A memoir by Dame Fiona Kidman on the occasion of a new, posthumous book of poems by her “beautiful friend”, Lauris Edmond.
The other day I was talking to a friend at a book launch, and somehow we got into one of those exchanges about who the greatest poets of the twentieth century were. Auden’s name came up. Seamus Heaney, I said, Yeats was the come back, and later, in an email from the friend, Wallace Stevens. Well you can go on like that forever, depending on your perspective of what makes a great poet. But I had to add, Elizabeth Bishop, and then, tentatively, because she is a New Zealand poet, and we don’t like to brag about ourselves and our own, I added, Lauris Edmond.
And I meant it, not just because she was my dear friend, but because I believe she was a truly great writer whose words touch at the very heart of human experience, as fresh today, 17 years after her sudden death, as they were when they were written. The night burns with a white fire: The Essential Lauris Edmond is a book that reflects these qualities in a way that is different from earlier collections.
Lauris’s poems were, effectively, chosen by her friends. They were invited to submit their favourite of her poems to the editors of this volume, Frances Edmond, Lauris’s daughter and literary executor, and fellow poet Sue Fitchett. It’s fitting that we’re launching the book here in The Long Hall in Roseneath, just three minutes walk from Grass Street where Lauris lived so joyously for the last years of her life and where so many of the important friendships in her life were nurtured.
I can’t exactly remember my first meeting with Lauris, but I do know it was one of those intense spontaneous friendships that flared , illuminated my life, and lasted for some 28 years. We talked and talked and talked, at her house, at my house, in cafés, at meetings of the writers’ organisation PEN, as NZSA was then, and on Friday afternoons often at the Western Park Tavern in Tinakori, where two women fresh from the country, both married to school teachers, both mothers, ordered drinks – gin and tonic for me and brandy and ginger ale for Lauris, so sophisticated we thought we were. What did we talk about? Well, everything, really. The story of our lives, love, marriage, domesticity, the state of the world.
Some of Lauris’s story is captured in a letter to the poet Riemke Ensing, reproduced as a foreword to The night burns with a white fire. Lauris wrote: “At ten years of age I was a literary prodigy, known to possess a notebook of poems and therefore the darling of aunts and grandmothers but object of deep suspicion to brothers and sisters. Occasionally I agreed to read some of my poems aloud; when a book was full I lost it. Thus began a long history of failure to understand that literary communication requires business management as well as a quality product. For years my poetry writing was intermittent, chaotic, and secret. There was never time to work over — or even think over — poems written; they piled up, untidy, untyped, unread, on odds and ends of paper in drawers and cupboards. I stopped thinking of writing as a necessary extension of ordinary life, and came to dream of it as a special luxury I was only occasionally permitted. The rarest treat was to be left completely alone, perhaps late at night, and not be too exhausted to write a line.”
There was all of that in our conversations, but there was also the shared dream of not just scribbling in notebooks at night but becoming published writers. It happened for both of us in 1975, International Women’s Year. Publishers suddenly woke up to the fact that women had voices. No less than nine books of poetry by New Zealand women writers appeared, this after an entire decade when perhaps less than that had been published.
Lauris’s and my first books of poems, both published by Pegasus Press, were launched at a double celebration at the old University Club in the city. It was a riotous night, the party gate-crashed by politicians and other notables. We needed some help from the blokes. Denis Glover launched Lauris’s book In Middle Air, repeating his infamous line about “the menstrual school of poetry” to describe the work of women writers. Sam Hunt launched mine; in a later review of both books and several by our contemporaries he remarked on us as “foxes in the chicken run”, which I rather liked. We knew we were making a stir. In Middle Air won the Jessie McKay Prize for Poetry that year and went on to international acclaim. Lauris was launched as a poet and I was a beginning novelist, the paths we would follow, but together as writers.
The year rolled by, the book launches lapped with wine, laughter and indiscretions, readings happened all over the place, many of them at Harry Seresin’s establishment, the café on stilts in Willis Street known as The Settlement. Marilyn Duckworth, Rachel McAlpine, Jan Kemp, Elizabeth Smither, Meg Campbell, Lauris, myself, we would all be there.
For her part, Lauris had some hard choices to make. Lauris epitomises the writer who made for herself a writing life, despite obstacles and griefs, and a certain amount of that suspicion she had experienced as a child. In a sense, we were all like that when she and I met, but she was older, a woman at the crossroads of her life who in order to survive had to break out of the cocoon of her earlier life, even though some hearts were broken along the way. From then on her life was one of deep commitment to her art.
In an inscription in one of her books that she gave to me, she wrote “to Fiona, my dear and necessary friend.” She might equally have said essential, as she was to me. But when Frances and Sue began to collect up these poems, I was reminded with something of a jolt that she was an essential friend to a great many more people than me. Nearly 60 contributors, who had known and admired her, responded with poems that they loved the best. They include poets such as Vincent O’Sullivan, Michael Harlow, Jenny Bornholdt, Bob Orr, Fiona Farrell, plus Marilyn, Rachel, Elizabeth, the old gang teaming up, but much more, with contributions from people like Tess, Frances’s daughter, and other of the younger generation of the Edmond family, and people from different walks of life who love reading poetry for the pleasure of their hearts, whether or not they are writers.
They make a remarkable collection, and what is so important is not just that these poems are essential to those who have chosen them, but also that they make up an essential mosaic of Lauris’ life. Frances and Sue have divided the poems into groups, each headed by a quote from one of the poems, so that they almost read like a poem on their own: Somewhere you are always going home, Love’s green darkness, The day the quake came (a reflection of Lauris’s experience in the Napier earthquake), Long grass and the smell of apples, Yesterday’s wind, and of course the title poem, Night burns with a white fire, in which Lauris sees again the face of her loved lost daughter, Rachel. It’s a compilation that is tender, reflective and as vital as Lauris herself.
For those who are familiar with Lauris Edmond’s work, this book is a reminder of what a superb poet she was; for those coming to her for the first time, it will be a revelation. As for me, I open the book and I’m back down that zigzag path that is Grass Street, sitting as we always did in those later years, in two armchairs facing each other, dissecting the world and all that it meant to us, my beautiful and extraordinary, my essential friend who I loved to the end.
Learning to Ride
(Chosen by Frances Edmond, who asked her mother one day to write a poem for her.)
Remember the sunlight tumbling
among willows, the creaking of
saddles, the dust? – and around
the paddock, jolting and bouncing
the child, a brown knot tied, too
loose, on the nag’s enormous shoulders
– the hand’s fierce holding, the whole
small stubborn body shouting
determination not to fall…
It’s a speaking body still, each
impulse defined in arch of bone or
pliant web of skin; see her twenty
years later wrenched by grief, head
bent to listen, arms to comfort
a helpless company; the hands that
mimed a child’s resolve learn now
the solemn language of compassion.
Love in her is a steadiness of line,
a concentration in the eyes,
an angle, a spring held in the
flesh’s taut dialectic.
Dear girl, when you ride again
let it be over round hills,
the cliffs not too close, let
your hands lie easily now
and under green willows
catkins fall on your hair.
The night burns with a white fire : The Essential Lauris Edmond, edited by Frances Edmond and Sue Fitchett (Steele Roberts, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.