Affirming lucidity: Edmond's 'wisdom poetry'
Originally published in New Zealand Books 6.4 (October 1996): 1-3.
Lauris Edmond’s most recent major volume A Matter of Timing revealed new depths and intricacies in her major personal themes of love and death, and new instances of her complex sensitivity to the world about her. The title poem "A matter of timing" made it clear that this sensitivity is a cultural matter. Driving through the countryside, the poet sees a familiar, attractive rural scene, "A line of daffodils growing along a fence...the clouds above / blowing about like washing; and the first willows / coming into leaf..." It is a scene of which she knows "every detail / by heart...An absolute dream, total as / childhood". But for all the scene's familiarity, she is suddenly shocked to realise it is inhabited by someone else, and is not in fact her own. The scene is of course one of our cultural commonplaces, a rural domestic idyll. It is an image we all take pleasure in and possess. The shock registered in the poem is precisely that it is a shared thing, not our own private creation at all, and yet something we do actively make over and over again in our personal affirmations of it. Lauris Edmond's identification with and yet detachment from this "absolute dream" of a scene, at once both real and imagined, recalls James K. Baxter in his early poem "The Bay", describing the bay to us in minutely realistic detail, and then remembering that it "never was," and standing like stone, unable to turn away from the idealised scene we all know so well. "A matter of timing" is an image of the poet's split-second recognition of her personal involvement in one of our cultural metaphors, and the volume as a whole sets forth her own experience of some of our strongest cultural conventions, especially those concerning death and love and marriage and solitude and being a woman.
Sudden recognitions of significance like that in "A matter of timing", whether found in scenes, gestures, relationships or words, have always been a distinctive feature of Lauris Edmond's poetry. On the publication of her first volume In Middle Air in 1975 Bruce Mason identified this stylistic signature at once, writing "Lauris Edmond's imaginative world comes through...as a series of delicate epiphanies, compassionate reflections, wry and beautiful accommodations." (A later poem called "Epiphany" was dedicated to Mason, no doubt in acknowledgement of this.) Most commentators since have followed suit, including one of her best critics, Fiona Farrell Poole, who ten years ago similarly remarked on the epiphanies in this poetry, revealed through "Edmond's ability to isolate experience in a sudden flare of pleasure or understanding...". She was reviewing the 1983 volume titled Catching It, the title an idiomatic expression of sudden perception closely related to the later title A Matter of Timing. The passage of time has not diminished the often-remarked emphasis on momentary revelations, on intensity of being, and on transience and death in Lauris Edmond's poetry.
In her most recent work she has dealt more directly than ever with the process of ageing, and with the end of her marriage and the death of her former husband. A Matter of Timing has been the darkest of her eleven volumes of poetry. In his Afterword to Private Gardens, Riemke Ensing's 1978 anthology of poetry by New Zealand women, Vincent O'Sullivan marked Lauris Edmond out particularly when he wrote "If most of these writers have a common muse, her name is Hecate." Her latest poems seem a further confirmation of that view. In the lines from "In Position" printed as a keynote on the book’s cover she declares "I want to tell you about time, how strangely / it behaves when you haven't got much of it left". The ensuing meditation on time as an active and irreversible force that isolates lives one from another sets in place one of the volume's major themes, climaxing in the fatalistic "queer outline of what's to come: the bend in / the river beyond which . . . you will simply vanish from sight." The carpe diem theme made urgent by the consciousness of death is prominent in these poems. In the rich scents and sounds of the late summer evening in "Take one", the poet is compelled to emphasise her possession of the moment, " . . . this is my time. I don't have it / for long, and...while I'm here nobody else / can have it." A related act of possession occurs in "Going North", "today it is mine, this great lump of land, / scratch of the grass, salt tide below; / so I sit here, wait, though there is nothing / to come...", the solid physicality of the coastal scene where "the tide is sliding away" liberating the mind to move among the mysteries of time while life goes on. In "Hymn to the body" the "impaired body" seeing itself in the "dark mirror" may yet "stir an old, unthinking delight", and (echoing Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night"), "shout its sweet defiance into the silence."
The stoicism evident there is even more marked in the many poems arising from the death of her daughter Rachel many years ago. These poems deal with a death that has pervaded the life of her entire family ever since, "the death which had made vagrants of us / in our own house, and now followed us everywhere . . . " Here are a few lines from "Taking down Christmas decorations". The poem is not included in this selection, but lines like these convey strongly what it is to be possessed by the loss of a child, perhaps the most distinctive emotional note in this poet’s wide range:
The poem is about going on, living in the "constant knowledge" of death. The decorations continue to be put up at Christmas, for later children. At the centre of the poem the metaphor of the Christmas tree with its "bristled branches", "the faded little pine" cast away among piles of "yesterday's imperial pohutukawa blooms," carries the message easily. In the manner of this genre that Elizabeth Caffin and others have called Lauris Edmond's wisdom poetry the point is made explicitly as well, that "whatever grows . . . knows . . . that to live / and breathe at all is to act provisionally."
Many of Lauris Edmond's poems have been occasioned by this death, the most powerful group undoubtedly being the eighteen poem sequence of the 1980 volume Wellington Letter, dedicated to the young woman. Her death also underlies poems not directly concerned with it at all. "We have to re-examine the fact of being alive," as she has written, reviewing the long phase of her life spent in grief, which of course is one of the major motives of her Autobiography as well as of her poetry. Among recent poems, "The arrival" recalls the shock of arriving an hour late at her daughter's deathbed, finding her reduced after even so brief a time to "face and hair that were mere substance, / things of shape and colour, nothing." There is a quality in this kind of writing that recalls the long-past Greek parent's obol inscription for a dead daughter, "I hold you dead now, being dead myself."
Lauris Edmond's poems are usually written in the first person, sometimes as lyrics of celebration or lament, sometimes as meditations, but more often than not in the form of autobiographical recollections, anecdotes, or narrative vignettes like "Going to Moscow" in the Catching It volume. Unless told that a poem is a fiction, like "Going to Moscow", one tends to read her poetry as personal and autobiographical. The prose autobiographies Hot October, Bonfires in the Rain, and The Quick World, gathered together under the title An Autobiography, constitute a text parallel to the poetry in many respects, and minimise the chance of making too many mistakes by reading in this way. The poetry and prose together amount to a major work of identity construction, related to James K. Baxter's or Janet Frame's in this country's literature because equally deliberate, though what appears to be the transparency of the work has resulted in some surface readings of it. As a literary woman autobiographer she will in time be read comparatively with Robin Hyde, Mary Scott, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Janet Frame, Ruth Dallas, Ruth Park, Phoebe Meikle and others.
For the present however she is her own best commentator, and her essay "Only Connect: The Making of an Autobiography" in Landfall 188 should be included as an Appendix to any further editions of An Autobiography. Following her sudden and successful emergence as a poet in 1975 at the age of fifty-one, after many years of marriage and motherhood, she recalls, "I strongly (though privately) resisted the assumption, which I could see many people made, that Life Number One had been merely a matter of waiting round for Life Number Two to take over." And she goes on, being aware that many other women in that decade of heightened women's independence were passing through similar transitions, "Other women's experience offered parallels, but mine seemed a particularly clear-cut, not to say dramatic example of what I was coming to see as a phenomenon of my generation." It became her intention to demonstrate the integrity of her life, to show "how each phase was connected with those that came before it, and prefigured others that were to come," and in the process she came to feel "fiercely defensive about this submerged world" of a woman spending her days with young children in suburbs or country towns. Contrary to the view that saw such a life as the material of suburban neurosis, she knew it to be able "to yield a rich, dynamic, compelling experience," as hers had done. Her autobiography consequently runs counter to the negative stereotypes of domesticity by celebrating it even as it is undermined in her own case by the slow breakdown of her marriage, a tragedy she sees as integral to the entire tapestry and not as a separable thread, or as marking a point at which Life Number One gives way to Life Number Two, any more than in the case of her almost concurrent emergence as a poet. Her life as cultural subject is her entire subject. She thus affirms most of the cultural conventions concerning the roles of women even while critiqueing them, and it is for this reason that her values and her angles of vision are so culturally interesting.
This helps to account for the centrality in the later work of poems about the collapse of her marriage and the death of her husband. In some ways Lauris Edmond's poetry is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's, and nowhere more so than in these poems, recalling Hardy's compulsive reconstruction of his earlier falling in love and marriage in the Poems of 1912 - 1913 following the death of his first wife. The emotional core Lauris Edmond has to contend with in the poems dealing with the loss of her former husband arises from the difficulty that while privately she mourns for him, the collapse of their marriage has left her without a clearly sanctioned public position from which to do so. She mourns in isolation, marginalised among the mourning family and friends, a "guest" merely among the "tribal protocol" of the funeral.. The poem called "Marriage" captures it sharply: "Some / evil epilogue it is, that I should stand alone / here in the wind, you in the ground," concluding,
Some such end is implied to have been foreseeable in the finely controlled metaphors of "Spring afternoon, Dunedin", a poem recalling an earlier time of shared sunshine on a hillside until the sun is blocked out by a mountain. In the sudden early cold the couple wander home "talking of altitudes and moons." The analogy that follows is bleakly prophetic: "Just so, / in a grass-sweet patch on a little / planet were we spinning minute by / minute out of our brightness and / into the changed, unloving years." In the careful language of "One to one", "the loss / of love is all, and lasts for ever," the death of the body being the final image of such loss. In "The wife" the pain of loss includes the pain of realising that death has now closed off "irretrievably" all possibility that they might recover their "better selves": "It's said they are most homesick who leave / home in grief or rage . . . " The loss in separation of the past they have shared is imaged in "The husband" by the stroke ("the marvellous sheet of flame that swept across and took it all") that later damaged the husband's memory. In the title poem of this section, "Subliminal", the poet's contemplation of the dead body and recollections of "the sunlit future promises of long ago" induce in her a strange sympathy: "Now I can / touch his cold unnatural skin quite easily. / It's not so very different from my own." As in her more celebratory poetry, much of the strength of these elegiac poems comes from the physicality of their imagery, their narrative immediacy. And if if any one image emerges from them as conveying better than any other an intellectual and emotional comprehension of what is lost in death, it is in the concluding lines of "The pace of change":
In a very different context, language itself is a matter of interest to the poet, as the section on art and writing in this selection makes clear. In "Lake Tutira", two black swans float "on flawless glass",
Just as "A matter of timing" is like Baxter's "The Bay" in its treatment of the idyllic scene as a cultural ikon, so "Lake Tutira" makes its claim for a harmony between appearance and reality by echoing Allen Curnow's "An Incorrigible Music". In Curnow's poem herons are reflected in water, but there is no certainty about how many of them there are, or of how many reflections/images they give rise to. "The mudbacked mirrors in your head / multiply the possibilities of human / error", as Curnow puts it. Every statement about the world from this point of view is a misquotation. Lauris Edmond's poem appears to be a deliberate dismissal of that kind of scepticism, and a declaration in favour of something very close to positivism. The poem claims a dependability for language not philosophically possible for Curnow, saying in effect that what we see is what we get, and that the words we use to describe it mean what they say. It has now and then been remarked upon that Lauris Edmond has resisted making poetic capital out of the instabilities of language that preoccupy so many poets nowadays, and has continued as a result to write in an older poetic style. "Lake Tutira" lets us know that she's aware of the issues and has freely chosen to abide by the classical conventions of language, which of course are essential to a system as arbitrary as language. Her poetry affirms in particular the convention of lucidity in its analysis of the moral-emotional dimension of the human condition.