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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all