Nationality: Australian. Born: Jennifer Wallace, Heywood, Victoria, 30 January 1933. Education: University of Melbourne, 1951–54,B.A. (honors) 1954; University of Glasgow, 1957–58; Monash University, Ph.D. 1991. Family: Married Werner Strauss in 1958; three sons. Career: Lecturer, University of Melbourne, 1961–63. Lecturer, 1964–71, senior lecturer, 1971–91, and since 1991 associate professor, Monash University, Melbourne. Visiting scholar, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1974, and Australian National University, Canberra, 1988; visiting professor, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, Ontario, 1982; member of literature committee, Ministry for the Arts, Victoria, 1983–85. Chair, Premier's Literary Awards Committee, 1989–91. Awards: Westerly Sesquicentenary prize, 1979. Address: 2/12 Tollington Avenue, East Malvern, Victoria 3145, Australia.
Children and Other Strangers. Melbourne, Nelson, 1975.
Winter Driving. Melbourne, Sisters, 1981.
Labour Ward. Melbourne Pariah Press, 1988.
Tierra del Fuego: New and Selected Poems. Altona North, Victoria, Pariah Press, 1997.
"Stop Laughing! I'm Being Serious:" Studies in Seriousness and Wit in Contemporary Australian Literature. Townsville, Foundation for the Study of Australian Literature, 1990.
Boundary Conditions: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1992.
Editor, with Bruce Moore and Jan Noble, Middle English Verse: An Anthology. Melbourne, Monash University, 1976; revised edition, with Charles A. Stevenson, 1985.
Editor, The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Editor, with Bruce Bennett and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Editor, Family Ties: Australian Poems of the Family. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1998.*
Manuscript Collection: Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Critical Studies: "Pensive Seductions: New Collections by Four Women Poets" by Yvonne Rousseau, in The Age Monthly Review (Melbourne), February 1989; "What the Witness Spoke: Jennifer Strauss, Labour Ward" by Noel Rowe, in Southerly, 52(1), 1992.
Jennifer Strauss comments:
People—their psychological states and social conditions—interest me more than landscape, and the direction of that interest has been influenced by feminist thought. If all my poems are personal, very few are unequivocally autobiographical. Mostly I write because things disturb rather than distress. I want to make something out of that disturbance, which is not necessarily caused by obvious disorder. The wrong kind of order can be the most disturbing of all. And the poem does not exorcise the original feeling; poems are neither problem solvers nor dissolvers.
I have never been able to produce a finished poem by making up my mind to write a (any) poem at a particular time, much less by making up my mind to write in a particular form. I can only write when a particular poetic idea germinates in the kinds of experiences in which there are intersections of thought and feeling, past and present, particular and type. The idea of a poem is not an idea at all in a philosophical or even discursive sense. It is a dimly perceived shape, and the defining of that shape is a process of discovering as much as of making. My output is small. I write the kind of poems I can. I admire a great many other kinds.* * *
The phrase "a little winter sun," from "The Pain of Others," could be seen as a definitive image of Jennifer Strauss's poetic world. Though she is eloquent in her exploration of private and public worlds, rarely in her poetry does the intimate world of a loving family escape the shadow of wider realities. Into a peaceful kitchen, for example, "the morning paper / Spills its daily due / Of blood and bastardry," and refuge is only sought, not found, in a child's sunlit nursery, for "dark in the quiet pulsing of your blood / I hear the jackboots thud the wild world over" ("For Nicholas, One Year Old"). In a later poem, "Models," a children's game and reflections on history coalesce in a tellingly ironic comment on human nature:
Makers of cities
Makers of wars
The boys are playing.
They are painting the tanks.
For more than an hour now
They have not quarrelled.
In "Collage: The Personal Is Political" the connections between domestic and political violence are relentlessly probed through the fate of children at the hands of abusing parents and warring governments. The demand "LET THERE BE JUSTICE" raises the question of degrees of guilt and degrees of punishment:
Let there be trials
the parents will go to jail
and so they should
and so they should
the pilots may have nightmares
and so they should
but the torturers
will draw their pay
the generals wear their medals
The combination of sensibility and hard logic, of a refined and taut poetics, has always been a mark of Strauss's work. While her development has increasingly been toward a wry disengagement from the often close personal voice of the earlier poetry, awareness of the frailty of love and of institutionalized violence remains a strong current in her work. One process of this disengagement can be seen in the increasing use, in her second and third volumes, of characters from literature, history, and myth in dramatic monologues("Guinevere Dying," Jezebel's maid in "A Just Cause," "Wife to Horatio," the "Bluebeard Rescripted" poems). The sun in their often bleak landscapes derives from individual courage, stoicism, and self-awareness, as in "Labour Ward," where the brevity of a journey combines birth, rebirth, and death:
Joy's a foreign country.
It's there, but you need a visa.
No-one will issue it;
You must bear it yourself.
"Epitaphs for Casualties," a section heading from Strauss's first volume, might serve as a cover title for many of her poems, in which defiance and a grim humor often serve as saving graces. "Pine-Cones and My Grandmother" praises the "sharp-tongued" woman who "taught to a timid child / Something of fortitude, / Not to flinch / At barbs on the wire fence. / 'If the head gets through, / The rest,' she said / 'Will follow.'" The adult voice applies the wisdom differently, escaping conventions that her grandmother accepted and requiring the head to take second place, for her heart "has made up its mind / To get through the fence." With similar defiance the speaker in the monologue "Wife to Horatio," explaining a successful retreat from the dark intricacies of life in Elsinore, has acted to safeguard the future. Her daughter Ophelia is "playing by the river," but
There'll be no drowning here.
I've seen to it that she knows how to swim.
There is no such comfort in action for the persona of the moving, biting "Guenevere Dying." Measured, ironic, uncompromising, this is one of Strauss's most striking poems. Wild Cornish Gwen, first caught in "the sweet cage" of love, is saved from death only to be caged again in a convent. Merlin, Arthur, and Lancelot all betray her. The priest permits her to see the sky from her cell "'not … to pleasure the rotting flesh / But to nourish the labouring soul.'" A pear tree, her wedding gift, is the symbol for her life. Although it is beautiful, it is barren, and Arthur condemns it as lacking in utility: "We owe the land / Good husbandry!" When the tree is burned, its ashes "blew through the casement onto my marriage bed." In Gwen's rescue from the fires of martyrdom, woman and nature are joined ("'A brand plucked from the burning,'" admonishes the priest; "'I am bruised all over on men's imperatives,'" Gwen reflects):
Men slaughter men with sword and lance
'Honourably': trees and women they burn—
Always afraid of female blood.
A casualty of "Crown, Honour, Chivalry," Gwen speaks her own bitter epitaph. Throughout the poem the association of women with the natural world resonates against the imperatives of the masculine world, where Gwen's "honest desire … starved in that garden of cultivated souls." Imagery, logic, and language speak for the higher culture of the natural order denied in "good husbandry," the barbarism and cruelty of the court and church.
Another deathbed monologue, this by a casualty of similar orthodoxies, is that of a nineteenth-century Viennese physician, "Ignaz Semmelweis." A pioneer in the treatment of puerperal fever, Semmelweis also dies incarcerated (in an insane asylum), his death proof of his theory of sepsis. The evil against which he fights is the belief that childbirth is "accursed … from Eve downwards," that women as midwives, uncontaminated by work in the dissection rooms, must go:
They don't punish enough. Better believe
Than a doctor dirty.
Here and in "The Anabaptist Cages, Munster," the collection Labour Ward juxtaposes images of the cruelty and ignorance of the past with those of the present ("The Snapshot Album of the Innocent Tourist"). A series of love lyrics are not exempt from a form of irony. In these disruptions of an established mood come from the speaker, varying from the darkness of "Search and Destroy" ("was it the language / of love or of war?") to "Aubade," a gentle morning song that ends with the poet's "faithless fingers" itching to transcribe experience.
—Nan Bowman Albinski