new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robin Hyde

about Robin Hyde



Michele Leggott


Paper delivered at "The Recovery of the Public World: Robin Blaser Conference," Vancouver. BC, May-June 1995. Published in Charles Watts and Edward Byrne, eds, The Recovery of the Public World: Essays in Honour of Robin Blaser. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 1999, 147-56.


We have just been made more at our ease by the arrival of the base of a table, the top of which came with us in the Tomalin, leaving the legs to walk after it in the Medusa — it is not the lot of many tables to cross the ocean in two ships!
— Sarah Selwyn of Auckland, New Zealand; 5 October 1842.[1]

Walking across oceans in a ship bearing a powerfully marked female name, the legs of Sarah Selwyn's English table rejoined their top 12,000 miles from a point of severance. She, a bishop's wife, five months resident in the new country, could write upon its now stable surface the adventure of those briefly anthropomorphic limbs — a letter home, an outlandish report safely carried.

But Sarah Selwyn, who didn't have the Greek her husband used to read and write divinity, had divined the influence of Medusan custody in her animation of those severed legs; every Medusa is demoniacal, every Medusa is a bleeding detachment. The most famous star in the old constellation of Caput Medusae is Algol, in Arabic Ras al-Ghul (the Head of the Devil), in Hebrew Rosh ha Satan, sometimes also Lilith, first outlaw.[2] She, Medusa, beauty made horror, was Libyan or Ethiopian (meaning African, Indian); a dark star. When the heavens were made Christian in the 17th century, Caput Medusae was redesignated as the Holy Book but the extraordinary variations of Algol's light still spoke the maleficence of female monsters badly in need of solar conquest. Holy Writ in the heavens was abandoned. The head of the Medusa persisted there at the edge of what ancient astronomers called The Sea, a vast region of the night sky inhabited exclusively by marine constellations. Medusa's left eye is sometimes depicted as the sinister Algol, a famous variable.



Here and now, however little use I may be, and however little of it I may see in the future, I declare myself a member of the human race. To be always on the run, always in hiding.
— Robin Hyde, Auckland, March 1937.[3]

She would be dead within two years by her own hand, having journeyed through China as a frontline war correspondent and reached England ill and almost destitute in 1938. She began anyway on the task of carving out a literary reputation in London, hoping to make enough money to go back to China or return to New Zealand and set up house with the son whose existence she had supported since his out-of-wedlock birth eight years previously. Hospitals, drug-dependency, voluntary residence in an asylum and a fight for paternal contribution to the support of the child had all figured in those years.

Robin Hyde (1906-1939) was journalist, critic, novelist and poet; she produced ten books in the last ten years of her life, four of them poetry collections which have been neglected largely because of their resolute indifference to contemporary Modernist practices. But these poems and the hundreds she left in manuscript are unavoidable to me; sophisticated in ways not immediately obvious but ultimately compelling. She mocks Pound, Stein, Eliot among the Americans she has read, but venerates the power of fragment in the continuing struggle which is for her the articulation of slighted voices in writing that comes flying out of the dark. A man who travels with his dream travels with a dark torch, she wrote on one scrap of paper. On another:

Oh! sweet poets — masters of mosaic,
Your gods stand rooted — Apollo
never done with the lyre, white Venus, lusty Mars,
Each with fixed faces;

But Lanis knows the gods in different guise —
Lanis knows gods that take the trees for tresses,
And with wide nostrils, snuffing on the wind
The tang of lust or fear — stumbling, unused
To movement, grasping mighty thoughts for clubs,
Lanis knows gods gone hunting in the dark —

Show me a god, you show me larger male,
Immortal gusto,

And all the gods that swim up through the shallows — [4]

Blaser: The gods written on paper flare up / suddenly ("Metamorphoses," 35).[5] Lanis is a fragment, a figment, another figure moving outside the chains of command, underfoot and overhead, perfectly local: The land was living, like the sea. A land's always alive when it can grow hair, and this place sent up scrub and trees, gorse and bracken, long grasses that wear slippery in summer when feet run over them. . . . It was quick soil, ready. The whole earth was filled with the potency of moving again if it liked, of feeling all contacts strongly with its veins and marrow. The children who ran across it were moving inside its movement, little kites on a string controlled by its big will.[6] There is a story of the earth-mother, Papatuanuku locked in the embrace of the sky-father, Ranginui; the last of their children, the unborn Ruaumoko kicks and floats in his mother's belly, shaking her surfaces, a god of earthquakes, perhaps a kite-flyer. The story of Lanis, without specific cultural weight, is a search for accommodation but underfoot, always hiding and fighting. Lanis is an anagram of slain.


The whole thing: just trying to be at home. That's the plot.[7]
— Robin Blaser, Vancouver, 6 May 1994.

Watching Robin Blaser reading at Capilano College in 1994, a video that shared its mailing bag with a copy of The Holy Forest, I hear the light, uncanny footsteps beginning again. Let Hyde walk into Blaser's Holy Forest — let one Robin (hiding, fighting) reflect the other's also determined vagabonding (trails, blazing) between various poetic headquarters and the outland.

Robin Hyde wrote an autobiographical fragment called A Home in this World which was not published until 1984. As Iris Wilkinson, she was mother but not wife in a society which damned the disjuncture. She had not one but two sons; the first, born clandestinely in Sydney when she was twenty, died at birth. Iris Wilkinson named him ROBIN HYDE then memorialised her dead baby in the name of her writer-self, carrying his memory the rest of her life, which was not itself long.

Inside I brought
willows, the tips
iris (I forget
the legend of long life
they represent)
and the branch of pepper tree
whose pink seeds
lack the passion of most fruit
(Cups 1, 3)

I forget the legend, I inside the eye (blue iris), eye (blue iris) inside I. The three gatherings — willow, iris, pepper — right at the start of the Forest make for new legends (readings) in which (see!) the iris is already trace rather than entity, doubled and restive in the tracking between eye and flower, plant and I. We could imagine the poet of a holy wood being interested in such a trope — and look how it runs through the Forest, being old and therefore rich in transformations:

the root and mirror
of a plant
           its shape
and power familiar

the light is disturbed by
the boxwood leaves
shining("A Literalist," 39)

                                 I define 
the dark correct     allowing that I to appear
naked, an unyielding form of  I     acting apart,
but it is Naught     the other is that     unlearned,
this fear and charm of words
("Image-Nation 3 (substance," 63) 

                        you have been
and closing like flowers
your hand tears everywhere
from nowhere

he calls, ‘I’     the place chosen
beyond which there is no further

in fragments
in some object
the city is loved,
cut into light.
("Aphrodite of the Leaves," 97)

Aye, aye. These 'l's (pronounced eyes) double track something else, another flower crying out I, eye, aye, or (in grief now) ai, a poet condensing the story of Apollo's fatal discus throw and the loss of the beautiful boy Hyacinthos. Difficult rare excellence, love's heir, averted / Loss seize the hurt head Apollo's eyes point to: / Ai, Ai Hyacinthus, the petals in vision — [8] Louis Zukofsky made the Second Half of "A"-9 sing homoerotic grief, using the story of the flower inscribed AI in Attic letters by the god in commemoration of his pain. "A"-9, Second Half, was written 1948-50 to the same formula for the distribution of variants (the letters n and r) as First Half of "A"-9, completed ten years previously. Jerry Reisman, whose last name begins with an r and ends in n, was the friend who provided the math on which "A"-9, First Half, is built.[9] By 1948, the division between Zukofsky and Reisman was irrevocable; the poem called "A" farewells its r / n factor by repeating it in "A"-9, Second Half; remembering, commemorating the earlier collaboration and a pain of scission or loss. The flower in the Greek story, a hyacinth, was dark blue.



I and A were conceived in the flower of a purple-hued lily called in Paris lisflambe and which Dioscorides, and his Florentine translator, Marcellus Virgilius, called Hyacinthus and which in vulgar Italian is called Hyacinthiol. I have made here a drawing wherein the A is placed upon a lisflambe in a square; and the A is formed of the I multiplied into a triangle, or, if you would say it otherwise, say that the A is formed of three I's placed one upon another, taking of each what is needed to form a perfect A.
— Geofroy de Tory, Paris, 1529.[10]

The geometer's perfect A is something Zukofsky would have appreciated all the more for the explanation ringing with homonyms in its translation. The flaming French lily lisflambe should appeal to Blaser's fire-ringed poesis. The drawing of an iris remembering grief, a blue iris crying and written upon, sends its trace easily into the literary remains of Robin Hyde, whose writing is also full of rainbows, prisms, bridges and arcs. The rainbow is the sign of Iris, in Homer she who runs on the rainy wind, flying along foamy seas; who, various, connects heaven and earth.[11] Iris Wilkinson elaborated the clue of her given name to produce an exquisite tension between presence and concealment of herself (I) in her work. The old continuum of I's and their pronunciations is for Hyde as well as for Blaser or Zukofsky the multiple configuration of a place to stand in a text and look out at the world.

Sweet poets —

Lords of the whole mosaic — how you fit
gem into gem, lost contours round-expressed
As the smooth curving of a woman's breast —
Lapis by jade, vermeil by turquoise bit!
What's strange to you?
       ("The Temple Sweeper") [12]

the words do not end     but come back
from the adventure
                                 the body is at the edge
of their commotion
                                 the nonsense
the marvellous clarity
                                 in the pool of the
            ("Image-Nation 5 (erasure," 113)



Writing unsteadily, without hope of a word enduring,
I think how others, the great ones, were in like case
— Robin Hyde, Auckland, 1937.[13]

The first Robin Hyde, a baby, was born in November 1926, the beginning of his mother's arduous search under her name and his for a home in this world. Robin Blaser, a survivor and cultural transplant, was born in May 1925, became the inheritor of a Modernist tradition that values what Zukofsky kept calling in his late notebooks '"contingencies’ flowers," the capability of one poet to talk to another over time and space irrespective of canon or mother tongue, to find by the touching of texts one's Great Companions.[14]

I look at Hyde's line of escape to China (where she was perversely happy) and Britain, which she hated. I ponder her rejection of the Modernisms she knew and think of others she couldn’t have known; no Mina Loy, no H.D., no Lorine Niedecker for her, so that she hunted isolate, after dark, and the profusion of her manuscripts and typescripts is unstill feet on the woodpaths. No-one has looked at them much. When she died in August 1939, the mass of papers was picked up off the floor of her London flat, packed into a suitcase and sent halfway around a world blacking itself out again for war. A series of adventures with publication got some of the later poems into a collection (1952) which was felt to be fair attention, appropriate memorial. But the archive, then left to its devices, and the poems themselves — published and unpublished — are not New Zealand Literature; they are disjuncture and demurral and search, legs still walking lightly over the sea in a Medusan boat, preceded by an arco iris, an iris arc, apparition of refracted light: the scarf of Iris, as Robin Blaser translates the Greek Robin Hyde didn’t know.[15] Invert the rainbow's curve and the other ark appears, the boat of heaven, another promise running on Homer’s rainy wind.



There is a photo which her surviving son now owns of Robin Hyde, Garbo-esque with cigarette and beret, in haunting three-quarter profile. It is inscribed on the reverse to her close friend Gwen Hawthorne: The strange emanation at the shoulder is not a leg kicking up but a corner of my scarf caught by the wind.[16]



they / will themselves into your life, Blaser writes, the will takes them / a love / at first sight ("Psyche," 83). And:

are you sure to transmit
an immortal breath
between one world which dies
and another being born
("Christ Among the Olives," 77)

In one of Hyde's last poems the titular voice, an outlaw, proposes starting humanity over with the dream of a son born older than Adam’s sons . . . His smile is a blossom, his laugh a bird, / His mouth is a scarlet seed.[17] But this is half a vision:

What do you seek for, wasted blossom,
             Out of the mortal gain and loss?
‘’A daughter, whiter than Adam’s daughter
             Lighter than child of Eve’s
Under her heel foams a white, white water,
             Under her breasts are leaves."

The voice belongs to Lilith, bad not-mother, devil's head, she with Dark and forgetful eyes nevertheless persisting behind, outside or underfoot. If I die (Blaser writing Christ among the olives) everything will die. If eye die (visionary I) everything will die; and Iris did but Robin lived, his laugh a bird, his mouth a scarlet seed, no dead baby but a text in which to stand unslain. And what would you do for them, eyes of foam? / ‘Oh, give them another garden’: Lilith/Hyde. To which he, Blaser:

the circles the moon, the stars, the
planets and below, under the earth, the sun
between the earth and the moon, a tone
beyond that, the lyre

asleep, the four oval paintings, stories alive,
the artist of the moth, his foot upon the lion's
paw of the table     there is no storm in the
glass, only the white edge of a sleeve, the
form, nothing beyond that I I
("Salut," 55)

He’s remembering, in part, the home that was a boxcar placed / on foundations by the railbed. Growing up in Blaser, Idaho, and other small towns, moving through Boston and San Francisco to light in Vancouver, Robin Blaser found out how to be at home and always on the run; how in fact to realise the figure of Robin Hyde's human race:

I stepped back    shameless    and showed
the holes in my breast to the star

‘Give news of me to the Belovèd’
I said

I rocked my heart
the child was so restless

I look for the Cup-Bearer

the Belovèd    is the murmur
inside the work
at the edge
                 of the words

the silence     is the Other
at the edge    of my words


the words drink us up

who is speaking?

dear beings, I can feel your hands
("Image-Nation 5 (erasure," 117)




©Michele Leggott


[1]  Alison Drummond, ed., Married and Gone to New Zealand, being extracts from the writing of women pioneers, (Hamilton and Auckland, NZ: Paul’s Book Arcade, London: Oxford UP, 1963): 108.

[2]  Giuseppe Maria Sesti, The Glorious Constellations: History and Mythology, trans. Karin H. Ford (New York: Abrams, 1991): 423.

[3]  Robin Hyde, A Home in this World (Auckland, NZ: Longman Paul, 1984): 58.

[4]  Iris Wilkinson Papers, University of Auckland Mss & Archives 97/1: 5c/601 and 609.

[5]  Robin Blaser, The Holy Forest (Toronto: Coach House, 1993). All Blaser page references are to this book.  

[6]  Robin Hyde, The Godwits Fly (1938; Auckland, NZ: Auckland UP, 1993): 108.

[7] I wish to thank Jenny Penberthy and Capilano College, North Vancouver, BC, for making available a tape of this reading.

[8]  Louis Zukofsky, “A” (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1978): 110.

[9]  See Barry Ahearn, Zukofsky’s “A”: An Introduction (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1983): 231-33.

[10]  Geofroy de Tory. Champ Fleury, ou l'Art et Science de la Proportion des Lettres, trans. George B. Ives  (New York: The Grolier Club, 1927): 75.

[11]  Martha Barnette, A Garden of Words (Times Books, 1992): 34. The reference is to The Iliad, Book 1.

[12]  Iris Wilkinson Papers 97/1: 5c/804. Ms fragment.

[13]  Iris Wilkinson Papers 97/1: 5c/602. Ms fragment.

[14]  See my Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989): 55. The notebook gathers material for “A” 22 & 23 and 80 Flowers; the phrase occurs first in context of Zukofsky’s 1969 visit to London.

[15]  Robin Blaser, “Horus,”: 71.

[16]  Derek Challis Collection, Henderson, Auckland, New Zealand.

[17]  Robin Hyde, “Lilith,” The Press (Christchurch, NZ), 28 January 1939: 18.





  1. Sarah Selwyn, from a painting by George Richmond. Frontispece, Drummond, ed.
  2. Caput Medusae in the constellation of Perseus. Sesti: 414.
  3. Caput Medusae detail.
  4. Robin Hyde / Iris Wilkinson (1934). Eileen Duggan Papers, Archdiocese ofWellington Archives, New Zealand.
  5. The I’s and the A of Geofroy de Tory’s hyacinthine iris (1529). Tory: 75.
  6. Transparencies ("and showed / the holes in my breast to the star")


Ahearn, Barry. Zukofsky’s "A": An Introduction. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1983.

Barnette, Martha. A Garden of Words. Times Books, 1992.

Blaser, Robin. The Holy Forest. Toronto: Coach House, 1993.

------. Reading at Capilano College, North Vancouver, BC, May 1994. Videotape.

Drummond, Alison, ed. Married and Gone to New Zealand, being extracts from the writing of women pioneers. Hamilton and Auckland, NZ: Paul’s Book Arcade, London: Oxford UP, 1963.

Hyde, Robin (Iris Wilkinson). Iris Wilkinson Papers. University of Auckland Mss & Archives 97/1.

------. "Lilith." The Press (Christchurch, NZ). 28 January 1939: 18.

------. The Godwits Fly. 1938; Auckland, NZ: Auckland UP, 1993.

------. A Home in this World. Auckland, NZ: Longman Paul, 1984.

Leggott, Michele. Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

Sesti, Giuseppe Maria. The Glorious Constellations: History and Mythology. Trans. Karin H. Ford. New York: Abrams, 1991.

Tory, Geofroy de. Champ Fleury, ou l'Art et Science de la Proportion des Lettres. Trans. George B. Ives. New York: The Grolier Club, 1927.

Zukofsky, Louis. "A." Berkeley: U of California Press, 1978.


Last updated 13 November, 2001