The Best 100 Poems of Gwen Harwood

One would think it difficult to distil a legacy such as Gwen Harwood’s, but here Black Inc. have published an elegant and concise volume of her poetry curated by her son, author and poet John Harwood.

The collection is mapped out in a manner that ties time, philosophy, place and character – or even a single, fragile object – together, binding each new verse with a thread from its predecessor. All together, it forms the narrative of a woman’s lifework.

Harwood’s work often reflected a battle between the glory and grace of the natural world, and the civilisation that obstructed her role within it. Her writing on the nature of maternity and the sexual hypocrisy of wifehood is her most enduring juxtaposition.

In ‘Midwinter’ she conjures an image of heaven as ‘a sunlit kitchen/with bread rising, the great black kettle singing’ though more often she chooses to reinstate the hellish quality of domestic life. These struggles and contradictions informed her craft, which reads traditionally in the romantic style but occasionally breaks off with a modernist effect, leaving the reader in a vacuum.

For me, the strongest reactions were with the familiar material made strange by my approaching it as an adult. I can’t get the last words from ‘In the Park’ out of my head: ‘They have eaten me alive’. As I read, they hung like ripe fruit ready to drop onto each page. I cried in ‘Father and Child’ and ‘Mother Who Gave Me Life’, and I was haunted by ‘The Glass Jar’ and ‘Oyster Cove’.

This beautiful hardback edition – with a cover by Peter Long that brings both the serenity and violence of nature together in a single sinuous image – is a loving monument from one writer to another, and from a son to his exceptional mother.

Jemima Bucknell