Funeral Oration for Ruth Dallas (1919-2008)
My most recent contact with Ruth Dallas was writing to her concerning her section in a proposed book to mark the 50th anniversary of the Robert Burns Fellowship. She was the oldest surviving ex-Burns Fellow. Her section in the book will be one more marker of her long association with the University of Otago and the English Department, two high points of which were the Burns Fellowship in 1968 and her honorary degree in 1978.
My first contact with her work came soon after I arrived at Otago in 1964 when Keith Maslen gave me a copy of Experiment in Form, a booklet of her poems printed that year in the Department’s Press Room.. I would like to read one of the poems from that pamphlet, ‘Night Piece’. Like most of the other poems in the pamphlet it was a ‘shape poem’, a poem that in its layout presented a visual mage of what it described, but, like all of her poetry, it comes across very well aurally:
On evenings heady
With elderberry flowers
And the breath of gorse,
Round the street lights go
In a whirlpool dance of death;
Dazed, unaware of the velvet
When she became Burns Fellow in 1968 the Department had moved into the then new (and now replaced) library building, and her office was across the hall from mine. During her Burns year she wrote some new poems, most of which were not published until 1976 in Walking On The Snow. However, the most immediately visible results of the year were her writings for children: Ragamuffin Scarecrow, published by the University Bibliography Room in 1969; The Children in the Bush, published by Methuen in 1969, the first in what was to be a series of seven children’s novels; some short stories and a play for children, some of which appeared in School Journals. It was a most productive year, but at the end of it she reported to Professor E.A. Horsman:
It is possible that, for me, the most valuable part of the Burns Fellowship has not been in what I have been able to write, but the hours I have had in which to read and study. Works written may be seen as the lemons or apples put forth from a writer’s life, but is the root that needs the nourishment, and this I have had time to find. My coming into contact with the University library has been an enriching experience.
One of the poems she wrote that year describes both her physical place in the Department and what she did there.
In the University Library
I am swallowed by a whale
Whose ribs are well furnished
With writing material, books,
A choice of coffee or tea.
From portholes I observe
Or gather in threatening storm.
Seabirds pass overhead
Emitting their coarse laughter.
I am walled behind glass
Where snow does not fall
Nor gales blow. I write poems,
Against being digested by the whale.
The title of the book in which the poems written during the Burns year finally appeared was explained by Ruth in the Prefatory Note to her 1987 Collected Poems:
The title of Walking on the Snow was intended to convey walking on deep and dangerous snow, not a light fall. I was thinking of life as a journey over its surface and of the ever-present danger of falling through into death.
In 1977 Alan Roddick and I were the judges for the 1976 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. When we consulted about the award, we discovered that both of us had found the same two books far ahead of anything else that year – Walking on the Snow and Alan Loney’s Dear Mondrian. We found that comparing the traditionalism of the one and the modernism of the other was like comparing apples and oranges but that both books successfully conveyed deeply-felt human experience, so we divided the award between the two. Here are two of my favourites from the volume, part of a group of poems written about Charles Brasch’s Broad Bay cottage, which Ruth took care of when Charles was away. Several months before his death in 1973 Ruth gave him the group of poems, which he much appreciated. The first relates and gives deeper resonance to my own experience in trying to control periwinkle in our Brighton garden:
A Warm Evening
I clip back the periwinkle.
Its blue eye looks at me.
My shoulder-joints burn
From wielding the hedge-shears.
I rest on the veranda
And look out at the harbour and hills.
Wind has ruffled the water,
Leaving pathways of calm.
Sun whitens the breast of a sea-bird
And lights windows on the opposite shore.
Sweat I saw on my father’s brow
Like rain, cools now on mine.
The periwinkle smiles. I see
Who is going to win at this game.
The second, more explicitly shadowed by a sense of mortality, was Brasch’s favourite from the group:
Grass I have cut and heaped in a pyramid
Is not yet dry enough to burn;
So I lie on it, reading Japanese poems,
Under a wild cherry, overhanging the harbour,
Whose skinny fruit is long since gone.
Between its leaves, fretted by pear-slug,
The sky is milky blue. Early evening.
Sun catches the karoros’ underwings.
Nine birds float, steady, on the wind,
Then tilt off, wailing over the water,
Screened by the bitten cherry-tree,
Only to return and wheel again,
Swivelling their white heads to look down.
What do they see? Long human bones
Thrown out with an old jersey and trousers,
Lying a long time motionless in the hay.
These beautiful, gliding, immaculate birds
Are hopefully wondering if I am dead.
The poems embody Ruth Dallas’s wonderful observation of the sights, sounds and feel of the natural world. Like many of her poems, they are poems of solitude. But people do come into the poems sometimes, although always there is the feeling that we are finally alone. The love of individuals and the awareness of the final aloneness can be deeply felt in the first poem of hers that I remember hearing read aloud:
In the Giant’s Castle
My father remembered what it was to be small,.
And to nourish rebellion.
My father in the night concocted
From vinegar, brown paper, pepper,
A hot plaster for my jumping ear,
Which was much the same as waving a wand.
I could show you my tommy-axed finger,
Bound together without stitches,
Or tell you how my father became a wall
And relied on me to stand as firm
While a doctor scissored off my crushed nail.
But when I grew, and climbed
The hill Difficulty, and at length
Came face to face with Giant Despair,
My father was not there,
Just his initials marked on a stone.
Ruth Dallas published her first poems in 1946, while her last book came out in 2006. Throughout that time she wrote poems of wonderful clarity and simplicity. But that simplicity and clarity did not come easily; they required work, as she tells us in another clear and simple poem:
Sparrows pass and turn and pass
Some they carry for a while
And then discard,
As though on second thought,
As I reject
Word on word
In making the simplest poem.
She saw poems as a process of personal making, but the resulting work had to stand on it own, as she said at the end of the Prefatory Note in the Collected Poems when she spoke of one of her later poetic sequences as ‘something I have made, as one makes a clay pot. The pleasure for the maker is in the making. The completed pot or poem, song, painting, sculpture or any work of art, has to begin a life of its own’.
That making lasted for over sixty years but it is now ended. But the poems she made will go on with a life of their own, there for us to make of what we will.
Roger Hickin: Dark & Bright as Earth Is 2002
Acrylic & found paint on kauri panels,
175 x 280mm (Private collection, Seattle)