by Christine Porter
When Peter Porter died in 2010, his reputation as one of the greatest Australian poets had long been settled. Christine Porter, Peter's wife, talks about one of his last poems, 'Hermit Crab' and what it means to her.
‘Hermit Crab', written in the last year of Peter’s life, is for me both a daunting and very special poem. I found it on my computer some months after he died; it was dated 23 February 2010, just six weeks before he passed away. As his body became weaker, I would type poems for him. I recall his presence working through me, slowly and carefully guiding my hands as I worked.
This poem is, for me, a powerful hymn to death and the letting go of life. Peter uses the image of the hermit crab to convey his lifelong experience of protecting the most vulnerable, delicate and fragile parts of himself. But here he also finds himself in another moment of transition from one state of being to another; he fears there are no more shells, no further protection for vulnerable, exposed flesh – or, indeed, for the sometimes fragmentary and defenceless mind.
The hermit crab is born without a shell of its own, and has to borrow its protection from other creatures – a temporary home. It’s a simple metaphor, saying that perhaps – as vulnerable human creatures, with an insecure sense of self – we take on the carapace of those we see as better able to survive. But when we outgrow the shell’s usefulness, we are once again vulnerable and exposed, once again forced to seek another form of psychic protection.
But the speaker of this poem seems to be saying that in those times of transition, instead of dissolving or fragmenting (and perhaps through the very creation of this poem) he finds that while he may not have the shell to protect him, he has instead the nacre – the mother-of-pearl inner lining of a shell or ‘eggshell’. This is the aura of the mother, at the very beginning of life. It is her mind and being that will nurture this new and fragile self.
Peter was born in Brisbane, Australia on 16 February 1929, the only child of Marion and William, or at least the only live birth for this couple. Marion, according to Peter, had five miscarriages, and Peter would describe himself as ‘the only one to get through’. Peter’s mother died when he was nine years old. He came home from school one day to be told that his mother was in hospital. She had, in effect, disappeared. The morning had been quite ordinary.
When he thought back, Peter could not quite recall the last time he actually saw his mother. He was never taken to the hospital to see her; all he seemed to remember was being told she had died. This will have been a catastrophic disappearance for a nine-year-old child. I sense something of that early catastrophe within this poem, written some seventy years after the event.
As the poet gathers together something from this early experience, then perhaps ‘a thundering ocean’ resembles the foetal sense of the mother’s heartbeat and inner body at the moment of realizing its own existence. It is also something outside of oneself, a palpable other, a sense of our own smallness and terrifying aloneness and separateness. That primordial sense of otherness in such small creatures is indeed terrifying, and perhaps hardly forms anything like a bearable thought or a shaped experience for such a small being, unaware that it is as yet separate from anything.
What the old dying poet seems to know is that letting go of life evokes such things that might have haunted their own sense of being from life’s very foundation. The moment when the body goes cold and still is the moment when an ocean again inhabits the mind. Once again, the ‘other’ makes itself palpably felt; but by now we know the ‘other’ may mean one’s own extinction.
Peter’s sense of displacement, of not quite belonging to the world, was a very important part of him; he always felt himself to be something like an ‘air plant’, a being without roots. In the middle section of ‘Hermit Crab’ there seems to be a kind of reconciliation with his lost mother, a deep awareness that it was she who provided the nacre, the skin, the breathable atmosphere within which he was able to assemble himself and grow. For me, it was relief to realize that he could finally acknowledged his gratitude to her. The experience of gratitude in its self recognizes the gift the sacrifice the mother makes for her child, allowing him a space in her mind.
When a parent dies while the child is young, both the sense of abandonment and the reflexive self-blaming are acute and overwhelming. As a species, the first instinctive assumption we make upon being abandoned by such an important, life-giving presence is that it was, or is, our fault. This is much more so in small children, as the thought is less a formed thought than an overwhelming sense – a sense that we have been too demanding, too greedy, or simply too much for the parent to have managed.
With all that in mind, I find the last stanza of ‘Hermit Crab’ very poignant. Here the poet returns to the future, where feeling and thought become somewhat bleak: ‘how cold and lonely’ the beach is. Peter struggled with the idea of a home, a place were he was at least partly known – but nonetheless the ‘current comforts and loving faces’ helped to ease him into a place where ‘forgetting becomes possible’, and made letting go, leaving behind the life he loved, just slightly more bearable.
Chorale at the Crossing gathers together the work Peter Porter completed after the publication of his final collection, Better than God.
READ 'HERMIT CRAB'