From: Michael Robison ( zspider@gte.net)
Date: 10 Aug 2003

MONKEY'S MASK, Dorothy Porter 1994

In Dorothy Porter's MONKEY'S MASK, Jill Fitzpatrick is a tough Australian private investigator hired by distraught parents to look for their missing daughter Mickey. Mickey is a "nice" girl, a student at a local college. She keeps her room clean, with stuffed animals on her bed and her books neatly alphabetized on a shelf. She has long attractive legs, a big white smile, and shiny hair. Jill is short, with scruffy hair, gorilla hands, and a tired face. Marvelling at the differences between them, Jill begins an investigation that uncovers secrets revealing a darker side of Mickey's personality, a pattern of sordid sexual relations, a search for love in all the wrong places. As truth and irony unfold, Jill must face the reflection of her own desires and weaknesses in Mickey's erotic poetry.

I don't like poetry. A novel's long narration of human experience speaks to me, but poetry's vague and obscure references are too great a challenge for my plebeian intellect to absorb, the images too brief and fleeting. Or at least that's what I thought. Billed as an erotic murder mystery, Porter's book is written in verse, and she lays it down lean, mean, and clean. Her style, like Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, is both elegant and simple at once. Using few and spartan words she juggles plot, characters, and scenes. She can develop empathy for a character in a few deft strokes. The poet Louie, the cop Steve, and femme fatale Diana are all well-drawn with a perceptive eye. Even minor characters like Mickey's father are vivid and real. She can evoke a scene in a few lines.

Tony's house is high and airy

the breeze carries frangipani from the garden

from his long veranda he can watch the Brisbane River

The fast paced plot is suspenseful and entertaining, but the true essence of Porter's story is baring the heart and soul of Jill. Jill flaunts her toughness in the beginning of the story but as she falls in love, her insecurity and vulnerability surfaces. The sex scenes are explicit but not gratuitous. Loneliness, love, passion, and betrayal are central themes in the book. The heat rolls off her verse like the lyrics of Melissa Etheridge.

Dorothy Porter was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1954. She graduated from Sydney University in 1975 with a double major in History and English. Aside from her professional writing, she has been a teacher and lecturer. Since graduating from college, she has published eight books of poetry, three verse novels, and two young adult novels. It is THE MONKEY'S MASK that gained her a solid international reputation. Following this, her 1996 work CRETE was well-received. She has traveled in Australia and North America performing her work. In her interviews she comes across as modest in one response, outspoken in the next, and articulate throughout.

Porter notes that she avoids labelling herself as either an erotic or a lesbian poet because of the demeaning connotation that some people attach to those terms. I would not apply those terms to her either, but not because of any disparaging meaning, but rather because they are unduly restrictive to a poet who speaks to a much wider spectrum of human experience.


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