Risky business, Bernadette Hall

Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde
(ed) Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, $49.99,
ISBN 1869402987


I have known griefs
o more than three –
Tooth aching,
And the voice breaking
Those silent frontiers
Of dream, held hazardously.


I love this poem. It is a stranger to me and to most of the world, having being confined till now in a manuscript held in archives at the University of Auckland Library. What I love is the simplicity of the language, the tightness of the structure, and the light touch of good humour, toothache being indeed painful but hardly earth-shattering. Most of all I love the way the poem ends, the words flinging off the beaten track into danger. There are no dramatics, no hyperbole, but rather an intensity made more disturbing by restraint. The poet’s voice is active, an invader crossing into a silent land where dreams threaten to push back into the world of the real. Where holding true to the dreams is in itself a risky business.

This is not what I thought I would find in a selection of poems by Robin Hyde/Iris Wilkinson. I had read her poems, mostly I confess in anthologies, and found that the five poems chosen by Curnow in his 1960 Penguin edition had become something of a template. “The Last Ones”, vivid and apocalyptic, and “Pihsien Road” and “The Deserted Village”, both set in China, are brilliant pieces of writing but they do not track between inner and outer worlds, between joy and pain, sanity and madness. These are not samples of Hyde’s poems that as Patrick Evans put it in his History of New Zealand Literature “sprawl down the page as if melted by the heat of the moment.”

In 1984 Lydia Wevers edited an Oxford University Press selected poems. Maybe as a result, in their 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen threw the net wider, and came closer to this heat with their inclusion of “Young Knowledge”, a passionate five-page quest through nature: “Knowledge is silence, coffined in a world/Where every bloom black-clappered with its bee,/rings out its fragile warning on the wind.” This ends with a vision of the explorer Charles Heaphy standing above the Arahura, half steeling his heart to conceal from the cities the ancient Maori community he is about to break open.

The acceptance of a wider range of tones continues in the 1997 Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English featuring the ecstatic pieces “White Irises” and “Chysanthemum”, and in Lauris Edmond’s 2000 edition of love poems, with the inclusion of  “Escape”, a text fat with archaisms and sensuous description. Could it be that what would have seemed excessive in the 60s might be found nourishing in a new millennium – and just as we were becoming adjusted to the self-awareness, the sly ironies and the wiry torque of postmodernism!

I should have had more sense than to tackle such a profoundly significant, erudite, and, let’s face it, mammoth text for my limping comments. In fact, I should have been as canny as that canny Scot, Iain Sharp, who, at last year’s Canterbury conference on creative writing confessed, in a wickedly funny yet somehow dispiriting speech, that he would never have a go at critical comments on the book in question. As he put it, Hyde’s poems are either brilliant or crap. Trying to distinguish between the two is time-consuming and unproductive, especially as a critic must make sure his or her efforts are financially viable. The best kind of book to review, therefore, is short and badly written, the key word being “short”!

Sharp is absolutely right, of course. I should have taken notice. Instead I have been lost for months inside the covers of this gorgeous, bewitching book. There are more than 347 pages of poems (and remember, this is still only a selection of work: there’s more lying low in the archives), plus a very exciting 33-page introduction by Michele Leggott, plus painstakingly sourced notes and references plus a splendid website adding scholarly commentary and biographical links for every poem. For example, a trip to the Waitomo caves, described in Hyde’s letters, is identified as crucial in providing imagery for her poems that focus on Dis and Persephone. No wonder I ended up a) over-excited by the sheer quantity and variety of the work that Robin Hyde produced in her 15-year writing life, and b) over-awed by the devotion shown by Leggott and the team who worked with her for a decade to complete the work thus far.

Young Knowledge is a classy artefact with glossy paper and elegant layout. A series of large portrait photos of Robin Hyde, taken by Wellington photographer Spencer Digby in 1936, appear on both front and back covers, and in between each of five main divisions, constructed chronologically from 1925 to 1939, the year Hyde died aged only 33. (There is also a very glamorous author pic inside the back cover.) Leggott has turned her own critical eye to these photos, analysing the theatricality of their composition, noting the moonstone ring and the fur-collared coat of the 30-year-old sitter. She is not afraid to build significance into such details, fashioning a literary biography from objects and events as well as from poems. She is not afraid to get involved. The last time I enjoyed such an intriguing mix of evidential styles, combining intuition with intelligence, was in Jessie Munro’s prize-winning biography, The Life of Suzanne Aubert. 

Robin Hyde published four books of poetry which are admitted to be uneven in quality. The most exciting thing about what we have here is the number of texts that have never seen the light of day before. They have been stored in journals, notebooks and manuscripts held in archives, many at the University of Auckland Library. Their “outing”, and the incredible luck of the rediscovery of The Book of Nadath in 1999, add the spice of a detective novel to this academic opus. And, adding to the zesty tone, Leggott is not afraid to name villains when she finds them.

There are poems in this collection which are weaker, more excessive, less sound rhythmically or structurally than we might hope. For better or worse, Hyde fought to defend her poems from pruning. She accused her editor friend, Schroder, of being a “topiarist” critic. He in turn believed that she “learned gravity, the hard way”.

Fashions change. It is interesting now to weigh the gravitas, which he admired, against the vatic, which she displayed. Seamus Heaney, in an essay on Robert Lowell, plays with the idea (and he’s big enough to admit that it wasn’t his idea originally) that poetry can be either “igneous” or “sedimentary”; that is, deriving like lava from an irruptive, innate energy, or revised with intelligence and structure. An old argument this, between inspiration and craft, the latter the mainstay of creative writing courses and not at all to be mocked. It is certainly not mocked by Heaney who himself teaches or has taught such classes. But something else has to be there.

No matter how sick, desperate, or embroiled in danger Hyde might be, she wrote, with energy and passion. She wrote when she travelled, all over New Zealand, to China and finally to London. She wrote a much greater variety of poems than I had ever imagined. She was sharp in catching dialogue, acid in satire, compassionate in politics. She could be very, very funny. We would never have known this, had it not been for the sensitive, alert  editing skills and patience of the archaeological team that Leggott so ably led. Among the delicious finds is “The Free Talkers”, Hyde’s feisty attack on New Zealand writers, the friends who remain polite onlookers, steering clear of the complications of a life such as hers. They offer their compliments “Not unlike sticks of asparagus straight off the ice.” They are “polite/in a frigidaire way/with the world, the flesh and the Devil”, but will not go “beyond Cook’s guide to brothels/And gelded Sebastian Bach.”

Equally memorable is “Chivalry” with its brilliant anti-jingoistic, anti-Romantic comic display: “Chivalry went down somewhere in the Flanders/Mud, in the red Hell never known to Dante.” There follow snapshots of Quixote in his roadster: “Hi-ya,/Step in, baby … Am I mad/about you? Am I blue? Ever been had?”,  and fat Winston “forcibly feeding suffragettes”. The poem ends with flat-faced, pipe-puffing men fed up with “Bare  breast, bare knees, bared heart”. They are much happier dreaming of a classical glade where “Intolerably frisk the vanished Graces”.

I have chosen here only two out of an astonishing number of “new” poems. The range is enormous, from dramatic monologues to enticing fragments, from playlets to visionary incantations. There is more self-knowledge in the sum of these varying texts than I had expected. A pendulum swings between the sharp journalistic mind with its sedimentary lode and the subconscious with its igneous flow. How thin and mean the range now appears in earlier anthologies. And so often inaccurate. Through scrupulous scholarship, Leggott retrieves a true line in the ever popular poem “The Last Ones” – “New-mown silver swished like straw”. This had hitherto been given as “silvers” and in the 1997 Oxford anthology, a typo produced “slivers”.

Far more significant is the difference between “The Deserted Village”, also much favoured by editors, and its authentic version, “East Side”. A pallid, shortened version has been the standard but the cost is now made clear. “Having smashed the rice-bowl, do not fill it again”, wrote Hyde, in clean, forceful language. This is after all a poem about a village destroyed during the Civil War in China. The lines, however, became afflicted with artifice and politeness: “Having broken the rice-bowl, seek not to fill it again.” Hyde’s thoughts on seeing a Chinese woman with her prayer bag were “My sister I did not see/Voiced here her dying wish./But the gods dreamed on”. All anthologists went for “The woman I did not see”, producing a hugely different tone and temperature.

By such restoration work, Leggott and her team construct a solid base for further re-evaluations of Hyde as a poet and a major one at that; someone whose influence is as modest and stubborn as clover roots in some areas of contemporary New Zealand poetry.

Hyde ended up rejecting and feeling rejected by her society. Even this alienation she turned to good words in a letter to Schroder: “only the earth and its things and people when they are trying to be friendly seem at all sacred. I think my god is a potato trying to put out shoots.”  As I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Dinah Hawken’s transparent, stilled meditations on water, leaves, stones. Hyde wrote a hymn to the Egyptian goddess Isis: “Be in our nostril the death of Death”. Hawken sings to the Sumerian deity, Inanna, in her “Small Stories of Devotion”. Both writers are energised by womanly power, by the restorative cycles and exquisiteness of nature.

The olives and the cress, the irises, the lilies that go forth like boys with silver bugles, and the little flowers also, that browse in the grass like goats, Nadath is planting them in her places: a garden, a garden and a garden, three spaces held between the seas


– this is Hyde in The Book of Nadath; it has the religious intensity and mystery of Hawken’s best work.

Michele Leggott is entirely forthcoming about her writing links with Hyde. In the note that closes her prize-winning collection of poems, Dia, published in 1994, she stated her wish to save from oblivion New Zealand poets lost in the move to British-derived modernism of the 1930s and 1940s. Thus she picked out “white-hot lines” from the poems of Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and others, “recombining them with an ear for the heart, complexity and engagement with which they were written”. Being part of a lineage of singing women was crucial to Leggott: “If I thought I was on my own I would give it away,” she wrote.

Reading Hyde’s heart poems led me back to the pleasures of Leggott’s “Blue Irises” sequence, to sonnet 10: “How beautiful in jandals, o prince’s daughter the motive bones of your finely dusted feet on the road to the cape and back many summers past small clips of paradise”. Young Knowledge is like an open-house invitation. It is generous, beautiful, superbly prepared, tended with devotion. You can slip in for a few minutes or stay for a few months. Or a lifetime. It is hugely significant to our understanding of the poetry of these islands.


Bernadette Hall is a Christchurch poet.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
Search the archive
Search by category