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About the Author
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We all grow up with all kinds of psychic pressure-points, & have more or less success at learning to live with them. ... As with so many other more obvious things, the surest healing has to be self-healing.
In October 1945, during a visit Allen Curnow made to his parents' vicarage home in Kaiapoi, near Christchurch, his mother Jessie showed him some early childhood photographs which had come to light while she and her husband Tremayne were preparing to vacate the house and move to Auckland, where they planned to retire. One photograph in particular caught Curnow's eye, of 'myself when young (about 4 years old I think)':
Surprised to see myself looking such a small creature, with a timid & imploring look – how I have covered over that surprised & timid little person, & never quite stopped feeling it. But forward one must go, however battered, & that child might have been a lot less lucky & happy.
Curnow was born in 1911, so the photograph would have been taken in 1915, when the family was living in the vicarage at Belfast, a freezing-works township on the northern outskirts of Christchurch. The poem he wrote in 1945 about the photograph – a sonnet entitled 'Self-Portrait' – reflects on the moment of surprised self-awareness which the image of himself when young has given him:
The wistful camera caught this four-year-old But could not stare him into wistfulness;
Look back into their likeness while I look With pity not self-pity at the plain Mechanical image that I first mistook For my own image; there, timid or vain,
Semblance of my own eyes my eyes discern Casting on mine as I cast back on these Regard not self-regard: till the toy turn Into a lover clasped, into wide seas,
The image of the child which the poem constructs is more complex than Curnow's initial reaction to the photograph might suggest. The look is not only 'timid & imploring', but possibly 'vain'. There is a sense that the child is already learning to 'cover over' such feelings, as he clutches his toy, refuses to invite 'wistfulness', and 'stares' back obstinately at his older adult self. There is also a sense of self-containment about the child which masks resolute determination and desire as well as vulnerability, insecurity and self-protectiveness. It is as if the child-self is already aware that whatever personal or public failures and successes life holds in store for him, they will always carry with them dissatisfaction over what is not achieved and sorrow for what, inevitably, will be lost.
'Self-Portrait' was one of many poems which Curnow wrote from the mid-1940s onward – many of them appearing in the collections Jack without Magic (1946) and At Dead Low Water (1949) – in which, as he later put it, he 'turned away from questions which present themselves as public and answerable, towards the questions which are always private and unanswerable'. A number of these poems also turned directly to childhood and family memories for their occasions. Indeed, from this point on – right through to poems in his last volume, The Bells of Saint Babel's (2001) – such memories provided one of the main sources of inspiration for many of his major poems. The poet's family background and childhood thus constitute an unusually important part of his literary biography. The figures introduced in this and the following chapter might be seen as the dramatis personae of what Curnow came to call his 'familial poems', figures whoprovided the vicarage-based young child with his first bearings on the wider world and remained influential on the kind of poet he was to become.
Maternai grandparents: the Allens and Gamblings
Allen's full name, Thomas Allen Monro Curnow, continued a strong family tradition of acknowledging forebears. Allen was the surname of a Norfolk-based English great-grandfather on his mother's side, Thomas Allen, while Monro was a family name with longstanding New Zealand connections, going back on his father's side through four generations to the 1830s. The Anglo–New Zealand heritage built into Curnow's name was strongly reinforced in the dynamics of his immediate family life. The 'tension' between English and New Zealand loyalties that found its way into a number of his poems in the late 1930s and early 1940s was not, he insisted, based on some 'South Island myth' but very personally and immediately experienced in his own family life – as it was, he imagined, in the lives of many New Zealanders of his generation:
All the years of my childhood and youth, and pretty well until I was nineteen years old, our household consisted of my New Zealand father, my English-born mother and my English grandmother. All through those years a great share in my upbringing was taken by my grandmother. ... Far from being 'myth', the actual tension was there under the very roof of every vicarage in which we lived between say 1913 and 1930. I grew up to my grandmother's sadness – her feeling of exile and the way she cut herself off almost from all social living outside the vicarage....
The reasons for the immigration of Curnow's grandmother with her young daughter to New Zealand are shrouded in mystery. Rose Letitia Maria Allen, the grandmother who was so much a part of his childhood, was born on 17 June 1854 in Norfolk, in the small English village of Caistor St Edmund near Norwich, and was brought up close by at 'Markshall', quite a large Georgian-style house on the farming estate leased by her father, Thomas Allen, who also owned farms nearby at Buxton Lammas and Cantley. Rose was the oldest of six daughters and a son, and in the later 1870s married John Towler Gambling (born in 1855), one of numerous sons of a family living in the same area who owned a wherry fleet and a mill at Buxton Lammas.
Gambling became an accountant but otherwise very little is known about him. He was a great-grandnephew of the English rural clergyman poet George Crabbe (1754–1832), descended from Crabbe's sister, and his and Rose's only child, Jessamine (Jessie) Towler Gambling (Curnow's mother), was born on 3 June 1880.
The marriage broke down in the 1880s and towards the end of that decade Rose left England with her young daughter and travelled to Australia, where for two or three years they were based in Sydney, before moving to Invercargill, New Zealand, in the early 1890s. In the mid-1890s Gambling himself moved to New Zealand, and the family was reunited in Invercargill for ten years, after which Rose moved with her daughter to Timaru.
Among her accomplishments Rose had been trained as a singer, and during her shifts of residence she survived by giving singing lessons and taking in lodgers, assisted by Jessie. Rose is likely also to have been supported by her family back in England, and to have had some inheritance money when her father died in the early 1900s.
It was in Timaru that Jessie met Curnow's father, Tremayne, who boarded with the family and from 1905 onwards was based in Timaru as assistant curate at St Mary's Church after his ordination as deacon at the end of 1904. Jessie and Tremayne were married at St John's Church, Invercargill, on 13 April 1909 and at this point both lived with Rose in Timaru.
Jessie's father, whom Curnow never met, remained a mysterious figure in the family's life. Speculation that the cause of John and Rose's marriage breakdown was alcoholism is largely based on Jessie's lifelong hostility to alcohol. However, there might have been some other reason, on which Curnow and his brothers later speculated: some kind of debility, illness or personality disorder. Curnow recalled that his grandmother continued to correspond with her husband, and on occasion referred to him as 'Dad-dad', but her daughter never spoke of him, and neither Curnow nor his brothers ever felt able to ask her about him. Almost certainly Jessie would have felt a sense of abandonment by her father. Although she and Rose kept photographs and keepsakes of their Norwich connections, there was no photograph of John Gambling.
In 1949, when Curnow visited England for the first time, he made contact with Willy Gambling, a younger brother of John, then living at Summer-Leyton (Fyttonde-Coy) on the Suffolk coast, but the conversation remained general and Willy volunteered no family stories. On the same trip Curnow did, however, seek information from one of Rose's surviving sisters, Beatrice Goldingham, then a sprightly 89-year-old whom he visited in Edinburgh, but she too was unwilling to discuss what had happened, and died the following year. 'It was very sad and a long time ago', he recalled her as saying. It was not at all unusual for such silences about potentially embarrassing matters to have been maintained in families during the time of Curnow's childhood and youth, but for a child as observant and sensitive as he, the secrecy would surely have aroused his curiosity.
Curnow's most moving account of the influence of his grandmother in shaping the imaginary England of his childhood is contained in a radio broadcast he wrote after visiting Norfolk in November 1949, encountering in the Allen tombstones at Caistor St Edmund and the old farm and home at Markshall, 'places and people [who] were ghosts that haunted my New Zealand childhood':
I knew the house the moment I saw it. An old yellow photograph of Markshall always hung on the wall of my grandmother's room – the room of her own that she had in all the New Zealand vicarages where our family lived. It was always part of the landscape of my imaginary England. As a child I could look at it, while I listened to stories of Norwich, and Caistor, and the old mill at Buxton Lammas.
The encounter was especially poignant since the visit to Norfolk occurred in the immediate wake of Curnow's learning of his father's death in New Zealand, at the end of October 1949, and details of the trip to Norfolk are included in the powerful poetic tribute he wrote over the next few weeks, 'Elegy on My Father'. In his radio piece, Curnow sees the trip to Norwich as enabling him to substitute memories for ghosts, to test sentiment against reality. Contemplating the tombs of his ancestors, so surprisingly recent compared with the 700-year history of the Norman church where they are located, let alone compared with the Roman past contained in the name Caistor St Edmund: 'All I could think to say – and I did say it, aloud, was: "So there you are. You're real, after all."' And that reality included not only their relative recentness, but their 'distance' or difference from himself: 'They seemed to be asking questions: "This is where we belong," they said. "Where do you belong? Where do you come from?"' What is recorded here is a personal release from a disabling kind of sentimental identification with Englishness.
A similar kind of release is described in Curnow's moving and beautiful memorial sonnet to his grandmother Rose Gambling ('In Memoriam, R.L.M.G.'), which he wrote some fifteen years after her death in January 1931 at the age of 76. Shortly before she died the family had shifted from West Lyttelton to the parish of New Brighton in Christchurch, and Curnow was about to embark on his own theological studies at St John's Theological College in Auckland. However, it was Rose's wish to be buried in the cemetery in the hills behind Lyttelton, where she had spent nine years in sight of the ships arriving and departing from the harbour below – ships which she had often watched from the window of the upstairs landing at the vicarage, occasionally weeping, as Curnow recalled, and longing to go home. In the poem her sacrificial death, after an exile from England of more than 40 years, establishes a local past – a local 'ancestry' – for those who come after her and in so doing 'dismisses' them into the 'broad day' of the present. She is presented as a figure of courage, who deliberately chooses 'oblivion' for herself in order to allow the generations she nurtured to feel at home in a country which was always alien to her:
The oldest of us burst into tears and cried Let me go home, but she stayed, watching At her staircase window ship after ship ride Like birds her grieving sunsets; there sat stitching
Grandchildren's things. She died by the same sea.
Were seen to have stopped and turned again down hill;
So lightly, she stretched like time behind us, or Graven in cloud, our furthest ancestor.
In the companion sonnet to Grandmother Gambling's sister which Curnow wrote at the same time, 'To Fanny Rose May', he praised his great-aunt (then living in Sydney) in similar terms, since, like her sister's, her 'blood sweetens the embittered seas between / Fabulous old England and these innovations / My mountainous islands'.
Grandmother Gambling's role in the Curnow household introduced an unusual dynamic. No doubt she was able to contribute something to the family finances – which were never substantial – but her main role was a domestic one, and she effaced herself socially. An older cousin, Arnold Wall (known as 'Ted' to distinguish him from his father, who was professor of English and history at Canterbury University College), remembered her 'dimly', on family visits to the vicarage at West Lyttelton, as 'a kindly but rather anxious little personage hovering in the background of Aunt Jessie, of whose ever-kindly personality I have more vivid memories'. She cooked most of the family meals until she was about seventy. She also played a major role in the upbringing of the children, and was especially protective of the eldest, John, who in his earliest years was often unwell. Her domestic role was also helpful in freeing Jessie to assist Tremayne in the parish duties expected of a clergyman's wife, but it did create occasional resentments in Allen's childhood life: at what he felt to be favouritism towards his brother, and at her being a 'substitute' for his 'real mother'.
Grandmother Gambling's unusual marital history in the 1880s is the subject of an extended allusion in a memorable late poem, 'A South Island Night's Entertainment', in which she is depicted as a member of the family trudging home in darkness outside Sheffield (Curnow was eight or nine at the time), after discovering that they had mistaken the evening on which a silent movie was to be shown in a local barn. The starless night sky is as devoid of vivid entertainment as the screen in the locked barn:
What's visible here?
twinkle-twinkling on my grandmother's
East Anglian wedding night, swapped
now, for a sphere
of the shuddering Bear.
The astronomical allusions here are obscure, but they evoke his grandmother's East Anglian wedding night as occurring under the 'crab tropic' (the northern constellation of Cancer) and her exile to New Zealand as an escape from the 'circuit of the shuddering Bear.' The italicised lines are from T.S. Eliot's 'Gerontion', where they offer a generalised image of a personality and world (by implication, in Curnow's poem, his grandmother's) which has been torn apart, 'in fractured atoms'. The lines also contain the phrase 'maidenliest stars', derived from the famous speech in King Lear in which the Duke of Gloucester's bastard son Edmund mocks his father's fervent belief in astrology:
My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major; so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. [I. ii. 135–40]
At the very least the cluster of associations in the lines suggest that there may have been some profound sexual crisis in his grandmother's marriage which led to her decision to leave her husband, to immigrate to a sphere 'beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear'.
In another later poem, begun during his visit to Menton as the Katherine Mansfield Literary Fellow in 1983, Curnow attempted a different, much more personal, characterisation of Grandmother Gambling – neither the tragi-heroic figure of the early elegy nor the traumatised bride of 'A South Island Night's Entertainment'. Provisionally entitled 'Grm [grandmother] at the Piano, 1914–1916', and based on some of his earliest memories from his Belfast vicarage years, the poem was never completed, containing a detailed description of his grandmother's piano, and of her soprano voice singing a musical arrangement of Tennyson's famous refrain in 'The Brook' as she played, as well as allusions to her 'casebound score of The Messiah' and to Tremayne's remembered quotations of the same Tennyson poem.
Excerpted from "Allen Curnow Simply by Sailing in a New Direction"
Copyright © 2017 Linda Cassells on behalf of the Literary Estate of Terry Sturm.
Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgements,
Chapter One: Family Ancestries,
Chapter Two: Early Childhood, 1911–21,
Chapter Three: The Lyttelton Years and Adolescence, 1921–30,
Chapter Four: Student Life in Auckland, 1931–33,
Chapter Five: Widening Horizons, 1934 to mid-1936,
Chapter Six: Marriage, Journalism and Enemies, 1936–37,
Chapter Seven: A Turning Point in History: Not in Narrow Seas, 1937–38,
Chapter Eight: A Changing Christchurch, Dearth of Poems, and Whim Wham, 1939–40,
Chapter Nine: 'The Shock of Another War': Island and Time, 1940–41,
Chapter Ten: Pacific Outreach, the Mid-war Years, 1941–42,
Chapter Eleven: 'Landfall in Unknown Seas': 1942–43,
Chapter Twelve: Family Expansion, Sailing or Drowning, and the Caxton Anthology, 1943–44,
Chapter Thirteen: Restless Years, 1945–46,
Chapter Fourteen: Last Years in Christchurch, 1947–49,
Chapter Fifteen: United Kingdom, March 1949–January 1950,
Chapter Sixteen: United States, February–April 1950,
Chapter Seventeen: Moving to Auckland, June 1950–November 1954,
Chapter Eighteen: A New Life and New Poems, 1955–57,
Chapter Nineteen: Penguin Anthology Delays, 1958–60,
Chapter Twenty: More Plays, 1958–61,
Chapter Twenty-one: United States, March–September 1961,
Chapter Twenty-two: Separation and Remarriage, September 1961–August 1965,
Chapter Twenty-three: Transitions, 1965–71,
Chapter Twenty-four: The Making of a Sequence: Trees, Effigies, Moving Objects, 1972,
Chapter Twenty-five: New and Collected Poems, 1973,
Chapter Twenty-six: Discovering Europe: Leave, 1974,
Chapter Twenty-seven: Europe revisited, and An Incorrigible Music, 1975–78,
Chapter Twenty-eight: Return to New Zealand, 'Moro Assassinato', 1978–79,
Chapter Twenty-nine: A Growing UK Reputation, You Will Know When You Get There, 1980–81,
Chapter Thirty: Curnow and the Theory of 'Open Form', Apartheid, Brisbane Writers' Week, 1981–82,
Chapter Thirty-one: Menton, London and Toronto, The Loop in Lone Kauri Road, 1983–86,
Chapter Thirty-two: International Recognition, Continuum and Selected Poems (Viking), 1986–90,
Chapter Thirty-three: Expanding Critical Interest in Curnow, 1990–93,
Chapter Thirty-four: Early Days Yet, 1993–96,
Chapter Thirty-five: Last Poems, The Bells of Saint Babel's, 1997–2001,
Allen Curnow Bibliography,