A daughter’s memoir

Younger people may be tired of hearing what an exciting time the 70s was for women. But it remains true, and no less so for those within and on the edges of the literary world. At the time, I was an avid reader – of Atwood, Drabble, Weldon, Lessing, Plath; and Greer, de Beauvoir, Friedan, Millett, Wollstonecraft. The mere recital of these few representative names still stirs my blood.

Poetry was more foreign territory. Grammar-schooled in Pope, Tennyson, Masefield and de la Mare, of women poets ancient and modern, I heard nothing. Arriving in New Zealand in the mid-60s, names like Curnow, Fairburn, Glover, Mason and Baxter became familiar, but none belonging to women.

This door was at last opened for me, and I suspect many others, by a New Zealand anthology. Edited by Riemke Ensing, Private Gardens, published (ironically enough by Caveman Press) in 1975, highlighted for the first time the work of 35 of our female poets.

One of these was Lauris Edmond, subject of her daughter Frances’ new memoir, Always Going Home. 1975 was International Women’s Year, and when Lauris also published her first collection, Middle Air. Denis Glover was a keen supporter of her work, yet launching it, he couldn’t resist referring to the “menstrual school of poetry”.

Others, such as CK Stead, have struck harder and for longer at her work and her public life. Frances quotes him in Always Going Home: “Lauris Edmond, for a number of reasons, including her own literary-political strategies which were complex and skilful, had a dream run as a poet. One often heard anxieties privately expressed in literary circles but they were never given a public airing.”

Apparently, the male Anxious Ones were afraid of being labelled retrogrades who wanted women to stay in the kitchen.

A male poet described Lauris as “having an anthology of lovers, the tone disparaging.” A disparagement unlikely to be visited on male writers.

It’s true, as Frances writes, that Lauris rode the second wave of feminism, personally and professionally, and that she was ambitious. But that didn’t make her a poor poet. It did, however, make her popular, especially with women. Which was perhaps galling to some.

There lurks in the consciousness of most writers the conviction that they are engaged in a zero-sum game – that what is given to one must automatically be taken from another.

By the time Lauris died suddenly in 2000, Middle Air had won the PEN Best First Book Award, and she had gone on to publish more collections, a novel and a three-part autobiography. And Selected Poems had won the 1984 Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Her international reputation was such that she earned an obituary in the Guardian, although its slug line, “She found poetry in family life and motherhood,” reinforced the traditional view that, while men compose poetry about important stuff, women simply find theirs in banal domestic life.

Traditional marriage was another zero-sum game. Frances relates that her father and Lauris’ husband Trevor once said, on hearing from Lauris that she wanted to do something for herself, “But your happiness is in my success.”

Thus, in some quarters, Lauris’ achievements – and her rejection of the role of little woman behind the man – was a direct cause of Trevor’s collapse into mental illness, alcoholism and despair.  Her daughter reports that only recently did a journalist put this notion to her at a party.

An impressive aspect of her memoir is her disinclination to take sides. Some may still see her obvious love and respect for the mother as a rejection of the father, but she is not uncritical of Lauris, not flinching from noting when Lauris was unreasonable, even shocking, particularly in regard to her own family.

The opening chapter of Always Going Home deals with Lauris’ childhood and what she called her “first life” – the small-town wife of schoolteacher Trevor in Ohakune with its view of Ruapehu from the bathroom window. Mother of six children, who included one who would die tragically in her early 20s. Many of her poems are about (in a large sense of the word) her children. And one of the aspects that stands out in this book is Lauris’ powerful sense of motherhood and grandmother-hood.

When Lauris left Trevor, she was already a published poet. But, writes her daughter: “Despite her busy, productive, professional life, a persistent dichotomy continued to trouble her – the modern independent life versus the traditional one. She defended the boundary with a worthy assertion in her piece on grandmothering – ‘for all that, when the chips are down, I would always put family first.’

“That was not always my experience.”

Frances writes that she had no sense of her mother as a sexual being in her “first life” as wife and mother. This all changed in her “second life”. She notes her mother’s predilection for the “grand old men” who were her lovers – Arthur Sewell, Clarence Beeby, Bill Oliver, Hubert Witheford and Hone Tuwhare, as well as unnamed others in encounters whose details she shared with her daughter. And these affairs often featured in her poetry.

A male poet, writes Frances, described Lauris as “having an anthology of lovers, the tone disparaging”. A disparagement unlikely to be visited on male writers, even those still living in domestic comfort with obliging wives.

“Lauris was a familiar Wellington figure, flowing scarves and all”: Lauris Edmond at her Grass Street home, Oriental Bay, 1988. Image copyright Tim Steele

But, writes Frances, “As her daughter, I admire her capacity for sex, delight in her energy and exuberant lust for life, for adventure, for experience.” And it occurs to me that this is a generosity and perspective springing from the memoirist’s maturity. Now in her 70s, Frances is not much younger than her mother was when she died. For Frances to have grappled with the questions her mother’s second life raises when she was much younger might have produced an entirely different result.

Chapters tend to deal thematically as much as chronologically with Lauris’ life, as her daughter was aware of it, and how it found its way into her poetry. And – as one of her mother’s intimates and collaborators – she has unique insight into her mother’s work, from which she quotes generously. 

Only chapter two feels surplus to requirements. It’s a history of Lauris’s forebears, and – apart from her mother Fanny who meant a great deal to Lauris – the details seem to have too little bearing on the themes and the story Frances is recounting.

Frances calls Edmond nuclear family life “chaotic”, and writes of the “the toxic miasma of its dynamics”. But it remained so largely behind closed doors during life one. It was revealed to wider view by the publication of the second volume of Lauris’ autobiography during life two. Two of her daughters wrote to a Wellington newspaper dissociating themselves from Lauris’ account. And it prompted son Martin to write and publish a memoir of his father. The rift was long and painful. And Lauris was long and painfully obsessed with it.

By the time I knew her a little, Lauris was a familiar Wellington figure, flowing scarves and all, at literary events and launches. And at some point – possibly the 1996 launch of her collection, A Matter of Timing – I was moved by her reading of “In Position”:

I want to tell you about time, how strangely

it behaves when you haven’t got much of it left:

after 60 say, or 70.

It ends:

You’re alone. And slowly you begin to discern

the queer outline of what’s to come: the bend in

the river beyond which, moving steadily, head up

(you hope), you will simply vanish from sight.

Except, of course, she hasn’t.

Always Going Home – Lauris and Frances Edmond: A mother and daughter story by Frances Edmond (Otago University Press, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide, including Vic Books in Wellington, which closes on March 31.

Jane Westaway lives and works in Wellington.

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