'Trouble on the Rocks': Down and Dirty in Dorothy Porter's Verse Novels

Peter Kirkpatrick


I want you, trouble,

      on the rocks.

So says tough-minded PI Jill Fitzpatrick in Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask (1994), the most successful of her five verse novels, and students are still surprised by its combination of imagistic poetry and what might be called ‘dirty’ realism. I use this latter term because it highlights the seeming disjunction between the genres at play here and elsewhere in Porter’s narrative poems, but also because The Monkey’s Mask coincided with the short-lived ‘grunge’ moment in Australian literature, most famously embodied in the early works of younger writers such as Justine Ettler, Andrew McGahan and Christos Tsiolkas, whose careers later took other directions. As Porter said in 1999, ‘I wrote bad because writing good definitely did me no good.’

Critics have mostly celebrated Porter’s verse novels as boundary-crossing experiments whose success was crowned by popularity, but I’m concerned to re-examine the generic tensions within them as a way of thinking about poetry’s shifting place in Australian culture during the 1990s and early 2000s. Porter’s protagonists may invite all kinds of poetic trouble – the femme fatale is a favoured trope – but they also hanker after closure, both narrative and psychological, especially in her crime thrillers. With her thrillers in mind, I’d like to tease out Franco Moretti’s insight that detective fiction is literature that seeks to exorcise the literary. In the words of Cath, the crime-fighting ‘Imaginary Worlds Specialist Director’ in El Dorado (2007), ‘Why did sex create/such chaos?’


Dorothy Porter, verse novels, poetry, crime fiction

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