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

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

                       Siobhan Harvey

In Moon Country with Ruth Dallas: A Tribute

It was Ruth Dallas’ poem, ‘Pioneer Woman with Ferrets’ which first drew me towards a discovery of her verse. The lines of the poem were crisp and nimble to my unfamiliar eye, the work of a true wordsmith. They also seemed to me, upon first reading, to be charged with a pictorial realism, or rather a realism which was conveyed through the symbolic, the illustrative. This is a facet of the poem which, the more I now read of Dallas’ work, the more I realize is a staple of her entire output. Take ‘Pioneer Woman with Ferrets’ opening lines, for instance:

            “Preserved in film,
            As under glass,
            Her waist nipped in,
            Skirt and sleeves
            To ankle, wrist,
            In the wind,
            Hat to protect
            Her Victorian complexion,
            Large in the tussock
            She looms,
            Startling as a moa.”

The line-length is tight; the subject-matter is articulately evoked. To be able to say this about any poem is a testament to the skill, craft and sweat which went into making it so. But beyond these matters, thanks to Dallas’ word-artistry, can’t you instantly picture the titular woman the moment the poet describes her as “Startling as a moa”? In their The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, the editors - Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer and Elaine Showalter - made special mention of how this poem proved Dallas’ “perspective is framed by a sense of history” (1). This is true, though each time I re-read ‘Pioneer Woman with Ferrets’ I feel that Dallas’ work isn’t so much framed by a sense of history as by a sense of ‘her-story’, of those privations of the past which were uniquely female and which Dallas resolutely represents for us as a painter might an unflinching portrait.    

At her death, it’s the visual elements of Dallas’ poetic oeuvre which continue to engage and fascinate me. I see them in the early work which first brought her literary recognition – her iconic poem, ‘Milking before Dawn’ for instance, or the poems in Landfall8, or the body of work contained in her first collection, Country Road and Other Poems (2). But, for me, Dallas’ sense of the illustrative power of poetry – an illustrative power, I might add, which also informed her short fiction and her children’s books – grew in its vividness. 1976-1979, for example, were rich years, poetically-speaking, for Dallas. By then, she was (nearly) a sexagenarian, but in spite of or because of her maturity, she produced poems at once sumptuous and visually sharp, including ‘On Reading Love Poems’, ‘The Weather Clock’, ‘Living with a Cabbage-tree’, ‘In Central Otago’, ‘Girl with Pitcher’ and ‘The Leopard’.

‘The Leopard’ is, perhaps, one of the most visual poems she produced during these years. As well as a host of bountiful images, the poem is a melding of lavish language, Rilkean homage and the poet’s familiar concerns for milieu and mortality:

“How beautiful the leopard in his spots,
With rhythms in his blood like the dappled
Shadows of leaves on desert earth,
Or the blowing undulations of the plain…

He, too, will pass, his bone, my bone,

Becoming mild marigolds and forgetmenots
Gleaming a moment in the light from stars.”

            As dreamy-eyed as Dallas’ is in ‘The Leopard’, she proves between these years how her focus can be piercing too. ‘On Reading Love Poems’ exemplifies this.

            “Gentle reader, do not
            Spit, I pray, the pip
            Of Love’s deep fruit,
            The indigestible
            Eyes that were her pearls,
Or let your ear be lulled
With all a triumphant tale.”

Though it employs the language and symbolism of the lover, the poem is unrelenting in its evocation of those whom Cupid’s arrow fails to pierce.

Naturally (pardon the pun), Dallas’ elemental motif, the environment remains the best gauge of her visual prowess when she turned 60. ‘In Central Otago’ and ‘Living with the Cabbage-tree’ are full of the sorts of simultaneously inventive and ominous scenic images which perhaps only a New Zealand writer, an Invercargill-born writer can invoke. This from ‘Living with the Cabbage-tree’:

“I like the way the shadow of its bole
Moves like the finger of a giant sun-dial
Over the concrete; that’s rather romantic;
Reminding us that time is passing, passing;
And cats declare it without peer for sharpening claws.”

‘In Central Otago’, meanwhile, the surroundings are imbued with the supernatural:

“Seek foliage and find
Among cracked boulders
Scab of lichen, thyme.

Seek a burgeoning tree
Upended witches’ brooms.

Seek grass and tread
Stiff sheet of ice drawn
Over the land dead.

Moon country.”

Moon country indeed. The phrase, the image seems redolent of Dallas’ poetic opus, conjuring up as it does a strong representational sense of ‘otherness’, of a bringing together through the figurative the gynocentric, mystical and ecological. More than this, Moon Country seems to me its own allegory for the linguistic and literary landscape Dallas traversed. To paraphrase Neruda, in Moon Country Dallas’ poetry was born, found its voice and was immersed (3).


(1)        (eds.) Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer and Elaine Showalter, The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1991, page 164.
(2)        Ruth Dallas, Country Road and Other Poems 1947-52, The Caxton Press: Christchurch, 1953.
(3)        “I grew up in this town, my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it immersed itself in the forests,” Pablo Neruda, Memoirs (Confieso que he vivido: Memorias) tr. St. Martin, Hardie, Penguin: London, 1977.