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Joan Sullivan: Helen Fogwill Porter comes full circle

Helen Fogwill Porter at the recent launch of her latest book, “Full Circle.” — Photo courtesy Breakwater Books
Helen Fogwill Porter at the recent launch of her latest book, “Full Circle.” — Photo courtesy Breakwater Books - Submitted

Helen Fogwill Porter’s debut novel, “January, February, June or July,” (1988) won the Young Adult Canadian Book Award from the Canadian Library Association.

She’s published two other novels, most recently “Finishing School” (2007) as well as a (exceptional) memoir, “Below the Bridge” (1980), and written plays and poetry.

Despite this output, Porter is almost as well known for her championship of social causes.

On behalf of artists, she has been deeply involved with both the Writer’s Guild and Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador

On broader issues, Porter is a founding member of the Newfoundland Status of Women Council, and has run for the NDP; a fund named for her and aiding women running in politics was established in 2003. She still advocates on matters important to her and not too long ago could be found outside city hall protesting on behalf of low-income single parents.

In 2015 she received the Order of Canada.

Porter writes with authenticity and wit. No one chronicles working class women as she does. She draws from her own life, with generosity, openness, and no pretense.

 “Full Circle” is an autobiographical collection.

Usually fairly short, these pieces are capsules, portraits of moments. Often these are painful.

Just as often they are funny. The poems are divided into three sections: “Before The Fall,” “A Woman’s Work,” and “Full Circle.”

They are formatted with textual breath and line breaks, rather than formal rhyme beats or schemes.

The effect is conversational.

Part 1 includes “Orange Papers”: “thin and delicate / they survived a long sea voyage / to reach my open hands / I liked to touch them / flatten them with my fingers / smooth them out one by one / and store them in the sideboard / to sniff and handle / on all the days when there’d be / no oranges”

Along with such a delicate and tactile memory comes something much sharper, if in a sense less tangible: “Shock Treatment”: “The orderly unlocked the door / to let us in / and then locked it again / behind us.”

She discusses religion, or more properly faith. The need for compassion. Not taking things on assumption: “Mea Culpa”: He talked with authority / about the proper use of stress / suggesting that one way to combat it / was to hire a cleaning woman / (he didn’t mention the cleaning woman’s stress).

In Part II: as the above examples suggests, Porter is a feminist of long standing. “The New If” expounds: “If you can keep your hair when all about you / Are tearing theirs / And blaming it on you; / If you can keep your cool when others doubt you / Yet let them know that doubts are valid, too; / If you stay calm when journalists attack you / Because you dare to question status quo … If you hear one more reference to bra burning /’and resist the urge to knock the speaker cold …

In “The Crossroads of the World”: “They didn’t travel, these women / their men went to sea / but they stayed home / to light the lamps/and clean the chimneys / to make fish on the flakes / while the sun shone and / walk a mile to their gardens / to take a spell.

She tackles a different kind of otherness in “Wild People”: “In the forties, none of the Chinese restaurants / had Chinese names. / Sometimes their windows advertised / Chop Suey or Chow Mein / but nobody ever bought any / as far as I know. I grew up believing that Chinese food / was fish and chips.

In Part III there’s a nicely-working prose poem, “Hot Night in July”: “I stroll along the sidewalk with no destination. Rock music blares from the open windows. Teenagers stride by, six-packs cradled in their arms. They do not see me.”

Porter tells of interlinked working-class streets and neighbours, the distress and distraction of reading obituaries, or wrestling with fashion and style, as in “The Dancer”: “I never expected to feel like this / at my age. I thought by this time I’d be/calm and serene, / occupied by things like gourmet recipes / and refinishing old tables … My daughters think I’m sensible and solid / someone who’s always there to call them in the morning, / to cook the roast and order pants from Eaton’s.

This wry, poignant observance continues to the conclusion of “The Lady Vanishes.”

Porter is 88 now, and suffering macular degeneration. At her launch she could not read but made some entertaining remarks and recited one poem from memory. The venue was packed.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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