Then it seemed to be getting dark – or was it that the trees were stealing the sunlight and keeping it above their heads?
– “The Reservoir”, Janet Frame
“If you look at the whole bush, it’s too much. Look at one leaf, at its twig, and its branch. Then, look at another. When you’ve looked at them all, then look at the tree.”
– Ruth’s father in The Lake, Jack Lasenby
I went to hear the poet Bill Manhire talk to the novelist Damien Wilkins last week, and one of the first poems Damien mentioned was “The Prayer”. The lines that always got Damien were
I am tired again
while you are crossing
the river, on a bridge
six inches under water.
Small trees grow out of
the planks & shade the water.
That image of the underwater bridge, Damien said, with the small trees growing through the planks, was eerie. You can’t articulate what it’s expressing but you recognise it straight away. It jolts you. Everyone must feel these jolts differently, but I thought I knew what he meant by this one – it was familiar and strange. (For me, it’s the feeling of walking through the bush. The place is full of humming and ticking and chirping; you feel acutely that you are the stranger without language here. It’s also the feeling that any moment you might come across a crash-landed UFO caught in some trees.) It is something indefinably of New Zealand.
And Bill said that he thought he might have dreamed the image.
(Why do I never have useful dreams like this? Since coming back to New Zealand, some of my dreams have been: riding a hairy, angry tusked boar in a stampede of boars across the sports field of my old primary school; standing on a riverbank as a flood of bloody dismembered bodies rushed past; melting my own head with a candle; having sex with a car.)
Anyway, in the past few weeks, just by being here, I’ve been getting “the jolt” a lot. The feeling that I’m walking across a bridge six inches underwater.
The image of the bridge reminded me very much of Janet Frame’s first book The Lagoon and Other Stories. There was a copy at Te Kuiti Public Library that I must’ve first got out when I was about eleven. It was an odd, old copy – A4-sized, with a photograph of a tree-fringed lagoon (well, more of a lake) on the cover, and the jacket encased in thin, crispy plastic. It looked like a kids’ book, really.
The voice of those stories went right into my bones. “It was dark black water, secret, and the air was filled with murmurings and rustlings, it was as if they were walking into another world that had been kept secret from everyone and now they had found it …”
The stories heightened the mystery of things that had always unnerved me. The keeling/kooling of seagulls. The shadows of trees on a bedroom wall. Dark masses of coats. And always the sighing, secretive pine trees. How right, too, that as a species imported from Europe to New Zealand, the pines should strike this unknown register. Janet Frame’s pine trees sent my brain straight to my grandparents’ house in Oamaru, where we used to explore the dark pine hedges. One of the most potent stories to me was “The Bedjacket”. Determinedly knitted by Nan, a patient in a mental hospital, the bedjacket is meant as a gift for a nurse. But instead Nan decides to keep it for herself. “It’s mine, I made it. It belongs to me. Nothing’s ever belonged to me before. I made it. It belongs to me.” The idea of that bedjacket, “blue and soft and beautiful”, with a special shell pattern that Nan had never tried to knit before, and the image of Nan herself wearing the bedjacket she’d made – well, it perturbed me deeply. I didn’t understand it, but I felt like I had known Nan once.
And the other book that the underwater bridge reminded me of was Jack Lasenby’s The Lake. The novel takes place in 1952. A teenage girl, Ruth, runs away from home after her father’s death, away from an abusive stepfather and a silent mother. She walks through the bush alone to the lake where she and her father used to sail. This book told of some deeply frightening things, and there was honesty in the way things happened. Ruth’s father’s death entered the story unannounced, enfolding it from the inside out, with the slow impact that comes with disbelief. In a similar way, Ruth’s stepfather Harry entered the bedroom at night, like a shadow in peripheral view. Then there was Ruth’s mother, whose silence housed a cruelty that no words could: ‘Her eyes were strange, dark, and old-looking. They looked through me and away somewhere else.’
I guess the difference between Ruth and the protagonists of Janet Frame’s stories is that once Ruth ran away, she was able to demystify the world. She looked at it leaf by leaf, tree by tree, saying the names of things one by one so to feel less outnumbered. ‘If the trees didn’t talk back to me, that was only because they had another language, one I was going to learn. … ‘Dacrydium cupressinum!’ I said. ‘Leptospermum scoparium!’ And all around us, the dark bush listened to its names.”