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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Iris and Me by Philippa Werry, and The Uppish Hen & Other Poems by Robin Hyde

I own a lot of books. Mainly poetry, novels, and some experimental adventures. But I’m not sure I have really encountered something called a “verse novel” before. I’m inclined to call it biography in verse. It is very satisfying. It is not long and laboured like some biographies can be, but skilful in its ability to conjure images of a life in a few short lines and pages.

Iris Wilkinson, better known to most as the writer Robin Hyde, is a fascinating subject. Dead by the time she was 33, writer of ten books over ten years, journalist, war correspondent and intrepid traveller across China, she was both brilliant and troubled. She spent several years in a mental hospital and was a secret unmarried mother at a time when such things were the worst of social disgraces. Some of these things I knew before reading Iris and Me, but many things I learned for the first time.

In the book called Shining Land Looking for Robin Hyde by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima, Paula says:

“We call her Hyde because we met her through her work. We’re camp followers, storm chasers. We don’t know Iris at all.”

The gaps have been plugged for me by Philippa Werry’s verse novel. It has created miniature views into scenes from her life; the childhood in Wellington, writing in Whanganui and Auckland, and then the terrors of pushing herself towards the front line of a war between China and Japan. Trapped between the half lines are the stories of her two sons, one that died, and one that lived and never fully had her as a mother. One of the things that we frequently forget are some of the injustices of the past. It might have been more than thirty years since women got the vote in New Zealand, but when Iris was working as a journalist in Auckland during the Great Depression, there were still many injustices. She paid an unemployment tax, a shilling for every pound she earned. When she lost her job, as a woman she did not qualify to receive an unemployment benefit. The stark reality was made worse for her because she was paying a family to raise her illegitimate child, because of the stigma of being an unmarried mother in the early 1930s. Yes, we are still fighting against inequalities today, but at least not as many as then.

This is how Werry captures all this into her verse:

Iris was always on the side of the underdog,

always fighting what wasn’t fair.

It was the Depression. All workers

had to pay an unemployment tax:

one shilling in the pound.

Women had to pay it,

but if they lost their jobs

they didn’t get the unemployment benefit

That wasn’t fair.

It was a hard time to be a woman,

trying to earn her way in the world

with no help.

Especially a woman writer.

Especially an unmarried mother

with a secret child.

So much happens in this short book. It transports you through a life, and through the world; from tiny Wellington to China and then to England. We are never short of powerful images and moving scenes. Take this moment from Iris’ very first night in Hong Kong:

‘What’s that?’ Iris exclaimed.

Shapes on the pavements and

bundles lined up in doorways,

half-noticed at first in the darkness, but then

impossible not to see,

because they were everywhere,

slumped like shapeless bags of potatoes –

but heads stuck out of the bags,

rags and old sacks their only protection

against the rain and cold.

Every day, more war refugees arrived,

destitute, a human landslide

of despair and want.

At night they slept out, hundreds of them.

One of the most unusual features of the book is the choice for the voice of the narrator. It begins as a secret, as a guessing game, so I won’t spoil the surprise. All I will say is that it works very well!

Iris and Me is published by Ahoy! An imprint of The Cuba Press. At the same time The Cuba Press have also published The Uppish Hen & Other Poems by Robin Hyde with amazing illustrations by Dïne. I asked to review them both together, not because I have any skill in discussing books for children, but because of the interplay between the two books. Understanding how the events in one surrounded the circumstances in the other. These poems, and there are just 14 of them, were given by Iris to her four-year-old son Derick, or ‘Derry’ as she used to call him, on Christmas morning 1934. He found them in his Christmas stocking, a typed manuscript bound with pink ribbon. On the title pages it simply said:

‘Derry’s Rhyme Book, which was made SPECIALLY for him by his own mother, who hopes to have them printed with FUNNY PICTURES, ONE FINE DAY.’

It seems that fine day has arrived at last. Derick could recite them all until his death in 2021 at the age of 90. They are an amazing legacy. At last they can be shared with everyone and in Dïne they have found the perfect illustrator to provide those FUNNY PICTURES.

The 14 poems are extraordinary – they are not what you would imagine reading to a four-year-old, some have adult words such as ‘tourmaline, and some of the themes and ideas will work just as well for adult minds as they will for children. Take for example this poem which is called The Candle Prayer:

Mary’s lilies folded in the quiet garden

Their pure petals – drooped low each sweet grave head.

Mary leaned out from the tourmaline of sunset –

“My earth is tired of prayer,” she said.

Yet through the darkened hours, men’s hearts would seek her,

Being weary – and the child-prayers, young as flowers.

“How may we pray, with thoughts like petals folded?

What shall keep fragrant these unguarded hours?”

Then the tall candles, white and slim as lilies,

Spread wide their branching flowers of blue and gold…

Ah, rest… for flowering thus, by cot or altar,

Man’s sweetest prayer is told.

These are poems of imagination, where Hyde’s rich language and metaphor can startle the reader. A poem that starts with the line ‘Someone comes singing through the delft-blue evening,’ is going to work best for someone who has seen the rich blue colours of Delft pottery and notices the evening blue that precedes the darkness. But it will also entice younger minds with the descriptions of the characters, one with a dog, one with some sheep and one with a yellow parakeet on his shoulder.

I must also make mention of the illustrations, which are very beautiful. Dïne has studied the poems carefully, looking for clues and images that she can include in the pictures. She also has her own motif of a tiny mouse, which pops up in lots of the pictures, walking through the pages. It is a great spotting game to play – find the mouse!

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Iris and Me is published by Ahoy!

The Uppish Hen & other poems is published by The Cuba Press


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