Bread for Isaiah: Joanna Margaret Paul
Originally published in brief 32 (2005)
In 1996 I was living in Dunedin. Joanna too had returned, renting Iain Lonie’s house in Mornington, just along from Rattray St. I’d climbed that steep grade every day as a teenager on my way to St Dominic’s College, running back down the hill at the end of each day to catch the bus from the Exchange back home to Dundas St. In fact, it was at St Dominic’s that I first met Joanna. I was in my third year of teaching. I’d started off at Otago Girls’ High School, had a baby, Johnny, and then picked up work at my old alma mater with classes in English and Latin. Joanna was there too, teaching art, part-time. She was mysterious, leaving in the holidays to marry Jeffrey and then the plans changed, the wedding was delayed, but happened eventually. I suppose there were the paintings and the exhibitions but to be honest. I don’t remember them. More vivid is her presence, the scent of frangipani or some other eastern oil, the layered gypsy clothing, her fine bones and delicate beauty. I remember a kind of heaviness I felt in her presence, a kind of grossness as if I was too much body, uncertain and often exhausted where she was something much harder to define, awkward yet ethereal, a free spirit. Maybe it was her own art, the passion put into the making of it, the singular, unconventional focus which was outside anything I had experienced. Maybe the cultivated artistic world which she inhabited, where people moved whose names were in libraries and art galleries. I never lost that instinct to hold her as a precious icon, to romanticise her though in time I grew more confident in my own inner world and belatedly began to make something out of that, in words. This turning to the act of making I lay at her door.
It is intriguing that Joanna stayed in Iain’s house that year. There’s this odd thing about Dunedin. All the wheels interconnect and lives fold around each other. Iain had been an inspirational teacher in the Classics Department at Otago when I was a shy student. I remember him laughing in a one-on-one tutorial session, where if I am correct, my feet had gone to sleep and I staggered on my way towards the door: ‘Don’t worry about the grammar. It’s the meaning that counts.’ Later on, as a brand new teacher, I’d taught his daughter, Bridie, in a tiny 7 th form class at Girls’ High. As I recall, she spent much of her Latin time drawing pictures of naked men, modelled after da Vinci. We had wonderful discussions about all sorts of things as one did in those days, sprawling on old sofas in the senior commonroom, escaping from the classroom and the terrible headmistress. I don’t believe Bridie’s grammar suffered unduly. Now she tells me that in her life Joanna has been as a beloved older sister.
1996 was a year of paintings, poetry and picnics. Joanna set up a downstairs room in her house as a gallery, pinned new watercolours all round the walls and bought a piano for Pascal who was able to continue his Latin studies at Logan Park High School. She studied Greek with Dr John Hall at Otago University. I have a photo from that time. We had gone out to Seacliff where she had first lived with Jeffrey. We spread out a rug in a hillside paddock where the grass seemed to run under the wind and cloud shadows chased over the sea. I provided the transport, Joanna provided the lunch, all in the best spirit of xenia, Homeric friendship. Now when I look at the photo again I can hardly find her. The grass seems to have grown higher, she has moved away into the mid-field, has set up an easel and is hunkered down there. Only the top of her hat and the corner of the painting board is visible.
I was reading feminist theology at the time and loving it, the intelligence, the wickedness. Fresh air and laughter blowing into dusty old liturgical corners. I tried to catch the loveliness of the day in a sonnet which I dedicated to Joanna, although that in itself became a tiny bone of contention between us. It was not in her to make religion a matter for laughter.
‘I love your poem’ she wrote in a letter afterwards, ‘but remit its ethos. I would gladly have baked bread for Isaiah.’
Yet this was the woman who wrote of the need to ‘Rewrite the image of the Virgin Mary as scriptural earthy fertile ordinary.’ This was in her essay ‘On Not Being a Catholic Writer’ which was published in Mark Williams’ collection of responses by New Zealand writers to Catholicism, The Source of the Song, published by VUP in 1995. The essay says so much about Joanna and the act of painting: the forgetfulness of self as may happen in prayer; the experience of grace ‘in friendship or the light in which the world stands out in detail’; in forgiveness ‘as a high and possible ideal.’ She names her ‘sacramental theology – a distrust of extravagance, a liking for the holding forms of ritual and liturgy and poetry.’ In so much of her work, text and image combine to express the full width and depth of her meditation. In this case there are two paintings, a flower series, numbered like the Stations of the Cross, an invocation which defers to the sacred, leaves space for the sacred to enter and animate, ‘G-D in Creation.’ I never saw the Stations of the Cross which Joanna painted for the Sisters of St Joseph, I think, at Port Chalmers. I have a feeling they no longer exist but there may be a record of them, photos perhaps. It is something I need to look into.
Joanna and I inhabited worlds of very different velocities. I have pointed out the contrast in the sonnet ‘So Busy’ published in Settler Dreaming. The little text includes some observations from one of her letters including the phrase which I greatly resented at the time but which was in fact absolutely true: ‘you, my dear, are so, so busy.’ On one occasion, whirling in a frenzy of trying to ride two horses at the one time (it was probably actually a quadriga), I had written to her, commissioning a painting. Ready to burst apart at the seams myself, I wanted it to hold the psalmist’s words ‘Be still and know for I am God.’ I suggested a composty image, drawing power from the dark hidden energy of roots and humus and worms. Three paintings came back, one framed in scarlet, one in kelly green and one in gold. Huge sheets of plain white paper, each with minimal marks: a corner with brown cross-hatching; side borders of rippling green; a central loose square of blue with a length of scarlet thread. The pencilled text, divided among the paintings, was English with the Latin upside down underneath. Friends looked puzzled or grinned. The cleaning lady we had for a few months laughed out loud when she thought I wasn’t home. I was definitely defensive and definitely bewildered. But my heart did still and my life has gradually stilled. The paintings still glow, pale flames in the heart of the house.
Joanna’s work didn’t depict the wildness of things, storms, heavy seas, rampaging winds. Her gaze was on beauty, domestic, urban, ordinary yet profound; she paid attention to the sacredness in things. There was an anguish in her, however, and a wild passion. These most commonly enter her poems, but occasionally one or the other are discernible in a painting. I have a lovely but disturbing watercolour of hers, of Rangitoto with a gorgeous rusty shadowing in the water beneath the island. On the foreshore, closest to a viewer, there is a wooden council picnic table. In the working it has become huge, chillingly stark as if made from marble, a sacrificial altar waiting for a victim. (When Joanna first moved to Wanganui, she had a lovely old house in Stark St. Perhaps as Sister Hazel declares, God does truly have a sense of humour.) In one of the poems for Imogen, there is the phrase about being ‘scoured by God.’ I could respond to this, make some kind of sense of this, the image of the world as a vale of tears being familiar to me through my own Catholic up-bringing but it also filled me with apprehension and a wish to protect her. I wrote of the complexity of my feelings in an early little poem for her, about finding in her paintings ‘A radical simplicity, / no defence at the root. // I must think you in the hand / of a god or I tremble.’
Joanna had a remarkable disregard for physical discomfort. She often wrote of prolonged migraine headaches when she would take to a couch, probably with Baudelaire or Mallarmé as comforters. I’m not sure that she ever sought medical assistance. She held passionate views on health and diet, relying fervently on nature as a cure-all, well beyond the range of my own scepticism. This was another side, I thought, of her romanticism. It was interesting to find in another letter her witty admission of this aspect of her own nature, in relation to her mother, Janet. This must be shortly after the publication of The Source of the Song: ‘She, with her so fully lived life, I think would like to write a “spiritual” autobiography while I haunter of churches, naturally stay with “romance”.’ As for the question of health, I remember one occasion when she came to stay with her two little boys in the middle of a harsh Christchurch winter. Felix had a raucous cough, Pascal was sniffing and Joanna herself had a heavy cold. To my amazement when I went downstairs in the early morning, I found the French doors in the lounge flung wide open onto the courtyard, the little family encampment I had supposed curled up warmly under lock and key, exposed to the snow and the icy wind. Something in me admired this stubborn faith, even as I rejected it as dangerous and extreme. I recall no miracle cure as the travellers went on their way.
Over time I learnt better how to deal with her eccentricities. I stopped joining in as she fussed over bags and boxes spilling out in the hallway on one of her pilgrimages. I stopped deep breathing as the time to head off for the train came closer. ‘She has always managed to get where she wants to be,’ I’d think to myself. ‘She is utterly capable and stubborn and will do as she will do.’ I bit my tongue on ‘It would be cheaper to fly.’ I understand now that that would have been missing the point. Inveterate traveller as she was, Joanna had to keep her feet on the ground, passing slowly through the landscape, catching glimpses of it with her quick pencil. She had to stay in touch. This may explain her habit of leaving little tokens behind her, like one of the babes in the woods leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. There was an expensive lipstick, Turkish Rose, in a lovely black and gold cylinder. An enamelled bracelet placed carefully in the centre of a square in our patchwork quilt, matching the colours exactly. Two pale stones laid out on the top of a rimu chest of drawers. A rose brooch. I recognised these as installations, held them, thought a lot about them, packed them back off to her, the costly ones at least. ‘I haven’t thanked you yet for that enigmatic & carefully wrapped little parcel,’ she wrote. ‘so happy to be reunited with my rose.’
Now I’m remembering that sometimes the ‘crumbs’ were fragments of poems. I go searching through the box labelled ‘Joanna’ and there they are, two little carmine squares of paper, notelets taken from beside our phone. I’d written a note to myself on the back of one sheet: 1998 by Joanna here (time of Michael’s death.) Joanna had been staying with me when news came through of my brother-in-law’s death. Anyway, in blue biro with some letters overwritten there is the working out of fragments of a text. Side one: ‘sculpture / among / sculptured stones / petals strewn / to testify / the old cherry trees / eknosis.’ Side two: ‘sculpture garden / stone & / cherry blossom / meeting under / the old trees / eknosis.’ Side three: ‘eknosis / among / (cherrys trees / eknosis.’ The sheets aren’t numbered, the process remains opaque. The ultimate form, retaining in the Greek Joanna’s distinctive calligraphy, appears on one page in the serial text ‘the cherry now’ – an exquisite slim volume printed on a hand-press by Brendan O’Brien: ‘LIKE curved headstones / grey slabs / rest in the / sculpture garden / pink blossom carpets / the lawn in / the old cherry trees / eknosis (handwritten in Greek script ) / eknosis.’ It felt and still feels as if, in following the track of the words, I was entering her dream. ‘I can begin to dream / with some precision / into another series of works / with words’ she wrote in an undated letter. Whether the pink sheets were left behind by mistake or as a gift, they remain signs of Joanna’s massive generosity. Handmade cards, photographs, drawings and paintings, letters and more letters, little domestic poetry readings, soirees, prayer meetings, political meetings -- anti-GE, pro-heritage buildings or threatened waterways, the Waitaki and years earlier Aramoana. Joanna had energy to burn when it came to matters touching her ideals, her integrity and her loyalty, her love.
I have only just begun to skim the surface of my memories. There is enough in my heart to keep me unashamedly ‘busy’ for years. I love the paintings. But at the end of the day, it is in the poems that I delight in finding her, complex, intense, a woman of faith, a romantic, a feminist though she would eschew the term, a fighter. A writer of great refinement and when you least expect it, sharp wit. The maker of such good lines as these from ‘On the Transfiguration,’ written in Dunedin 1981: ‘St Francis de Sales / told Madame de Chantal / your heart should be as flexible / as your glove / Flexible / as the heart of Mme de Chantal / as her small hand drooping / yet submissive / in her lap / the large white hands of the rector / spread out in the communication / of faith / White blunt and flexible / as fish.’