DOROTHY PORTER – the monkey’s mask

Dorothy Porter opens her narrative verse novel with a poem from Basho:

Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey’s mask. (vii)

and ends with these lines:

Mickey’s ghost walks
in this tropical rain

she swings in the fig trees

her voice
glistens green and wet

she’s growing dark

she’s wearing a monkey’s mask.

In the first quotation, the face of a monkey is its mask – we never learn what lies behind it, what it thinks, feels or experiences because monkeys have no language with which to express and reveal these things.  In the second quotation, Mickey, dead and no longer able to speak for herself, remains an unknown quantity where her thoughts, feelings and experiences are concerned.  She is only known by conjecture, based on the evidence of her poetry, and other people’s descriptions of her.  But even that ‘grows dark’, fades away as time passes and those who knew her, in person, and like Jill, by reputation, begin to forget her.  The memory of her will remain as a mask, unchanging, fixed in the ‘facts’ according to the person remembering her.

In between these references, Porter wrote, via the voice of Tony:

‘Once upon a time –
Mickey the Monkey
          all knowing cunning
                    little hands
          she knew where the  nuts
                    were hidden
          and, jesus, she knew
                    how to squeeze – ….
Mickey the Martyr.’  (p. 194)

This endeavours to attribute monkey traits to Mickey – those of cunning, knowledge and control (really human characteristics that have been granted by humans to monkeys on the strength of the latter’s behaviour) – and see behind the mask of her identity: “’petite, pretty and only nineteen’”. (p. 52)

Throughout history masks have been used to conceal identity, whether for fun (like a masked ball) or for crime (armed robbery).  An additional benefit accompanying the anonymity is the freeing of the wearer’s inhibitions – as unknowns they need feel no behavioural constraints, often leading to quite bizarre actions by normally sober individuals.  The mask gives a facade, and hides the thoughts and feelings of the person behind it.

Metaphorically, society, and in particular the poetry society into which Jill moves during her investigation, is masked. Things are not what they seem, or are seen to be on the surface – in public, large ‘intimate’ gatherings for poetry readings; while behind the scenes the issuing of grants to struggling poets controlled with bigotry, animosity, and spite.

‘It’s a grabby, grotty world
not much to go around.
Blame patronage, Jill,
grants, fellowships,
all that crap . . .(p. 150)

                     …. the deadshits
with the contacts
and the gift of post-modern gab
grab what’s going.’ (p. 151)
[Apologies for misaligned text – computer will not comply.]

By presenting a public face, while hiding a private face, an individual is masked.  An example is Diana’s apparent superficiality – she teaches poetry at University, is sophisticated, “her hair honey-blonde/ streaks … she’s gritty/ she’s bright” (p. 26), and, as indicated by the books of “academic stuff” (p. 70) on her shelves at home, is “[i]ncessantly intellectual.” (p. 70)  That is her public persona.  But privately she is bisexual, promiscuous, devious, arrogant, and disloyal to all except her husband, Nick: “you love the bastard/ you cover his shit.” (p. 227)

Her behaviour with Jill is carefully orchestrated as a disguise to prevent the truth about Mickey’s death from emerging.  To Mickey’s poem called Bullets and knives Diana points the finger at Bill McDonald: “’stupid little fool/  mistaking born-again Bill/ for St Francis.’ (p. 108)  When after reading Your floating hair  Jill comments: “’This couldn’t be Bill McDonald /…he’s going bald’ , Diana replies: “’Infatuation is blind/ … and anyway she nicked the floating hair/ from Coleridge.’ (p. 111)  In reaction to If love was just talking, Diana identifies Bill as the recipient of the verse; and claims that the mysterious goddess is “’… a red herring./ We’re looking for a boy.’” (p. 123)  As Jill gets closer to the truth, Diana steps up her diversionary tactics, until at the end, when it is obvious that Jill knows that Nick accidentally strangled Mickey, her mask has been removed.

‘You can’t make
the mud stick, Jill,
you open your mouth
we’ll sue.’

she’s smiling
her eyes
show the black pit
of the old woman
she’ll become (p. 254)

 Jill’s mask is only applied when tact is required of her, for example with Mickey’s parents, or when interviewing the students at the University and the flat, and the poets at the readings.  The rest of the time the reader is allowed behind the mask, seeing the narrative from Jill’s self-deluded point-of-view.  At first she compared her being in love with Diana with being Legless: “the cops should pick me up/  I can’t walk a straight line.” (p. 45)  As disillusionment set in, as she realised that Diana did not love her, she acknowledged that “she [Diana] always/ poisons everything /  enjoying herself/ behind her shades”. (p. 135)  Finally, realising that it was over with Diana, she indulged in a rave:

‘She’s worthless ….
She’s a virus …
she’s an opportunistic infection
she’s a tongue load of thrush
she’s needles and shingles
she’s the kiss of herpes
she’s a wasting flu ….
she’s gone ..’ ( p. 225)

I don’t believe that the use of poetry affects the significance of the title, as such.  But by the reading speed it grants the reader; by the gaps in the text of the narrative permitting and requiring reader participation; by the use of ‘pornographic’ language in frustration, exaggeration and anger, to shock the reader metafictionally back to the narrative; by the economy of language resulting in excellent imagery – “Tianna -/ looks like glandular fever/ and nicotine poisoning/ on legs -“ (p. 18); I believe the verse form facilitates and enhances the search for identities and the unmasking of the characters.

(C) Jud House  16/11/1997  


 Porter, D (1994) The Monkey’s Mask  South Melbourne:  Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd

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2 thoughts on “DOROTHY PORTER – the monkey’s mask

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