Gloria Rawlinson. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-6388-16. Alexander Turnbull Library
A postscript by Spinoff Review of Books literary editor, Steve Braunias
I asked Paula for her expert assessment of Gloria Rawlinson after I went to a book fair in Kumeu and picked up a copy of Rawlinson’s 1935 book The Perfume Vendor for 50 cents. It stated on the cover: “The famous young New Zealand poet.” Later, I read that her weekly mail averaged 300 letters from all over the world, including one from US President and fellow polio sufferer Franklin D Roosevelt. English poet Walter de la Mare corresponded with her and read her poetry aloud in London poetry circles; in New Zealand, her work was praised by author Jane Mander. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage made a surprise visit to see her one New Year’s Eve. She was a local celebrity. But when I stared at the book, I thought: who?
The cover featured a photo of a beautiful, dark-haired child who looked strangely modern, someone vibrant and alive. It said on the inside cover, “Gloria was born on an island in the Tonga group [Ha’apai] and came to New Zealand at the age of six, speaking other languages better than English. After a year at a small private school [the Melmerly Collegiate boarding school for girls, at 40 St George’s Bay Rd, in Parnell; pupils included aviatrix Jean Batten] she fell victim to a serious illness, and out of the years in hospital and lonely bedroom these verses have been penned.” The blurbology later referred to the author as “a velvet-eyed and thoughtful little occupant of a wheel-chair.”
The whole thing felt as frail and delicate as a pressed flower. Inside, the verses were brittle, full of loss and solitude and dead animals. There were fairies. There were angels. But there wasn’t anything remotely innocent or magical about them; they were more like little occupants of Hell, fragments of death, creepy shadows cast by moonlight in a graveyard. Her poem “Moths” sets it out in plain English.
For the complete postscript and my short piece on Gloria go here.
I love the attention Steve has paid to Gloria’s poetry. Having spent three years paying attention to women’s poetry that was blindsided by the canon in earlier decades and by academics using women’s poetry to support theory rather than open up poems (oh in that old fashioned sense of exploring what a poem does), the postscript gave me goosebumps.