The life and times of Gloria Rawlinson, New Zealand’s world famous ‘child poet’

All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books celebrates the rich, fascinating history of New Zealand literature. Today: Paula Green remembers Gloria Rawlinson, Auckland’s ‘famous young poet’ of the 1930s. Postscript by Steve Braunias.

Gloria Rawlinson  seemed old and frail in her wheelchair when I met her in the early 1990s. I was working  at Auckland’s Art Gallery Bookshop, and was invited to MC a poetry reading. Gloria was on the programme with Keith Sinclair. I had no notion of the young woman she was, and her drive to write.

At the age of seven, Gloria (1918–1995) was afflicted with polio. She was in hospital for four years and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. As an adult, she travelled the world with her mother, and formed an enduring friendship with Robin Hyde. After Hyde’s death, she devoted herself to Hyde’s work; she edited the posthumous volume, Houses by the Sea, the catalyst book that generated greater public interest in Hyde’s poetry. She spent years working on Hyde material towards a book that Derek Challis later drew upon for his biography of his mother. He acknowledged Rawlinson as a co-author.

But her reputation survives through her own writing. Her childhood publications — she is always thought of as the child poet, and despite first publishing in her mid-teens, wrote most of her poems before the age of 14 — represented a dazzling arrival. Her first volume, Gloria’s Book, was published in 1933. She was 15. Two years later her second collection, The Perfume Vendor, sold over 7000 copies, was translated into Dutch and Japanese, and attracted much fan mail along with glowing reviews.

When I first read the poems, I was deterred by the fairy-tale flavours. The marriage of sentiment and fantasy impeded any move to draw closer to her verse. Now, though, I read my way into the fantasy and find the poems chart an imaginative life alongside a lived life, and perhaps a longed-for life. I enter her hospital room, and imagine the young girl wracked with pain and confinement. The poems come out of contemplation of the real world through a window, book hunger, and an imagined world that steps off from both.

A child’s roaming mind, especially when I think of that tethered body, can summon fairies into the bush with the tūī calling: “Make me like one of you, frog for my steed ; Then we’ll go a-hopping, on lily-pad dropping”. I’m drawn into this knotty world of escape, that the sound patterns — of their time and keenly crafted — now fit the drift between heavens and sky. Gloria is the child in fairyland that can dance, sing and fly. She fills her poems with “the lilac, the snap-dragon, mignonette,/ The honeysuckle, tea-rose, daffodil and violet”, catching the magical scent and allure of elsewhere.

However, these foreign plantings in local soil belie her local attachments. The kauri tree  exerts the greater pull:

 

Where the love bird makes her nest,

Where the riro sings his best,

That is where I long to be,

Singing to the kauri tree.

 

If I could flash back through time, and sit with Gloria in the gallery café, I’d have so much to ask.

What did she want her poems to do? How did she rate them? Apart from her lifelong friendship with Robin Hyde, what local writers boosted her? Did she feel short-changed by the literary men? The scathing response to so much women’s poetry that preceded us, and the way women resided in shadows, underwritten and misjudged, is precisely why I am writing my book, to be published later this year by Otago University Press, Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry.

Gloria Rawlinson. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-6388-16. Alexander Turnbull Library

A postscript by Spinoff Review of Books literary editor, Steve Braunias

I asked Paula for her expert assessment of Gloria Rawlinson after I went to a book fair in Kumeu and picked up a copy of Rawlinson’s 1935 book The Perfume Vendor for 50 cents. It stated on the cover: “The famous young New Zealand poet.” Later, I read that her weekly mail averaged 300 letters from all over the world, including one from US President and fellow polio sufferer Franklin D Roosevelt. English poet Walter de la Mare corresponded with her and read her poetry aloud in London poetry circles; in New Zealand, her work was praised by author Jane Mander. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage made a surprise visit to see her one New Year’s Eve. She was a local celebrity. But when I stared at the book, I thought: who?

The cover featured a photo of a beautiful, dark-haired child who looked strangely modern, someone vibrant and alive. It said on the inside cover, “Gloria was born on an island in the Tonga group [Ha’apai] and came to New Zealand at the age of six, speaking other languages better than English. After a year at a small private school [the Melmerly Collegiate boarding school for girls, at 40 St George’s Bay Rd, in Parnell; pupils included aviatrix Jean Batten] she fell victim to a serious illness, and out of the years in hospital and lonely bedroom these verses have been penned.” The blurbology later referred to the author as “a velvet-eyed and thoughtful little occupant of a wheel-chair.”

The whole thing felt as frail and delicate as a pressed flower. Inside, the verses were brittle, full of loss and solitude and dead animals. There were fairies. There were angels. But there wasn’t anything remotely innocent or magical about them; they were more like little occupants of Hell, fragments of death, creepy shadows cast by moonlight in a graveyard. Her poem “Moths” sets it out in plain English.

 

Two triangles on a wall –

One is Peter, one is Paul.

There they lie so quiet and still;

I wonder if they both feel ill?

 

Peter, Peter, tell me why

So flattened-out and still you lie?

But Peter will not turn around,

And Paul, he does not make a sound.

 

I say, “Will you two play with me?

We’ll have a lovely game for three.”

But, no, they will not talk at all –

Those two triangles on a wall.

 

To see moths as triangles is clever; to picture moths as symbols of loneliness and isolation is terrifying. The poet Riemke Ensing, who befriended Gloria, wrote that her “romantic, whimsical and often fantastical themes were welcomed by readers enduring the unpleasant realities of the Depression.” But the poems, as Paula Green writes, also invite the reader to “imagine the young girl wracked with pain and confinement”. There’s a lot more than escapism and fantasy going on behind the lines. Was it these notes of unhappiness, and torment, and suffering, that were picked up by Robin Hyde? Some force of attraction compelled her – a complete stranger – to visit the Rawlinson home in Auckland one day, out of the blue, unannounced. Everything about Hyde was odd; she and Gloria made an odd couple, the crazy, damaged poet, 27 or 28 when she met Gloria, who was about 16. The two seemed to form an immediate bond which remained intact long after Hyde’s death.

Hyde wrote the preface to The Perfume Vendor. It has the kind of discursive, almost scattered prose that marks her vivid works of journalism, collected in her 1934 book Journalese. Her version of how they met is startling, and no exaggeration: “Myself, I made her acquaintance by breaking and entering.”

She sets the scene. “Letters had begun to arrive in my mail when I lay, rather tired of things in general, in a hospital. The letters weren’t tiresome. Sometimes they were the gay adventures of a child. Sometimes the verses, which were nearly always tucked in alongside, argued a long and intimate acquaintance with the fairies. Sometimes there was a poem which seemed to me not childish at all, but lighted with a deep and soft light…For never since Gloria Rawlinson was a dark-haired dancing pixie of seven has illness allowed her to be quite the same as other children…The long stilled time of hospitals, pain, and dreaming began.”

Hyde’s “rather tired of things in general” is a jaunty way of describing mental illness. She tried to drown herself. She was arrested – there was a court appearance, charged with the offence that “At Auckland on 2nd June 1933 she did attempt to commit suicide” – and remanded at Mt Eden prison, where convicts “fed her on chunks of rough cake pushed through the bars of her cold dirty cell”, as Derek Challis puts it in Iris, the 2002 biography of his mother. Hyde was later admitted to Auckland Mental Hospital, now the grounds of Unitec on Carrington Rd. She remained there for four years. Her day in court made the papers. According to Challis, it was Gloria’s mother Rosalie who “suggested that she write to a fellow poet in distress”. Challis makes the remark in a small, chilling footnote that serves as a potted biography of Gloria. He records the fact she contracted polio in 1925. Then: “After a long and painful period in hospital she eventually returned home confined to a wheelchair, her childhood shattered, and to find her father had left home. He later remarried and lived at Leigh, but Gloria seems to have had no contact with him.”

The abandoned child. And then an unlikely friendship with Hyde, a woman 12 years older than her, that began when she was perhaps on day release from the asylum. Hyde takes up the story in The Perfume Vendor: “The door was locked and nobody answered the door-bell. There was a window, though…I found myself wandering upstairs, from one empty room to another, and announcing my presence to space. And a little thistledown voice, not a bit afraid, drifted up at last: ‘I’m here…where are you?'”

Hyde found her in her “little bedroom”, hung with blue curtains, with two canaries, two cats, and a bookshelf all around the walls. It’s a singular mis en scene in New Zealand letters – the mental patient, clambering though a window, wandering the hallways, finally locating a beautiful girl in a room “as blue as candle flames”. The mutual theme of their friendship appears as collapse – mental collapse, physical collapse – but actually it’s strength, courage, resilience. Hyde and Rawlinson were great survivors.

The friendship was meaningful and short. Hyde fled the hospital in 1937. Her biography at Te Ara states, “For a year she lived on ‘bread and butter, tea and the tin opener’ in various baches in the Waitakeres, Whangaroa and Milford.” She studied te reo. She travelled to China, then at war with Japan, and reported from the military front as a war correspondent. She travelled to England, and rented a caravan in Kent. Then: “Hyde moved in and out of hospital, suffering from depression, dysentery and anaemia.” On the eve of World War II, government efforts were made to bring her home. Her body was found in a Kensington attic on August 23, 1939. She was 33.

The blow to Gloria Rawlinson must have been enormous. She did more than anyone to revive interest and attention in Hyde’s genius as a writer. There was her work on Hyde’s Houses by the Sea, published in 1952, and in 1970 she wrote the introduction for a new edition of Hyde’s classic novel, The Godwits Fly. Throughout, she worked on a biography of her friend. It started slowly. Gradually, it changed speed: it got slower. A well-known Auckland writer commented to me in an email, “She drove everyone mad as Robin Hyde’s biographer, hanging onto the project and the material and never producing the goods, and died with it unfinished – whereupon Hyde’s son [Derek Challis] produced a biog which incorporated her work.”

But Rawlinson didn’t subsume her own life or her own writing in the cause. From her Te Ara biography: “For many years she worked on a history of early Auckland, writing in an army hut decorated as a whare of traditional Maori design located in her garden.” There were travels, too, to New Caledonia, Fiji and Tahiti. There are echoes of Hyde, the te reo student, engaged with the wider world; as Te Ara’s biography notes, “For Hyde, New Zealand’s future lay in the Pacific, not crouching ‘in the shadow of the old world’…As one who had suffered personal loss, illness and poverty she identified with the dispossessed.”

Gloria Rawlinson lived in Auckland with her mother and “honorary uncle” until they died, in 1988 and 1993 respectively. She died on July 25, 1995. She was 77.


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