Porter, Dorothy (Featherstone)

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PORTER, Dorothy (Featherstone)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, 1954. Education: Graduated from Sydney University 1975; earned a Diploma of Education. Career: Has worked as a part-time teacher and lecturer in poetry and writing, University of Technology, Sydney. Since 1994 full-time writer. Awards: Book of the Year, Age, National Book of the Year for Poetry, and Braille Book of the Year, all for The Monkey's Mask.



Little Hoodlum. Sydney, Poetry Society of Australia, 1975.

The Night Parrot. Wentworth Falls, New South Wales, Black Lightening Press, 1984.

Driving Too Fast. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1989.

Akhenaten. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1992; London, Serpent's Tail, 1999.

The Monkey's Mask. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, and New York, Arcade, 1994; London, Serpent's Tail, 1997.

Crete. South Melbourne, Victoria, Hyland House, 1996.

What a Piece of Work. Sydney, Picador, 1999.

Recordings: Some Poems of Dorothy Featherstone Porter, A.B.C., 1979.


Rookwood (for young adults). St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1991.

The Witch Number (for young adults). St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993.


Critical Studies: "Festive Fun and Dangerous" by Jenny Digby, in Island, 57, summer 1993; "Ham-Fists in Those 'Male Size Golf Gloves'" by Kathleen Mary Fallon, in Southerly (Sydney), 55(3), spring 1995; by Finola Moorhead, in Southerly (Sydney), 55(1), fall 1995; "'The Giant Octopus Is Dying': Maternal Archaeology in Dorothy Porter's 'Crete'" by Rose Lucas, in Southerly (Sydney), 58(1), autumn 1998.

*  *  *

Although her first book, Little Hoodlum, was published in 1975, when she was twenty-one, and she has continued to bring out her work regularly, it was in 1994, with the publication of her verse novel The Monkey's Mask, a feminist crime thriller, that Dorothy Porter achieved a remarkable literary and popular success. The Monkey's Mask has sold more copies in Australia than many a best-selling novel, and it has been adapted for the stage and radio as well as for film. The themes and the verse style—staccato and nervous, elliptical and sharply modulated—have contributed as much to the success of the book as has the story itself, which brilliantly portrays its main character, a lesbian detective.

There are ample precedents for The Monkey's Mask in Porter's earlier books, most notably in Akhenaten, which is also effectively a verse novel. Akhenaten explores the always intriguing Egyptian ruler, and it is particularly striking in its handling of the themes of incest and sexual perversion. It certainly drew attention to the increasing confidence with which the poet could handle sexually explicit subject matter, with short clipped lines and an almost startled lyricism.

After The Monkey's Mask Porter produced the collections Crete and What a Piece of Work. Crete includes a sequence that reflects something of the oriental fascination of Akhenaten but in more attenuated form. What a Piece of Work, which appeared in 1999, is Porter's second major verse novel and was short-listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin Fiction award. It was the first verse novel to receive this distinction, though there have been a number of efforts in the form: Les Murray's The Boys Who Stole the Funeral and Fredy Neptune, as well as Alan Wearne's The Nightmarkets and Jordie Albison's The Hanging of Jean Lee.

What a Piece of Work is told in the first-person voice of Dr. Peter Cryen, the superintendent of Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital in Sydney. One of his patients, named Frank, is a poet and is clearly a portrait of the great Australian poet Francis Webb, who spent many years incarcerated there. Frank is mad, but his madness seems curiously sane when compared with the increasingly frenetic sexual and masochistic behavior of Dr. Cyren. The verse form gains its strength from the tightly controlled and cryptic lines, and the narrative is largely implied through the sequence of brief meditations and responses of the doctor as his personal life unravels:

sometimes mad Frank
is the best company
  in the world
I tell him
how much
  I loved my mother
his yellow teeth
like glowing ears
"what did she look like?"
he asks
I close my eyes
and let them
the dark takes her shape
her wonderful
  heart-hooking smell
'My mother'
the night floods my throat
  'looked like Anne Bancroft'.

—Thomas W. Shapcott

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Porter, Dorothy (Featherstone)

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