In a letter to a friend, American poet James Wright reflected on the meaning of a Selected Poems for a peer he considered undervalued: ‘It shows that defeat, though imminent for all of us, is not inevitable.’ He quoted Stanley Kunitz, whose Selected was belatedly in press: ‘it would be sweet, I’ll grant, after all these years to pop up from underground … The only ones who survive … are those whose ultimate discontent is with themselves. The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.’
Robert Harris’s ‘ultimate discontent’ and his poetry’s survival seem to prove the point. There is a certain irony to the publication of The Gang of One: Selected Poems twenty-six years after Harris’s death at the age of forty-two. The attention that the poet gave to other lost voices has come full circle to his own. He was a former Navy seaman who wrote a long poem on the wartime loss of the HMAS Sydney. One of his best-loved and award-winning sequences, the brilliant ‘JANE, Interlinear’, ‘translates’ the historically marginal story of Lady Jane Grey, crowned queen of England for nine days. With The Gang of One, Harris’s poetry is lifted back into daylight, set again in the hands of the readers who knew him, and those of us who didn’t. It takes an uncommon kind of care to memorialise the otherwise lost: a sensitivity and resistance to the injustices done to people and places by time and indifference. Such care is evident in the fact that this publication was assisted by donations from more than ninety people, including a roll-call of Australian poets.