Affirming lucidity — Edmond’s ‘wisdom poetry’, Ken Arvidson

A Matter of Timing 
Lauris Edmond
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 140 9

In A Matter of Timing, Lauris Edmond’s first collection of new poems since the 1988 volume Summer Near the Arctic Circle, we find new depths and intricacies in her major personal themes of love and death and new instances of her complex sensitivity to the world about her. The title poem, “A matter of timing”, makes it clear that this sensitivity is a cultural matter rather than a narrowly personal one.

Driving through the countryside, the poet sees a familiar, attractive rural scene, “A line of daffodils growing along a fence … the clouds above / blowing about like washing; and the first willows / coming into leaf…” It is a scene of which she knows “every detail / by heart … An absolute dream, total as / childhood”. But for all the scene’s familiarity, she is suddenly shocked to realise it is inhabited by someone else and is not in fact her own.

The scene is, of course, one of our cultural commonplaces, a rural domestic idyll. It is an image we all take pleasure in and possess. The shock registered in the poem is precisely that it is a shared thing, not our own private creation at all, and yet something we do actively make over and over again in our personal affirmations of it. Edmond’s identification with and yet detachment from this “absolute dream” of a scene, at once both real and imagined, recalls James K Baxter in his early poem “The Bay”, describing the bay to us in minutely realistic detail and then remembering that it “never was” and standing like stone, unable to turn away from the idealised scene we all know so well. “A matter of timing” is an image of the poet’s split-second recognition of her complicity in our cultural metaphors and the volume as a whole sets forth her personal experience of some of our strongest cultural conventions, especially those concerning death and love and marriage and solitude and being a woman.

Sudden recognitions of significance as in the title poem, whether found in scenes, gestures, relationships or words, have always been a distinctive feature of Edmond’s poetry. On the publication of her first volume In Middle Air in 1975 Bruce Mason identified this stylistic signature at once: “Lauris Edmond’s imaginative world comes through … as a series of delicate epiphanies, compassionate reflections, wry and beautiful accommodations.” (A later poem called “Epiphany” was dedicated to Mason, no doubt in acknowledgement of this.) Most commentators since have followed suit, including one of her best critics, Fiona Farrell Poole, who 10 years ago similarly remarked on the epiphanies in this poetry, revealed through “Edmond’s ability to isolate experience in a sudden flare of pleasure or understanding…” She was reviewing the 1983 volume titled Catching It, an idiomatic expression of sudden perception closely related to the phrase A Matter of Timing.

Interestingly, Poole went on to write that Edmond reminded her often of Mansfield in the manner in which she embraces her subject. This is less impressionistic than it might appear. The epiphanies in Mansfield’s work, like those of Joyce and many others in that period, were not just stylistic grace-notes. Their roots are in Book Twelve of Wordsworth’s Prelude, in the “spots of time / that with distinct pre-eminence retain / a renovating virtue, whence … our minds / are nourished and invisibly repaired…” Wordsworth realised that these “spots of time” are fundamental to the way we structure our lives, our personal myths.

As twentieth century modernism drew near these “moments” were multiplied and intensified by Walter Pater in the “Conclusion” to his Renaissance essays, from which Mansfield derived so much of her philosophy and aesthetic. As Pater wrote: “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood … is irresistibly real and attractive to us — for that moment only.” Not to realise each moment to the fullest is “to sleep before evening” because we have only “an interval and then our place knows us no more.”

Pater imparted a tragic urgency to Wordsworth’s spots of time, as Mansfield realised. The often-remarked emphasis on momentary revelations, on intensity of being and on transience and death in Edmond’s poetry, all so much to the fore in this latest volume, shows how consistently she has drawn upon that central romantic tradition.

In the first two parts of A Matter of Timing she deals with the process of ageing, the end of her marriage and the death of her former husband, making this the darkest of her 11 volumes of poetry. In his Afterword to Private Gardens, Riemke Ensing’s 1978 anthology of poetry by New Zealand women, Vincent O’Sullivan marked Edmond out particularly when he wrote: “If most of these writers have a common muse, her name is Hecate.”

This new work seems a further confirmation of that view. “In Position”, the title poem of the first part, begins, “I want to tell you about time, how strangely / it behaves when you haven’t got much of it left.” The ensuing meditation on time as an active and irreversible force that isolates lives one from another sets in place one of the volume’s major themes, climaxing in the fatalistic “queer outline of what’s to come: the bend in / the river beyond which … you will simply vanish from sight.”

The carpe diem theme made urgent in Pater’s philosophy by the certainty of death is prominent in these poems and similarly made urgent. In “The heat of summer” the intensity of being of the cicadas, “the sharp little creatures (who) live at the heart / of their days” is highlighted by the inevitability that in time they must “face predators, hunger, high winds; / they must grow old and die”. In the rich scents and sounds of the late summer evening in “Take one”, the poet is compelled to emphasise her possession of the moment: “ — and / I thought, this is my time. I don’t have it / for long, and … while I’m here nobody else / can have it.” A related act of possession occurs in “Going North”: “Today it is mine, this great lump of land, / scratch of the grass, salt tide below; / so I sit here, wait, though there is nothing / to come…” The solid physicality of the coastal scene where “the tide is sliding away” liberates the mind to move among the mysteries of time while life goes on. In “Hymn to the body” the “impaired body”, seeing itself in the “dark mirror”, may yet “stir an old, unthinking delight” and (echoing Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”) “shout its sweet defiance into the silence.”

At the same time, “Autumn in Canada” reminds that the seasonal metaphors for the process of ageing mask an inherent determinism in our physical natures, of the kind that obliges the Canada geese to perform their annual migrations, “carrying within their oddly asymmetrical bodies / a map of the seasons they too know by the signs”, similar to the idea powerfully developed also by A D Hope in his “The Death of the Bird”.

The stoicism evident in “Autumn in Canada” is even more marked in “Taking down Christmas decorations”, which is also the most poignant poem in the opening section and one of the best in the volume. Here death belongs not simply in the poet’s own future but has pervaded the life of her entire family ever since the death of her daughter Rachel 20 years ago, “the death which had made vagrants of us / in our own house, and now followed us everywhere…”

We have neither solved nor relieved our loss;
rather it has come with us,
we live in its constant knowledge. Each
Christmas is now, or the last she spent
with us, or the one to come.

The poem is about going on, living in the “constant knowledge” of death. The decorations continue to be put up at Christmas, for later children. At the centre of the poem the metaphor of the Christmas tree with its “bristled branches”, “the faded little pine” cast away among piles of “yesterday’s imperial pohutukawa blooms,” carries the message easily. In the manner of this genre that Elizabeth Caffin and others have called Edmond’s wisdom poetry the point is made explicitly as well, that “whatever grows … knows … that to live / and breathe at all is to act provisionally.”

Many of Edmond’s poems have been occasioned by this death, the most powerful group undoubtedly being the eighteen poem sequence of the 1980 volume, Wellington Letter, dedicated to the young woman. The death also underlies poems not directly concerned with it at all. “We have to re-examine the fact of being alive,” as she has written, reviewing her entire life in grief, which, of course, is one of the major motives of her Autobiography as well as of her poetry.

Two other poems in A matter of timing, in the third part “Square Dance”, also have their source in this death. “Tree surgeon” concerns the cutting down after just 20 years of the silver dollar gum tree planted as a memorial. Their life is short. “Of course you knew this,” the tree surgeon remarks. With existential resignation the poet replies, “I turn away. To know? What is this knowing? / I was merely there when life and growth begain.” In the other poem, “The arrival”, the poet conveys the shock of arriving an hour late at her daughter’s deathbed, finding her reduced after even so brief a time to “face and hair that were mere substance, / things of shape and colour, nothing.” There is a quality in this kind of writing that recalls the long-past Greek parent’s obol inscription for a dead daughter, “I hold you dead now, being dead myself.”

Edmond’s poems are usually written in the first person, sometimes as lyrics of celebration or lament, sometimes as meditations but more often than not in the form of autobiographical recollections, anecdotes or narrative vignettes like “Going to Moscow” in the Catching It volume. Unless told that a poem is a fiction, like “Going to Moscow”, one tends to read her poetry as personal and autobiographical. The prose autobiographies Hot October, Bonfires in the Rain and The Quick World, gathered together under the title An Autobiography, constitute a text parallel to the poetry in many respects and minimise the chance of making too many mistakes by reading in this way.

The poetry and prose together amount to a major work of identity construction, related to James K Baxter’s or Janet Frame’s in this country’s literature because equally deliberate, though what appears to be the transparency of the work has resulted in some surface readings of it. As a literary woman autobiographer she will in time be read comparatively with Robin Hyde, Mary Scott, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Janet Frame, Ruth Dallas, Ruth Park, Phoebe Meikle and others.

For the present however she is her own best commentator and her essay “Only Connect: The Making of an Autobiography” in Landfall 188 should be included as an appendix to any further editions of An Autobiography. Following her sudden and successful emergence as a poet in 1975 at the age of 51, after many years of marriage and motherhood, she recalls: “I strongly (though privately) resisted the assumption, which I could see many people made, that Life Number One had been merely a matter of waiting round for Life Number Two to take over.”

And she goes on, being aware that many other women in that decade of heightened women’s independence were passing through similar transitions: “Other women’s experience offered parallels, but mine seemed a particularly clear-cut, not to say dramatic example of what I was coming to see as a phenomenon of my generation.” It became her intention to demonstrate the integrity of her life, to show “how each phase was connected with those that came before it and prefigured others that were to come” and in the process she came to feel “fiercely defensive about this submerged world” of a woman spending her days with young children in suburbs or country towns.

Contrary to the view that saw such a life as the material of suburban neurosis, she knew it to be able “to yield a rich, dynamic, compelling experience”, as hers had done. Her autobiography consequently runs counter to the negative stereotypes of domesticity by celebrating it even as it is undermined in her own case by the slow breakdown of her marriage, a tragedy she sees as integral to the entire tapestry and not as a separable thread, or as marking a point at which Life Number One gives way to Life Number two, any more than in the case of her almost concurrent emergence as a poet. Her life as cultural subject is her entire subject. She thus affirms most of the cultural conventions concerning the roles of women even while critiquing them and it is for this reason that her values and her angles of vision are so culturally interesting.

This helps to account for the centrality in A matter of timing of the poems about the collapse of her marriage and the death of her husband that occupy part two, “Subliminal”. In some ways Edmond’s poetry is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s and nowhere more than in this group of poems, recalling Hardy’s compulsive reconstruction of his earlier emotional life of falling in love and marriage in the Poems of 1912 – 1913 after the death of his first wife. The emotional core Edmond has to contend with in the poems dealing with the double loss of her former husband arises from the difficulty that, while privately she mourns for him, the collapse of their marriage has left her without a clearly sanctioned public position from which to do so. She mourns in isolation, marginalised among the mourning family and friends, a “guest” merely among the “tribal protocol” of the funeral in “Local knowledge”. The poem called “Marriage” captures it sharply: “Some / evil epilogue it is, that I should stand alone / here in the wind, you in the ground”, concluding,

…Let the silence come and stand
beside me so I know it is the end. You’re gone;
as for the crowd, the populous years, the friends
who so delighted us, all that went years ago.

Some such end is implied to have been foreseeable in the finely controlled metaphors of “Spring afternoon, Dunedin”, a poem recalling an earlier time of shared sunshine on a hillside until the sun is blocked out by a mountain. In the sudden early cold the couple wander home “talking of altitudes and moons”. The analogy that follows is bleakly prophetic: “Just so, / in a grass-sweet patch on a little / planet were we spinning minute by / minute out of our brightness and / into the changed, unloving years.” In the careful language of “One to one”, “the loss / of love is all, and lasts for ever”, the death of the body being the final image of such loss.

In “The wife” the pain of loss includes the pain of realising that death has now closed off “irretrievably” all possibility that they might recover their “better selves”: “It’s said they are most homesick who leave / home in grief or rage…” The loss in separation of the past they have shared is imaged in “The husband” by the stroke (“the marvellous sheet of flame that swept across and took it all”) that later damaged the husband’s memory.

In the title poem of this section, “Subliminal”, the poet’s contemplation of the dead body and recollections of “the sunlit future promises of long ago” induce in her a strange sympathy: “Now I can / touch his cold unnatural skin quite easily. / It’s not so very different from my own.” As in her more celebratory poetry, much of the strength of these elegiac poems comes from the physicality of their imagery, their narrative immediacy. And if any one image emerges from them as conveying better than any other an intellectual and emotional comprehension of what is lost in death, it is in the concluding lines of “The pace of change”:

…Poor breath,
that cannot speak a word: how shrewd,
how manifold were once its languages.

“Square Dance”, the third part of the volume, contains a variety of poems of different kinds and no attempt is made to achieve the sustained focus of the elegiac SUBLIMINAL group. Some poems revisit earlier places and times and might of course date from them, like “Interlude in Zambia”, “Bronze in a town square”, “”Train journey” and “The contest”. The last three return to scenes appropriate to Edmond’s reading tour of Britain as winner of the British Airways Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1985, out of which came the strong collection Summer Near the Arctic Circle.

The “Bronze in a town square”, located in the City of Derry, Northern Ireland, depicts a family ready to migrate, the man and his son eager to go, while the wife and daughter will follow them into the desert of exile because there’s “nothing else for it”, carrying within them “the inexplicable silence between letters”, into the “empty morning waiting outside / …always beginning from nothing.”

Although the “Square Dance” section doesn’t appear to have one controlling theme, the lot of women, as in this poem, comes close to being it. The title poem, “Square Dance”, justifies more than any other by Edmond Caffin’s observation that “a vision of a mystic continuity of women down through time lies behind much of her work”. The poem’s title suggests the changing of partners as groups break up and re-form and the movement encircles four generations of women in the poet’s family, from her grandmother to one of her granddaughters to whom she can say: “Take my hand / now, as I took and held hers, feel the current…” In a dark volume, it is a poem of vitality and continuity.

Other very positive poems in the final section include “Trapeze”, an allegory of the artist who might almost be the poet herself, and “Matauri Bay”, with its implication that places transcend historical change, an essentialist view that like much in Edmond’s treatment of nature and the land recalls A R D Fairburn. Next to the title poem, “A matter of timing”, with which this essay opens however, the most interesting of these final poems is “Lake Tutira”, on which it will be convenient to close. Two black swans float “on flawless glass”,

above, below, in perfect replica,
as though to say we honest swans
have come to prove we know and speak
the entire, unarguable truth.

Just as “A matter of timing” draws upon Baxter’s “The Bay” for its treatment of the idyllic scene as a cultural ikon, so “Lake Tutira” makes its claim for a harmony between appearance and reality by reference to Allen Curnow’s “An Incorrigible Music”. In Curnow’s poem herons are reflected in water but there is no certainty about how many of them there are, or of how many reflections/images they give rise to. “The mudbacked mirrors in your head / multiply the possibilities of human / error”, as Curnow puts it. Every statement about the world from this point of view is a misquotation.

Edmond’s poem appears to be a deliberate dismissal of that kind of scepticism and a declaration in favour of something very close to positivism. The poem claims a dependability for language not philosophically possible for Curnow, saying in effect that what we see is what we get and that the words we use to describe it mean what they say. It has now and then been remarked upon that Edmond has resisted making poetic capital out of the instabilities of language that preoccupy so many poets nowadays and has continued as a result to write in an older poetic style. “Lake Tutira” lets us know that she’s aware of the issues and has freely chosen to abide by the classical conventions of language, which of course are essential to a system as arbitrary as language. Her poetry affirms in particular the convention of lucidity in its analysis of the moral-emotional dimension of the human condition.

Ken Arvidson is professor English at Waikato University. 

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