Championing the local, Margot Schwass

Margot Schwass pays tribute to Ruth Dallas who died earlier this year.

Silent bush, rain-soaked paddocks, solitary farmhouses hunkered down beneath black macrocarpas …. The landscapes so intensely reflected in the work of the late Ruth Dallas are very recognisably those of Southland and Otago where she lived throughout her long and productive writing life. For eight decades, she scarcely left. Her immediate environment provided her with sufficient poetic nourishment (“I was simply responding to the poetry which I felt already existed in the landscape and the people of Southland,” she wrote once), and she remained a staunch believer in the importance of regional voices in New Zealand literature long after “regionalism” became unfashionable.

Yet for all its emphasis on the local and particular, Dallas’ work is never inconsequential. Its strength lies in the intensity with which she sees the world; the precise, spare language with which she brings it to life; and her ability to draw meaning from the everyday.

For New Zealanders reared on the School Journal, the name of Ruth Dallas is synonymous with “Milking at Dawn”, her much-anthologised celebration of the milking shed, “an island of light and warmth” against the starless dark. But the rural world was hers by adoption only: she wrote the poem after working as a land-girl and herd-tester in Southland during WWII. Born Ruth Mumford, she was, in fact, a “townie”, the youngest daughter of an Invercargill garage proprietor and his shopkeeper wife. Ruth was devoted to her maternal grandmother, who lived with the family and instilled in her granddaughters a strong sense of their pioneering heritage. It was her grandmother’s surname that Dallas later took as her pen-name.

Her early years were shaped by the Depression and by serious family illnesses, including her own; at the age of 15 she lost one eye and the other was permanently damaged. Decency, thrift and hard work were valued – the family home was attached to the petrol station, and someone was always required to “mind the shop” – but not poetry. “I am at a loss to account for the fact that I wrote poetry in an environment where I knew no-one who was interested in poetry,” she said later. But her parents were keen readers and encouraged a love of books that sparked in Dallas a passion for writing. At a young age, she borrowed her mother’s treadle sewing machine and literally “made” her own poetry and story books. She published regularly in the children’s pages of the Southland Daily News and in an intriguing array of non-literary publications: her first “adult” poem appeared in the New Zealand Railways Magazine in 1936, when she was 17.

Her formal schooling ended after three years at Southland Technical College. It was expected that she would get married and have children, but she did neither. It was not until the war years that Dallas found regular work, travelling around Southland as a herd-tester and often staying on farms overnight. She was entranced by rural life and her first taste of independence. By contrast, post-war city living seemed dreary and superficial: in poems of this period she describes the insulation of city-dwellers from what she had come to regard as the more “real” life of country people, connected to the natural world.

As her writing career blossomed, Dallas remained at home with her mother, her father having died suddenly before the war. In her maddeningly opaque autobiography Curved Horizon (1991), she speaks of dances, skiing trips, outings with sisters and friends. But she is largely silent on the subject of deeper friendships, apart from a fiancé who departed for Britain during the war where he grew “attached” to someone else. She kept this heartbreak in perspective: “We would have needed to make many changes to develop the deeper interests that make a satisfactory lifetime commitment,” she comments briskly.

But she did not lack for stimulating company, especially once she and her mother shifted to Dunedin in 1954. Charles Brasch and Monte Holcroft encouraged her writing, and she met a circle of other writers including Basil Dowling, R A K Mason, Denis Glover and Janet Frame. She became Brasch’s editorial assistant at Landfall, correcting galley proofs in a chilly office above the University Bookshop. At the same time, her own writing took new directions. She was a frequent contributor to school journals, often writing about southern settler life; this was also the theme of her historical children’s novels, beginning with The Children in the Bush (1969). Her adult short fiction appeared in Landfall, and later in the collection The Black Horse and Other Stories (2000).

But Dallas’ main preoccupation remained the refinement of her poetic voice. Her work shows an increasing austerity and density as she sought “to get words to carry as many overtones as possible” (Collected Poems, 1987). Here, she was influenced by the work of the ancient Chinese poets, especially their treatment of war (she had been profoundly distressed by the sight of soldiers marching off to war in 1940, so soon after WWI, whose “far-reaching shadow … lingered over the lives of the people around me”) and of the natural world. Increasingly, though, she also sought to emulate the Chinese poets’ oblique symbolism, economy of language and simplicity of form, as in “The Falling House”: “The house itself/Falls now/Its roots, its leaves,/Hands/That set the trees/In their selected places.” Her poetry had always struck a note of melancholy: now, increasingly stripped of consciously “poetic” language, it acquired a haunting spareness.

Over the years, Dallas’ identity as a writer was not widely known in her community. Hers was a determinedly private and “ordinary” life, yet there was nothing meagre or circumscribed about her achievements. Awarded the Burns Fellowship by Otago University in 1968 and an honorary doctorate a decade later, she managed to work as a fulltime writer for most of her life – a difficult path for most of her generation and especially single women. She published more than 20 books, including Walking on the Snow, winner of the poetry section of the New Zealand Book Awards in 1977. Her last poetry collection, The Joy of a Ming Vase, appeared in 2006 when she was 86.

Throughout, her poetry retained its keen alertness to the physical world and the local environment. The human world is rarely in the foreground, yet the seemingly desolate places that interest her nonetheless bear the imprint of forgotten lives and human presence: “the man who saw/In seedlings in his hand this quiet hour/Has passed from the dream, passed from the trees’ long shadows.” An unashamed champion of the local, Dallas’ enduring achievement lay in mastering her intense, lyrical response to the landscapes and heritage that both shaped and sustained her – “mountain, hill /And curving sea that once enclosed the world,/And winds that smell and taste of the sea and shake/The needles from the pines with the sea’s anger, /And great skies, and rivers blue as veins” (“World’s Centre”).


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