Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 235 9
The obsequies are over, the elegies written, and we reluctantly begin to think of Wellington without her. Seven months after a death that caused more public grief and sense of literary loss than any since Baxter’s, it is time to return to the work, and try to see it whole. With Late Song, presumably Lauris Edmond’s last volume of new poems, that task can tentatively begin.
In the simplest terms, the book shows two things. Death did not take Lauris Edmond unprepared, nor elude her poet’s scrutiny as a subject. And it interrupted her at the height of her powers. There are poems here among the best to be published in New Zealand in a generation, poems that will reach unusually wide audiences, and live long. Late Song is no footnote.
Ageing and death are not the book’s only subjects, though they dominate in the first and last of the three sections, and provide the overall dynamic shape. But the poet’s radical and subversive streak (long present though rarely noticed) has impelled her to make the middle section a sequence of poems of angrily-felt sympathy for a woman in prison. The Guard Room, Minimum Security Roof, laundry duty, bars and locks are a new scene for Edmond. Though the partisan protest is sometimes strained, the sequence is vivid and disturbing; and it connects with the other two sections in themes and metaphors of life and its denial, “patterns of light” and “colourless lino”, “the dance of creation” and “the forlorn murmuring of … the children you never see.”
The poems that contemplate death resonate most strongly. In part this is because they carry that charge of special significance that runs through every writer’s last words, especially those that suggest any premonition. Think of Stevenson or Plath. So here a poem about visiting Akatarawa Cemetery, and Hone Tuwhare’s sudden cry of lamentation there, accrues and will retain extra meaning now that the poet herself lies on “that dedicated hillside”. A meditation on the tiny vulnerability of a caged canary (echo of the middle section’s captivity theme) – “it is death, plain death, / I’ve been given to hold in my hand” – has by her own sudden death been made even more intense as a metaphor for the poet’s (and the reader’s) frail hold.
There is nothing sentimental or textually impure in this. Edmond clearly knew there was at least a fair chance these poems would be read posthumously. She has built in that way of reading, and it is implied in the pun of the book’s title. And even without biographical knowledge, there are profound rewards in accompanying this considerable intelligence as it engages with the subject of death, which she does with as much vigour and penetration as she had earlier tackled love, friendship or family (and these are continuing themes). There is not a moment of conventionalised evasion, not a note in her song of the lachrymose, gloomy or euphemistic. It’s a mark of the extraordinary quality of these poems that they articulate the proximity of death, that oldest and most ritualised of subjects, in phrases, images and rhythms that are new, individual, illuminating and helpful (and in this matter we all do need help).
The poet’s responses to death are as varied in mood as in craft. At times she is droll or wry, as in “Confessions”:
On visits to my brother we talk,
apologetically, of death. Can it be us
sounding as though we’re going to
the same party, and aren’t sure of the address?
(The party joke grows into the poem’s main point, which is that old people are in reality still “the child hiding inside … its eyes forever widened in surprise.” Her images are never, so far as I could find, incidental.)
At other times the fear of death is chilling. “Evening in April”, a poem that has seemed mellow and benign in its mood of “autumnal familiarity” and affectionate tucking away of memories for “a long journey”, suddenly twists into the horrific:
– and then I think, with one of those
lurches of strangeness that
throw you way out of yourself
like a body tossed off a train,
that the only place I’m going
– and not exactly today – is
too far for any remembering.
And I come quickly inside because
for the moment it feels safer here.
Or, in “The Eighth Decade”, there is a black-comic version of herself as an elderly shoplifter (“having to open / my handbag at the shop door / and show its extremely private inside”) that ends with lines almost unbearably poignant in their acknowledgement of the perplexity and loneliness of agnosticism:
One day … the tap on my arm
will come. The door to the office
will close, “Well, Madam – ”
and what happens after that
no one I know,
no one I’ve ever met,
no one in the whole world
will ever, ever find out.
If you want to be reassured about death, saved the discomfort of uncertainty or the reality of fear, don’t read these poems.
The poet doesn’t wholly frustrate our hope that she found calm of mind. The last poem reaches this point, and it brings an important closure to the book and her whole life’s work. But there’s no gentle glide to serenity. Passion is not spent. Most striking, and surprising, is the sheer energy of these poems. They pulsate with images of action and life. The poet (or perhaps an astute editor) intended this to be noticed, for “Generation Gap”, the poem placed first, absolutely bursts open on the unsuspecting reader with an implosion of young life:
They bound into my room, shoving
like puppies, every muscle
on alert; the house shudders.
These are the grandchildren. They bound or sweep or scowl or curl in and out of these poems, breathless, exultant, marvellous (all these words recur), a tumultuous and varied supporting cast whose confidence and bursting growth surround the thoughtful old poet.
But they are only part of it. The energy also comes from within. As always, Lauris Edmond is often wisely discursive, seeming to have the poise and leisure of thought to create those perfectly modulated summations, those witty and coordinated clusters of polysyllables that she does so well, bringing into poetry, I have always thought, the paced connotative cadences of really good prose. Sometimes she sounds like George Eliot. Sometimes she is learnedly tongue-in-cheek. What other poet since Gray could have described a predatory cat shut outside the canary’s window as “consumed by a voluptuous despair”?
The controlled modulations and fluent mainly iambic rhythms are still richly there, but more often than I ever remember they are disrupted, subverted or countered by awkward, intrusive, trochaic, spondaic or otherwise disrhythmic words of discomfort, conflict or error. I jotted some down: shudders, blunders, muddle, huddling, splutter, muddy, thudding, thunder, tugging, tumbling, bumptious. They jangle and thud discordantly through the book, and Edmond stumbles over them again and again. Yet they are life, and she has created them to evince her own self-critical acknowledgement that life is not all eloquent judicious disquisition.
To say that this book is full of energy and life therefore is not to say that it subscribes to any easy uplifting formula of affirmation. Committing to life as Lauris Edmond did in person, and does in these poems, means “blundering”, lurching off the rhythm, losing poise, means that saying yes “in the end becomes / like everything else, / tinged with its opposite” (“The subject in hand”). Being old means “trying to wipe a streak of sunlight off the bench”, yet knowing “how the dark is filled with light”, watching “the quick thing / you can’t take your eyes off for a second / in case it gets away.” (“This year 1000 Americans will live to be over 100”) “Quick” has always been a favourite of hers. Here it implies not only the essence of life but its complexity, difficulty and the certainty of its loss.
Lauris Edmond the poet has always been such a cogent and interesting verse conversationalist that I don’t think we have adequately noticed how much of the real dynamic is metaphoric and rhythmic. Here, for example, a poem called “Lunch in the city” is at first reading a mix of anecdote and reminiscence, local colour and personal comment, as she lunches with friends and rides the cable car and collects her car from an erratic grandson. Read again, it is a sustained and powerful astronomical metaphor that moves from the apparently jocular opening (“I am an old star, dense as a Black Dwarf / packed with significance”) through a complex of images of space, gravity, density, outline and shadow, whirling motions and the harmony of infinite elements, to the final moment in the future when her individual life, or star, dense though it is with memory and meaning, and apparently so permanent: “shall explode into silence / and fade at last into the bottomless caverns of space”. It’s a daring metaphoric concept, original, skilfully done, and moving.
Or take “Poem for a marriage”. Edmond’s ability to reach a wide audience without playing down to them is an important part of her contribution. People buy her books who read no other poet. I have twice recently used “Poem for a marriage” at weddings (non-literary occasions in America). It reads wonderfully at first hearing as a gracious tribute to the bond between the couple and between them and their guests, an affirmation that their commitment is one worth thinking about in quite complex ways. Underneath that, the reader who can return to the poem finds it built on a rich sequence of images of vision: light and dark, the movements of the sun and the seasons, focused scrutiny and intuitive glimpses:
Marriage is an act of recognition, a moment for
imagination to focus its lens, to see across
a dark beach the shadow of seasons gone, the shape
of those to come.
“[D]ark beach” leads into a related sequence, images of sand and tide and the layers of the earth’s surface (“the natural deposits of experience and time”), until all come together in one brilliant close-up image of light and life that accompanies the introduction of the word “love”:
Marriage is an act of intuition, a glimpse
of something longer, more resonant, more
compassionate than love – yet it is love
that hovers over it, like the sparkle on a web
caught in the light of the rising morning sun.
It’s exquisite. The interpretative voice of the wise mentor is suddenly focused, fused into the intense brilliance of that image. If this poem knocks “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” off the charts for New Zealand weddings, it will not be undeserved, nor irrelevant to the purpose of poetry.
Nor is the “sparkle on a web” image alone. These poems often dazzle. There are many images of darkness, sunset and autumn, as you’d expect, but the dynamic is towards the light and bright. I will let examples speak for themselves: glittering, bright air, summer sky, glints, dazzled, sunrise (many times), quicksilver, shimmering, noisy daylight, hill grass in a shining wind.
So, interwoven with all those shudders and blunders, come these images of shimmering light. It would leave out too much to say that the two do battle for the poet’s soul and view of the world, but impressionistically that is how the book at present leaves me. It’s exciting and surprising and dramatic to read, which is not what you expect to say about late poems by a 75-year-old contemplating death.
There is much else: self and family, death and growth, home and travel, justice, friendship, tolerance, and more. But since she decided to close the book and her poetic work on a note of harmony and reconciliation, I will do the same. She ends where the book began, with an entry of the grandchildren. “Late Song”, which is placed last, brings them in this time not as a single rowdy incursion but separately and slowly, almost processionally –
the little kids first,
creeping up to try and frighten me,
then the tall young men, the slim boy
with the marvellous smile, the dark girl
subtle and secret
– emphasising their individuality. They are, she reflects, “my weather”, the grey as well as the sparkling, and, in one more of those exquisite images of scintillation, “my dragonflies dancing on silver water.” They enable her to “move forward”, in the last of several images that posit movement against stasis – “Without them … I am / a broken signpost, a train fetched up on / a small siding” – and they enable her to rise from her “blunders” to “the stars”.
And so the two groups of images come together, and lead into a final stanza that moves through metaphors of flight, growth, song, conversation, time, and the relation between the individual and the family. All have recurred thematically. They take her to her final sense of place and purpose, the conflicts reconciled, the blunders forgiven. She reminds me here of George Herbert (“I lie and sigh and wish I were a tree”), which is my way of saying that more than in most religious poetry she has related the personal consciousness to the universal processes of life with an intensity that some might call spiritual:
They fly where I cannot follow
and I – I am their branch, their tree.
My song is of the generations, it echoes
the old dialogue of the years; it is the tribal
chorus that no one may sing alone.
She made a good end.
Roger Robinson is Professor in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.