Friday, 4 April 2008

Ruth Dallas

Calm Evenings

by Ruth Dallas

9p.m. and the sun still shining
The city deserted.

The construction cranes
Make no more gestures in the blue sky.

The builders are far away
In their holiday houses.

The old year nods its head
The new year not yet come.

Sparrows, who have no calendar,
Chatter in the linden trees.

My shadow grown tall as a telegraph pole
Slants across the quiet streets.

Tonight I should like to go on walking

Photograph of Ruth Dallas holding her award.
Ruth Dallas

The image and copy of the poem come from the website for 'Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind.'

On March 18th the poet Ruth Dallas died. She was aged 88 years. Like many others, I found an easy and deep connection with her poetry, imbued with images of places that I myself love - such as Southland (where she was born), Central Otago and Dunedin.
Her strong, memorable, clear and crafted poems have often been described as 'deceptively simple'. Quiet and unassuming, she had an understated, yet distinctive, reading voice. I heard her read three or four times in her later years. By then it was apparent that failing sight was making life a little difficult for her.

This from the New Zealand Book Council website:
As the daughter of the entrepreneurial proprietor of an Invercargill petrol-station, Dallas’s background presented neither high educational opportunities nor encouragement to write. She remarks in her autobiography Curved Horizon (1991), ‘I am at a loss to account for the fact that I wrote poetry in an environment where I knew no one who was interested in poetry.’Yet she developed a love of words that, from the age of 9, manifested itself in poems and stories, a number of which were published in the Southland Daily News’s ‘Little Pakehas’ Page’ (see Children’s Pages).

The concentration on place—specifically the lower South Island—is intense; reflecting her permanent fascination with the ‘primeval forests and cleared fields, and the history of … settlement’. This landscape, absorbed in childhood, is her ‘World’s Centre’: ‘The circle … of mountain, hill / And curving sea that once enclosed the world.’ Her poems are a record of her love for ‘the bright rain-washed countryside … the forests and inland mountains, [and] the long shell-strewn beaches.’

Yet Dallas’s land- and city-scapes are often empty. In ‘Deserted Beach’ (1953) there is not ‘One gull to circle through the wild salt wind / Or cry above the breaking of the waves,’ nor ‘One footprint or one feather on the sand’. If a poem is populated, its figures are reflections of the settler past, or poems about family that often are about loss: ‘Of all the tools in my tool-cupboard, / I like best those that my father used.… Bereaved daughters have to learn / To come to their own rescue, / Or be entirely overgrown’ (‘Encounter’, 1976).

She lived in Dunedin for most of her life, moving here from Invercargill when she was a young woman. I remember in the 70s when I was a student, often seeing her at the Dunedin library where she was librarian for many years. At that time though, I had no idea who she was. I just remember her face from that time as being a 'Dunedin face'.
Apart from the fact that she was also born in Southland, there were other reasons I felt a connection with Ruth Dallas. They're hardly momentous, but significant for me personally. She was born the same year as my father, she wrote poems from the age of nine and had them published in the Southland Times (just as I did when I was nine years old, thirty three years later) her first book was published the year I was born and she was Burns Fellow the year my father died, 1968.
I only met her last year, when Richard Reeve introduced her to me at the launch of her last poetry collection, 'The Journey of a Ming Vase'. I remember feeling slightly astonished that such an established poet of her stature, should end up looking so very small and frail - as if the slightest breeze would blow her away. Which in a way I guess it did, a fortnight ago. R.I.P. Ruth Dallas.


Mama Llama said...

A beautiful memoir written of an amazing woman. Thank you, Chief.

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

A wonderful post about an interesting lady--well, a couple of interesting ladies! Nicely done.

Tammy Brierly said...

A long life and interesting lady! XXOO

Anonymous said...

I can connect with this. I love the spare writing.

Becky Willis Motew said...

You will treasure your memories of her. And I suspect you were valued highly by her too. I'm glad to know about Ruth.


by kd said...

Thank you! It's a treat to have your perspective of Ruth Dallas. Although you have different styles, I've always thought there was a blood connection between her poetry and yours. The first poem I read of hers was 'Milking at Dawn', which brought old frosts to life. You can see the parallel in the title 'Feeding the Dogs'! But even more in the way you breathe life into the Southland of your childhood. A difference between you is her asceticism and isolation, and your interest in people and family.

apprentice said...

Yes a lovely tribute, and the circularity of it all is wonderful.
There's a poem in that I'm sure.

kj said...

anyone graced with a memoir from you, chief, is lucky in the luckiest of ways...


Di Mackey said...

Thank you. I didn't know she had died. Lovely post.

S. Kearney said...

What a lovely tribute, CB. Thank you.

Kay Cooke said...

mapi - She was a much under-rated NZ poet.

pepek - I like being called interesting!

tammy - Glad you liked the post.

watermaid - Yes I can see how you'd like her poetry - her style is a little like your own.

becky - I will treasure the memories. Thanks.

kd - That's made me feel real good - thank you! I too love her 'Milking at Dawn' - and her pioneer Women poem too is a fav. But so many more as well.

apprentice - Thanks - I like the way you've described it as circulatory - it's quite true. And yes, I'm sure there's a poem there. One day.

kj - You are too kind!! :)

di - Thanks. It wasn't as big news as Hone's death, but in her own quiet way she was as renowned.

shameless - Thanks - I found it a pleasure to write.

rel said...

It's nice to be remembered even in death by the people we may have unknowingly influenced in a positive way.
You have said thank you in a most appropriate way.

Kay Cooke said...

rel - Thank you. I wanted her death to be acknowledged, as the rest of NZ seems to have forgotten to acknowledge it. :) (Apart from her publishers - and mine - at OUP.)

Tim Jones said...

Not quite unacknowledged elsewhere - Helen Rickerby and I both posted obituaries of her on our blogs. But I agree that, particularly in recent years, both her most recent work and her lifetime body of work has received neither the attention nor the praise it deserves. I hope that, when the tides of current literary fashion have gone out, time will grant her the respect she is due.

Kay Cooke said...

Tim - Thanks so much - I'm sorry I haven't visited your blog in a while and so didn't catch your acknowledgment there. But have now - and it was worth the visit too - a great tribute.

Harvey Molloy said...

Great tribute--and a wonderful choice of poem. Just look at those last two lines. What a talent.

Kay Cooke said...

harvey - Thanks. Yes, I agree, she was a wonderful poet.

Kay Cooke said...

Farther - Acknowledgements to ruth Dallas have gradually been forwarded - a bit like the poet herself, quiet, sincere, unassuming ... it is gratifying to see she is receiving the acknowledgment and tributes she deserves. (I hope there are even more to come.)

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