A critical lamp in a dark world, Helen Watson White

Charles Brasch: Journals 1958-1973
Charles Brasch, selected by Peter Simpson
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781988531144 

“How many existences one leads at once,” wrote Dunedin poet, critic, patron and Landfall editor Charles Brasch in 1958: 

I am here with LF work & household chores … I am haunted by the state of the world – the Near East, nuclear tests, the fear of war; I live through Dr Zhivago & its world; Rodney’s & Douglas’s worlds & those of other friends, & Emily [Forsyth]’s, & the de Beers at Raasay now; & Andrew who has gone to Adelaide is with me constantly; & as I prepare to go to Chch tomorrow Pearl draws near, & Harry & Margaret (whose house at Clifton, 31 Tuawera Terrace, has at last been sold, to their immense relief, although it doesn’t pay off all their debts; & J[ames Bertram] will be in Chch at the weekend; Kate, Tim, Penny [Thompson]; & I must see Ruth France … the list goes on & on. And my own life winds through all these in its own way. 

This wide-ranging paragraph is typical of Brasch’s journals, the third volume of which is now out from Otago University Press, who produced the other two – in the same handsome hardback format – in 2013 and 2017. Introduction and notes are again by Peter Simpson, who edited the second volume, using Margaret Scott’s transcriptions of the Hocken-held manuscripts that are the basis of all three. 

While Brasch’s perceptions of a threatened world give a dark quality to his commentary, his usual mode is a mixture of joy and concern. Central to the diaries are the many intimate friendships he made: listed above are art-loving companion Rodney Kennedy, composer Douglas Lilburn and novelist Ruth France, Brasch’s new love Andrew Packard, his former love Harry Scott and Harry’s wife Margaret, plus Margaret’s mother Pearl Bennett, and James Bertram, fellow-poet and lifelong friend. Family members mentioned are his maternal (Fels/Hallenstein) aunts Emily Forsyth and Kate Thompson, Kate’s son Tim and granddaughter Penny, plus the London-based de Beer family (also descended from the Hallensteins), currently visiting the Hebrides. 

It would be impossible to navigate one’s way around this extraordinary set of familial and other relationships without the help of the Hallenstein family tree, expanded from Brasch’s posthumously published memoir, Indirections (1980), Simpson’s copious notes, the chronologies prefacing each volume, and the list of biographies of people Brasch alludes to, living and dead: 289 personages described in the first volume, 415 in the second and 155 in the third, most of them authors and artists Brasch knew well.

Although it often seems so, Brasch (like the art-collecting de Beers) did not spend all his time travelling; but he was always doing that same navigation himself, apportioning fair amounts of attention to different individuals and sections of his family and society. What of the route, or destination, he calls his “own life”?

Founding and editing the literary quarterly Landfall, while it may now be considered his greatest achievement, does not seem to have been Brasch’s main aim, his life work. Indeed, in this last volume of diaries, he talks about ending his association with Landfall long before he actually did. In the period of nearly 20 years (1947-1966) in which he personally produced nearly 80 issues, other things occupied him more.

The conflation of “LF work & household chores” is interesting. Here is someone who doesn’t have to work for a living, yet must meet printing deadlines – and frequently also has people (this time, Bill Oliver) to stay, as he in turn stays with them on his national and international travels. Along with maintaining key friendships, there’s a daily mix of physical, emotional and intellectual labour. The process of editorial evaluation means mentoring writers who have made submissions, especially the young. There are also organising, tidying and proof-reading “chores”, which are not unlike housework, only done with words. 

All these kinds of work – a multitude of small unseen things – are extra to what he considers his main vocation: to write good poems. Furthermore, the continual assessment of other people, in conversations with writers and artists, encourages him to turn the critical lamp upon himself – far more often than I expected. Along with agonising self-doubt comes an awareness of mortality that I did not expect at all. After the “many existences” passage and a hiatus marking one of Simpson’s many cuts, the diarist continues on 17 August 1958: “I’m not ready to die yet … But I am being prepared, very slowly, for death.”

Just as Brasch is “haunted by the state of the world”, the rest of the volume continues this groundnote, which sounds even under ecstatic descriptions of tramping in the mountains, of the “freesia-sweet air of early morning” or of wildflowers at Delphi, “poppies of the most intense deep red I’ve ever seen.”

The insights and experiences on these pages – 687 in all – present a rich, complex gift that is difficult to measure. This man worked hard for us – and not only at writing poetry.


Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.

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