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A New Vantage Point

Susan Ash reviews

Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde,
edited by Michele Leggott

Auckland University Press, July 2003, 240 x 170mm, 350p approx, paperback, illus, ISBN 1 86940 298 7, NZ$49.99
Auckland University Press, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand:
You can explore links to a vast range of poems, photographs, essays and other research material relating to Robin Hyde at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre Internet site at

Notes are given at the end of this file, with links that look like this: [1]. Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text. If your browser employs JavaScript, just hover your mouse over the link: the note will appear in a pop-up window. This piece is 3,300 words or about eight printed pages long.

Photo of Robin Hyde in 1934

Robin Hyde, 1934
a studio portrait by Herbert Tornquist

Eminent poet Michele Leggott edits and introduces Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde, producing the first extensive, scholarly publication of Hyde’s poetry, although Hyde herself died sixty-five years ago. This extraordinary volume makes clear that Hyde’s work more than amply rewards readers pursuing a range of theoretical preoccupations over the past few decades: the eighties focus on women as speaking subjects, the nineties obsession with embodiment as well as the turn towards ethical and thematic concerns such as friendship (Blanchot); shame (Sedgwick) and hospitality/ strangers (Levinas/ Derrida). In other words, it is poetry that fascinates on a number of levels.

What strikes me now is how much Hyde had to say about ‘thresholds.’ Leggott begins her introduction with this idea and a long quotation from the poem ‘Young Knowledge.’ It’s a ‘brilliant moment,’ Leggott declares, Charles Heaphy’s experience as agent for the New Zealand company, standing momentarily between worlds, ‘refracted through his journal’ and ‘made over into poetry.’ (‘Introduction’ 1) Hyde’s poem narrates the point in Heaphy’s journey when, from the vantage point of ‘clifftops’, the explorer looked back and down on the Arahura valley to see a Maori community’s ‘final stream’ of blue smoke. However, in a moment that will betray rather than honour hospitality received, Hyde writes that Heaphy ‘weighed his knowledge — / The thin, precarious weight of early knowledge’ and then prepared to ‘tell the cities there was no such world.’ (‘Young Knowledge’ 207)

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.

If the poem ‘Young Knowledge’ ends with a specific example of epistemic, colonial violence, it opens with the kind of generic ‘lesson’ that Hyde learned at a very young age: the physical experience of giving birth troubles certainty forever. In the first stanza, a ‘mare in foal ...Cropping grasses of a certitude’ is changed utterly by ‘one brief night of pain’ that ‘like frost shall brittle’ the ‘breathing clover....’ (‘Young Knowledge’ 203) While not strictly a poem about childbirth, the association for me is with Mina Loy, in particular her poem ‘Parturition’[1] which graphically constructs labour as a threshold.[2] Labour for Loy is a space where ‘Something in the delirium of night hours/ Confuses while intensifying sensibility,’ before culminating with a ‘sublime’ (Loy) or ‘treasured’ (Hyde) maternity. To read Hyde is to return again and again to this potential for intensifying ‘sensibility’ in threshold moments.

We have long ‘known’ Hyde as marginalised woman writer, a lame figure, in pain, using drugs, unwed and pregnant, shamed into ‘hiding out’ in secret bays, writing perspicaciously about alienated (male) figures such as Starkie (Douglas Stark). Rather than the margin, I think now that the ‘threshold’ (hinge, doorway) is a more accurate metaphor to suggest Hyde’s positioning in early New Zealand’s poetics and politics. It would be all too easy to disregard Hyde’s account of Heaphy as yet another instance of explorer/ writer rendering a relationship of dominance between the seer and the seen, by situating perspective from a high place, assigning significance and value to what s/ he sees. The smoke’s ‘final stream’ even suggests the West’s fatal impact on indigenous cultures. Clearly no Western woman writes inculpably, but I would argue that Hyde is attempting to honour rather than betray the ‘moment at the gate,’ at Leggott puts it. (‘Introduction’ 26) Hyde re-enacts the (anaphoric) moment at the threshold when/ where you may be welcomed or driven away. A crucial conflation of space/ time.

Thinking thus of thresholds, I like Derrida’s version for Hyde, his notion of a space that has not yet been crossed; where the trick is to linger and prolong an initial instant of ‘visitation’ when one is not yet host or guest. This liminal space is significant because it potentially refuses to privilege either etymological origin for the word: the Latin for hospitality and hostility. Thus, for Derrida the threshold offers a positive mode for experiencing the ‘not yet’ and for potentially experiencing ‘the other’ intersubjectively. This threshold does not present its edges, at least for the moment: suggesting ‘a future without horizon’ that I think Hyde would welcome. [3] She returns to this focus on the potential of thresholds despite exquisite loss in a short career ended by suicide at the age of 33. Young knowledge, indeed.

How does one reconcile the Hyde of such compelling lyrical, political and philosophical ‘knowledge’ with the apparent conventional poetical form and occasional archaic diction? (Perhaps I would prefer that Hyde liked the pronouns thy/ thou a little less.) Her ‘literary’ knowledge might satisfy Eliot’s prescription for the individual’s consciousness of ‘tradition,’ but even Hyde knew that Eliot would not like the ‘style’ of her poetry. In ‘Queer Slippers’ she quips that the ‘manner’ of her poetry, ‘pellucid to herself,’ would be ‘shocking’ to an ‘Eliot.’ (my emphasis 276) Thus, Hyde will disappoint any demand for obviously fragmented, discontinuous texts we associate with a certain mode of Modernism. We should, however, read Hyde on her own terms, as another perspective reflecting on epistemological (Modernist) preoccupations. We require a different forensic for reading and situating Hyde’s poetry into the New Zealand and wider archives. Michele Leggott has known this for a long time.

Young Knowledge is the culmination of ten years of work for Leggott: writing essays on Hyde, (‘Opening the Archive,’ ‘Taking Of Each What Is Needed’), editing new publications (The Book of Nadath, The Victory Hymn), and supervising Ph D work such as Lisa Docherty’s pristine collection of Hyde’s letters, ‘“Do I Speak Well?”‘. This time marks a kind of ‘threshold’ space for Leggott herself. She has shifted her focus from literary godfathers (Wedde/ Zukofvsky) to godmothers. More significantly, I think, is her own archival desire to use ‘anything’ and ‘everything.’[4]  That is, with Victory Hymn Leggott worked to stave off fixing borders; the published text is a collage of existing manuscripts, where no version is more ‘distinctive’ or ‘definitive that another.’ Leggott sets her own essay into the actual poem in this volume, intermittently interrupting the smooth flow of Hyde’s text, thus emphasising its multiple versions.

With Young Knowledge Leggott re/ circulates Hyde’s poetry  ‘as she wrote it’ based on archival research. Five chronological sections suggest a teleology, but thematic groupings within these sections result in an iterative experience for the reader as Hyde returns to ideas, images, colours throughout her career.

On occasion Leggott includes more than one version of the same poem. For example, ‘Close Under Here’ from ‘Houses by the Sea’ (Hyde’s late autobiographical sequence of adolescence in Wellington) is preceded in Young Knowledge  with another draft that includes a final verse I knew nothing about, although I have worked with the poem for years in a variety of formats from thesis writing to teaching.

Leggott usefully clarifies ‘mistakes’ which appeared in an earlier publication, Gloria Rawlinson’s Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde (1952). As Hyde’s friend, Rawlinson ‘protected’ a large portion of Hyde’s papers after her death in London in 1939, preserving two versions of ‘Close Under Here’ in manuscript. Neither however is exactly the version Rawlinson published. It is important that Leggott sets the record straight regarding Rawlinson’s somewhat loose handling of Hyde’s texts and biography. Leggott’s introduction makes clear that Rawlinson’s publication was a deliberate act of invention and ventriloquism, based on some need to ‘clarify’ Hyde’s experience from her own point of view and memory. (‘Introduction’ 29) Publications that followed, such as Lydia Wevers Selected Poems in 1984, relied heavily on Rawlinson’s version.[5] With Young Knowledge  Leggott has painstakingly and scrupulously reproduced text out of archival material rather than memory.

Obviously, of course, Young Knowledge cannot accommodate Leggott’s comments internally (as Victory Hymn). Readers can follow her process by accessing a thorough, supplementary website ( authors/ hyde) with textual and descriptive details for each poem.

What Young Knowledge also provides are the actual Hyde texts that Leggott incorporated in her own poetry during the 1990s (Blue Irises’). Leggott embedded ‘white-hot lines’ from Hyde (and others) into her own poetry in a process she calls ‘sampling’ as ‘homage.’ (DIA [6]) In ‘Opening the Archive,’ Leggott explains that both she and Hyde revel in ‘the ‘old/ new, here/ there, visible/ invisible connections’ with earlier writers.

There are other links as well between these two New Zealand poets, biographical and otherwise, not the least their experience of familial loss as well as struggling to manage their obligations to produce texts while attending well to children. Nevertheless, one might wonder why a contemporary writer, known first for her superb performance of ‘language poetry,’ gets so entangled in poetry considered for decades not ‘difficult’ text, but rather the work of a difficult woman. Just what about Hyde’s poetry is so compelling now?

I’ll start at the beginning. The first thematic grouping is the section ‘Pierrette’ (1925-1929) This is early work from a nineteen year old (Heaphy’s age when he arrived in New Zealand), appearing perhaps merely fanciful or childlike. But Pierrette is not only a figure in seventeenth-century commedia dell’ arte; Modernist artists such as Picasso were using the trope at this time; indeed he produced his son in 1924 as Pierrot. In the same year French director Louis Feuillade produced his silent film, Pierrot, Pierrette. (Not to mention an earlier Balzac novel and Maupassant story with these figures.) The idea of personas with masks is carried over into later groups in this section, ‘Masks I’ and ‘II.’ Despite these masks, what one can’t miss in Hyde’s poetry, even these early examples, is desire: the threat posed by desire, her lament for lost or unsatisfied desire, and her recognition of the cultural loss sustained by excluding women’s desire:

The world is a chalice with stars on its rim,
The clear silver light sparkles cold at the brim —
Lady, Beware! Lest your gay-winging soul
Fall and be drowned in the blind silver bowl. (‘Wine of the Moon’ 41)

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
Out in the empty street
Beat and beat and beat
Like wings of a bird in pain.’ (‘Prodigal’ 53)

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)

No doubt some readers will still agree, but I for one have changed my mind. Without a community of avante garde artists such as those who surrounded H. D., Woolf and Loy, Hyde nevertheless pushes boundaries that continue to astonish. If she is ‘portentous’ at all, this is totally appropriate to a human being facing survival on a number of levels both personal and cultural.

As a poet forging her own version of sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s, Hyde continues to please and astonish me. She asks in more ways than one, ‘what is it quickens [a woman’s] blood?’ The poetry shows Hyde questioning sexual mores and the repression of her time at the level of the body, although this has gone generally unnoticed for decades. It seems that even in the 80s we were a bit squeamish about Hyde’s eroticism. Wevers accounted for this aspect as ‘images of fertility predominat[ing]. (my emphasis  xv) My own version in a postgraduate essay in 1982 opened: ‘Hyde’s poetry teems with images of fecundity.’ But looking now, I see texts that figure women’s bodies in terms that couldn’t fail to please even contemporary writers of female desire:

What makes the sweethearts quarrel?
Third mouth, pink as coral.(‘Houses by the Sea’ 373).

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.

Clearly it is not necessary to write a ‘Tender Buttons’ to code women’s sexual experience, but if ‘honey-bee’ proves too laden with adjectives and portentous in tone, there are other accounts of sexual experience. In ‘Five Minutes,’ Hyde handles difference with a ‘lighter’ touch. Here she speaks of men after coitus:

‘Five minutes,’ you said. Your voice had a bite of scorn.
You were thinking, I knew, how women neither wedded or on hire
Would catch their breath on the Everest of desire
And never, never quite reach the summit. No, ...
(‘Five Minutes II’ 137)

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)

Photo of Robin Hyde in 1931

Robin Hyde in 1931
with her son Derek Challis
at Palmerston North

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.’[7] 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.

For example, read her piece on birth control in 1937, ‘Less Happy Parenthood.’ Here she focuses on access to abortion for unmarried women based on a Government Report that pronounced the ‘“practice of contraception extra-maritally” need only be “mentioned to be deprecated.”‘[8] As a single parent herself, Hyde considers the implications in a country where 4000 abortions occur annually, with one quarter of the maternal mortality rate the consequences of septic abortion.

Hyde dealt with conundrums in journalism, in life, and it is to be expected that she process these experiences, her ‘knowledge’ in poetry as well. She returns to ‘safe’ spaces, doorways, dwellings; and in these thresholds, she is participant observer calibrating loss, but with hopeful eye on the future. She articulates this figure exactly in her long prose piece The Book of Nadath. Here the prophet Nadath sets out to build a house of woman, but is discouraged when even women themselves refuse to break the circuit of self-sacrifice. Nadath’s knowledge is Hyde’s when a vision in the sky reveals a man ‘who sought to climb a steep hill:’

     .... And the body of a woman hung about his neck. Her white
hands touched the ground, and her head fell back.

There were pearls in her ears, and clasped around her throat. But her eyes
and lips were senseless, vapid as if she slept. (‘The House of Woman’ 290)

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
cannot judge if this is for better or worse.’ (327)

However, reflecting specifically upon New Zealand, she writes later that:

our city had doorways, too many shut....
Nobody had the beautiful strength to decree
‘Leave your doors open, morning and evening:
Leave your doors wide to the stranger.’ (‘Journey from New Zealand  333)

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.

[1] — The text, ‘Parturition,’ was accessed on the World Wide Web.
[2] — I have written elsewhere about maternity as threshold. See Salt 15 pp 1-12.
[3] — Derrida, Jacques, ( 2000) ‘Hostipitality’ in Angelaki p 10).
[4] — 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)
[5] — See ‘A Note on the Text’ Robin Hyde: Selected Poems Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984 p xxi.
[6]DIA won the New Zealand Prize for Poetry in 1994.
[7] — Caruth, Cathy (1996) Unexplained Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) 4.
[8] — 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

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