Curved Horizon: An Autobiography
University of Otago Press, MacIndoe, 1991, $29.95
I have only ever met Ruth Dallas once, and briefly, so I have no idea of what she is like to talk to, but she always comes across as one of the nicest New Zealand poets to meet in book form. Her poems are verbally accurate, compassionate, wise and innocent. It is a combination that cannot be counterfeited. Her tone is conversational and unpretentious. She is accessible to all our reading public, including schoolchildren. Warwick Roger, in a Metro editorial, nominated Dallas’s ‘Milking Before Dawn’ as his favourite local poem, and there must be many others the length and breadth of the country who would agree with him.
It was, therefore, with fascination that I picked up Curved Horizon. Dallas was born in 1919 in Invercargill: she had a happy and secure childhood; her upbringing was conventional and non-literary. What made her work with such dedication and effect in such isolated circumstances to become a poet – and such a good one?
Our appetite for imaginative disclosure and commentary has probably been spoilt by Janet Frame’s three adventures into autobiography, and it would be unjust to suggest that we might have expected something of the same sort from Dallas. But it must be faced that her autobiography is remarkable not for what is says but for its reticence. There is a chronicle of sorts, with a scrupulous itemisation of minor personal events and family comings and goings, and some fine items of local colour, but where is the true subject of the book – the life?
In a ‘Beginnings’ essay Dallas wrote in 1965 for Robin Dudding’s Landfall, she alludes to experiences – including several great personal losses – which she now refuses to explore in the freedom and space of her autobiography. No one should argue against her absolute right to keep her own business to herself, even where it is obviously relevant to a literary life, but it is a curiosity to notice a wish for privacy woven so uncompromisingly into this contradictory endeavour to open her life to public scrutiny.
The pity of it is that the ‘Beginnings’ piece is one of the most perceptive in the series and that Curved Horizons now seems to be attempting to flatten out the view across the peaks and depressions of an absorbing private world. The only consolation is to know that the poems are undeniable. I wish we had not been so teased.
Kevin Ireland is an Auckland poet.