Night burns with a white fire: the Essential Lauris Edmond.
Frances Edmond and Sue Fitchett, editors.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa (2017).
RRP: $34.99. Soft cover, 180pp.
Reviewed by Catherine Fitchett.
This collection is not the typical ‘collected’ or ‘selected’, arranged chronologically by date of publication. Instead, the editors called for suggestions from Edmond’s friends, family and colleagues. These include both poems and extracts from prose writings – the three volumes of her autobiography, letters, addresses and interview notes. These have then been arranged in ten thematic sections, each titled with a line or phrase from Edmonds’ work. ‘Essential’ here could be taken to mean both the most important and necessary works, or those which contain the essence of the author. Both meanings are appropriate to the collection in which the prose extracts add context to the poems, and illustrate the importance of Edmonds’ work at a time when women’s lives were changing, moving from domestic to wider concerns.
The first section, ‘Somewhere You Are Always Going Home’, deals with birth and childhood. The second section, ‘Love’s Green Darkness’, covers relationships, primarily marriage and the failure of marriage. Later sections deal with ageing and with death, including the suicide of Edmond’s fourth child Rachel, described in the timeline at the back of the book as ‘a devastating event that becomes a major influence on her writing’.
Grouping the poems thematically in this way means that these sections have a heavy weight to carry. They are tough to read, as they must have been tough to write. Edmonds writes in a letter to Riemke Ensing:
I have all sort of problems … about publishing anything so personal, but have come to think that what happens to you has to be what you write about, and if it is as terrible as that well you have some sort of added desire to make something positive and perhaps alive out of the devastation. (p 153).
Yet it is the centre sections that remind us that in the midst of grief, the poet’s view of life was essentially celebratory. Small things bring pleasure – eating potatoes with a friend, a plastic bag on a thistle briefly seen as a small white goat, a woman singing in a car. This joy in life despite grief is expressed in the poem “Take one” which concludes the ninth section, ‘Yesterday’s wind’, in which, although
sorrow sat often like a beggar under a bridge (p 142)
the poet declares,
… while I’m here nobody
can have it. They wouldn’t feel its kick,
nor understand the gleam in its eyes – and I do. (p 142).
This is a fine collection. There are a few minor problems with the arrangement. Efforts to include all the work suggested result in some awkward shoe-horning in the centre sections where wild chronological leaps occasionally startle. For instance, in the section ‘Wellington is an old crone’, the poem “After Chernobyl” immediately follows an extract from Hot October (volume 1 of Edmonds’ autobiography) in which American soldiers carouse in Cuba Street. In another section, three of the first four poems start ‘I saw …’ It seems a pity to place these together, as the repetition of syntax, in my opinion, is an intrusion on the enjoyment of the subject matter of the poems. And the section, ‘Anywhere but here’, has a number of poems whose titles use the form ‘Going to …’ as in, for example, ‘Going to Moscow’. Again, I would have preferred to see these placed further apart, although thematically they seem to belong together. Furthermore, I sometimes found myself wanting to check the publication date of a poem, but this information was not given.
These, however, are small quibbles. If the book allows those who know the poet’s work to read it again with fresh eyes, and introduces younger readers to a major figure in New Zealand poetry, it will have done its job.
 Allen & Unwin, Publisher: Port Nicholson Press (1989), ISBN 10: 0046140158, ISBN 13: 9780046140151.
Catherine Fitchett is a Christchurch poet. Her work has been published in various magazines and anthologies, most recently in Leaving the Red Zone: Poems from the Canterbury Earthquakes (Clerestory Press, 2016).