new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robin Hyde



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

Opening the Archive

3  Duggan, and waiting 

I think you and I, though so utterly different in route and all manner of chosen means work out to somewhat the same equation in the end — but I am clay and you are china. (I don't mean 'fragile porcelain', I mean good honourable china, and for that matter clay not so bad either, though very streaky.) But often you say the thing I wish I had said . . .  I am taking your 'New Zealand Bird Songs' in my pack; you know which one I am, or have anyhow grabbed off —
            'Dreamily answers the bandit —

My head is sold for silver —’ — Robin Hyde to Eileen Duggan[xxxvi]

This is part of another farewell made two days before Hyde’s departure (‘But my letters get so silly I must swear to keep this short’); two pages rather than ten. The poem she quotes is 'The Shag'; the gesture and the letter itself are partly filial, partly an assertion of independence. Writer and recipient alike knew what had been left hanging in the air between them, for the bandit shag continues: ‘”But God, where all is gentle, / May weary of much meekness, / May turn unto the outlaw, / May bless the Shag, the sinner”’.[xxxvii]

Duggan had published Poems, her third collection, in 1937, which was also the year Hyde brought out Persephone in Winter, her third collection. Both books were published in London and despatched here for appraisal and review. Hyde's leavetaking letter reports a first glimpse of Poems in Whitcombes: 'Then someone came to tell me my bill was so much, and I had to put it down, but will see it again in London, and read it slowly'. So it was New Zealand Bird Songs, the book Jessie Mackay also admired, that Hyde took with her in January 1938 when she packed the typescripts of 'Houses by the Sea', to go on refining them in the great distances implied by the poem. Bird Songs, the address of writing mother to departing child, spoke to that occasion of bonding and release: 

Suppose, sweet eyes, you went into a distant country
             Where these young islands are nothing but a word,

            Suppose you never came again by Terawhiti:

              Would you remember and be faithful to your bird?[xxxviii]

Did Bird Songs wait out the journey Hyde made later in the year to the battlefront at Hsuchowfu, locked away for safety in Canton or Hankow along with her precious typescripts? And did Duggan's book travel back with the final typescripts of 'Houses by the Sea' after Hyde's death in England on 23 August 1939, completing the figure of companionship and double journeys? I want to think of Duggan's poems perhaps escorting the bandit heart home across a world blacking itself out for war.

When the suitcases arrived in Wellngton at 92 Northland Road, Nelly Wilkinson sent them to Hyde’s solicitor and literary executor, W.R. (Bill) Edge, in Auckland. He and Gloria Rawlinson began the long business of sorting the mass of papers. 

We are but stumblers in the hinterlands,
Too few for linking hands. — Eileen Duggan[xxxix]

Gloria Rawlinson used these lines as a postscript to her rebuttal of Glover's 1937 arraignment of women poets. Hyde had taken them for the epigraph of her unpublished novel of 1935, ‘The Unbelievers’, which is set in part on a magical island called Auë, also a cry of lamentation and echo of another world, Faraway; The Godwits Fly and Wednesday's Children were on her horizon.[xl] Hyde and Rawlinson would have seen Duggan's poem published as 'Forerunners' in Art in New Zealand eight years before its reappearance in Poems under the new title 'Heralds.'[xli] 'Do words matter when songs tatter / Upon the wind?' Duggan asks, and then answers herself: 'For faith matters though song scatters, / Blown out of mind.' Eileen Duggan was herself blown out of mind; she is the most conspicuous absence in Curnow's 1923-1945 survey, a poet prepared to take a long chance on the hinterlands.

'Forerunners'/'Heralds' is a poem of the 1920s doing service in the 1930s to the acknowledged difficulties of making art live in a settler culture. Another poem, 'New Zealand Art,' first published in New York in the late 1920s, explores the same problem, looping through a quest metaphor balanced on an unsettling relationship between plural subject and singular comparison

We are the wheat self-sown
Beyond the hem of the paddock

Banned by wind from the furrows,

Lonely of root and head,

Watching the brows of our kith,

Like exiled kings at a crowning,

Mourning through harvest moons,

Our hope of holy bread.  

The meticulous whisper pattern addresses a sacrament — wheat, elusive holy bread, an uncrowned/unharvested head — which is glossed in other Duggan poems. One of them is practically a co-text: 'Do you think that wheat is like water, / Closing again where you tread? / It is life you are trampling under / Bread and the power of bread'.[xlii] That implication is literalised in the second half of 'New Zealand Art' as an exact mirror (look at the placement of the simile) of the sacrament of the wheat, its other, feminine component:

We are the wistful woman  
Who sees another unswaddle  

The bloom of a small ripe body  

When windows blaze in the west,  

Mourning the waste of her womb  

Like barren queens at a chrism,  

Praying for life to seed,  

And a mouth to hurt her breast.[xliii]  

Chrism (baptism, anointing) discloses the ceremony of that unswaddling under the blaze of a (rose?) window. The co-textual poem behaves as catechism: 'Bread is to-day and to-morrow, / And all the yesterdays wild; / As old as the first clay oven, / As young as a newborn child'). A woman longing for 'a mouth to hurt her breast' sends the story of want back to its bodily erotic, food and language-making roots.

The vision is Mariolatric, the method close-textured and typically allusive. A third poem enters the conversation, familiar iconography fabling the woman beyond the official announcement, alternate rhyming stanzas formally assembling the figure by which one kind of growing can be mapped onto another:  

A woman in blue with wheat to her knees,  
Mid a silence of birds and a stillness of bees,  

Singing, ‘Golden, ah golden, with seedsprays unfurled.  

Ripen within me, O wheat of the world!’  

Mary, blue-wimpled, walked out in the country,  

Telling the vine what none other must know yet;  

The butterflies yearned to her hems as to harebells;  

The flowers of the bushes fawned softly upon her.  

A woman, gold-wet, with rainbow eyes,  

And a border of living butterflies,  

Singing, ‘Purple, ah purple, with tendrils close curled,  

Ripen within me, O vine of the world!’[xliv]

  Rainbow eyes? Her redemptive irises, passing into lyric convention; each detail counts. But Duggan's analogy in 'New Zealand Art' to a longed-for birth was derided and the poem declared confused and excessive in its imagery when Curnow wanted to show in 1945 that the whole effect of Duggan's work was of an emotional cliché.[xlv] The exception he made was the short poem 'Twilight' which is praised for touching a nerve in childhood experience ('I was nine at the time and a coward by fate').[xlvi] Whether conscious or not, the editorial preference for childhood motifs over those concerned with child-bearing and fertlity (does the ambiguous 'waste' of a womb signal physical specifics of menstruation?) goes some way towards explaining the ferocity with which Duggan was treated for her refusal to co-operate.  

* That is not to say there are not poems by Miss Duggan which I wished to include in this book; and they would have been included if she had not refused permission to reprint. — Allen Curnow[xlvii]

The surviving 1943 correspondence between Duggan and Curnow over her representation in the 1945 Caxton anthology does not  get as far as discussing which poems Curnow wanted to print. Duggan’s biographer Grace Burgess indicates that Duggan was quick to turn down the initial requests because she was unsympathetic to the project and to its editor.[xlviii] John Weir records evidence that Curnow was refused permissions again in 1948 when the 1951 enlargement of the Caxton book was being planned.[xlix] More serious negotiations over quantity and selection occurred 1956-1960 as Curnow prepared The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse. Duggan and Curnow/Penguin Books (London) reached the point of a legally negotiated demand that she see proofs of the Penguin Introduction after withdrawing her poems from the book. Page proofs were supplied in June 1960, and Duggan was (with reservations) prepared to accept the Introduction as it subsequently appeared, and to drop further action against the book's publication.[l] The four-year duel and its forty-odd pieces of associated correspondence culminated in two lines at the close of Curnow's Introduction in which Duggan's name otherwise appears, each time as part of a list, just twice.  

I wished to include some poems by Miss Eileen Duggan, but found, to my regret, that this could not be arranged. — Allen Curnow[li]  
Twice removed. A thorn in the flesh. How did it happen? Two years previously in June 1958, and with galley proofs of the anthology in hand, Curnow had informed Duggan that her selection had been reduced to four poems. Three of these (including 'Twilight') were not in the original six cleared in 1956 as a consequence of John Reid's intervention after Duggan had initially declined to enter. Duggan was clear about her position and Curnow's selection: 'one I had particularly asked him not to include and the others were changed to two lyrics of three or four verses for which he had no consent at all. I had not agreed to their inclusion nor do I wish to be judged by my slightest rather than my best.'[lii] Editorial prerogative and contributor's rights promptly collided head-on. Duggan withdrew her work in July 1958, then in September called in Colin Patterson, the lawyer who began negotiating her possible re-entry into the anthology, repesented by the six poems agreed on in 1956. More importantly, after the experience of Curnow's 1945 remarks and the recent contretemps over consents, Duggan seems to have been looking for fair dealing in the Penguin Introduction — whether or not her poems appeared in the book. Colin Patterson, later prominent in commercial law and first head of the Securities Commission, was aware of Curnow's desire to have the poems if at all possible, and in effect used ongoing negotiations over their appearance to first see and then secure some control over what Curnow planned to say about Duggan's work in his introductory essay.[liii] When the poems were finally excluded (November 1958), the fact that Patterson found Curnow's criticism of her defamatory kept proceedings open. Penguin was relectant to publish while the threat of a lawsuit hung over the book; the offending paragraph of the Introduction was eventually removed altogether and not until 12 July 1960, after she had seen the final version, did Duggan withdraw her complaint.

Around June 1958, when Duggan first learned of her reduced selection, Alistair Campbell, James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson had managed get hold of a set of galley proofs, and were all three threatening to withdraw their selections from the Penguin.[liv] They stayed in, but Duggan fought Curnow to a standstill over issues of representation that for a moment in the late 1950s united older and younger generations in an interesting if uncoordinated pincer movement against what each perceived as an unwelcome prescriptiveness in the Caxton–Penguin line. Between them they delayed the Penguin's appearance two years.  

Suppose that I should live to be an old, old woman,  
And humble like the old  

What if with you when I at last shall meet you  

I could not still make bold!  

Ah what if you were gay and like a bee in winter  

I dull and odd and cold!  — Eileen Duggan[lv]

Duggan issued More Poems in 1951. The unassuming title can be read at this remove as a jibe — Poems (1921), Poems (1937), and More Poems (1951) — aimed at those who wished its author would in her exclusion from the new establishment roll over and play dead. More Poems was in fact her last book but Duggan was only beginning her campaign of loud silence. A year later came Hyde's posthumous collection Houses by the Sea from Caxton, who had also published Mary Ursula Bethell's posthumous Collected Poems in 1950. In 1953 came the single and singular volume by Mary Stanley (1919-1980) entitled Starveling Year. Its arrival completed a pattern of oppositional pegs dug into the lerrain by women poets (and their women editors) at the beginning of the inhospitable 1950s. From the last-dated of Duggan's manuscript poems issues the voice of L'Écrivisse Mère (her identity still escaping scholarship) addressing 'Brothers' who have ploughed and sowed:  

That we take  

Only this for our own —  

This alone —  

Above old and new,  

Above you and you,  

We loved, we were famished for the land.[lvi]  

The hidden, archived voice yearns for the land, a place to stand constantly overlaid by multiple issues of dispossession. The woman on land or sea, singular and persevering, starts out a straightforward proposition soon complicated by transferrals and contract; colonist soon colonised:  

Down the brig-ladder, rocking and breezy,  

She came with her bundle to try the new land,  

With its brave little houses of cob and of peasy,  

Its strange, glossy trees and its hummocks of sand.  

Though the heels of her thought might shy and might baffle,  

Her body must hanker for freedom no more  

Blinkered down like a colt to the road and the snaffle,  

Its skin flowing morning in every pore.  

The ballad gathers aggregates of image and syntax that deliberately overload the genre's capacity for practical wisdom. Down she goes, leaving the morning flux, mourning her separation from the (feminised) world of light:  

She saw the white market, the trundle, the wonder,  
The hither and thither when winds hold their fair,  

The sky in its pangs give way unto thunder  

And distance look back in its wimple of air.  

And she thought that the land was a lady of leisure,  

But the water, like her, a servant must be,  

At somebody's beck, without resting or pleasure,  

No spring ever breeds daffodils on the sea.  

Persephone's flowers are impossible; no release, no rest from drudgery, she has vanished permanently from the face of the earth. Every fourth line has provided a disruptive end to the stanza but the final unit is spectacularly convoluted:  

And beauty, infretting behind her soul's lining,  
A power, in dismay, that her tongue could not tell  

Worked in her, unloved, and hectored, and humble  

A sorrow as rich as a pearl in a shell.[lvii]  

That pearl, undersea, lodged (by the desire of the poem for a rhyme) in the shell where it was produced, records disturbance beyond the standard transformations of grit by beauty. It is intact in the flesh (not spoken of) which made it, and the long fretting of nacre and mucous membrane waits under the surface of the pearl's appeal as ornament or inlay. Duggan was looking for a simile for mute feminine sorrow; the languages of the poem oversupplied her with a through-road into the psychosexuality of female experience. Perhaps the overload (and the reason the poem remained in typescript) was perceived by Duggan as a literary offence, a straining after effect — but it is precisely in that strain and the roughnesses it produces that other stories begin to break through. The pearl, one step off clitoral (or foetal) analogy, and the 'third mouth, pink as coral' or the blue tide of smooth canticles are all part of the offshore where women establish for themselves languages adequate to the task of calling out consciousness of that condition and possible colloquy with others. Duggan measured out the enormity of the undertaking: 'I have made throats of thoughts and dreamed they sang. / So the court fool might leave his little stool, / To creep into the empty daÏsed throne, / Dreaming his motley into cloth of gold'.[lviii] By this measure a singing woman — gold-wet, with rainbow eyes — looks with scant regard for chronology at Iris Wilkinson dreaming the embrace of hills covered in gleaming wet gorse flower. The same poetic delights in rhyming 'wild' with 'child', 'word' with 'bird', and regularly juxtaposes 'woman' with 'human'. Duggan's dreaming fool wakes to laughter in court and finds 'the air afleer with lights, / Himself still fool in jerkin, cap, and bells'.    

I laughed and laughed this morning when first one delighted friend then another told me of your receiving the O.B.E. That you should be singled out for Imperial honours was so funny, knowing how lightly you regard them. But be pleased, be very pleased . . .  — Jessie Mackay to Eileen Duggan[lix]  
She laughed and laughed, knowing more of the story than those wanting to honour the poet — who wore a gold evening gown with matching velvet jacket to Government House for the investiture, and could not have been unaware of the old rhyme in doing so. It is that costume, the beggar's golden velvet (fool's cloth of gold?), that catches exactly the paradox of public honour and mendicant self as Duggan sits for the series of studio portraits which form our strongest visual impression of her. Gown and jacket still exist, part of another kind of archive altogether, made by the poet and gifted in 1984 by her friend Grace Burgess to the Wanganui Museum. The various custodians of this non-literary archive knew what they were looking at, to judge even by the museum's receipt of acquisition:  

Christening Gown  
Maize-coloured voile dress  

Gold-evening dress & Matching jacket — worn at Gov't House  

Academic gown[lx]  

Who defined the colour of the voile dress? Was the same person responsible for the not quite chronological sequence of items? Custodial readers become in time expert respondents. When Julia McLeely made funeral arrangements in 1972 for Eileen Duggan, her friend and living companion of forty two years, the card asking mourners to pray for the repose of the deceased soul had on its obverse a picture of the Virgin and Child. Tip this to the light and the halos of mother and sleeping child are suddenly interlocking lines of gold, her yellow hood (corn-coloured, with a pattern of — roses?) is double-edged with gold — and a multitude of gold stars covers her blue cloak. There she is — Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, blue and gold and holding the baby:  

Where is the woman who would complain of travail?  
She, by her pangs, bequeathes the Pleiades,  

Those spinning hemispheres, air-dipt, land-dappled,  

The gipsy brine of seas.[lxi]  



Last updated 11 May 2001