new zealand electronic poetry centre

 

Robin Hyde


essays


[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, footnotes ]

Opening the Archive :
continued 

2  Hyde, and hiding

 

What makes the sweethearts quarrel?  
Third mouth, pink as coral
. — Robin Hyde[xiii]  
Metamorphics. This one occurs in 'The Beaches', the section that begins: 'Sands, sands of my father's town, / Of my father's triple sea, / (Once for the eyes and twice for dream, / Thrice for memory)'. A daughter who questions and receives strange answers from the 'Mother' sea is caught between father's town and mother's town, is urged at last to hush her singing, to accept 'a bed and a lamp at home'. The sea's hypnotic whisper ends the poem: 

            'White bed,' 
                       
Sea said, 

                                   
rocking, 

           
'White bed,  

 
                       but not  

 
                                   a home.'
 

But filial security is not the same thing as a home in this world. 'The Beaches' is the first part of 'Houses by the Sea', which is more than a long poem about homing or desire for the lost world of a Wellington childhood. Folded into it, by enigma and double coding, are the narratives of emergent female sexuality, something coming the other way, determining contemporary possibility against a dream of history. Daughter and answering sea in 'The Beaches' trade riddling lines:  

What is it quickens the blood?  
Smell of the sun-soaked, salt-white wood.  

What is the tameless thing?  

Gull's shafted wing.  

What is it lads deserve?  

White boat's arrowy glimpsing curve.
 

Transfer the feminine boat to the female body it stands in for, and the code is apparent. Boat is body, the curve of it, the tamelessness of it, the smell of it. But then, amazement — that line effortlessly doing two things at once: 'What makes the sweethearts quarrel? / Third mouth, pink as coral'. The interloper who separates sweethearts is third point of a triangle. But the third mouth, 'pink as coral', the one that causes trouble, is also unmistakably sexual. And there it is, a vulval image in a poem written in 1937, masked for propriety in a culture that refused all talk of the body. These and other lines wait for readers delighted by their secrecy:  

Now she has evening all her own; the hot  
Cream scent of cabbage palms, trying to flood out  

Like man's love, or the Blessed Sacrament:  

Sunset peaks over her, a copper tent,  

Wind like God's breath goes past her in a shout[xiv]

Hot cream flood, peaks and shouts, coral pink mouth. Hyde hides what androcratic society will not countenance: sexuality celebrated and inscribed by a woman. Her predecessors in the attempt are Mander, Mansfield and Devanny; all prose-writers. Who does it for poetry before Hyde with her multiple strategies of concealment? Hyde is about hiding, about surviving by hiding, and she stamps the exigency as a personal signature in every part of her work. It starts with the deliberate androgyny of the assumed name but it travels also through endless references in her poems to rainbows, prisms, bridges and arcs. The rainbow is the sign of Iris, she who connects heaven and earth; Iris Wilkinson elaborated the clue of her given name, producing an exquiste tension between presence and concealment of herself in her work. There are iris flowers throughout her writing, and extensive play with the optics of eye and I. Her own eyes, Gloria Rawlinson tells us, were blue; I for one am glad of the detail.[xv]

 

They have circled the globe, Da Gama. Aye, with thrust bolder  
Than any black spar of yours that smote at the stars
Robin Hyde[xvi]  
Playfulness, doubleness, and the whiff of urgent reasons for the adoption of strategy should alert us to the scope and passion Hyde brings to the poetry of the 1930s. She is prolific, speedy in her execution, with a journalist's pragmatism and ('my burning birds') the conviction of a soul on fire. The combination is electrifying, its risks obvious. By 1935, poised between the worlds of convalescence (literally asylum) and literary career (the run of novels and poetry 1936-39), Hyde is already underground, a combat figure speaking under cover of poetic norms designed to retain rather than alienate readers. This is important. She saves her direct assaults on social, economic, and intellectual repression for newspapers and journals; places of first consequence in the cut and thrust of daily reading. Poetry, which she privileged above her other writing, shelters other, older ways of registering violence and beauty in its perceptors — and yet Hyde stands apart from the flagellation of self and others developed by her male contemporaries as authoritative poetic expression.

   

Am losing my old fear that other people can do these things better than myself, as I see more and more of their self-satisfied inertia — I know I'm an uneven unfinished and emotional sort of writer, but they —
          'They use the snaffle and the curb, all right —  

          But where's the bloody horse?' — Robin Hyde[xvii]  

Hyde did not like chopped-back austerities of style, and she was suspicious of restricted agendas. She did not like the elevation of realism to high moral and cultural ground, and most of all she disliked the scapegoating of feminine consciousness which accompanied the installation of these values in a national literature. Assessing the local scene in 1936, she wrote: 'Among the male poets of Auckland . . . there is a general dislike of of the sentimental, a trepidation in the use of imagination, a tendency to believe that beauty is pretty-pretty . . . to regard the lyric mode as a weak sister in poetry'.[xviii] Propagandist, she called the similarity of the individualists in their longing for economic and social change expressed as insistence on a social realist poetic ('it is intellectual suicide to determine on one mood and one intention as the be-all and end-all of poetry'). Male poets, though anti-feminist and destructive or partial in their criticism, are given credit for their literary achievement — and disingenuously reminded of its tainted heritage: '"Well, I'm damned," I thought, "Of all the dear little buttercups to come across just when least expected. Listen to this . . .”.’. Her target here is Mason's 'O Fons Bandusiae'; Fairburn, Curnow, and Beaglehole also come under scrutiny, Phoenix poets emerged from their early-1930s association at Auckland University College.

Hyde was fighting a number of interconnected battles, most of them deriving from a generalised historical antipathy to women, behind which lay determinable fears of female sexuality. Antipodean puritanism and its efficient polarisation of gender had produced local variations on an ancient figure of the woman in chains. Hyde's titles — The Desolate Star, The Conquerors, Persephone in Winter — signal her awareness of continuing struggle against oppression; the poems spell out details: 'I am The Silenced. From my ageless dumb / Affronted calm, the last commands shall come'.[xix] Archetype for Hyde is folded with political protest; specifically female oppression is lodged within the rhetoric of Romanticism, so that to speak for women is to speak to other prisoners in the compound. When Hyde's dialogue poem 'Husband and Wife' was published in A Caxton Miscellany (1937) the imprint and the company it kept — Glover, Fairburn, Curnow and others — foregrounded contemporary particulars of an old battle:


He:  Radio means news, perhaps the war in Spain.  

       Perhaps there's someone in that house who cares.
       Radio's a blare, at least. Christ, how I hate  
       Smooth canticles [. . .]  

       I'd rather drown you in your kitchen sink,  

       See you take typhoid from that stinking sewer,  

       Than watch you floating off on this blue tide.  

       The drains are broken, there's a war on hand,  

       We've starved and sweated, I haven't got a mate.  

       I married a woman, lie beside a tree[xx]

She, a wife, has seen five green leaves ('Abel's fingers stretched from earth') put out by an oak polled for power lines, and has come back to the house where the two of them fight ('I ought to put the axe against her roots') and love ('When I let down my hair, it covers us: / Covers our faces and the dark outside'). She unpicks his rage, demotes the divine pronoun to a lower case not unreflective of their own: 'I think he meant at last . . . To make us bitter, tear our hearts to shreds, / Drive all the stubborn stuff to open ground / And let us fight'. She then picks out redemption, its price and her part in its design:


But in the background, in eternity,  

He holds the ready healing of a leaf.  

I've my oppressions, John, let me be healed;  

I promise you the wounds will bleed again,  

And I'm the stronger that they sometimes mend

 

She is for the canticle he fears and hates, takes the sign of his hatred and covers them with the metamorphosis he fears yet knows he (or He) must effect:


Let all the world this silvery night lie healed  

With healing of a leaf. You say my hair  

Is osier leaves. See how its shadow spreads  

Across the farthest star, and covers us.

  Hyde sustained a series of flank attacks by her literary male contemporaries, who had also diagnosed cultural malaise but (jealous of the attention shown to her? anxious about their own market share?) were quick to label her hysterical, over-productive, formally outmoded, and part of a journo-literary mafia.[xxi] Later, in ascendancy, they extended circumscribed approval to her poetry. Even sympathetic criticism of Hyde still reports from an orthodoxy that feared difference as lack or loss of control leading to hybridity, 'unevenness' and emotional excess in the work. Nothing is easier to drop from a history than its compromised elements; there is no room for the faintly praised when a crush of newcomers puts systems of representation under pressure.

Hyde understood what was happening. As fast as a generation of young men wrote spiritual poverty into the colonial condition, she read there a dangerous transference of guilt by association onto the female body. Leaving the country in 1938, she could do the regulation nationalist/contemplative poem (narrow-eyed, hard-edged, bloodstained) almost to the point of parody:  


Your crude country, hard as unbroken shell...   

She was hard to love, and took strength, like a virgin.  

Sometimes, in money or dust, the little farms ebbed away,  

Dripping between disconsolate fingers like blood  

Of that harsh girl, who would never love you.[xxii]

Which fits the story of a new land as an alien, hostile presence, female and other, to be 'broken' in; the disquieting image of rape lingers in the dripping of blood between fingers. But Hyde's view of the relationship between settler and land can be quite different. She belongs to a tradition of poets part of whose stock in trade is hope of cultural continuity — even (especially?) as they measure their own distances over time and space from its sources. Hyde, Duggan, Mackay, Baughan and Bethell all conserve and transmit a humanistic warmth ('old shoes of custom and courage') determined by their practical commitments to social justice. It is this blend of the pragmatic and the idealistic that makes them seem curiously engaged (if not at home) here decades before the carefully anatomised alienation of the male poets wears off and allows them a measure of grace.[xxiii] These women are not the strident battleaxes or witless lady singers of popular parody. They do not ignore the problems of the ground or the paradoxes of homing, but their optimism and their perseverance can be a welcome respite from the gloomy young flagellants who made a point of confusing their idealism with prattle and sentimentality.[xxiv] A poem like Hyde's 'The Pioneers', where a delayed revelation of gender as well as of the thanksgiving form are key factors, hardly counts as positivist naïvety, given its place in the range of her construction of femininity. And yet that homage to female forebears and its basis in handed-down stories is lost (along with Baughan's narrative poem 'Early Days'; or 'The Paddock', her verse drama for three female voices) in a rumble of well-anthologised poems by men about the terror of a land of inaudible stories and unspeakable difference.[xxv]

Writing women acknowledged terror but did not abandon the possibility of colloquy; and some of them literally walked out into that landscape, talking, reporting on experience. Baughan walked, climbed and wrote books 1909-1929 about travelling in the southern lakes and mountains, up the Whanganui river, through the thermal district.[xxvi] Historian Elsie Locke (born 1912) tells of walking the Waitakeres and the Port Waikato-Raglan coast in the early 1930s with women student friends. On the coast walk they were welcomed by local Maori and mistaken for female swaggies.[xxvii] Later in Wellington (she hitch-hiked there in the summer of 1933-34, after finishing her degree) Locke was editor of the communist Working Woman and its successor Woman To-day; she knew Hyde through her contributions to both papers.[xxviii] Hyde herself embraced the paradigm of the vagabonding woman long before she boarded the S.S. Changte in 1938.

It is revealing, therefore, to see 'Journey from New Zealand' swing abruptly from rural depression (the broken land) to look at the cities. The difficulties which emerge are those of socialisation, stretched out against generic memories of community:  


But in the cities (old days!)  

We could live better, warm and safe as the sparrows,  

Twittering through the evenings like young sparrows.  

Ours was a city, like any city,  

But with more, perhaps, of sea and cloud, not long loved.  

November tar, ripening, blackened our sandals.  

Our city had doorways, too many shut.  

Morning and evening, facing the rampant crimson brutes of the light,  

Nobody had the beautiful strength to decree:  

'Leave your doors open morning and evening —  

Leave your gates wide to the stranger.'  

So ours was a city, like any city, but fair.  

At seven (still light), the children snuggled down  

Like rabbits. The rest sat on in the lamplight,  

Sat still or spoke words by their failures.

Hyde writes many poems engaged with the business of community. They speak to excess, there are too many of them, too many attempts to arrive at a community of words. By contrast, Modernist poetics were about schism, separation and fragmentation, with vocabularies of hardness and sharpness unmediated by softness except as something to be repressed or sacrificed. Knives on throats, axes on trees, breaking and clearing--the prescribed dramas here were of transgression and punishment, the legacy of Modernism's union with the unresolved puritan factor. The result for women's voices was a poetry from hell, in which you were either a handmaiden (acquiescent, diminished) or a sacrifice (obdurate, dead). Hyde's early recognition of mortal peril for women and women who were writers, and her attempts to draw attention to the ways in which women were being excluded from the new map of literary representation being drawn up in the second half of the 1930s, are the public, articulate face of what women writers said in the margins or not at all for a long time after 1939.[xxix] After 1939 the fight was lost along with Hyde's life and the intervention of the second war. What remains to us are the poems and their codings, plus the orientations of Hyde's essay journalism, letters and autobiographical prose. A selection of that journalism is currently in print; the poems, letters and autobiographical material are out of print or still in manuscript. Why are we so slow to read the poet who most disrupts the orthodoxy set up by the contents and introduction of A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945?

 

I haven’t the remotest intention of anthologising — thankless task with many evils attached, and before we’re ripe for it, though I suppose Caxton will prematurely bring out some one-eyed, one-idea'd thing and wreck the show. — Robin Hyde to Denis Glover[xxx]

Hyde wrote to Glover two days before leaving New Zealand — ten pages by turns taunting and elaborately good-humoured. She had already dealt with Glover’s lampooning of women poets by writing a detailed compendium for the Mirror called ‘New Zealand Auhoresses’ (see note 29). There, as in the letter, her sense of enemy terrain is quite accurate, and she is at pains to distance herself from Glover’s Caxton which did indeed gather to itself the anthology project she foresaw in 1938.

The more I read Hyde's poetry, the more I am struck by its allegiance to values other than those of clenched jaw and gritted teeth, and this despite her often desperate personal circumstances. It has been customary to read the poems written between October 1936 and August 1939 as 'mature' work, evidence that Hyde turned to New Zealand subjects with the realisation that here was her true theme and a reason to reject the mythological elements and romantic historicism of earlier poems. To privilege later work because of a break with earlier style and subjects does disservice to the perspective supplied by Hyde's fascination with poetic tradition. It also neglects the importance of archetype in her exorcisms of some persistent private ghosts. Glover unwittingly fingers just such territory in The Conquerors when he identifies 'Outcast', 'The Forsaken', 'The Fugitive', 'The Traitor', 'Home', and ‘Escape' as well-worn ‘poetical’ subjects.[xxxi] For Hyde, the old world is built in as iconographic inheritance, its violent, beautiful paradoxes intact to the last, its languages especially resonant in the post-colonial psyche because so much of the conversation is about the complications of endurance. Hyde learned how to write here because of what she wrote about there, thinking through connections, transports, overlays, and slippage; finding ways to light up the distance between one tradition and herself, incipiently another. The conundrums of freedom and captivity haunt her:  


Then, gentlemen, next cage; and here you find  

Our quaintest captive yet, the human mind [. . .]  

The cage is strong. Doubtless, set loose, this mind  

Would rove, would seek for others of its kind,  

There might be mating in some jungle's slow  

Dropping of rose-flushed flowers, rose afterglow  

In endless stillness: prowling to the crests  

Of great bare hills, upthrust like goddess-breasts  

Loved of the noon.[xxxii]

Old world exotica? Or do the Wellington hills abruptly push their way through the language surfaces? 'Upthrust like goddess-breasts' is an image with links to a deep past where a Lady of Beasts lays claim to the prowling human mind. The juxtaposition of goddess-breasts and local hills is strange only until vison doubles and we see what is before us — the geomorphic body of Papatuaanuku. Hyde revels in these old-new, here-there, visible-invisible connections. And if shape-shifting fails?  

Write that I died of vanities,  
Fire gone to embers in my brain —  

But with a single dusky glance  

The hills have builded me again.  

   

And of blue cloud, of poignant small  

Wraith blossom on the manuka,  

Anew are woven those vestures grave  

That pilgrims take, for going far.

'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,' with touches of local colour; many poets have transposed the 121st psalm. But she continues:  

The hills have given me quiet breasts,  
Young streams for ease in time of drouth,  

And a star's sweet astonishment  

Kindness, to lay against my mouth.[xxxiii]

And another metamorphic line, splitting consciousness apart in the doubling — 'The hills have given me quiet breasts, / Young streams for ease in time of drouth'. A place to rest, and streams to drink from. But the literal meaning twists, the result of grammatically ambiguous giving, and the line reroutes itself into textual hyperspace. If hills can be 'upthrust like goddess-breasts' and now give the speaker of this poem 'quiet breasts' and 'young streams', there is no avoiding the physical sign of nurture. They are equipping her to sustain life, they are giving her quiet breasts for 'days of no event but steady growth', as another poem puts it.[xxxiv] It is a wish or a gift, this reminder of gynocentric affinities with the place you live in. It is almost (always the difficulties) a home, and always a body. 'I've come back to you, hills — / All your wet gorse gleams around me', she wrote, and signed a living body across schemas of history: 'One can be weary, hills, / And yet seem so defiant . . . Just for a moment, hills, / Hold me . . . hold me':  

I'll come back to you, hills,  
Once, when I'm old,  

To your wild sweet scents of gorse.[xxxv]

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Last updated 19 July, 2001