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Nicolette Stasko on J.S. Harry

From the introduction to New and Selected Poems

Over thirty years ago I met J.S. Harry, fittingly or perhaps ironically, because of a bird. Readers familiar with her work will know that Harry’s keen observations of avian life make up a large portion of her poetry. The bird was a rainbow lorikeet named Birdie – rescued as a chick after falling out of its nest. At the time, Harry was poet-in-residence at the Australian National University and needed to make up some potion for Birdie which required a food processor. So she called us as the only people she knew in Canberra. Arriving with barbecue chicken and chips as thanks (this tells you something about her as she was a lifelong vegetarian) she proceeded to mix a batch of mysterious ingredients which included bee pollen. When we moved to Sydney, Harry often visited us carrying a very large cage decorated abundantly with native flora and silver beet leaves. Birdie was left free to wander around – much to the delight of my five-year-old and the utter fascination and confusion of the dog, who couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was so well cared for that a miraculous egg was eventually laid to everyone’s surprise, as much as Birdie’s.

During her time at the ANU, Harry was expected to meet with individual students, and conduct workshops. We attended readings, which included her fellow residents Jennifer Maiden and Vicki Viidikas. It seemed Jann and I did a lot of driving around in her huge blue-and-white car talking about poetry, becoming friends easily and quickly in spite of the vast differences between us and our work.

When she returned to Sydney we spent hours on the phone gossiping and reading our poems aloud – eventually sending copies to each other. I remember sitting in my little study in Narrabundah and opening her letter that contained one of the first rabbit poems, ‘Calcutta’. I laughed out loud at the wicked satire, the ingenious originality of it. Eventually the rabbit poems were collected and published in Not Finding Wittgenstein by Giramondo in 2007. It won the Age Poetry Book of the Year Award. The eponymous rabbit hero of the series was called Peter Henry Lepus, and was said to have Creole ancestry. Originally the rabbit was based on the beloved children’s books by Beatrix Potter but the request for permission to use the character was met with such outrage and the threat of lawsuits by the Potter literary estate, that it left Jann with a lifelong terror of copyright.

This was not the end of Peter Henry however. He went on to meet many more philosophers and travel to the Middle East, in poems which were written near the end of Jann’s life, and are included in this collection.

Jann often met me after work when I flew to Sydney for consultancy work; one time for dinner in the rooftop restaurant of the hotel where I was staying. Ordering fish for her, thinking it was a suitable vegetarian dish, I watched her pick at it while we looked at the neon skyline of the city. She never said a word. Another time we sat on the floor of the hotel room and ate salads from David Jones (I was a bit more cluey by then), talking about poetry and reading aloud. Having sent her a new poem, I was anxious to hear what she thought. In her typically frank way she said the ending was ‘flat’. As I attempted to defend the last line she asked me to read it aloud. I did and she admitted that it worked perfectly with my voice. She was inflexibly honest and yet also willing to accept that she might be wrong.

Jann was the most charitable and caring person I’ve known – supporting all kinds of poets and buying poetry books even though it seemed she had no money. She was also immensely private (partly the reason for the use of initials for her public name). Two male ‘senior’ poets showed up when Jann launched my first book, and told me that they were only there to see if J.S. Harry was a man or woman. Apparently there were bets on it. Until her health began to fail and she needed help to shop and clean, I never knew where she lived or visited her house. Her usual shopping list was mince (for the birds), white bread (for the possums), cheese slices (for herself) and stationery supplies. The house was so full of papers and books it was hard to walk around.

Jann came often to our various places in Sydney and we would talk sometimes until four in the morning – she drinking the strong black coffee I would brew, I wine, and both of us smoking with gusto. This is when questions of whether a ‘holey doily’ was a tautology, or whether a full stop or a colon was best, would be discussed. This may sound silly or boring but it never was. Amongst other things Jann could be very funny, with a dry Australian sense of humour. Her vast knowledge made conversation fascinating. We were both reading Wittgenstein and other theorists on language and poetics. Jann was extremely precise in her work and these apparent incidentals mattered. I think that a fundamental dichotomy in her approach caused her some existential angst: how could she make the poem as exact as possible and yet still leave ‘room in each poem for the imagination of the reader to move around in’. She eventually came to an understanding that enabled her to write brilliant and satisfying poetry embracing Bertrand Russell’s notion that ‘a word has a meaning, more or less vague; but the meaning is only to be discovered by observing its use. The use comes first, and the meaning is distilled out of it.’

Around 2005 Jann moved to Katoomba to be with her partner and fellow-poet Kerry Leves and we didn’t spend so much time together. She had known Kerry for many years – since early workshop days. It was during this time that she put together Not Finding Wittgenstein, no doubt with Kerry’s help. Later they moved back to Sydney so Kerry could begin a PhD. But in the end he was unable to finish it. He died about six months after receiving a devastating diagnosis. As usual she let her poetry do the speaking for her: the beautiful poems that appeared in Public Private (published by Vagabond in 2013) express her sadness and loss but also her stoic resilience in the face of it – turning to the natural world for solace and celebration.

I remember one time when she called me to read a poem she was writing, published in that collection as ‘Plop!’. Because it was an early draft (Jann wrote and printed numerous drafts – sometimes up to twenty or more until she was satisfied – all of which she kept for future reference) she was experimenting with the laugh of a kookaburra. She actually imitated the bird very well and tried out different possibilities in the poem but I still didn’t think it worked. She didn’t say anything else about it but when the poem appeared all of the kookaburra sounds were omitted. By then her own health battles had begun in earnest and she spent a great deal of time in hospital undergoing surgeries and physio. Eventually it was clear none of the surgery or other cures were working. In spite of the short notice, her family were able to find a place for her in a nursing home where she could receive round the clock care. At first Jann was totally resistant to the place and very suspicious, as one would expect. Eventually she settled into a routine and even became fond of the carers her family hired to provide assistance in areas the home could not. For six months or so we (Rob Shield, a friend she had earlier met when he was called to fix her computer) worked on the Peter Lepus poems that can be found in the final ‘Return to Baghdad’ section of this book. They were already past draft stage and just needed a little fine-tuning. Rob mostly read them aloud as Jann didn’t particularly like the way I read her work and he was most familiar with them. She had a remarkable sense of cadence and even when she was very ill, she could pick a misstep or a false line break. Corrections were made on the computer. These poems are highly detailed and fairly complex. Harry had kept a very close eye on the events unfolding in Iraq and was somewhat expert about the political situation, using all of her skills as an autodidact to consult multiple resources including a huge collection of newspapers. The poems are not as humorous as the early rabbit poems, though the unusual characters and satire relieve the seriousness. They are intensely critical of war (as she had always been as far back as Vietnam) and the stupidity and cruelty of human beings. Peter Henry Lepus has finally had his rabbit eyes fully opened and he has sadly become somewhat cynical.

At some point a New and Selected was mooted and we switched our energies to working on this volume. By that time Jann’s illness had progressed and she was often in pain or fuzzy because of the drugs she took to ease that pain. Very quickly she decided to cut three or four poems from the selection, but from there the task became much more difficult. After spending weeks, sometimes months or years, crafting a poem it is very hard to abandon it. But space was a significant problem, as she had gone on to publish seven collections after her first, Deer Under The Skin, in 1971. It was all a little unorganised and we weren’t getting very far so I typed a list of all her published poetry to help organise the process. And we went from there – each time a poem was read it was given a cross, a tick or question mark. Still, it was sometimes hard to stay on track, as the discussions about the individual poems went off in all directions. There were poems we didn’t even get to. The list became invaluable in deciding the selection – the more ticks, the more solid the poem’s place in the collection. In finalising the contents I read and re-read the poems. I could hear Jann’s voice (she was always a magnetic reader) and sometimes I felt incredibly sad that she was gone and I would never hear her again. There were times I had to make an editorial decision – the responsibility weighed heavily on me but knowing Jann so well, and being privy to the discussions around the poems, I am mostly comfortable in choices that could easily be said represent the best of J.S. Harry. New and Selected Poems would be published. I promised I would make every effort to see that it was. And with the help of Ivor Indyk and Rob Shield, the book is the fulfilment of that promise.

Nicolette Stasko
Sydney 2021

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