Night Burns with a White Fire: The Essential Lauris Edmond
Frances Edmond and Sue Fitchett (eds)
Steele Roberts, $35.00,
This enjoyable anthology doesn’t pretend to be anything but an act of loving homage; as the editors admit, they did not plan a scholarly book. It consists of poems and a smaller number of extracts from Lauris Edmond’s prose writings, edited by the two people whose names are on the title page, but largely chosen by Lauris’s friends, admirers, and members of her family, who were asked to submit suggestions. The arrangement is thematic, progressing through childbirth, family love, friendship, Wellington, travel and other topics, and ending with a powerfully affecting section about death. It includes a timeline, a bibliography, and an index of contributors; one of the incidental pleasures of reading the collection is to cross-check titles of individual pieces with this index to see who chose what. The editors received far more contributions than they could use, but some of the poems I like best turned out not to have been selected by any of the contributors, but by the editors themselves. Their perception and good judgement have filled important gaps, and averted the air of randomness that might otherwise have resulted from the unusual premise on which the anthology is founded.
The opening pages are a flurry of infant limbs and dazed newborn eyes. Not many poets have given birth six times. The fact that Lauris had done so accounts for the unusual shape her literary career fell into. Although she had always written poetry, it was, for years, as she explained, intermittent, chaotic and secret; there was never any time to work on it. It was not until her middle years that she found herself turning into a serious writer, and her first collection was not published until she was 51.
In 1985, she was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, which changed her life: she flew to London and was celebrated. She wrote in her autobiography of “this automaton … this facsimile of myself” that went up to receive the honour and be interviewed afterwards, all the time in a trance of unreality. At the party, one of the judges leaked to her the fact that, when the six finalists had been whittled down to two, they based their judgement in the end on the tone of her poetry, swayed by her warmth and humanity by comparison with writing that sounded more impersonal. Afterwards, all the shortlisted poets went off together on a reading tour around the country.
Recognition on such a scale was gloriously new to Lauris. Those of us who had been having books published in a plodding sort of way for years envied her fresh delight, her spontaneous response. Audiences reacted with similar enthusiasm; new acquaintances swiftly became friends. When, later, we were both invited to the Belfast Festival they all loved her, just as she loved them. Her guide and mentor was the poet Michael Longley, born and bred in Belfast, who took her sightseeing while I seized this rare opportunity to do some local research on my Northern Irish ancestors. He and Lauris found each other’s accents enchanting, while at the same time slightly comical.
One of her essential qualities was her open-hearted delight in the world of nature, people, events – she was so often filled with joy about something. This wonderment could occasionally verge on the naive, but that’s an innocent fault, if it’s a fault at all. I enjoyed her amazement, one autumn, at the fallen leaves in our local park – the whole floor of the wood carpeted with them. New Zealand trees don’t do that. On the other hand, there was her disappointment when, on a visit to me one winter, she asked to be shown the garden. I said there wasn’t much to see, but she wandered around for a few minutes before coming in and struggling to find something complimentary to say: “It’s very tidy.” Yes, so it was: and empty, frozen, with no flowers above ground. “Well, it’s winter,” I explained. On another occasion, she was here at the beginning of spring when bulbs were shooting up their green tufts out of the soil, and then she got it. It’s to do with seasons.
I was introduced to Lauris in late 1975 by Alistair and Meg Campbell, on my first return to New Zealand after an absence of 13 years, at the Abel Tasman pub in Wellington: a meeting place after work for Campbell’s friends, fellow-poets and colleagues from School Publications. Lauris was editing the Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) Journal, whose office was nearby; she had become acquainted with writers who submitted poems and stories to it, and was soon drawn into the local literary networks.
I took to her at once, as did so many people, and we became friends across the globe. One memory I particularly cherish is our eccentric pledge of friendship, a typically spontaneous Lauris act. It was after the launch of Campbell’s Collected Poems at Alister Taylor’s house in March 1982, shortly before I left for England yet again; four of us, Hubert Witheford, Louis Johnson, Lauris and I, went for a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Courtenay Place and when it was time to pay the two men got into a contest of masculinity, each of them insisting it was his treat. They passed a $10 note to and fro across the table, arguing, until Lauris snatched it out of their hands and said: “If you don’t want it, we’ll have it!” Whereupon she tore it in two, giving me one half to keep until we next met. Three years later, I turned up at our rendezvous in a Wellington bar with a roll of Sellotape; we reunited the two halves and bought a bottle of chardonnay and two packets of nuts.
She stayed with me while she was on a reading tour in England in February, 1992. One night she arrived home at 12:40 am, after an interminably tedious evening of poetry and music that she had barely been able to escape from in time for the last tube train to East Finchley. She fell into the house, worn out and furious with the organisers, after a long, slow journey home during which she had been approached by a drunk at Camden Town station. I made her a cup of tea. “Well, you won’t want to see the local paper,” I said, nevertheless pushing it across the table to her. She read the headline – “Attacker Drinks Woman’s Blood” – and we both collapsed into exhausted, hysterical laughter, tears running down our faces. She told me next day that even in the night, as she tried to get to sleep, she kept waking up and laughing some more. No wonder I miss her.
Not surprisingly, she was an entertaining correspondent. One of her letters, for example, about a misjudged love affair, begins:
Woe, woe, predictable, warned-against, known-to-everyone-except-me-as-inevitable disillusionment! Did you warn me? Of course you did, tactfully, courteously, uselessly. So did other people. And did I listen? A tolerant smile, meaning that these things are different for me … Well, they’re not.
She had grown up in an unusual family, strongly in favour of Social Credit and opposed to orthodoxy of all kinds, whose members discussed and analysed each other relentlessly, predicting each other’s behaviour and sharing their emotions. The children called their parents by their first names; togetherness was taken for granted. It never occurred to them, for example, not to read each other’s correspondence. Large quantities of her first volume of autobiography were based on her long, confiding letters from Wellington Teachers College to her mother. Her mother? How many 18-year-old students, away from home for the first time, share intimate thoughts and experiences with their mother, rather than with a contemporary? All these deep, detailed examinations of character and motive must have contributed to what I came to see as her wisdom: a capacity for carefully considered insight, based on experience. The fact that she had brought up so many children, and endured the deaths by suicide of first her younger brother John and then her daughter Rachel, contributed to a certain stoicism and acceptance in her character.
This did not preclude the kind of silliness that made her so much fun to be with. She had married, aged only 21, a somewhat conventional fellow-teacher; as her horizons expanded, she inevitably grew away from him, and in the end they found it impossible to live together, although this realisation dawned on Lauris some time before Trevor was able to accept it. She wrote, in The Quick World, looking back from a later standpoint:
my life had in a broader sense come to a kind of resolution. It had emerged from the hot and risky turbulence of those first years of knocking about in the chaos that lay outside marriage … I no longer fell violently and repeatedly in love … I had stable habits ….
On one of my visits to Wellington I had the pleasure of staying in her house while she was away. Part of one room was a shrine to her grandchildren, with their photos and drawings pinned up on screens. Her bedroom was draped with the filmy, colourful scarves she wore around her neck. While I was based there, I returned one afternoon to find a burglar had come down from the bush at the back and forced a window; there was a scatter of foreign coins on a bedroom floor; drawers had been tipped out. I was unable, however, to tell the police what, if anything, had been stolen. I rang Lauris’s daughter Stephanie. “Oh, Lauris doesn’t care about things,” she said. Sure enough, when she went to meet her mother at the airport with a warning of rather bad news, Lauris could think only of the children; her response to the burglary was “Is that all!”
She was a wonderful hostess; her parties and lunches were a joy to attend, with exactly the selection of fellow-guests one would most want to see, and conversations that deserved to be recorded for posterity. Her house overlooking Oriental Bay in Wellington was a short distance, if a steep up-and-down one, from the homes of my mother, father and sister, with one or other of whom I often stayed. Wellington people have to have good lungs and strong legs. The zigzag approach to 22 Grass Street (which is not a street at all, but a succession of steep slopes and steps up from Oriental Parade to Roseneath) was a test of physical fitness which I, like most of her visitors, only just succeeded in passing. Lauris took it in her stride, literally. She once referred to “this superficial fitness I have”, as if it were something temporary, but I imagined it was permanent and that she would live to a hundred. It was a shock when she didn’t.
Instead, we have her writings. Her poetry is musically pleasing, but also readable, welcoming, easy to identify with: “accessible”, in the modern jargon, and none the worse for that. She had a gift for exact pictorial descriptions, as if she were describing a painting or a theatrical performance, evident equally in her poetry and her prose. One memorable section of this book, an extract from her autobiographical volume Hot October, describes the day of the 1931 earthquake when her school near Napier vanished into a cloud of red brick dust. Fortunately, most of the children were out in the playground; Lauris and her little sister set off for home along the strangely surging road and met their mother, wild-eyed and clutching a young lilac tree she had grabbed for support, which “the rocking ground, opening and closing, had delivered into her hand”. It’s tempting to go on picking out irresistible phrases. My own contribution to the anthology was her poem “Cows”, rich with references to their “tunnelly stomachs” and the “warm galumphing machinery” with which they make milk. It typifies Lauris’s infectious enjoyment of life.
Fleur Adcock’s most recent poetry collection is The Land Ballot (Victoria University Press/Bloodaxe Books, 2014).