Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde, Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima,
Massey University Press, 2020
In 2020 Massey University Press initiated the kōrero project, a collaboration between ‘two different kinds of artistic intelligence to work at a shared topic’. As I underlined in my review, the first book – High Wire, by Lloyd Jones and Euan Macleod – was stunning. The kōrero project seems necessarily open with no prescriptive views on how each collaboration ought to proceed. I like that. The second book, Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde by writer Paula Morris and photographer Haru Sameshima, offers a different approach and is equally satisfying. Both hardbacks are gorgeously produced by Massey University Press.
Perhaps I am drawn to Shining Land because it returned me to my own search for women poets in the archives and their poetry as I wrote Wild Honey. Paula and Haru went looking for Robin Hyde in her books and in the archives, but equally significantly in the physical places where she had lived in Aotearoa. Individual ‘storm chasers’ who met and planned and then took to their own roads of creating. The photographs and the text offer separate narrative threads, but also establish electric connections between image and word, between what is imagined and what is read, the elusive past and a personal present. I see this ground-breaking book as an invigoration of genre. It is memoir, biography, artwork, road trip, narrative, collaboration. It does not contextualise a subject in academic theory or adhere to biography paradigms or offer sustained close readings. If the authors are in search of their subject so too are the readers. I like that. In fact I love peering between the lines and the shadows, so to speak.
Consider this book as you might consider a poem where the poet offers stepping stones without filling in the whole river scene. It is over to us to choose how we navigate the electric currents, cross the bridges, absorb the biographical details, the self exposures of author and photographer. We can track Robin’s difficult life: her incessant pain after a knee injury, numerous lovers but no long term attachments, the death of a lover overseas, a stillborn baby, a secret baby placed in foster care, the scorn of men including local literary power brokers, the censure of family, the mental fragility, breakdowns even, the prolonged time in ‘mental hospitals’. The incessant need to earn money to pay for the care of her son, Derek Challis. The departure from New Zealand, with her fraught stopover in war-torn China and Japan. Her premature and tragic death in London. The books published in her lifetime; the articles, the fiction, the poetry written. Such layers of challenge when unendurable pain (eased by morphine) was spiked by the pain of losing her babies, her lover, her family’s respect, a place to call home, to be home.
In the Alexander Turnbull Library I held a sticker scrapbook that Robin had made for Derek, little stickers pasted alongside little stories she wrote for him. The stories petered out, and then the stickers petered out, and I felt the pain of the loss deeply. I carried a phantom presence as a throbbing ache back to my hotel room.
As I try to write about Shining Land my words keep breaking its incandescent magic (shining), its accumulating moods. The photographs are uncanny, eerie, both empty and full, empty of human presence because Robin is missing and missed. The storm chasers outside the frame. I keep imagining Robin entering the scene. I like that. When I look at the shot of Rangitoto ki te Tonga D’Urville Island and Te Aumiti French Pass from French Pass Road with gloomy skies and greys I become grey state. I like this so much. How can I speak? This is where pregnant Robin posed as a married woman, before moving to Picton and then back to Wellington with her secret baby and and her secret heartache. I am on the pass looking down at the grey isolation. I will never know Robin, I will never be in Robin’s shoes, but I feel. And that is what Paula and Haru do. They feel Robin in the depths of their looking and their making. It is contagious.
For Paula, it has much to do with feeling home and unhome and being on the move. Nomadic. Paula has lived in many cities, both in Aotearoa and overseas. Robin too was always on the move, from this house to that, to psychiatric institutions, from her city of birth to a city in the provinces to a city offshore, far removed from loved ones. Haru’s photographs offer footbridges to states of minds and to author phantoms. Transcendental. Movement rich. Still. So too does Paula’s writing. Together Paula and Haru visited the Grey Lodge that is now part of Unitec Institute of Technology, but was part of Avondale Mental Hospital. Robin admitted herself after a nervous breakdown. Unlike other guests she had a private room in the lodge and patch of garden, a table and a typewriter, and took up her doctor’s suggestion to write a memoir. The photographs are eerie, thick with mood and absence that translates into an uncanny and heart-beating-faster presence. Paula’s paragraph sets my hairs on end. Place becomes heartbeat.
The door to the attic is green, tattooed with graffiti, and Haru warns me about the steps: they’re alarmingly narrow and tall, and must have been difficult for Hyde to negotiate with her limp. The attic view now is of tree tops and the city, with glimpses of the harbour. The room is dusty and bare, humming with a central air unit. Something about the attic excites us both: it seems alive with Hyde, or perhaps we feel close to her in this plain space; the shape would have been familiar to her, the quiet.
After I edge back down, my feet too big for the steps, I leave Haru alone in the house – apart from the ghosts – waiting for the light to turn.
Shining Land makes me feel closer to Robin, perhaps more than any other book has done, apart from her poetry. Paula and Haru have built a space for her, a plain space, with pathways and rooms and gaps between the lines. And so more than before, I am feeling the pain of losing babies, of needing to write, of translating experience into prose and poetry, of persisting on through crippling pain. Of not saying everything out loud, so the rooms of a life fill, so we may eavesdrop all this time later.
Paula offers felicitous quotations, along with nuanced comments. Empathetic. Insightful. Spare. For example: The building where Robin roomed in Whanganui – after she had fostered Derek out – now houses a children’s clothing shop: ‘I’m glad she never had to look at those tiny rompers and bonnets.’
On one page, one sentence only: ‘Gwen Metcalfe, her closest friend: “It is a lot to happen to a girl before she is twenty.”’
When I was writing Wild Honey, I mourned the way some writers of the past and the present have rendered our early women poets missing, lost in the service of academic theory, in the privileged views and yardsticks of men. I wanted to hold these fierce and insistent women close, and feel their poetry, feel their circumstances and their ideas, their refusal to vanish. Shining Land is a form of embrace. It offers significant facts, personal connections, an astute selection of Robin’s words, and from friends and enemies. The book is restrained and vulnerable and probing. On this occasion and in this way, it holds Robin. In the gaps, the empty rooms, the medicine bottles, the window views. It makes me want to pick up my favourite Hyde collection Houses by the Sea and catch glimpses of an elsewhere time and place, a woman finding life so heartbreakingly difficult. I feel Shining Land to my core.
Paula Morris MNZM, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Whātua, is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer and essayist. A frequent book reviewer, interviewer and festival chair, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, where she convenes the Master in Creative Writing programme, and is the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.
Haru Sameshima was born in Shizuoka City, Japan, and immigrated to New Zealand in 1973. He completed an MFA (1995) at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. Sameshima has exhibited and published widely in New Zealand, and his images illustrate some of New Zealand’s most significant art and craft publications. He has his own publishing imprint, Rim Books, and runs his Auckland studio, Studio La Gonda, in partnership with Mark Adams.
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