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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                 Kay McKenzie Cooke

Ruth Dallas

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 ‘The hills behind Riverton kept the trunks of burnt trees till they were weathered grey like tombstones.’

Kay McKenzie CookeThis is a sentence from Ruth Dallas’ autobiography, Curved Horizon. When I first read that sentence, it made my heart leap with recognition - I knew those trees! And with a few, well-chosen words; a few deft strokes of her pen; Ruth had described them perfectly.
I find an easy and deep connection with the poetry of Ruth Dallas. It is poetry that is imbued with images and impressions of place. The places she wrote about are places that I also identify with: Southland, Central Otago and Dunedin.

Her strong, clear and crafted poems are often described as 'deceptively simple'. Her style is straightforward, her poems grounded and with the ability to go straight to the mind’s eye. She also has an impeccable sense of the rhythm of a line.

I remember attending one of the rare readings Ruth gave and listening to her read her poetry with the unaffected style of a country woman; a woman in touch with the land. For me it was a very familiar voice; the voice of a Southlander; and at the same time provided a model for when I came to read my own poetry in public. I felt that if Ruth could do it plain and straightforward, letting the words and the language speak, I could too. She never knew it, but she had passed on to me her courage

In 2006 at the launch of what turned out to be her last poetry book; The Joy of a Ming Vase, Richard Reeve introduced Ruth to me. Briefly we exchanged the almost wordless smiles and murmurs of shared backgrounds. Briefly, we connected. I remember feeling astonished that such an established poet of her stature could look so very small and frail - as if the slightest breeze would blow her away.

Barely a year later, that cold wind did bear her away. However I feel sure that just as the hills behind Riverton keep hold of the trunks of felled trees, through her words, the land that she wrote about so intrinsically will also find a way to keep a hold of Ruth Dallas.