Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mount Helicon

Mount Helicon, a school book of poems (1937 edition)

An excerpt from Janet Frame's first volume of autobiography To the Is-Land:

I began to explore the poetry book, and to my amazement I discovered that many of the poets knew about Myrtle’s death and how strange it was without her. After the funeral was over the visitors had gone and my new lessons arrived, the everydayness of life had returned; yet in each day there was blankness, a Myrtle-missing part, and it was upon this blankness that the poets in Mount Helicon were writing the story of my feelings.

I could scarcely believe their depth of understanding. Mother, who revered all poets, was right, as usual, and her habit of murmuring from time to time ‘Only the poets know, only the poets know’ was now explicable to me; I understood also why she wrote so many of her verses about poets: there was the one I had recited at school.

He was a poet, he loved the wild thunder
as it crashed in the Universe. Now he sleeps under,
under the grass he loved. Stilled now his hand
only a poet’s heart could understand.
He heard the whispering of the pine trees.
Always within his heart, sweet melodies.
Glories of morning awoke in his heart.
He was himself of nature apart.
Softly he slumbers. Does someone care?
Nature showers o’er him leaves from her hair.

Mother sought the poets not necessarily for their poems but for the romantic idea of them, as if they might be a more tangible Second Coming, and when she began her familiar praise of them, Dad became jealous, as he became jealous of her references to Christ, and his jealousy always resulted in scorn.

A long poem in Mount Helicon, ‘The Lost Mate’ from Sea Drift by Walt Whitman, told everything I was feeling – the two mocking birds, the disappearance of one, the long search by its mate, with all the false alarms and pondered might-have-beens, the anger and regret and the desperate reasoning that enlisted the help of magic, ending in the failure to find what was lost and the letting go of all hope of finding it. I understood all the deceptions of thought and feeling which tried to persuade the mourning bird that there’d been no loss, that its mate would soon be home, had simply ‘gone away’ for the day or had been delayed and would be home some time, ‘you’ll see’. I read the poem to my youngest sister, Chicks, who also understood it. She and I read the poem again and again. I was amazed that my book should contain other such poems about Myrtle – ‘Annabel Lee’ – ‘It was many and many a year ago / In a kingdom by the sea . . .’ A kingdom by the sea! Oamaru, without a doubt. Oamaru with its wild sea beyond the breakwater and the friendly bay safe within, with the sound of the sea in our ears day and night.

There was yet another poem, ‘Evelyn Hope’:

Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!
Sit and watch by her side an hour.
That is her bookshelf, this her bed;
She plucked that piece of geranium-flower,
Beginning to die too, in the glass . . .
Sixteen years old when she died!

What marvellous knowledge of the poets who could see through my own life, who could be appearing to write poems of people in Oamaru, which everyone knew was halfway between the equator and the South Pole, forty-five degrees south, and which yet was not nearly so well known as Auckland or Wellington or Sydney or London or Paris, any cities in the Northern Hemisphere where many of the poets (who were dead) had lived!

(From 'Once Paumanok', Chapter 20 in To the Is-Land by Janet Frame)


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