economy of style. For example:


A encounter ensued twixt –
The cook and a waiter
I was struck on the neck
With a hard-baked potatoe –
When a big pug –
Waded into the brawl.
“Murder” and “police” an –
Old woman did bawl.
A table went up and –
Crockery went down
The proprietor did rave –
With a diabolical frown,
From my chair I arose,
With dignity quiet.
Disliking to be
Mixed up in a riot.

You will notice the free punctuation with dashes, not unlike Emily Dickinson, a poet he is not likely to have read. Bellerive could also achieve a William Blake-like simplicity and compassion:


Weekly in our district wafts
A shrill and yelling sound;
There’s captures’ wails and exits
When the dog-car goes its round;
The council from its revenue
Have motors up to date;
Only frail and mangy dogs
Doth meet a tragic fate;
Feeling men and women dread
The shrill and yelping sound,
Wafting from the captured brutes
In the dog-car on its round.

It may not be intended, but the generalised “yelling” of line two becomes the differentiated “yelping” later in the poem, presumably as the dog-car gets nearer. I presented 15 poems by Bellerive for possible inclusion, expecting my co-editor to have a panic attack. Much to my surprise we quickly agreed on 14 of his poems.

There is an enormous range of life and experience in his poetry as indicated by his titles: “A Balloon Tragedy”, “Outcast Glue-Pot”, “The Yachts of Hobart”, “The Flying Rat”, “Jam Factory”. One title, “The St. Singer”, made use of a pun on the abbreviation “St”. It described how a “wealthy bachelor” sitting before a fire in a grand hotel heard a woman singing in the sleet and snow of the street below. He rescued and promptly married her. The ingenious title could refer to a “street singer” or a “saint singer”. If we had been selecting poems on the basis of reputation, Bellerive would have seemed too eccentric to make the grade, or at best might have rated two or three poems. But our focus was, as I have said, on poems, not poets.

We bought hundreds of books and read widely and were worried that some little known, outstanding poet might be overlooked. I was reading an annual anthology and came across this piece by a writer I had never heard of:


I’m new to you and your let’s-get-to-it.
Flat on my back that first time
not five minutes after the front door

snicked behind you. New to this
excoriating tenderness, passion
that leaves me stubble-scraped and scabbed.

The shock of those minuscule nipples!
The lean hairy thigh that met my palm
and made me laugh out loud. Later you asked

was it OK, for sex with an alien?
Women are sea-creatures, you said,
one hand curved on the soft swell of my thigh.

Like seals. And men are goats. I like you
inside me when I want it. I like how you held my hair back
that first time we stood there kissing. You come

so close to sating me with touch, stroke into me
relaxation I rarely know.
Round up and banish ancient threats

whose names I’m beginning not to recognise. Still –
I miss that brine-lapped cleft, the way that sealskin
glides on sealskin. One day I must

go down to the seas again.

The anthology allowed poets to comment. In a note to her poem Tricia Dearborn said:

I’m a fan of clarity. I want the writing to get through, to get in, to hit me with its full force … not to lodge as a puzzle in my brain. For that, there are cryptic crosswords … the only autobiographical note I’d add is that there was an amusing moment beforehand where I said, “There is something we need to talk about …”, and X – the “you” of the poem – said matter-of-factly, “You’re a lesbian”. He explained he’d seen the stickers on my car …

This was the only Dearborn poem I could find anywhere until I located a small volume of her poems Frankenstein’s bathtub in a bookshop. This said Dearborn was born in 1963, had degrees in biochemistry and arts and was an editor. I mentioned Dearborn as an up-and-coming poet in a newspaper book review. She contacted me and sent some newer poems, including:


Kissing Louise was a bell. Unlike
the chimes of the genteel drawing-room clock
it gave no warning before it struck.

It was more like the shock of the extra-early
morning alarm
on the day of the journey.

Or the sudden shrilling of a schoolroom bell,
calling me in
to a strange new lesson.

It rang sweet as a tardy dinner gong
summoning me to a meal
of scent and heat.

Resonated like a great church bell
calling the villagers over fields
to christenings, to benedictions.

My throat sang my body
swung my skin shone
and my old life shivered and fell from me

and lay like the sweat of the ringers in the tower.

“The Changes” is one of the few poems I know that deal with sexual awakening. I can think of only one other poem, Hugh McCrae’s “Enigma”:

I watch her fingers where they prance
Like little naked women, tango-mad,
Along the keys, a cup-shot dance …

She laughs and weeps … Is it because
Only tonight she gave herself to me?
The new bud frightened to be glad …
The child’s first vision of the insatiate sea.

In McCrae’s poem it is the young woman’s initiation into sex and not the poet’s. “The Changes” is about Dearborn’s self-discovery of her lesbian identity, but its emotion is universal. It is about Damascene moments. It could as well be about a man and woman having sex for the first time.

As she said in her note to “Come In, Lie Down” Dearborn is a lover of clarity and explicitness. Her characteristic voice is to inquire, explore and discover as in this poem about eponyms (an eponym is something named after a person or place):

Although eponyms should be avoided, they are in frequent use and a guide to their meaning is useful – O’Rahilly, Anatomy

a friend who went for a pelvic ultrasound was relieved to hear she had no unusual fluids in her pouch of Douglas

what she didn’t know was that the pouch of Douglas is a small pocket in the female body in which reside all the eponyms that physicians have tacked onto this extraordinary anatomy

filed alphabetically, and if you care to look you’ll see Bartholin’s glands right next to Frankenhauser’s ganglion, which rubs up against the Graafian follicle

the canal of Nuck, on the other hand, will be found nestled between Mackinrodt’s ligament and the tubules of Skene

so where exactly is this pouch of Douglas? it is in fact the little space between the back of the uterus and the front of the rectum

two good solid names that at least a woman can call her own.

(I checked, and found all of these body parts named after men relate solely to the female anatomy.)

Dearborn’s first volume is now out of print. Her second volume The Ringing World was published in 2012. Dearborn is preparing a third volume that explores the themes that have interested her (e.g. science, sex, family, loss, the lived experience of the female body). The title sequence, ‘Autobiochemistry’, is largely autobiographical, but explores the events of a life via the chemical elements.

Like Zora Neale Hurston, Dearborn uses her identities (as a trained biochemist, lesbian, Catholic daughter) as a jumping off point. Some of her best poems are likely to be read a hundred years from now. In them the personal becomes universal and the message erases itself in the poem.

Geoffrey Lehmann

Geoffrey Lehmann is a poet and a retired tax partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers. His Poems 1957-2013 was the winner of the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Poetry in 2015.

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