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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Ruth Dallas (1919–2008)


Otago University Press mourns the passing of Ruth Dallas CBE, a deeply saddening loss signalling, with the recent death of Hone Tuwhare, the end of an epoch in New Zealand letters. Dallas, who published over twenty books in her lifetime, was a major literary voice. Her most famous poem, ‘Milking Before Dawn’, from her first collection, Country Road and Other Poems (1953), has been studied by school students across the Anglophone world and widely anthologised, and her later work has influenced a range of younger poets from Cilla McQueen to Kay McKenzie Cooke.

Dallas’s last book of poetry, The Joy of a Ming Vase, was launched at Otago University Press in a special launch on Montana Poetry Day in 2006. This occasion brought together poets and friends from far-flung areas to celebrate her achievement and legacy: Dallas, who was a close friend of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame, has been a presiding spirit of the southern landscape for much of the past century. The launch was a joyous occasion at which younger writers were able to meet first-hand a major New Zealand poet that many had studied at school and in university.

Though in later years increasingly troubled by blindness and ill health, Dallas retained her extraordinary mental acuity. She continued to write and submit work to New Zealand journals, in effect practising the Buddhist stoicism which is a recurrent theme in her work. A short story, ‘When the Mice Play’, published in Landfall 210, illustrates the literary skills she continued to hone throughout her life, with its depiction of the darker side of human insensitivity to those whom fate has blighted. Yet her writing is primed with a sense of the miracle of nature, the passing of the seasons, and our obligation to build meaning out of transience.

We salute her life, vision and literary legacy, and offer our sincerest condolences to her family. She will greatly missed.

Wendy Harrex
Richard Reeve
Otago University Press, 19 March 2008