One day in November 2009, Helen Bascand, my friend and writing partner of over a decade, asked me what seemed like a casual question. Would I be her literary executor?
We’d just finished working together on her heartbreaking third collection Nautilus, which chronicled the last years of her husband’s life and the aftermath of his death. Dealing with the affairs of someone deceased was very much on her mind, and the question of what would become of her writing after her death had started to concern her. Her family, although supportive, weren’t poets. They wouldn’t be able to tell which poems were ready to be seen by the outside world, and which were just drafts, or private jokes, or something she had no desire to be judged on later. So, would I take the job on? I said yes, of course, still thinking it was a casual request.
At which point, Helen decided we would make a detour on the way to our fortnightly coffee-and-critique session, to visit her son, Bruce. And produced a typed document outlining her wishes, complete with legal(-ish) terminology. With a place for each of our three signatures. In triplicate.
So, maybe not so casual then.
We only know our mothers
from the day of our
the man stands, shakes us with her obituary.
Helen died on 27th April 2015, aged 86.
It’s a few months after her funeral, on a miserable winter’s day, and I’m sitting opposite Bruce and his wife, Jane. I’m still in shock over her death. Outside, my car is full — boot, back seat and even passenger seat — of banana boxes, containing Helen’s poem files and notes. And it’s all taking place in the same café — at the same table even — that Helen and I used to come to.
The three of us are discussing plans for bringing together her poems and editing them into a posthumous collection. It’s surreal. I keep expecting Helen to join us. They ask how long it will take. I say six months, thinking that six months will be plenty of time.
It takes years to understand how thought
reached out, pulled down the blind,
folded the sheets, stacked them with lavender
in some spare cupboard.
You are not the only bereft, they say.
Inside the boxes, her poems were arranged by year of composition. Some were still in-progress, accompanied by sheaves of drafts with notes in her increasingly spidery handwriting. A few with NOT FOR PUBLICATION! marked on them. (I will honour her wishes here, albeit regretfully.) Most are pieces that I’ve seen before — poems Helen brought to the critique group we both attended, or that she and I had coursed through together. There are her signature items — birds, the colour blue, flight, dancing. But also the themes that were developing later — a strong female anger, a political awareness, a desire to challenge the myths and rules that she had been brought up observing unquestioningly. She was writing without fear — she had nothing to prove to anyone, so shedidn’t censor herself any more. Didn’t worry about being“seemly”, or about what someone else might think. She had a new collection in sight, and was fired up, joyful at the prospect.
Sky wraps itself in the wing-span of storm–
brilliance. And the cold whirr of myth turns her hot.
Smell of grass and mute desire, trap her under
rough wings, grasping for the soft down of his belly.
Even a Sun turns aside.
The artist knows the hard ground they lie on: how
a god wraps lust in beautiful places, how trees bend,
flowers lend fragrance. And how she will fool herself,
whisper phrases for him – he will peck
the words from her throat.
Who can deny a god?
(“The artist knows—”)
There’s a line from Carolyn Forché which keeps coming up as I work — ‘Grandma, come back, I forgot, / How much lard for these rolls?’ (“The Morning Baking”) When I come to something in one of the poems that doesn’t seem to fit, that doesn’t quite make sense, I’ve caught myself asking the banana boxes the questions I can’t ask her any more — Helen, what were you trying to get this bit to do? Did you mean to repeat this word? Which of these layouts did you decide to go with? Do you need that stanza? Aren’t these two really the same poem? That’s a cliché, you need a better image, so …?
We have broken things,
in particular, this sky –
not content with steeples, thrust
our dwellings higher, raised a maze
of fences, stolen the backyards.
We are the generation collecting
a second family car.
So we leave you the highways.
You will get there faster, miss
the byways, the shepherd
on his four-wheeler, shifting mobs, the farmer,
his lumbering cows ambling by – you’d smell
the sweet heat of their hide.
Or will you picnic by a river,
idly pick a stone to read its rough
Please God, we leave you beaches.
(“To you who follow”)
I know that part of the reason Helen asked me to take on this role — and something I really wish we’d discussed, properly, with notes being taken and guidelines drawn up — was to protect her legacy. To do the work of editing, not just assembling. To do her justice. It would be so much easier if I thought I could get away with just typing them up and correcting the spelling. But anyone could have done that. She expected more.
It’s a matter of ethics. As a poet, how much tinkering would I be ok with? If, like Bilbo Baggins, I was declared dead, and returned to discover another poet metaphorically making off with my silverware, at which point would I start laying about me with a sword?
The lagoon runs fast. Our son
tosses jonquils on the grey water
under the low grey sky – and I
cup my hands around this other grey
they say is you – and throw
as high as a man might leap.
Some of you falls, and some of you flies,
some of you sails
with yellow jonquils.
So here I am, rather more than six months on, with pen in hand and coffee cooling beside me, and Helen’s poems spread across my desk. It’s still disturbing, to be editing the work of someone who isn’t there to be consulted. At each stage of the process, I have to keep asking myself the same question — is this Helen, or me? Is this change something she would have made gladly, or grudging-but- still-willingly, or something she would likely have rejected?
Short of finding a reliable conduit to the afterlife, the best I can do is keep working in good faith, and checking that I haven’t overstepped. I can still hear Helen’s voice in my head as I read her poems. As long as that keeps going, I reckon I’ll be on the right side of the ledger.
If not, I wouldn’t be surprised if she finds a way to let me know.
The bird’s poem
You asked me to write it down
and so I did,
set it to the bare page.
It circles, like the screeching bird that just now
has scribbled on an empty sky.
Today’s bird, the one outside my window,
has forgotten the secret of that first skill
against the ravages of raptors –
lie on the wind
but it remembers how survival begins
on the edge of a nest;
how space lies on the margins
the one writing the poem
on the blue page outside my window.
Essay commissioned by the New Zealand Poetry Society
and published in the August 2017 issue of a fine line.