HELEN HAENKE Helen Haenke at Rockton: A creative life. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
The life of Helen Haenke highlights the vitality and value of regional arts and their crucial interconnections with place.
Who was Helen Haenke? Where is Rockton? This non-fiction publication from the University of Queensland Press (edited by Joanne Holliman) reveals enough to pique a reader’s interest, but certainly does not exhaust what could – or should – be known.
In the introduction, University of Queensland research fellow Bronwyn Levy describes Haenke as ‘talented and engaging … bright, fresh, intelligent and original’. The book suggests that poetry was her main area of activity, but presents documentation of her ‘music, painting, dress design, poetry, short stories, novels, plays, articles and essays’.
Born at Newcastle during 1916, Haenke was a doctor’s daughter. Her musical ability won her a full two-year scholarship at Methodist Ladies’ College in Burwood (NSW). Her brothers went to university, but this level of study was not seen as appropriate for a young woman, so instead Helen undertook commercial art at East Sydney Technical School. Her training led to work designing newspaper advertisements for women’s underwear and makeup. (Later in life, she was able to go to university.)
A 21-year-old bride, she came to Queensland after her 1937 marriage to industrial chemist Willis Haenke. The couple later had three daughters, and like many women of her time, Helen Haenke’s creative life necessarily fitted around her domestic duties.
During World War II, Willis worked at munitions factories in Victoria and South Australia. For part of the time, Helen and their first child were with him in Melbourne, which allowed her to study with anti-modernist artist Max Meldrum. Meldrum won the Archibald Prize twice around that time, so she no doubt appreciated being his student. Nevertheless, Meldrum made no secret of his condescending attitude towards women artists.
After Helen and daughter returned to Queensland, they spent the final war years at Ipswich, a coal-mining town south-west of Brisbane. They lived at Rockton, a grand old house that had been restored by Willis Haenke’s father, architect Will Haenke. On Haenke senior’s death in 1953, Willis inherited the house, which is even now still occupied by one of their daughters and her husband.
Today the sprawling mansion is heritage-listed. Its original owner began construction in 1855, with this portion of the house identified as Ipswich’s oldest building. Subsequent owners (including ‘blackbirder’ MLC Robert Towns) added to it in response to their interests and needs – a ballroom, a widow’s walk, a swimming pool. Helen and Willis lived in their own wing, built for them by Willis’s father.
Formal gardens were established early, and the Queensland Government’s heritage description mentions ‘stands of massive hoop pines, figs, poincianas, jacarandas and palms set around a circular driveway’.
While Rockton provided a comfortable family home, it also creatively inspired Helen Haenke’s paintings and poetry. Harold Love, Professor of English at Monash University, spoke at a launch of a collection of Haenke’s poetry in the year following her 1978 death. He pointed out the fertile connection between the poet and place:
‘… it was her house that gave her the meditative space she needed for her poetry, it’s there as a presence in nearly everything she wrote, even when it’s not explicitly the subject.’
The location had also inspired Haenke’s earlier paintings. The garden’s magnificent jacarandas appear in visual form (in artworks reproduced in the book) and again as soft, subtle metaphors in her 1976 poem ‘Jacaranda’.
One poem, ‘The Ghost’, describes oblique sensory impressions of another benign female presence inhabiting the house:
in the half-sleep state, hear her
patter in that room, back and forth,
like a woman going to bed,
folding her clothes, putting shoes away,
The poem’s exquisite closing lines convey the deep sense of belonging that Rockton bestows:
A small matter, not to worry,
but accept the sense that, in the day,
she’s minding the house, and me,
while my mind’s away and occupied;
and in the night, all’s well, all’s well.
Of course, such a strong regional and domestic focus brings negatives along with the positives. Living outside the major cultural centres, Haenke fought hard for her place in the nation’s cultural ecosystem. Furthermore, her work’s low-key domestic setting did not appeal to male editors. Meanjin editor Clem Christensen – who declined a story, saying it was ‘”girlish” in parts’ – provoked a bitter and hilarious retort, ‘GODDAMNANDBLASTALLEDITORS’. Bronwen Levy, in her introduction, says ‘That women writers were not taken seriously is in evidence in Helen’s creative history, as it is in that of other Australian women writers.’
Nevertheless, as Love noted in his launch speech, these ‘rather quiet and private poems … must be recognised as moments of repose in an exceptionally full and fruitful life’. Haenke was a dedicated community member, an office-bearer in many organisations, and active in different areas of public life.
She also made the most of ‘a lively literary and artistic scene in south-east Queensland’, according to Levy. A 1971 photograph captures her among other regional writers with national reputations, including Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), Thomas Shapcott, Bruce Dawe and Maureen Freer.
Nevertheless, although she published individual poems and stories, her first poetry collection, The Good Company, did not appear until 1977. The following year – the year she died – Playlab released her plays The Bottom of a Birdcage and Firebug; and the following year came the posthumous collection launched by Professor Love.
Helen Haenke’s too-short life is well worth honouring. It highlights the vitality and value of regional arts and their crucial interconnections with place and with local artistic engagement. There is much more to be explored and valued in Haenke’s stories, plays and poems. This volume does great work in bringing her to a wider audience.
And yet the format of the book lets her down with its informal, scrapbook-like layout of clippings, photos, works, manuscripts with hand-written amendments, and insightful unposted ‘letters’. There is no overarching autobiographical narrative, no sustained literary assessment, nor any substantial linking of her writing to significant life events. The two very brief assessments of the work by Love and Levy are teasing indications of just some directions that are yet to be seriously explored.
With luck, the current publication will generate more serious attention to Haenke’s work, as well as to the generative power of place, the richness of regional creativity, and the value of vibrant local communities and their ties to wider social movements.
Helen Haenke Helen Haenke at Rockton: A Creative Life University of Queensland Press 2017 PB 212pp $40.00
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
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