It’s only in this last year that I’ve started re-reading. I’ve always kept and collected my books; not all of them, there are many I’ve been content to trade in at the overstuffed and slightly mouldy Elizabeth’s Bookshop on King St that I use too often almost as a more expensive lending library, especially as I’ve moved and shifted through various sharehouses at the whims of landlords and the shifting allegiances of housemates. I’ve always held on to far too many books: almost all of the poetry, all the books I’ve worked on or written for, but especially those books that I feel, somehow, like I’ve lived. Where the experiences they describe caught me so sharply at the time that I read them that they feel like experiences that are my own. It’s one of the things I love most about reading: that sometimes, a book is exactly right for who or where you are at the moment that you read it and you carry it with you for years afterwards.
It’s only in this last year that I realised I was old enough, suddenly (and scarily), to stand at a decade’s distance from the time I read some of those books. That I realised that re-reading, in a very different place and as a very different person, might be something strange and marvellous in and of itself.
It’s something too that snuck up on me, from two very different fronts. On a more obvious front, I spent some months at the end of last year putting together ideas towards the doctoral project that I’ve started recently; I knew at from the beginning that I wanted to write on poetry, and on poets who I love. It was only after I submitted my application that I realised I’d chosen three of the very first poets I ever came across and whose worlds ran through my head for weeks. I read Dorothy Porter’s ‘The Monkey’s Mask’ when I was still in high school, rampant with adolescent hormones and experimenting with the very kind of cropped-haired hard-edged girl-kissing front that I recognised in the detective protagonist Jill; I’d never read a verse novel before and loved the cheekiness of the endeavour, Porter’s tough and sexy vernacular, her constant transgressions.
Similarly, I saw a student production of Dorothy Hewett’s ‘The Chapel Perilous’ at Callan Park in my first year of university, the same year I’d told the Sydney Uni Socialists in O-Week that I was ‘really keen to be a student radical’, but wanted to ‘do it on my own terms.’ I was fresh out of an all-girls’ high school where I too had figured myself ‘a rebel in thought and deed’ (though I never got around to doing any deeds); I too knew I was destined for some kind of unspecified greatness unreachable from the suburb in which I lived. I heard about Gwen Harwood’s hoaxes in that same year, and bombarded Quadrant with obvious and very unclever imitations for months before I got distracted by my first real publications in other magazines.
Re-reading these poets has been wonderful, because I’m every time reminded of how passionate, how cheekily delighted, how ardent I was when I first started reading poetry, the possibility and joy I found there that I think we all forget sometimes when we struggle with our own work, with making it work within making a living and a life.
More strangely, I decided to re-read, last year, some of the books on starving women that I’d read throughout my own almost decade-long illness, because I’d started, after years of not being able to speak of it at all, to write my way towards some kind of understanding of why and how my eating disorder had happened. I’ve written elsewhere about this experience, which started just after I was forced to begin reconsidering the narratives around my illness that I’d been telling myself for years – of who I was and who I was unlike, of why there was nothing wrong with the way I was behaving, how nobody noticed the excuses I gave. Re-reading these books I found more congruence than I’d been able to admit to before, but also more discomfort with the misconceptions, simplifications, things the were downright wrong. But it also helped me understand the way that I was thinking the first time through, the patterns and confusions like a kid of echo beneath the words as I read them anew. You can’t undo a first reading, you can’t re-read without revisiting the person that you were – or picking up, however lightly, the bags that you carried at the time.
Gwen Harwood once told an interviewer that she wished she could be able to read some of her favourite books again for the first time, not knowing what joy or despair was within them. But re-reading, I’m finding, is also about potential, and it’s something cyclical and renewing in it too. As I’ve re-read those poets, I’ve had glimpses of the self I was before I became unwell; against the echoes of my starving self that I can hear in what I call my ‘sick lit’ I can almost see, however fleetingly, how far I’ve come back towards full health. We can’t untwine our stories from those that were made by other people, and it’s amazed me, each time, to find the depth of the impression that they’ve left.