A New Vantage Point
Susan Ash reviews
Some critics accuse Hyde of producing ‘dreamlike’ poetry that never really rises above the tinkle of Georgian verse. Indeed, as a postgraduate in the early eighties, newly arrived in NZ from American universities and well trained in reading the likes of Eliot, I had my doubts about Hyde’s poetry. Now Young Knowledge wholly persuades me that Leggott’s brief is a worthy one: to ‘bring Hyde into focus’ as a political and philosophical poet. Leggott writes about ‘vantage points’ in Hyde’s oeuvre (from clifftops to gardens) as settings for ‘epistemological drama.’ (Young Knowledge 22) Hyde’s version of Heaphy presents both the certitude and arrogance necessary to dismiss out of hand the ‘value’ of an entire community on the basis that this greenstone economy could never sufficiently remunerate the Company’s investment. Heaphy takes for granted his capacity to produce ‘meaning’ despite the insubstantial and uncertain ‘weight’ of his own knowledge. Clearly the poetry is more than music, idylls and dreams; I would argue that Hyde knows full well that language makes itself part of what it refers to. In reporting indirectly Heaphy’s future announcement (‘no such world’), she reiterates a moment when the explorer doesn’t just ‘not see’ the Maori at Arahura. In J. L. Austin’s terms, Heaphy’s intention may be constative, but it has performative effect, not to mention performative desire. And inevitably it would ‘misfire.’ The message extirpates a people as such, but even as his desire ‘voids,’ something else is done as well: something else is said, contributing to a long history of shame both in colonial and, tragically, in indigenous communities in the future.
The world is a chalice with stars on its rim,
In Hyde’s poetry, the threshold is not so much epiphanal as it is the space inevitably linked loss:
So — she was gone. And the rain
This is both early and stark work, the whittled down lines that readers have argued appeared in her more ‘mature’ verse. For a long time critics attributed her apparent ‘sudden’ maturing as a poet to her traumatic experience as the only female journalist behind lines in China during war with Japan in the late 1930s. Even Lydia Wevers’ reconstructed version of Hyde reflects this position. She wrote that leaving New Zealand ‘emancipated’ Hyde’s imagination, producing later poems that ‘have an urgency, a vitality’ that finally overshadows the weaker aspects still present in Hyde’s work, ‘the “poetic” language, the excessive adjectives, a too-portentous tone.’ (Wevers xviii)
What makes the sweethearts quarrel?
This is the sort of bold image for female anatomy that H. D. produced some twenty-five years later in ‘Red Rose and a Beggar’ from the perspective of a woman in her 70s in the 1960s: an unexpected lover ‘troubles’ a woman in her ‘decline,’ and as a result, ‘the reddest rose unfolds.’ (Hermetic Definition) The metaphor works on a number of levels, but not the least as a figure evoking vaginal opening to physical pleasure. Both Hyde and H. D. (especially in early work such as Sea Garden also written around the experience of traumatic loss and miscarriage) represent sexual experience in images from nature. Consider these lines from Hyde in the early 1930s: ‘no heart cares’ where the bee ‘plunges into the petal,’ the ‘shallow cup of the flower,’ is ‘creamy thick flesh like a woman’s uncovered breast.’ Afterwards, ‘having so sudden a crowning’ the bee, ‘pure with pleasure’ moves on while the flower ‘shall hang there, a limp decay, wilted and browning.’ (‘No Heart Cares, Honey-bee’ 167) These lines set the scene for philosophical explorations in the next stanzas which readers can consider for themselves.
‘Five minutes,’ you said. Your voice had a bite of scorn.
Later the poet repeats his phrase, ‘“Five minutes ...”‘ And out of that, a child might be born.’ In the end it is ‘Not that some climbers are braver, more stubborn,’ but rather that ‘five poor minutes can blaze through Eternity.’ (‘Five Minutes II’ 137–38) Other poems from this period recognise phallic power and potential for violence. ‘In ‘Street Scene’ the poet questions whether Magdalen, watching men in streets, had ‘[f]elt their grey stone grow phallic through your flesh’? Here again is Hyde’s sense of women’s bodies as fodder, ‘the purulent flower, rotting from its birth.’ (“Street Scene’ 175) Indeed, sexuality in these poems may be experienced as a wound, ‘Bruise my mouth with love wounds.’ (‘Fragment’ 171)
Cathy Caruth has written that the ‘experience of trauma repeats itself, exactly and unremittingly’ in a ‘wound’ that is not available to consciousness until it poses itself again, repeatedly in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.’ It is well known that Hyde wrote as ‘therapy,’ but that doesn’t mean the result isn’t excellent art, with far-reaching philosophical and political insight as well. The poems gather narratives of women, biblical (Lilith, Magdalen, Ruth...)Western mythology (Persephone, Arachne...) and Maori (Arangi-Ma...) I argue though, this is not the work of a woman ‘escaping’ to any dream world. Her journalism substantiates Hyde as a woman totally enmeshed in a material world, constantly impacting at the level of the body.
.... And the body of a woman hung about his neck. Her white
As Leggott has written elsewhere, Hyde’s insight ‘encompasses but also exceeds and transforms personal context.’ (Nadath xv) Despite disappointment and apparent defeat, Nadath can see that ‘over the water’ stands the ‘house of woman’ anyway. This dwelling, in unsteady littoral sands, is old and small but nevertheless provides a ‘doorway’ for its caretaker, sustaining domicile until some ready point in the future for women. This is the holding environment, the space where edges cannot congeal, and therefore neither limits nor hardens knowledge. In ‘The Word,’ Hyde broadens this space to incorporate human domicile generally, advocating that:
until the world boils white in its crucible before it cools and blackens, we
However, reflecting specifically upon New Zealand, she writes later that:
our city had doorways, too many shut....
Recently Derrida has written about the ‘perennial question’ of ‘“open cities.”’ (Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness 2001 p viii) He speaks of an ‘audacious call for a genuine innovation in the history of the right to asylum....’ (4) where sanctuary is not a privilege controlled by sovereignty or by the law of (the father’s) hospitality, but universally open to all in need. This is precisely the space it seems to me that Hyde explores throughout her career in so many modes. Here in Australia, with the issue of (punitive) refugee policy fomenting into yet another election issue, Hyde’s thoughts on hospitality, the stranger and clemency might be reason enough (among many) to read her poetry now.
 — The text, ‘Parturition,’ was accessed on the World Wide Web.
 — I have written elsewhere about maternity as threshold. See Salt 15 pp 1-12.
 — Derrida, Jacques, ( 2000) ‘Hostipitality’ in Angelaki p 10).
 — I argue elsewhere (forthcoming) that the nexus between Hyde and Leggott reflects Derrida’s ‘logic’ in Archival Fever to ‘“capitalise everything, even that which ruins it or radically contests its own power.”’ (Archival Fever 13)
 — See ‘A Note on the Text’ Robin Hyde: Selected Poems Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984 p xxi.
 — DIA won the New Zealand Prize for Poetry in 1994.
 — Caruth, Cathy (1996) Unexplained Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) 4.
 — Boddy, Gillian and Matthews, Jacqueline eds. (1991) Disputed Ground: Robin Hyde Journalist, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 198.
Dr Susan Ash is Senior Lecturer in the School of International, Cultural and Community Studies, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia
Jacket 25 — February 2004