A Kitchen Poem – Passage 1
Estuary – Passage 2
The Violets – Passage 3
Through the juxtaposition between past and present, organic imagery and a pronounced tone of both wonder and tranquillity marking the language, Gwen Harwood’s poetry delineates the nature of love, time and memory as they personify human existence.
The gentle meditation, The Violets, is an exploration of the existential concerns of the poet. There is a notable disturbance in the language of the first stanza with the ‘ambiguous light’ and ‘ambiguous sky’ both representative of an unsure state of mind in which the mature poet finds herself. The style of the poem reveals a troubled interior narrative and reflection, with the speaker describing a childhood memory which is engendered by the perfume of violets, a common flower of her youth. There is a structure to the poem which separates the identities that are involved. The articulation of the memory, as recollected by the child figure, is indented throughout. The opening stanza is written by a narrator whom is created for the poem while the presence of the mature poet, Harwood, reflects on the moments which are described in the work.
The child’s distress at missing out on the day (and that of the speaker in turn) is captured in her emotion as she ‘sobbed, “Where’s morning gone?” The speaking voice, assumedly that of the poet, has surpassed the egocentric state of childhood and has now become conscious of the passing of time and her human mortality. The description of a ‘fearful half-sleep of a hot afternoon’ represents the existential fear of the speaker, who feels that she had been in a state of submissive tranquillity, as indicated by the ‘half-sleep’ up until this epiphany and regrets the waste. The events of this poem occur ‘towards nightfall’ as indicated by the first line of the poem which foregrounds the state of day in which the poem occurs, bleakly described as ‘dusk and cold’. Harwood commonly uses the latter part of day, when ‘darkness’ falls, to emphasise the nullity of death and the void which it embodies and implores the reader to empathise with her crisis.
The Violets is similar to Barn Owl in its telling of a child’s loss of innocence and a sense of loss due to being forced to mature and approach death. Both poems however involve situations created to portray the troubles of the speaker towards midlife. The ‘sky’ ‘striped like ice cream’ is a deliberately childish image which compounds the crisis that the aged poet feels upon a reflection on her life until this point. The second stanza suggests the way in which the speaker finds comfort and solace from the pressing question of death. The use of a comma and an enjambment in the line ‘at our first house| in Mitchelton’, compounds the significance of what was Harwood’s first home and her affection for that suburb of Mitchelton. It represents security, a sense of belonging and family which help to shape Harwood’s desire for an idyllic life and instils her with an appreciation of the preciousness of the love and security which established and guided her way into the world, amidst fear of what awaits her beyond mortal life.
While The Violets is a quiet yet dramatic rumination on mortality, Estuary is marked by a tone of tranquillity and the use of rich imagery to worship the preciousness of nature and life. As the final line suggests, it is about ‘moments’ - or in this case a single moment – ‘that renew the world.’ A deep appreciation of memories and the experiences which lead to them is developed and exquisitely cherished, as indicated by the reverent description of ‘spring’s new radiance’ and the character ‘still praising life’.
The memory that is recounted in this poem is strikingly vivid. Again it returns to a childhood memory, the speaker’s earliest memory,
which brings forth the importance that the moral poet places on the intrinsic values which determine character. The firm, uncompromising words of the grandmother saying “Look. Remember this”, are italicised to carry an added message. The speaker is declaring the importance of memory and how this particular one is ingrained in her consciousness. The image of the moon, seen through ‘smoked glass’, is a lesson from grandmother to granddaughter. She is portrayed as a mentor to the child, teaching her to never look upon life with a naked, naive eye but rather ‘the eye’s part of another eye’ or a sense of conscious awareness and morality and appreciate its wonder. It enforces the ‘questioning mind’, an added sense of apprehension with which the grandmother herself has been guided through the ‘maze of light’. Similarly in Nightfall when the father and child take their final walk together, the elder being is renewing their own life and seeks to live vicariously through the legacy they leave with their young.
The representation of time as being a ‘line’ that becomes a ‘firm horizon’, in Estuary, elucidates the notion that time is linear. The sentence ‘All’s as it was in the beginning’ suggests that the speaker can see each moment of her life captured in this single instance and realises the apparent dearth of putatively significant achievements. A reflection on years gone past arouses feeling of regret as to the slumber-like state with which the speaker had previously lived. The ‘grandmother’ now a ‘great-grandmother’ a generation later, still appreciates life and every second gifted to her as though it were ‘light falling like a benediction’. She is lying ‘close to the final darkness’, evidence of Harwood once more using ‘darkness’ to represent the frightening unknown of death.
Harwood again finds comfort in the natural wonderland setting of the poem. The ‘sea’s arm’ is where the speaker rests, appeased by the gentle images of ‘wind crosshatches shallow water’. An apotheosis of the simplest wonders is present, such as comparing wind to what she considered a divine art (being music), in ‘a crazy stave with sticks for barlines, wind for song.’ The ‘interleaving light’, of which she is presently aware, indicates a buoyancy like the ‘air’ in which ‘ride the gulls’ and ‘spring’s new radiance’. Forever altered by the eternal lesson of her grandmother she ‘allows reality to enter its gateway as a friend, unchallenged’. In saying so she is accepting death (called ‘reality’) as finality but also a test of life which she will greet like a ‘friend’ when the time comes and concludes a development of her eventual understanding and acceptance of the fragility of life.
The intensity of the child’s experiences of significant moments in The Violets and Estuary still live powerfully within the aged person and serve to enliven her during her struggles through the images of the organic unity of life.
Countering the existential reflections upon time in the previous two poems, is the triumphant celebration of A Kitchen Poem. Here we are privy to the ‘ripening fields and orchards’ - which the speaker and also Harwood revere - as metaphors for fertility and the bearing of children. Just as in An Impromptu for Ann Jennings, the poet finds children to be a way of conferring her own immortality and that is repeated in the tone of affection that the husband here feels towards the factor of motherhood that his wife embodies. From the subheading the speaker is known to be ‘The farmer to his wife’, the female poet adapting and moulding the persona of possibly her view of the quintessential male companion.
The breadth of the farmer’s love in describing his wife (who is barely given an identity, possibly to show a universal profile) is obvious in giving her a regal identity by describing her ‘royal skies’. Similarly in Nightfall the child describes her father as an old king, reiterating Harwood’s attribution of regal identities to people of importance to her. They together rule their idyllic cosmos, ‘where the mountain puts enchantment on’, along with their children. The cleverly subtle wit, evident in the slight degradation of ‘keen blue stockings’ and mocking of ‘career-mad women’ is effectively used by Harwood to promote a jovial but simultaneously humble atmosphere which is apparent in the simplicity of the ‘cares of day’ and ‘plain spoken room’ which characterise domestic life.
The farmer is in awe of the powerful figure of his wife; ‘too great with child to sit at ease’ she stands with purpose. Her romantic thoughts are unleashed as she ‘dreams herself away’ to ‘scintillating life’. Where ‘Orion leads a waterfall of stars’ her ‘beauty lies’, transcending any other being that he has met. It is again an event captured at the end of a day, although unlike The Violets this day represents all days, it is renewable. Life with his mate, should she accept his sentiments, is incredibly sweet as he adores their children, their marriage and their Edenic lifestyle.
The final line of The Violets shows the speaker’s appreciation for the world as she has experienced it over her life and the moments which she finds most precious. It is the ‘faint scent of violets’ which ‘drift(s) in air’, representative of a smell associated with the speaker’s youth, that is the catalyst for the recounting of a childhood memory which enervates the ‘frail melancholy’ of the present. Similarly in A Kitchen Poem it is the farmer’s appreciation for the ‘land’ and what he has been blessed with which compels him to profess his love for his wife. The return to a rural setting in Estuary and the familiarity of an appeasing ‘light’ is what triggers the memory of the speaker’s experience with her grandmother and, in turn, an awareness of the richness of life in the face of impending death.
There is a clear development and connection between the poems regarding the spirituality of the poet and her quest to understand and conquer her concerns. Each of these moments encapsulates the intrinsic values which the poet holds in such reverence and their connections to a natural existence emphasises that they stem from the roots of humanity and are nothing less than sacramental, as are love, time and memory.