111. My Young Nose
Jerusalem has one delicious smell –
a fried chickpea
cooked in tantalising mouthful balls
it sizzles aroma from grubby stalls
suffused with donkey and camel
my first taste of street falafel.
– From ‘Jerusalem‘, in The Bee Hut*
Dorothy Porter, the sassy, electrically vibrant poet and writer, died a little over a year ago. She was loved by many people; not just those who knew her, but her readers – and her students. I’m not sure if she taught regularly but many years ago, when she had just published a collection of poetry called Driving Too Fast, Dorothy Porter came to a university writing class of mine to give a one-hour workshop.
This was an important lesson for me as a young thing; not just about writing, but about sensitivity and compassion. I was in my early twenties, and most of the class were just out of school. But there was another woman, aged maybe about thirty-five or forty, in our class. I am ashamed to say she was pretty much routinely ignored by the younger people in the room. She was quiet, and seemed downcast much of the time. There were occasional rumours about her being a junkie, and a single parent, but most of the time she was invisible to us. Except, that is, for the day Dot Porter came to class.
We did some writing exercise I now can’t remember, but it involved having to put some emotional truth on the page. Young people are not so equipped for emotional truth on the page, I recall from my own early writings and from much of what I’ve seen as a teacher. My own writing at that stage involved either still trying to protect myself from that kind of thing (truth, that is) and instead impress with my world-weariness or – sadly, I suspect, more often – I self-dramatised, exaggerating every workaday observation into Art, which at that age so often equated with Angst. Lyrical as hell, full of texture and colour and Beauteous Sensuous Detail but you know … lordy, I am weary just remembering it. Erk.
Anyway, we read our bits and pieces, desperate to impress Dorothy, who was kind and funny and sexy and generous. And then the woman we all ignored read; something simple – and if I had even paid it any attention, I would have presumed it dull – about loneliness. We rolled our eyes, if not directly at Dorothy, then at each other, or just in our own minds. And then I learned my lesson. Dorothy Porter rested her gaze – that powerful, thrilling gaze of hers – on this woman, and listened intently. Then she allowed a silence before praising the woman’s work. And then she said, looking coolly around the class at the rest of us, that throughout history artists had wrestled with the psychological and spiritual demons that this piece of writing – a truthful piece of writing – was showing us. And she turned her life-giving smile and warmth back to the woman and thanked her for her work.
A big, important, kick up the arse for young smartypantses, and I never forgot it.
From that day I was a huge fan of Dorothy’s, and was lucky enough to meet her a couple of times many years later, when I had published my own work. She was electric. Anybody who ever heard her read knows how the air crackled when Dorothy spoke. It’s what I remember most – the physical charge you felt fizzing through you when she read poetry.
A few weeks ago I went to the new Meanjin Dorothy Porter Prize announcement here in Sydney, where the writer Andrea Goldsmith, Dorothy’s beloved partner, spoke of ‘Dot’, as those close to her knew her, and read from her posthumously published new collection, The Bee Hut. This collection is pretty breathtaking. If you’ve sometimes felt shut out from poetry, as I occasionally do, buy this book. You will be drawn in and demolished by it.
The other day I heard Andrea Goldsmith (whose own novel Reunion is urgently on my must-read list) talk about writing, about grief and about Dorothy, and read from The Bee Hut on The Book Show. The interview is riveting; her reading of Dorothy’s ‘The Ninth Hour’ is devastating.
Anyway – I thought of Dorothy Porter the other night, because I was making chickpeas for dinner. Not falafel – I tried that a few weeks ago and ended up with a miserable disaster as they repeatedly dissolved into a fizzy mess – but an easy chickpea fritter. It’s quite delicious, and holds together just fine. We gobbled up lots, and then froze the leftover mix for later.
Chick pea fritters – makes about 16 biggish fritters
- 2 cans chickpeas, rinsed & drained
- 1 leek, finely chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 tsp cumin
- 1-2 tsp ground coriander
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, grated
- 2 baby fennel bulbs, finely chopped
- ½ bunch parsley / coriander, finely chopped
- 3 eggs, lightly whisked
- 3 tablespoons rice flour
- salt & pepper
- rice bran or vegetable oil
1. Gently fry onion, garlic, leek & fennel in a little olive oil with cumin & coriander for a few minutes.
2. While that’s cooking, roughly mash chickpeas with a potato masher.
3. Mix together chickpeas, onion mix, carrots & fennel and herbs till well combined.
4. Add eggs, then flour, and mix well, then season. Clump mixture into a ball – if it seems too loose, add another egg & a little more flour. Form mix into flattish fritters.
5. Heat a centimetre of rice bran or veg oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. When hot, cook fritters a few at a time, turning once. Drain well on kitchen paper.
Serve with salad and a dollop of yoghurt sauce: mix yoghurt with finely chopped dill or any other soft herb, a drip of honey and lots of sea salt.
* My thanks to Andrea Goldsmith for generously allowing the reproduction of Dorothy’s poem here.
Woops, forgot the Christmas Excess Antidote.
Try this one, which I found via stonesoup – food bloggers around the world do this nice thing each year, called Menu for Hope, which raises money for the UN World Food Program. An excellent cause, I am sure you agree. Give it a shot – you can donate any small amount you wish, I think. I just did fifty bucks, which makes me rest a teensy bit easier about all the money our family is spending on lavish food this Christmas.