Four journals, Elizabeth Smither

What does it mean to have an ape in charge of a bar in Amsterdam? I read in my Journal of the 33rd Year. I am attending a seminar on French novelists: Gide, Camus, Maurois, Malraux, Mauriac. The lecturer, an American PhD with a ferocious French accent has tiny hairs on her chin like the hairs on a carrot. Evidently at age 33 I am bookish and critical.

Diaries have never appealed to me. A workbook into which to write work sent off (“flying out” seems a good term), dental appointments, mortgage repayments, a shorthand for special days spent with friends, usually including the names of restaurants, this is useful. Ginkgo tree I find scrawled under Saturday 17 June so 1 can remember a blindingly beautiful tree with a buttery circle of fallen leaves; shopping, Turkish restaurant, Barbara Ewing will bring back dark‑eyed waiters, my friend in a red wig and backstage at Taki Rua theatre. Besides my father as a young man shearing merinos in Australia had a tiny black leather diary in which he wrote day after day Sheep wet as though there was nothing more to be said.

To write every day with oneself as subject seems hardly sane though it may be revelatory, especially later. But a journal must have something more to say. It presumes life goes on, with its wet sheep, but that there is more. Ideas, thoughts, notions, moods (for a Journal is not evasive: it may give more away than a diary) all face out: the inner and the outer life, people and ideas accorded equal status. How well I thought I was getting to know Gide through his Journals.

I feel a curious sympathy with Gide. I too have always been suspicious of writers whose viewpoints seem to coincide with my own. As he says, we are educated by opposites. Also: friends are dangerous not so much by what they make you do but by what they prevent you from doing.

And May Sarton ‑ surely her journals are her best work. Perhaps when I get as much mail as May Sarton I will be equally dilatory and irritating. Send a preprinted postcard, I feel like telling her on a postcard of my own. But no, she needs to be overwhelmed by books to review, long letters from friends, supplicants, even the occasional brazen author‑seeker who has tracked her down. She frets about the arrangement of flowers and the work to be done in the garden. She wants company and doesn’t want it in the same breath, as all authors do.

I have spent the whole day dreaming and brooding. Rather like an undissolved thundercloud. Yet I am not in the least unhappy. All my senses are alert and feel the presence of something ominous. I’m hardly thinking at all, but feeling. Perhaps this is what it is like to be an animal.

* * * * * *

I am sitting on two volumes of the Auckland telephone directory and wonder if I shall stay like this all year, begins The Journal of an Academic Year (1984) – when I was Literary fellow at Auckland University. Despite discovering I am as unacademic as Rilke, it was a year of enchantment.

Margo and I on the way to lunch go past, nearly fall into a hole in the path near the geography dept. (Geographers seem rather untidy types, though my survey is rather sporadic). One of the diggers asks; “Are you the young ladies who are looking for bones?” When we look puzzled he continues: “Do you have wet‑weather gear?” I think we are expected to get into the hole.

It is the year of trying to keep pace with Smithyman: Smithyman has written seven poems, no eight, in one day. I tell him he should be put down for following Curnow’s advice: Visceral is where poetry begins ‑ intestines, liver, lungs, and other internal organs of the body. It is Allen who assures me I needn’t do any work at all, I can just sit under a tree.

It is a year of rich friendships and Elysian lunches.

Lunch with Smithyman and Sinclair at the University Club. The three Ss. The three horsemen of the S. Actually this department is strong on S for some reason. We have an elegant lunch of smoked rabbit, avocado and smoked salmon. We talk (they talk mainly and I listen) about birds (including several bird imitations, descriptions of quails’ tails and habits and so on). A little about politics and the 1918 influenza epidemic. On the way back through Government House grounds between the two distinguished Ss, Ken breaks into melodious middle French and then a translation. I feel immensely privileged, immensely happy.

* * * * * *

What kind of gardener can one be without nomenclature? And how can I have the nerve to attempt a Gardening Journal?

The problem of not knowing, of nomenclature, occupies me from time to time and I foresee no way of overcoming this inferiority. A degree in botany? Eating the pages of a gardening dictionary? Careful mimicry which I was once told was the secret of speaking fluent French? Instead of walking ahead I should have crept back and inserted myself in the circle of knowledgeable ones around the flower bed. Perhaps just a few memorised sentences judiciously placed, a few overheard words, would do the trick.

“Look, isn’t that the cup and saucer plant?”

Cobaea scandens.”

“The Polemoniaceae family, if I’m not mistaken. ”

“Named after a Jesuit … in Mexico…”

I am invited to talk about my garden on Brian Edwards’ Saturday morning radio programme. I decide I will have one botanical name up my sleeve: Eschschoba californica, the cream Californian poppy. I shall practise its pronunciation over the next few days until it becomes apparent I am as au fait with botanical names as Miss Gertrude Jekyll.

The greatest discovery I make is that gardening has nothing to do with writing: I realise now I shall never be able to deal with it in the way I deal with words; the artificial targets set, the counting of them, the smug righteousness. In gardening one must abandon the method of a journal.

Elizabeth Smither is a New Plymouth poet, shortstory writer and critic.

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