No Traveller Returns: the selected poems of Ruth France, Cold Hub Press, 2020
While Trying to Study Phonetics on a Spring Morning
This immense arch of sky
Is a palate, on which ring
Day’s consonantal sounds
Voicing the clarity of bell air
Which breaks about and above us
Like tumbled, exploding plosives
Tripping on the teeth; these
Rear up, far off; sharp sounding-board
Or white, guardian mountains.
Here all is implicit; perhaps we have
No need of such conceits;
Yet without them words remain dumb
Where we, tiny on the tongue
Of the plains, consider how sweet
How sweet is the taste of morning.
Ruth France was one of a number of women poets who didn’t make it into Wild Honey; not because I wasn’t fascinated by her poetry or ideas. I made it clear I was offering a provisional home that needed more rooms, more poets, and more versions written by others writers, especially Māori and Pasifika. When Ruth was writing, most women poets were not lauded to the degree men were, and too often praise was offered on the judgement scale of men. Anthologies only ever included a handful of women and ‘women’s writing’ was often disparaged, undervalued, silenced. I am sitting at the kitchen table where I wrote Wild Honey and I am feeling an overwhelming sadness at the historic invisibility of twentieth-century women poets that is still in effect today. I spent four years writing Wild Honey and didn’t have room for everyone. This has to be an ongoing project.
Ruth France (1913 – 1968) was a poet and novelist. She wrote two novels, with her debut The Race (1958) winning NZ Literary Fund’s Award for Achievement. She published two collections of poetry under the name Paul Henderson, a handful of which made it into two anthologies (not all women of her era were selected). Editor Robert McLean (himself a poet with a new collection out) has selected poems from Ruth’s published books (Unwilling Pilgrim 1955 and The Halting Place 1961) along with poems from an unpublished manuscript, ‘No Traveller Returns’. To have this lovingly edited collection of her poetry underlines what readers have missed with her work not readily available.
Robert’s introduction considers the poetry and states that as the poems do not offer explicit biographical details neither will his introduction. Yet her biography (not that we have easy access to much) is as intriguing as the poetry. Yes, we can let poems stand on their own feet and we can find our own invigorating pathways through, but autobiography can make poems glint in unexpected ways. In fact, as is my habit, I read the poetry first, wrote most of this, then read Robert’s introduction and hunted out her appearances in New Zealand anthologies. She is largely invisible.
Te Ara / The Encyclopedia of New Zealand has a biographical entry. She was born in Canterbury, her mother wrote poems and short stories and was published in the Christchurch Press while her father was a shopkeeper. Ruth attended secondary school and then worked as a librarian before marriage at 21. For over three years, she and her husband lived on a yacht at Lyttelton; she rowed her husband to work and her son to kindergarten. After the second son was born they settled at Sumner. Her father had been a devout Catholic and was incensed his daughter had married a non-Catholic.
Ruth published her first collection of poetry at the age of 42 as Paul Henderson. According to Te Ara she wrote letters to the press under her own name and had a strong social conscience and her poems were published in various newspapers and journals. Te Ara also suggests her contemporaries claimed she wrote under a male pseudonym as it freed her from ‘poetess mannerisms’. Crikey! I am so infuriated by these two words. Ruth is said to have held herself at arm’s length from the Christchurch writing community as she didn’t like the way women were treated as inferior. I am thinking of the Caxton Press and all the power it exerted but also of the gatekeepers at a national level (there were notable exceptions). This is what it says in Te Ara:
Already well known for her poetry written under her own name, it is unclear why she felt a need for a male pseudonym. Contemporary male critics suggested it freed her from ‘poetess mannerisms’ and contributed to her success. Today, the best features of her poetry are judged to be the plain, serviceable language and syntax in, for instance, ‘After flood’ or ‘New Year bonfire’.
I am so infuriated by this dismissiveness, I want to write another book. Ruth’s poetry is so much more than ‘plain, serviceable language and syntax’. Where do I begin? For a start plain serviceable language can offer a thicket of copious reading delights. Secondly her beautifully crafted lines offer all manner of musical rewards. Economy and richness coexist.
I am sitting at my kitchen table with a thousand questions mounting. Why wasn’t her last ms published? Her poetry had a vital political edge to it yet, for whatever reason, her poems did not raise questions about the status of women, whether as wife, mother, poet or woman. Ruth refers to ‘men’ to denote all people encompassed in her narrating ‘I’: ‘All men I, and I, living, all men’. It was the convention of the time to subsume women within ‘men’, but some women poets were resisting this tradition. I am reminded of Mary Stanley’s ‘I’ in Starveling Year (1953) as she navigated what it was to be a woman writing (see ‘The Wife Speaks’). Yes I am a little disconcerted that women (and ‘she’) do not make an appearance in Ruth’s poems but we see the world through Ruth’s eyes. It in no way detracts from the myriad rewards her work offers. But it makes me curious about her views on the status of women.
As with many women poets, global issues mattered to Ruth – war, the bomb, atomic energy, equality of men, invasions. You will find clear evidence of her political acumen, along with heart-moving love poems and an attraction to the seas, hills, mountains, shifting tides, seasons. Her poetry is a sumptuous feast of ideas and physical layers. I think she needs a book devoted to her writings, her opinions, her life.
While you are there I am nested among leaves;
As sparrows come each morning for breadcrumbs
So I look for your still face beside me;
Without your calm in the face of what wild storm
I am no longer nested, but desolate among these leaves.
from ‘Always, on Waking’
No Traveller Returns: The Poetry of Ruth France
‘Living’, an early poem from Unwilling Pilgrim intrigues me. Here is the first verse:
What shall I sing?
It has all been sung before
But time did not begin
Till child my mother bore.
The poem faces the haunting and perhaps persistent nag that however we write our experience it has all been written before. Yet when I read this potent line – ‘Tears bit me in the brief / Salt stream for the first time’ – I am on reading edge. Shortly later I read this: ‘So for each one was new / The shattering love and war’. The poem was written around the year of my birth and I am spinning on its axis. Grief, love, war, pain – poetry has never abandoned these topics, poets have never lost the ability to affect us, to present unique versions of experience that challenge or soothe or inspire.
Ruth concludes the poem with this:
So let me sing for all
And sing old songs again.
I am filled with curiosity about this poem. Ruth is galvanised into song, and I am wondering if the reclaimed subject matter is also a reclaimed how. How we sing matters as much as what we sing. And in this context how we make poems. Is she singing the songs of men? Is she singing her own cerebral activity into poetry?
In ‘Object Lesson’, also from the first collection, the idea that human experience is individually unique is key (although connected by countless universals such as our need to eat and love and grieve). In this poem a hill is a hill but when a particular hill is filtered through a man’s knowing, it is ‘a hill through the eyes of one human’. I see the seeds of subsequent theory here on the role of the reader, the spectator, the creator.
I am finding Ruth’s poetry utterly unique – she is a poet both thinking and feeling, hiding and exposing. Her poems are intricate considerations on what it is to love, write, exist. Never fully in the open. This from ‘How Shall I?’:
Then how shall I do this?
Confine the mind to a reasonable process
Beguiling thought by beguiling thought through a tight
Web to a firm conviction? No moonlight
Must persuade, nor smile chance
To alter the grave march of circumstance.
There is song and there is not song. There is love and there is not love. There is also and always uncertainty, a mind open to movement and a resistance to absolutes. Time and time again I divert the overground ideas to the making of a poem; the way poetry is uncertain, open to multiple interpretations, steered by gut and daring as opposed to rigid maps and regulations. I love the way the landscape is a constant presence – think of it as an anchor, homeplace and a series of travel routes. The poem ‘Road Map’ reiterates the inability of a map to catch everything. The traveller’s aid may guide us across physical terrain, but equally it references the terrain of the mind. It is the blank page of the poet writing.
For all was unexpected that we found;
Rivers were marked, but what map could foretell
The scouring of spring floods, the changed ford,
How the great boulders fell?
There is no absolute of place to be drawn
In neat precision with a mapping pen:
Lakes are hemmed in by thought as well as hills,
That has branched through many men.
Ruth keeps returning to the idea that we are in the land and the land is in us, and how the relationships will be marked by memory, experience, uncertainty, hesitancy, predilection. Here are the final two verses:
Place will be integrate, but not on paper;
The mind’s net flung and hauled, it is a silver catch;
Here was the limestone bluff, the sharp bend,
There was iced snow to watch.
But later, in what deep valley of hesitation
We consider time, and place, and thought
As tiny scratches on what surface, an ultimate
No map, or mind, has caught.
The poetry of Ruth France is a treasure house of gold-nugget poems. Like any good treasury, it reveals its physical and abstract luminosity across the course of many readings. I am utterly fascinated by this writer, by her inquiring mind and her poetic deftness. Go hunt this glorious book down. Bravo Robert McLean and Cold Hub Press.
The island belonged to my father,
Or rather it belonged to nobody.
It wasn’t even real considered against
Men and Material, War and Atomic Energy.
Reality rejected too the hut I built, now ruined,
But then, so did the island. Its own core
Was a reality immune even from wind the eroding stranger.
from ‘The Island’
Cold Hub Press author page
My first edition copy of the second collection
Oh, Paula, your passion and your sadness tore at my heart this morning. Thank you for bringing such an amazing writer to our attention.
My understanding is the unpublished MS was with Caxton when Ruth died. It then fell into abeyance, as so many books did with Caxton. It ended up at the MacMillan Brown library at Canterbury University, which is where I discovered it. I’m not certain if there is other material of Ruth’s there.
Her poems really are terrific. And the life is interesting. I’m really pleased her poems are available to readers under her own name. Hopefully, too, Mary Stanley’s marvellous poems will also be given their due.
And if you’re interested I can email you the MS, which includes poems we didn’t include in the book.
Thank you, Paula, for this wonderfully insightful look at Ruth France’s poetry.
I’ve just ordered a copy and looking forward to enjoying this poetry.