“Overnight sensation” – the star who bursts on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, so often is someone who has labored unappreciated at their craft for years.

At the end of the 20th century, Australian poetry was in the doldrums. Major publishers declared that maximum sales of only 200 to 400 copies per edition were not sustainable. Penguin Australia ditched its poetry list in the 1990s because it wasn’t selling.

In 1996, Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) finally found a publisher for her verse novel The Monkey’s Mask, a noir tale of a private eye’s search for a missing poet.

The Monkey’s Mask – the book for which I couldn’t even find a publisher – suddenly becomes a film, a play, and the BBC has just done a radio dramatisation of it in London. I admit at times I have deliberately done things to make money. But The Monkey’s Mask I wrote for the sheer hell of it.”

And “overnight”– after years of being a familiar name mostly to other Australian poets, meanwhile earning a living teaching – Dorothy Porter was a Sensation.

In The Monkey’s Mask, a series of linked poems tells the story of Lesbian private investigator Jill Fitzpatrick, hired by anxious parents to find their missing daughter Mickey, an aspiring poet. But Fitzpatrick gets sidetracked by Mickey’s college professor, the seductive Dr. Diana Maitland, and they’re soon involved a passionate but on-again off-again affair. Porter turns the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler noir mystery genre on its head.

The title comes from a Bashō haiku:

Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey’s mask.

But another quote on the title page, from Aristophanes, is equally apt:

“What do you want a poet for?”
“To save the City, of course.”


‘Word for today’
hisses the voice on my answering machine

‘is love.’

a breathy pause
like the voice is counting to ten

has the same number of syllables as

the word comes for me
full of stiletto spit

‘our word for tomorrow.’



Diana’s tongue whirls
in my mouth

like a dissolving aspro
like knives on a chariot wheel in Ben Hur

twisting her hair in my hands
I bring her so close
her teeth grate on my teeth

this close
she’s hard not soft

this close
she’s teeth not tongue

this close
she’s hurting me.




Of course, being an overnight sensation in poetry isn’t quite like being a rock star. Your next verse novel will sell out quickly – all 3,000 copies – and get a second printing. Your work will be translated into German and Italian. And some people will read your poetry who haven’t read a poem since they left school.

You’ll be quoted. Dorothy Porter says that far too much Australian poetry is “a dramatic cure for insomnia.”

You’ll be asked to give the Judith Wright Memorial Lecture (Wright was the doyenne of modern Australian poetry): “Lucid. What a lovely word. A word that forms a firm shape with the tongue right behind it – but feels full of light and expansion even as one speaks it – or writes it … Lucidity does not mean the reams of docile looking-out-the-window poetry that seems to be a staple of the Australian poetry diet. The ‘I am a poet and I will write a poem today’ school. Lucidity can write with a tongue of fire. Often it’s a sense of urgency, a sense of dire times, that can make a poem searingly lucid.”

Poet David Malouf, who was one of Porter’s college professors and became a friend, says “…she had enormous energy…I think anybody who ever saw Dot perform would not forget the performance.”

As in much of the rest of the world from the 1970s until rap and poetry slams exploded, Australian poetry readings had been overrun by mutterers. Porter, who loved rock-n-roll and always wrote with some kind of music playing, had a gift for rhythm and recitation: “The poetry scene in Australia is small, querulous, and has always been distinctly unglamorous. The advantage I had early on was that I studied acting, and I was a very good performer at a time when poetry was basically mumbled. I could dramatise and that got me noticed.”

“Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock’n’roll, and I still write to music every day…Music has been my draught of intoxication since the very moment I first heard the Beatles in early 1964…” Her ‘dark gods’ were Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix. Their “daemonic enchantment captivated me and made my pen fly.” In her later years, she collaborated with several musicians, writing song lyrics and opera libretti.


In Crete, a collection of poems about the island, aesthetics and archeology published in 2000, you can feel the beat and hear strange music through the incense haze.



What do the Minoans teach us –
exuberance with bloody hands?

The wind the Goddess brings
is both wonderful and vicious

she flies into your soul
she flies into your face

and what will you do to see her?

Become the stone altar
become the moist fetish
become the bird screaming down on you

it’s just a trance
you tell yourself
you’ll wake up tomorrow
your lover sleeping on your shoulder

it was just the wine
it was just the drugs

it’s all over
I can’t remember
nothing happened

no-one got hurt

but there was something
a wind, a bird, a sense
of being taken up and over

dancing and dying
dancing and not dying
dancing and living forever

but your mortal lover snores
and snuffles into your mortal skin

the rattle, the trees, that perfume,
that fantastic presence

what are you fit for now?

whose throat would you cut
to have it happen again?


Porter’s Wild Surmise is a dialogue between a “glamour girl” of Astronomy and her husband, dying of cancer, who knows he has lost her love – she pines for a woman who doesn’t love her, but is also obsessed professionally with Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which just might be able to sustain life.



No wonder you love

You will never crack
the crust
of this blinding ice moon
and dredge its slush.

If its thin cold air
could ever fizz
in brave human lungs
you would still be the last
to breathe it.

You’re happy
for Europa
to stay in its remote orbit
showering down
the odd twinkling tick
to squat in your skin.

So much easier
to scratch its itch
and laze
in enigma

than love
and render to
the drunk woman
in blinding distress
dirtying your street.


In 2004, Dorothy Porter was diagnosed with breast cancer. She did battle with the disease for the next four years. Prophetically, she had written this poem for Crete.



Pine trees
come most alive
dripping with resin
in a fire

I’ve got a hot date
with Death

will she be
my boiling Celt?

will we dare
the White Horses?

dewy together
Death and I

hot-sea blue

or will Death
be my curly cork-screw

“I’m you
I’m you”
she moans

knocking me to the floor
of an old blood hotel
sucking out my breath

Oh Death!

I never knew you
in a dress
in high heels

just the melt
of your breasts
the fork-lift
of your tongue

I can’t bring home
a  devil
to meet my mother

but I won’t
ring for a taxi

I’m not leaving

until you tell me
about yourself

let’s talk, Death

can’t we be friends?

is it all
with you?

do you like cricket?
do you like tennis?

what did you think
of this year’s Film Festival?

Sip your long black
slowly, Death,

I want to know you

do you want
to be my second cousin

Celt or Jew.

You’ll never be English, Death

I said Goodbye to All That
with my last Anglican

I can’t remember
the wafer
I couldn’t get drunk
on the wine

Celt or Jew.

Breath or dew.

You’ll never be faithful.
I’ll never be true.

Because, Death,
I’m not simple

and neither are you.


Dorothy Featherstone Porter died from cancer complications on December 10, 2008, survived by her partner, novelist Andrea Goldsmith, her parents, her two sisters, and her cat, Wystan, named after W. H. Auden.



An afternoon storm cracks
into thunder

the sky churns black
boiling over
with hailstones
banging on the tin roof
piling up into white
little ice turd heaps
on the grass

it’s that dead hour
three o’clock

‘The hour Our Lord died’
Frank hisses
his land hair alive
with static

just my luck
to be stuck
with a crackling Catholic
when it’s raining in Bedlam.


“What do you want a poet for?”
“To save the City, of course.”


The Poems

  • “Word for Today” from The Monkey’s Mask, © 1994 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House Publishing
  • “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” from The Monkey’s Mask, © 1994 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House Publishing
  • “Exuberance with Bloody Hands” from Crete, © 2000 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House
  • “Europa” from Wild Surmise, © 2002 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia)
  • “Hot Date” from Crete, © 2000 by Dorothy Porter –Hyland House
  • “Raining in Bedlam” from What a Piece of Work, © 1999 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia)

Selected Bibliography

Poetry Collections

  • Little Hoodlum, © 1975 by Dorothy Porter – Poetry Society of Australia
  • Bison, © 1979 by Dorothy Porter – Prism
  • The Night Parrot, © 1984 by Dorothy Porter – Black Lightning Press
  • Driving Too Fast, © 1990 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House
  • Crete, © 2000 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House
  • Other Worlds: Poems 1997-2001, © 2001 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)
  • Poems: January–August 2004, © 2004 by Dorothy Porter – Vagabond Press
  • The Bee Hut, © 2009 (Posthumous) – Black Inc (Schwartz Media)
  • Love Poems, © 2010 (Posthumous) – Black Inc (Schwartz Media)
  • The Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter, © 2013 (Posthumous) – Black Inc (Schwartz Media)

Verse Novels

  • Akhenaten, © 1992 by Dorothy Porter – University of Queensland Press
  • The Monkey’s Mask, © 1994 by Dorothy Porter – Hyland House Publishing
  • What a Piece of Work, © 1999 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia)
  • Wild Surmise, © 2002 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia)
  • El Dorado, © 2007 by Dorothy Porter – Picador (Pan MacMillan Australia)

The Monkey’s Mask won the National Book Council’s Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize (the Banjo) in 1995 and was shortlisted for several other literary awards, before being published in the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany. Wild Surmise was nominated for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin. El Dorado, her fifth verse novel, was shortlisted for the Dinny O’Hearn Poetry Prize (Age Book of the Year Award), the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and Best Fiction in the Ned Kelly Awards.



  • Gibbon monkey mask
  • Detail from a portrait of Dorothy Porter by Rick Amor
  • Minoan snake goddess
  • Europa and Jupiter
  • Bonfire with pine boughs
  • Lightning
  • Photo of Dorothy Porter

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud



About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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4 Responses to Word Cloud: SENSATIONAL

  1. pramegha says:

    The poems are so deep…she was definitely an amazing poet.

  2. That is truly gritty writing. I like the raw realism.

    Have I mentioned before, just how much I hate cancer?

    • wordcloud9 says:

      Oh me too. Cancer has taken far too many good people from my life, though not as many as it has from yours I know.

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