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Dorothea Rosa Herliany’s poetry embodies the classical feminist formula - ‘the personal is political’, emphasising that the reverse is just as true. Her poems take politics personally and bravely reveal the risk in that. Harry Aveling’s translations hold faithfully to their starkness of line and openness of form, making this important work available to us in English and his illuminating introduction offers a sensitive context for Herliany’s writing.

The energy and violence expressed in the title of the collection runs through the work like a ruptured vein, fragile and vulnerable but necessary for survival. The destructiveness and chaos of the outside world broadcast on the radio summons a reaction of echoing violence, filtered through irony. Many of the poems use this mirroring effect, the consciousness of the individual poem reflecting back what it sees and experiences.

The ‘Self’ contained in the poems is ill at ease, often ‘trapped’, ‘always hurrying…searching and never finding’. Underneath this troubled surface there is so much tenderness and openness, in shocking contrast to the ‘Other’, represented by the world of politics and war, that the speaker of the poems is aware she is in danger of annihilation. She finds herself exposed in a place of emptiness, alienation and despair:

i search for a mirror in which to record my life
and find nothing
only an emptiness which slips through my hands:
searching for questions
and answers
within myself, somewhere.

Even words, poetry itself, fail her. They are unable to tell the truth and become further agents of damage and confusion. The relationship is deeply ambivalent: sometimes language is nothing but ‘trash’; sometimes it is all the poet has to hold onto, to seek some guidance through the dark dangerous places, both inside and outside her psyche.

in my poetry, I build myself a small house
where my conscience can live.

In the end it is ‘conscience’ that proves the most reliable support, a strong individual sense of what is right despite everything that is happening around her. There is immense courage in the deep acceptance of worldly conflict and romantic disappointment. Herliany’s poems are written from a woman’s perspective but they speak about the human condition. How do we reconcile opposites and come to terms with a dualistic, divided world? Admitting the fact of it and the appropriate despair, although disagreeable and unfashionable, is the first step. In these poems, emptiness is honoured as a true expression of the way things are.

The apparent simplicity of the poems is deceptive. There is an almost liquid intensity in the lines and rivers flow through many of the pages. The bare elements of the physical world counterpoint the harder-edged man-made references and the consistent lower case ‘i’ tries to navigate a path between them. The space she makes her own is a true no-man’s land. There she finds the sadness of aloneness but also its strength, revealed in writing more existential than lyrical. The reader is witness to the arguments she has with herself, the teasing out of bitter truths, hard-won realisations.

Again and again time is referred to as an oppression, something to be suffered and simply acknowledged:

i have travelled this road for centuries:
the days on the calendar roll forward
from one disappointment to another.

Herliany understands the weight and price of time passing when the vision is clear. This is emphasised by her practice of giving every poem a year and a place.

Since its flowering in the 1970s, there has been an insidious muffling of feminism in the West, a deep confusion arising from the lie that on many levels women have achieved a satisfactory equality. It used to be more widely recognised that the personal is political, and vice versa; also that resistance is possible, a clear-eyed, open-hearted refusal to play the game. It is refreshing, although painful, to be reminded of it in Dorothea Rosa Herliany’s work. There are no formulas for healing the deep divisions in society and in ourselves but the poet can at least offer some of the resources available to us – intelligence and endurance, honesty and courage.

Linda France
April 2006

Postscript from the Ledbury Festival 2009

Read Linda France’s introduction to Dorothea Rosa Herliany’s work
at Ledbury Festival, July 2009