Dorothy Porter: Poet who won international acclaimfor her verse novel 'The Monkey's Mask'

I never knew poetry / could be / as sticky as sex," observes the narrator of The Monkey's Mask (1994), a smooth-flowing, book-length, noirish verse thriller which brought an international audience for Dorothy Porter, who once asserted that: "writing should be seductive. The reader becomes my lover, in a way". Her death at 54 does not end the affair: anybody beguiled by that idiosyncratic volume, which also became a film starring Abbie Cornich and Kelly McGillis, will seek out the others.

Born in 1954 in Australia, she was brought up in Sydney and the Blue Mountains by her parents, Jean and Chester, a chemistry teacher anda criminal lawyer. Soon a keen reader who wrote in margins, heraldingher short lines, she was a classic tomboy, as she admitted in an exuberant interview with Jenny Digby in the book A Woman's Voice, a series of conversations with Australian poets (1996): "I was an odd child and have become an odd adult and I have found that it is the engine of my writing... as an adolescent you like being treated horribly; it is Gothic".

Although "perving" over one schoolteacher's husband, to use the Australian vernacular, she became bisexual and enjoyed various lovers after graduating from Sydney University in 1975 and combining teaching with wide travel. That year also brought a first collection, Little Hoodlum. Her rock'n'roll and gossipy sensibility is a compound of William Carlos Williams and the haiku, with dashes of Bob Dylan: "my catapault / is a sleek / little killer / fitting / snugly / in my smile / as / I pass you / a cocktail".

Subsequent volumes vindicated her comment: "I am a fairly feral feminist. I hate being trapped or restricted by any ideological things at all." She none the less felt that women's nervous systems differ from men's. She often wrote very well, she thought, "just before my menstrual cycle starts and on the first day when I'm feeling terrible". Joyfully forthright, she asserted that "a lot of Australian poetry has been extremely dull and boring and that is one of reasons why it has been unpopular and unread".

A turning point, between two sassy prose novels for teenagers, was Akhenaten (1992). In Berlin she had looked at the famous bust of the ancient Egyptian king's wife Nefertiti; he "put out tentacles to my imagination". She made Akhenaten appear contemporary, Bowiesque, and unleashed scenes of which "the spiked drink / of an erect nipple" is a mere taste.

While teaching in Long Bay Jail, she heard an inmate remark that a haiku thriller would be interesting, and she pinched the notion for The Monkey's Mask, in which the lesbian investigator Jill Fitzpatrick discovers considerably more when trying to trace a missing student. Some pages contain only a single haiku, others rather more, and all crackle along.

The sleeker plots of What a Piece of Work (1999) and Wild Surmise (2002) work to even better effect. In the first, a Sixties psychiatrist proves as troubled as his asylum's patients, finally leaving for private practice – with a kitten who "smells of promise / and sheathed claws / like most pre-conquest women".

In the other, a glamorous astro-nomer is as enthralled by a Jupiter moon as she is by a femalecolleague – which her scholarly husband discovers before cancer's onset ("a razor / from within"). It is a brilliant portrait of uneasy domesticity.

Death and astronomy had also haunted the collection Other Worlds (2001), and Porter turned to several libretti before herself being diagnosed with cancer in 2004. In shaking off what she called poetry's "modernist fatigue", she succeeded in making it "festive, fun, and dangerous", never "daggy": as she explained for English readers in the notes to the English edition of Monkey's Mask, that is "the antithesis of groovy. One of the most common Australian insults. The noun dag originally meant a knotted lump of wool and excrement hanging off a sheep's behind". She is survived by her partner, Andrea Goldsmith.

Christopher Hawtree

Dorothy Porter, poet: born Sydney 26 March 1954; died Melbourne December 10 2008.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering