The Fiery Maze

Get ready to throw away every preconception you might have about poetry when you read Dorothy Porter’s work. The late Aussie poet’s work isn’t the stuff of daffodils and clouds – it’s about flesh, sweat, sex, passion, love, obsession, murder, intrigue and death. Read Porter’s workon public transport and you risk blushing, but it’s as beautiful and evocative as it is erotic – and now Kiwi treasure Tim Finn is bringing her words to the stage, backed with his music in the form of a song cycle, The Fiery Maze.

For most people, an introduction to Porter’s profane poetry comes in the form of her first book, Monkey’s Mask – a slender novel in verse about a lesbian private detective investigating the death of a murdered girl in Sydney. It was Finn’s first introduction to her work and what compelled him to put pen to paper and correspond with her, old-school style, about a collaboration. “I just fell in love with the language,” says Finn. “I’d never done anything like it before or since, but I wrote her a letter, as one did in those days, and I said that the book had deeply affected me and would she like to write some songs?”
Undoubtedly, Finn’s letter would have pleased Porter no end. After all, in her last essay before her death, On Passion, an exploration of Porter’s preoccupation with the type of love that burns you up, she admitted that rock’n’roll fuelled her muse. Plus, Porter had always believed that poets should be able to play arenas alongside rock stars.
Porter responded to Finn immediately and the Fiery Maze was conceived. Finn threw some ideas her way, including the fact that there was renewed interest during grunge’s reign with the music of beautiful and doomed rockstar youth – including Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – musicians who were exhorting their audiences to lose themselves in rock and drugs. “Dorothy took that and ran with it almost like it was a metaphor,” Finn explains.
Porter chose to use that as a backdrop for lyrics about a grand passion and doomed love affair – another intoxicant in which an individual can get lost. “She wrote about that derangement of senses that occurs when you think that you’ve met with the love of your life, but it’s too hot not to grow cold,” Finn says. “That experience where you think, ‘This is what love is supposed to feel like, finally, this is this all consuming, obsessive passion that I've heard about and read about’. It’s overwhelming and you'll surrender everything to it and slowly but surely, it might take weeks, months or even years, but you realise that you've lost yourself, so you try and pull yourself back out of that morass. That can be very difficult sometimes, because it’s so intoxicating and seductive.”
Although Finn and Porter worked quickly, the songs were left to languish. “All the work was written around ’94 and the songs just lay in the bottom draw,” Finn recalls. “They were type written pages that had started to turn yellow. They just wouldn’t leave me alone. Every now and then I’d pull them out and read them or listen to some of these old demos and try and figure out what the chords were all over again, because nothing was written down. It was very stream of consciousness, musically and lyrically.”
Sadly, Finn and Porter never had the opportunity to become proper mates. Porter died in 2008 at the age of 54 from an aggressive form of breast cancer. “We never kind of hung out, got drunk or talked very much,” Finn says. “It was just purely mind to mind. I didn’t even know that she was ill. We met at a pub in Melbourne and the next minute we were trying to do a workshop on this idea and news came through that she had died. It was very shocking and once again the songs were back in the bottom drawer, but they wouldn’t leave me alone.”
The project was reinvigorated when Abi Tucker, who had worked on the demos when she was 19, emailed Finn and asked what had become of the songs. “So, once again I pulled them out,” he explains. “They wouldn’t go away – these songs that refused to die – and I’m glad, because finally it’s come together as a song cycle and it doesn’t need any other narrative. The songs themselves say so much.”
Finn has some views about why Porter’s poetry hits so hard.
“I think it’s rare for a poet to be able to use ancient myths and talk about ancient civilisations and have a very sensual command of language, so that you feel like you’re almost being touched by the words and then on top of that, you have this street-wise swagger. She had all of those things weaving in and out of each other and I think that’s pretty rare. She wasn’t high-brow or low-brow, or any brow. She just raised eyebrows.”   

THE FIERY MAZE runs at the Malthouse Theatre from Thursday August 18 to Sunday September 4.