Did Peter Henry really meet a young Wittgenstein in Vienna in 1902 or at another time in ‘Antarctica’ followed by a crowd of six students levitating across the ice? Did he watch Picasso munch on a Greek salad with his Dad at the Nippy Rabbit, or listen to Bertrand Russell discourse on what the young Wittgenstein would come to write? And what of Peter Henry in Iraq during the invasion happening upon A. J. Ayer? Readers outside Australia may still be wondering who this rabbit with the strangely familiar name is, how he ended up in so many almost recognisable places (‘Japan’, ‘Calcutta’, Australia) and what he is doing today, last seen, as these most recent poems show, in Iraq.
According to J.S. Harry’s introduction to the first accounts of this rabbitesque Leopold Bloom in The Life On Water And The Life Beneath , Peter Henry Lepus was named by his highly literate mother after a character from a book of old Creole folk tales titled L’Histoire de Pierre Henri Lepus. Harry continues, despite the Creole on his mother’s side, Peter Henry is a British rabbit. Having grown up in the English countryside in the early twentieth century, he ended up in a children’s book, before beginning his peregrinations and long study of philosophy. According to Harry, “it was around the time A. N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell were working their way toward the Principia Mathematica . . . Peter Henry Lepus was provoked into trying to use his mind,” continuing that, “It is perhaps from this period onward that his sense of deracination and disorientation becomes more pronounced . . . ”. Peter Henry’s deracination and disorientation have now spanned an entire century, equal to living memory, and the accounts gathered by Harry appear to suggest that Peter Henry’s experience may not be so much attributed to a weak, rabbity mind, but a product of the times, and the humans who create them.
Peter Henry’s longevity is remarkable. He has lived through World Wars, invasions, drought, bushfire, the evolution of contemporary philosophy, epidemics of myxomatosis, AIDS and American poetry, the Poet’s Union Ball, a meeting with Chairman Miaow, discussed ‘Marks’ (or Marx as Russell had it) with American critics, British philosophers and Australian poets, met Mother Teresa in ‘Calcutta’, nibbled on Derrida, and generally lived as full a life as any thinking rabbit might in the twentieth century. If he were human, he might be an Everyman. But his clear-eyed vision of the world, and the humans that inhabit it, is that of an Everyrabbit, with its endless simplicity, trepidation and curiosity. As he hops through the various systems of thought humans have raveled and constructed in the hope of understanding the terrible worlds they create, we catch glimpses of a simple, fuller world. Some might think of Peter Henry as naive, like something from a children’s story, not really suited to the real world. Some of us, listening to this ever-curious and almost tireless rabbit, with his simple and direct questions and common sense, might begin to see that world more clearly, in the light of the confusing and often grim tales it tells.
In a reading of modern Australian poetry, Harry’s work is absolutely indispensable. Since her first collection was published in 1971, J. S. Harry has quietly assumed the role of one of Australian poetry’s keenest satirists, political and social commentators, and perhaps its most ethical agent and antagonist. She is Swift, Orwell and Potter, rolled into one, and her poetry is unique not simply in Australian poetry but at an international level. Her collections have won a swag of awards and her main avatar of wit and perception, Peter Henry Lepus, is without question a national (perhaps, ‘Australian’) treasure.
Postscript: It appears that Peter Henry’s collected wanderings may soon be available in a single collection published by Giramondo Press. Watch here for more news.
Extract from “A Perspectived
Report on an Australian Menace”
Far from the Shatt-Al-Arab
On the Outskirts of "War"?
The Deer Under the Skin (1971)
Hold for a Little While, and Turn Gently (1979)
A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985)
The Life on the Water and the Life Beneath (1995)
Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (2000)