In May 2010 I was invited to write a review of a collection of Vicki Viidikas’s writing for Australian Book Review. It has yet to be published and, as far as I know, may never appear in the magazine.
So here it is -
Vicki Viidikas New and Rediscovered, edited by Barry Scott (Transit Lounge 2010)
In 1967 the British pop group The Beatles dressed up in embroidered mirror-cloth and tinted shades and set off on a spiritual quest for peace and love to an ashram in India. The US and Australia (whose military force consisted mainly of young conscripts) were engaged in an unpopular war against communism in Vietnam. In Sydney, a poem, ‘At East Balmain’, by former high school dropout Vicki Viidikas, marked her first publication in a moderate magazine, Poetry Australia.
‘At East Balmain’, set around Mort Bay, is about the timelessness of life on a working harbour. It introduced an exceptionally competent nineteen year old poet with an aptitude for sharp observation and description –
This day will be submerged in a thousand other days,
yet I know distinctly I felt the glance of a figure
in a singlet, rolling cigarettes as his barge went
The 1970s in Sydney was a time of great social change driven by youth culture. It was an era, evolving from the protest movement against conscription and the Vietnam war, of long-haired pacifist hippies and the widespread use of marijuana and other ‘mind-expanding’ drugs that engendered a profusion of rebellious and high-spirited creativity. Counter cultural happenings like Jumping Sunday, a weekly celebratory afternoon in Centennial Park, Martin Sharp’s Yellow House, and PACT theatre flourished. There was the advent of underground printing presses, the UBU group’s experimental films, psychedelic music and light shows, of sexual freedom, and women’s liberation. Vicki Viidikas was publishing and reading her poems and becoming a well-known figure in the lively, male-dominated literary scene around Balmain. Just a few suburbs away in Glebe, in December 1969 Helen Jarvis had founded Sydney Women’s Liberation House, a hub for discussion and women’s activism that would thrive into the new decade.
Viidikas might have been a candidate for women’s lib, given that she wrote experientially of a darker side of female life –
I should have been selfish
not a woman, but learnt
to violate myself too, so I could fit the boat,
twentieth century and rock …
Her poetry is almost always tinged with pain and her prose pieces are often about the extreme edge of relationship. ‘Punishments and cures’, a dark poem about being raped by an ex-prisoner with venereal disease, seeks, in a tentative, exploratory way, moral elucidation –
Perhaps it’s true what he said,
that all women are ugly …
One feels that
when you become a four-letter word,
and afterwards, there’s some private festering
not always cured by a doctor …
In her life, Viidikas took risks. Her friend the poet Kerry Leves says, in this book’s introduction, ‘… she embraced experience, even flung herself into or out of experiences, …’. She entered chance encounters or ‘pickups’, as she called them, and wrote about them. In ‘The Snowman in the Dutch Masterpiece’ an impoverished young woman writer drifts into a brief, whisky and cocaine drenched liaison with a cashed-up drug dealer who drives a flashy Mercedes Benz. Their few hedonistic days together are described with some detachment. Viidikas’s writing was a precursor to the coming eruption of confessional women writers but hers was an instinctive response to the condition of womanhood, not informed by a political consciousness. Many of Viidikas’s characters were ‘fucked up’. And many of them were in her second (and I’d say ‘best’) book, Wrappings (1974), a third of which is included here.
In 1975, in an interview with Hazel de Berg,Viidikas said about her writing :
What I was writing was really confessional, it was just – I’d go out to a party or something and if anything upset me or I was depressed, I’d go home and scribble things down on bits of paper, really just what my inner feelings were at the time.
Viidikas’s work is all about subjective experience. She records persistent unhappiness and trouble. The intensity of sadness builds incrementally in this collection, so that it’s a huge relief, about a third of the way in, to read the exuberantly sensuous ‘Mad Hats of Desire’ –
I wanted to wade your body …
… I wanted to rip suck bite kick
growl laugh nuzzle your self
black mad hats
put on put off
Now I don’t know what to ask
log cabins apple pie
raccoon boots for winter
And later, there is a surprisingly loving poem about her Estonian father.
Maybe for Viidikas it was more about ‘writing’ than about ‘what she was writing’. She worked from a compulsion to write things down. In 1977, in Australian Literary Studies she wrote ‘… I first started writing my problems on scraps of paper when I was 15 and living away from home, and later found these ‘problems’ were actually poems.’ Description was easy for her but she was rarely analytical. She delivered her stories and poems without investigating the process. She doesn’t seem to have laboured for long over technique or form. She wasn’t interested in showing off. These are straight up confessional or descriptive pieces. Vicki Viidikas was interested in telling.
Her poetry is more playful than the prose. Sometimes her deft, free verse reads like automatic writing. She said that she wrote poetry ‘off the top of my head, straight off, in one go. … My writing is done at any time of the day or night, it’s quite a spontaneous thing… .’ Emotions were what she was trying to express. Perhaps Viidikas found solace in the ritual of writing.
Viidikas’s work often tells us that she preferred India to Australia. (‘It was Calcutta not Canberra, that honeycomb of barren souls.’ ‘The Silk Trousers’). She lived in India for more than a decade. An early story is about an Indiaphile living amongst shrines and incense in a poky Darlinghurst flat. Her last book India Ink (1984), was immersed in Indian culture and Hinduism.
Having not visited India, nor studied its religions, I found the comprehensive glossary in India Ink invaluable. Ten of those poems are republished here without aid for readers who know little about India. However, as the writing is mostly descriptive, like all good poems about place, these do make a vivid, yet never too-sensational impression.
You waited, black
in a scarlet sarong,
Your shoulders packed
with yellow powder,
feet dusted with red,
one hand in a blessing,
palm upright, take it easy
Australian poetry presses supported Vicki Viidikas, publishing four of her books in a decade. Her last title appeared in 1984. She lived a further fourteen years without a new collection and with her writing appearing only scantily in a period when women’s writing was booming. Sadly, as Viidikas’s heroin addiction increasingly formed the basis of her modus operandi, she became marginalized and publishing and performing opportunities vanished.
In 1975 she had written ‘A View of the Map’; a speculative, time-shifting prose piece. It ended – ‘My Iceland is at the centre of this map. Knowing you have visited it and gone. That I am the only permanent resident.’ In 1988 she added a new final line, ‘There is no compass.’
Melbourne publisher Barry Scott has made a respectable selection to introduce Viidikas to contemporary readers. There is though an odd inclusion of eight childish drawings that add nothing to the project (signed, copyrighted and dated by Viidikas, possibly indicating that she took them seriously). The cover portraits show Viidikas with long blonde hair parted in the middle, kohl-lined eyes, appliqued peasant blouse, a cigarette – like an icon of the 1970s.
Vicki Viidikas New and Rediscovered offers a kind of restitution. There are around twenty uncollected pieces, an extract from an unpublished manuscript, Kali and the Dung-Beetle, and a few later poems, including ‘Lust’, written only two months before her death at fifty, in 1998.
Read an interview with the publisher here
Visit Transit Lounge press here