Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003)
A selection of material from brief 32 Joanna Margaret Paul special issue (Winter 2005), edited and introduced by Jack Ross.
A Memoir of Joanna Paul
First published in brief 32 (Winter 2005). 61-64.
In the seventies I rented an old house, for time out with my young family. It was on a small plateau on the hillside, at the back of Barrys Bay near Akaroa, and it was a charming place, built about a hundred years earlier, with attic bedrooms, a fine colonial kitchen and pantry, and verandah on three sides. An orchard of gnarled plums and apples grew behind it, there was a stables nearby, and before it lay the whole of Akaroa harbour.
Three or four years later I became the vicar of Banks Peninsula, and was invited to live at the vicarage in Okains Bay, just over the hill. Hearing of this, a young Christchurch painter named Philip Trusttum approached me, asking to make use of the house, now that I had no use for it myself. Philip and Lee and their two children took it as a holiday house and made good use of it, and I came to know them well. Into this friendship came other artists of various lines who lived about, or had connections with the Peninsula.
It was at the height of the Whole Earth Movement, and idealistic young townies yearned to do the right thing and live off the land; they found the means on the Peninsula hills, in disused farmhouses which could be rented or bought cheaply. I was not overworked in the parish; though there were five churches (one in each bay) it was depopulating—which accounted for the vacant houses. The bishop had sent me there to take things easy, as both my parents had calamitously died and I was supposed to be near a breakdown. I had to recover, before moving on to a city parish. As part of the recovery plan I was writing short stories, which met with a brief success.
Moreover, my pastoral work was, as always, interesting, and through the course of parish visiting I came to know these new residents; generally, they found life a heavy and unaccustomed chore, being inexperienced with the component parts of mud, weather, vegetables, poultry, fire, plumbing, space, and country people. With most it was the man who worked at his heart’s desire and the woman at the house. As they had children about the same age as ours, we came to socialise, especially at dinners. The children would be fed first, then bedded down around whichever house we were at, and then we would sit by the fire and eagerly discuss the intricacies of our lives on these wild headlands and hills.
Philip and Daphne Temple lived in a fine old house at Little Akaloa. Philip is from Yorkshire, where I had worked for a while, and which helped to establish a connection. I found his position as an Englishman adopting another country and using this process to fuel his creativity, an interesting one; we would talk about it for hours, then drive back home through rain and snow and count ourselves lucky. His skill at literary politics brought interesting people to our meetings, such as Brian Turner, Peter and Ursula Cape, and the Weddes; these cowed me with their erudition and experience, but the Capes made an easier impression on me, for reasons I’ve only recently understood.
Kobi and Patricia Bosshard lived at Akaroa, where Kobi worked as a jeweller. In a sense they brokered our art, calling exhibitions and concerts to the tiny place, and they knew everyone. They did a great job, and Kobi, being Swiss, introduced an exotic element—I remember one dinner at which our only food was apricot dumplings; I remember no reason for this, and no thought to challenge their right to feed us in this unusual way.
The Trusttums were often present at these evenings, through their knowledge of the Bosshards and their frequent presence on the Peninsula. They were great company, intelligent and articulate. Lee’s mother was Fanny Buss, a well-known Christchurch fabric artist, and Lee worked with her. Philip already had a name as a painter.
Into this regional mix came Jeffrey and Joanna Harris. Jeffrey’s grandparents were farmers at Okains Bay, and his parents lived at Wainui in Akaroa harbour, where they had a market garden. He and Joanna had not long been married, and had a small daughter, Magdalena. Joanna was sociable, and the hesitancy, later such a part of her personality, was not then particularly noticeable. Jeffrey was saturnine, pleasant enough, but he discouraged presumption. Sometimes Joanna came alone.
The Harrises had taken the Barrys Bay house from the Trusttums, and lived there. Jeffrey used one of the attic rooms as a studio; it had a morning light. I remember going to buy a painting from him, a large one of his mother and grandmother, and being almost overcome by his dreams stacked about me. Joanna painted too. For many years I had a portrait she did, a pleasant dappled thing on board, of Jeffrey holding Magdalena. Both were gaining respect for their work, but not enough to take them out of poverty.
Then their second daughter Imogen was born, and I was made her godfather. It proved to be not an easy position. Joanna was Roman Catholic and I Anglican, so I was unsure of her expectations, and certainly did not meet all of them. The ‘pompous letter’ she refers to in Imogen was most probably one of mine. Our theologies were pretty well identical, and we talked about it a good deal, but I must admit to being timid before both Jeffrey and Joanna; their united intelligence intimidated me.
Imogen was found to have a heart defect, and after time in hospital died, being buried at Akaroa. Her illness and death bore down heavily upon the couple, and caused Joanna to take a great dislike to the house. They moved to another, at the top of Okains Bay, a very desolate and long-abandoned place, without a lawn or paths, and about a thousand feet above sea level. Mostly they had no support, and life was very tough for them, especially in the winter. Fortunately, Jeffrey’s rural background helped, as did the near presence of his parents, and he always seemed to be fit.
They would come to our group dinners, though Jeffrey did not always enjoy them. He and Philip were not close friends, and Joanna seemed to think that he had strayed from some true path. I regretted this, for Philip always has known what he’s doing, and has taught me a great deal of the philosophy and of art; I’ve always admired his work. As time went by, Jeffrey came less often.
It was here, in this ruinous tree-shadowed farmhouse, that Joanna wrote Imogen. I remember her asking me to type it for her. There had been, I think, some tension between husband and wife — she said nothing about it, the two were loyal to each other, but on this occasion she put Magdalena in the pram and walked down the hill to the vicarage, a distance of some four or five kilometres, in the rain. We were out at the time, and returned to find her seated at the kitchen fire, reading. Magdalena was asleep in a bed. The bath had been turned on and forgotten, and was coming down the passage. Her wet shoes had been left by the fire to dry, and their soles had melted off.
Typing Imogen wasn’t easy; the subject was painful, and mixed with my own grief. The manuscript was untidy, and the shape and format of the poems were novel to me. As Joanna had no phone she was not readily available for consultation, and I fear I did not do a good job.
Imogen is in form a classical sequence of poems, in style and perspective contemporary. The author sits at her sick child’s bedside, thinks of the birth, the smothering illness, of the few choices given her. ‘I could have taken her to another place that is quiet She observes the hospital ward, the child, the staff; she regrets Imogen’s death: delivered of
she reflects on it with a particular accuracy, intelligence and sincerity; there’s intense feeling, but no sentiment; profundity but no obscurity. Few of the poems are titled, and it’s uncertain whether some stand individually or are part of another. Typography and shape vary. It needs to be read a few times, as an anatomy of grief.
The work was published by Hawk Press in 1978, as ‘IMOGEN poems by Joanna Margaret Paul’, and dedicated ‘IMOGEN ROSE, February 28 - October 9, 1976 farewell brave heart arohanui.’ It was printed and sewn by Alan Loney in a limited edition of 300, of which I have no. 11. Alan was proud of his part in the publication; I talked with him about it, and the circumstances of its creation.
About ten years ago David Howard told me of the effect Imogen had upon him, after his first reading of it. I repeated this to Joanna soon after, and she was astonished. Only then, I think, did she begin to realise the high regard that is held for the work, its high place in our poetry, and she spoke of a reprint.
Soon after the typing I moved to Christchurch, and Joanna and Jeffrey parted. She would call at our Addington vicarage from time to time, and stay the night. She spoke of the separation and the reasons for it, but I do not remember them and don’t want to, as I was fond of them both.
We maintained a friendship, mostly by correspondence and telephone, and I noted her growing reputation as a painter. She asked me for some contribution to her anti-G.E. compendium ‘Consider the Lilies’. In her last note she suggested she would make me a visit, with her new husband.
On the day of her funeral at Akaroa, I read in the Christchurch Press of her death.
© Leicester Kyle