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
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.