new zealand electronic poetry centre

S o m e   s h e l l s   i n   a   t o b a c c o   t i n

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                                               Graham Lindsay

Under Signal Hill

I knew about Ruth Dallas before I got the job as a subenumerator for the 1981 Census. Not a lot, but enough to be respectful. We had been in Dunedin for several years, and had moved into a house around the corner from her, yet I still hadn’t seen her. She would be in my catchment.

The first time I saw her, she was getting into the passenger seat of a car outside her place, a back flat with a shared driveway. I was walking past. She was wearing the kind of clothes my great aunties wore in the photographs in my mother’s Queen Anne chocolate box collection. She plumped herself on the seat and put one foot in, then swung the other in after. She could have been wearing gumboots and overalls. Then she noticed me looking and her mouth dropped and she had quite a lot to say. Her friend had a nice smile.

After that, I started seeing her. I saw her in the distance out walking, or rather out looking, not far from home for looking at things, peering all round them: a climbing rose, something on the road.

She lived next door to a poet cum painter friend I used to drop in on from time to time, whose son and my son went to school together, whose house intrigued me in a way Sue wasn’t quite sure what to make of. The backyard was being reclaimed: rusting chromium-plated chairs on a concrete pad were being engulfed by long grey grass, roughcast pillars stuck up in the afternoon light like an eroded headland.

Ruth Dallas’s house was made of summerhill stone. It was painted white. It glared. It had little wroughtiron fences and trellises round the concrete landing that were also painted white. There were cacti on the window ledges, and heavy-duty blinds, and Chinese vases behind the reflections. This was the setting of the Zen poems, worlds away from the freezing dark house she described growing up in in Curved Horizons. Sue was chary of questions about her neighbour, and adamant that they got on well. I think she said she was a good old stick.

We lived in a neighbourhood of North Dunedin at the foot of a spur from Signal Hill. Town was a few blocks away in one direction; the country a hop, step and a jump in the other. These were the directions that produced the prevailing winds: one that could stud your ears with chilblains and threaten hypothermia; the other could bring a tongue of fog down the harbour, or several days of fine drenching rain. The washing machine went round and round, but every seven days it came to a standstill, and then every particle of morning sunshine streaming over Signal Hill sparkled like a diamond and the tugs ploughed crystal.

It was known as the student area, but it was also a kind of Poets’ Corner because a number of poets lived round there, or had done, or would do: Bernadette Hall grew up on the corner of Dundas Street and Gore Place, James K Baxter had the university house in St David Street while he was the Burns Fellow, Peter Olds was in Montgomery Avenue when he had it. Hone Tuwhare would move into a crib in Dundas Street. They schooled in the nearby pubs on Friday afternoon – the Robbie Burns, the Captain Cook, the Gardens. Not Ruth Dallas though.

The street she and Sue lived on jumped from side to side of the Leith River. They were on the northern straight: the setting of the wry poem about the knotted dogs. Of course, the street barely deviates, it’s the river that doglegs. Here it came out of the botanical gardens and ran past a row of Lombardi poplars and the backs of houses like riverboats, lichen on the boulders and salmon and eels in the pools, before plunging under the Dundas Street bridge and curving away toward the university precinct guided by a wall like a Richard Serra sculpture or something out of a medieval Tuscan town, and terracing under the IT block. Every year floodwaters churned down the valley, the barrelling yellow crests higher than the banks, daredevil students riding them.

It could feel like the ends of the earth when the students went home for the holidays. Kereru swooped across the valley, feathers spread like trefoil fans, and belly-flopped through the dogwood, the splash reverberating in the native sunshine. But when they were in town, town had a buzz-saw edge to it. They ran the place, ran amok, trashed their accommodation; gathered in the middle of the road under the polar stars with blankets round their shoulders, looking like emperor penguins, round fires that fed on the tar, carpetbombed the road with their empties.

It could be a lot to put up with for young families and retiring literary matriarchs. Because Sue’s neighbour was the reluctant grand-dame of Dunedin letters, the respected author of poems that opened crypts in your head and set the dust motes dancing in their wands of light. The one about a man who planted shade trees round a farmyard, for instance, with its imminent presence of forbears, and the planting of vision that could go on flowering as long as there were readers; the one about cows like rocks in an ebbing tide. She was the author of a fine memoir enclosing an unelaborated testament of filial love; a tale about a boy going up to Gabriel’s Gully during the Otago goldrush. There was the close connection with Charles Brasch, an absent presence in the streets, and in the memories of my slightly older contemporaries whom he had taken under his wing and into his heart.

She wasn’t all this in March 1981, and I was sceptical of the Zen poems. And looking forward to meeting her. I had met her once already. John Gibb, a big fan, had introduced a number of us aspiring writers to her at a celebratory reading at the University of Otago. She had shaken my hand and turned away. This would be different. I had a legitimate reason for knocking on her door. By the same token, I would be there strictly on business.

She answered the door, looking as if she wished she hadn’t. She looked at me sceptically, looked at the forms, looked caught. Perhaps she remembered me from the reading. I was one of those people from the literary carousel, who therefore couldn’t be trusted not to betray her. She invited me in. I was chilled to the bone in my denim shirt. I looked past her at the soft, warm carpet, and declined. And she cheerfully stepped out into the freezing air. She had a head like a bird of prey or a farmyard hen which had lost an eye in a fight.

What was her name? What sex was she? When was she born? She would have to answer and she would have to entrust me with her answers. Religious denomination, present marital status, number of children born. It was my job to check that all the questions were answered, and to make a judgement about whether they had been answered in good faith. Hours worked per week, employment status, occupation. She relaxed outside; she became kindly, friendly, even a little playful. Social security benefits, income from social security benefits, income from other sources. We would play the game that I didn’t know who she was.

I knew what her name was before the name she adopted became the one she was mostly known by, but was that the one she would enter? I knew her ‘real’ name wasn’t Dallas, but something more in keeping with her practice. As a concession to the marketplace, Dallas took some swallowing, even if it was her maternal grandmother’s name, which she adopted in 1946. All I could come up with was that she might have had some boy in mind who combed his hair wet, wore white shirts open at the neck, a dog-eared paperback in his back pocket, who trekked the windswept blocks between the bookies and a young wife waiflike from childbirth, who probably wasn’t interested in poetry anyway; that it had acquired tail fins by connection with the place where a president was shot. Highest level attended at school, highest school qualification, other places of education.

Her forms must have been in order, because I didn’t hear back from the enumerator. Which was a relief, because it meant I could get paid, I wouldn’t have to do any chasing up. Because I didn’t check them. I had already decided when I came to hers I would avert my eyes and shove them in the envelope and seal it.