JS Harry (1939-2015)

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JS Harry, one of Australian poetry’s “great transgressors”, described by Peter Porter in 2007 as “the most arresting poet working in Australia today”, died peacefully in her sleep Wednesday morning 20th May. It followed a long and debilitating illness, which she bore uncomplainingly with the good humour and grace that was so typical of her. Until her final days she continued to respond with wisdom, acuteness and appreciation to visiting family and friends.

Born in South Australia, Harry spent most of her life in Sydney. Early on she began submitting her stories and poetry to children’s magazines with notable success. Her first volume, Deer Under the Skin, published in 1971, awarded the Harri Jones Memorial Prize and chosen as the Poetry Society’s Book of Year, helped pave the way for poets trying to discover new ways to translate the Australian experience. Dorothy Hewett described her as “a skylarker with language, stylish intense and original”. Harry went on to produce eight more books to continued admiration and critical acclaim: A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985) was shortlisted for the National Book Council and the Adelaide Festival Poetry Awards. The title poem of her fourth book, The Life on Water and the Life Beneath (1995) won the PEN international Lynne Phillips Poetry Prize; and the 1995 Penguin New and Selected was co-winner of the NSW Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize.

Harry’s capacity to deploy, for adult purposes, a conceit superficially belonging to a younger genre distinguished her remarkable talent. As early as 1983 she conceived of the eponymous Peter Lepus, a philosopher rabbit of insatiable curiosity, (who in today’s parlance, could be considered her ‘alter ego’) and set him running through her works to the consternation of conservatives and the increasing enjoyment of poetic free spirits. She first took him to Antarctica and Japan, then through meetings with Mother Theresa, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and the vagaries of the Australian literary scene and landscape. Her sympathies for the plight of victims in the Middle Eastern wars eventually landed Peter in Baghdad experiencing the horrors, violence and inhumanity along with such companions as news reporter Max, Clifta, a huntsman spider and environmentalist Braid. As yet no Australian work approaches these poems’ acuity and sensual, evocative texture in recreating real-life Iraqi conditions. Not Finding Wittengenstein, in which they are collected, won the Age Book of the Year in 2008.  For Harry, concern for the environment and nature’s innocent creatures were essential to her poetry, as was her scathing criticism of unthinking destruction caused by technology and mass progress.

JS Harry was also the most human of poets. Her last published work, Public Private (2014) contains beautiful and touching lyrics and an elegy for her late partner and fellow poet Dr Kerry Leves. This volume also illustrates her wicked humour and thoughtful critique of government machinations, as well as her great love and respect for Australia’s flora and fauna. Her extraordinary descriptive abilities bring to life even the most minute seed or insect, all of which she found equally important in the grand scheme of things.

Professor of literature and author, James Tulip, wrote early on that “her intellect and literary sense are close to virtuosity and establish her claim as successor to Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood”. JS Harry fulfilled that promise. She continued to work on what will now be her final book and the last adventures of Henry Lepus until the end (Giramondo Publishing, forthcoming).  Her loss is a great one for her brother Bill and his family, for her many friends and admirers, and for Australian literature. Fortunately we have been left with the gift of her astonishing poetry.

 A memorial will be held 9 June. Place and time to be announced.

  – from Nicolette Stasko

Photo credit: Jenni Nixon

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