Do you remember how we woke
to the first bird in that awkward pine
behind the ablution block, and leaned
across the knotted ground to lift
the canvas as though it was
the wall of the world
and ourselves at the heart of it
with the fresh grass against our faces
and the early air sweet beyond all telling –
do you sometimes look still
into that startled darkness
and hear the bird,
as I do?
When we drove away I looked back always
to the flattened yellow grass
to see the exact map of our imagining
our built universe
for a week
and saw that it was just earth
and faced the natural sky.
We took with us the dark pine
and the blackbird
and dew beside our foreheads
as we woke
and now we live apart
and I don’t know where they are.
Lauris Edmond (from New & Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1991)
Posted with kind permission from the Lauris Edmond Estate.
From Kate Camp: It feels a bit odd that this is such a favourite poem of mine, because of the pun with my name. But the image of the flattened grass hit me with such power when I first read it, and does every time I revisit it. There is so much to love about the poem – its sensuality, its unashamed romanticism, and of course (being Lauris Edmond) its absolutely killer ending.
I remember Lauris saying to me once that she felt a poem should end like the shutting of a car door, from which I took a sense of satisfying and substantial closure, a rightness. I didn’t know Lauris well but she had a way of talking, and of reading her poems, as if she was slightly surprised by each individual word. I hear that cadence when I read the poem.
But of course the best thing about this poem is the ablution block. It’s such an ugly, unlikely thing to find in a poem, both the thing itself and the awkward “no one has ever said it” tone of the phrase. You know this is a found piece of language off some battered sign of the camp ground, and that lends the whole poem a down home, unpretentious feeling, that lets her get away with the romantic flourish of the “early air sweet beyond all telling.”
The other thing I love about this poem is how, like one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s really a kind of sly testimony to the power of poetry – and of this particular poet – to capture and immortalise. It ends “I don’t know where they are” but of course we do know where they are, the bird and the pine and the dew are here in this poem. Wherever the poem’s protagonists and landscapes are, however lost to time and mortality, the poet has saved them here.
I think that’s why for me this melancholy poem is one that leaves me with a sense of exhilaration, even triumphalism – because when the car door of the poem closes, I sense the power of the poet in the driver’s seat.
Kate Camp is a Wellington-born essayist and poet, with six collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press. She has also written essays and memoir. Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award (1999), and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry (2011). Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for the award in 2013, and The internet of things was longlisted in 2018. She has received the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2011) and the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (2017). Her essay ‘I wet my pants’ was a finalist in the Landfall essay competition in 2018.
Lauris Edmond wrote poetry, novels, short stories, stage plays, autobiography and edited several books, including ARD Fairburn letters. She published over fifteen volumes of poetry, including several anthologies, and a CD, The Poems of Lauris Edmond, was released in 2000. Her debut collection, In Middle Air, written in her early fifties, won the PEN NZ Best First Book of the Year (1975) while Selected Poems won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1985). She received numerous awards including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship (1981), an OBE for Services to Poetry and Literature (1986), an Honorary DLitt from Massey University (1988). Edmond was a founder of New Zealand Books. The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award was established in her name. Her daughter, Frances Edmond, and poet, Sue Fitchett, published, Night Burns with a White Fire: The Essential Lauris Edmond, a selection of her poems in 2017.