IT WAS thirty years ago this year — I’m already sounding like a song — that I met Margaret.
It was 1975; I was doing first-year English at the university and Margaret was my tutor in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I would be exaggerating if I said that it seems like only yesterday, but it certainly doesn’t seem like thirty years.
At that time neither of us had begun our published careers as poets. And I would be not so much exaggerating as lying outright if I claimed to remember anything much about what was said in those tutorials. I do, however, distinctly recall engaging in a conversation with her after one class, in the course of which we revealed to each other our membership of that curious and slightly comical community of Aspiring Poets. A sort of figurative Masonic handshake of recognition was exchanged, though in fact some years were to pass before we actually became friends and saw much of one another.
Others have spoken or will speak about the various aspects of Margaret’s personality and character. I’ll limit myself to two. As a fellow poet as well as a friend, I was always struck by her extraordinary generosity: generosity with her time, of course, but generosity of spirit, of advice and enthusiasm. It is a besetting sin of artists in general, and perhaps poets in particular, to be jealous of the good fortune of fellow practitioners, a sort of pre-emptive churlishness that sees others’ success as a slight to oneself. I can bear witness, believe me, to this failing with full personal authority. Margaret was completely free of it. She actually took pleasure in the successes of her writer friends.
Unfailing good spirits and optimism
Another trait, all the more remarkable in the light of her declining health and the awful restrictions she was burdened with by emphysema, was her apparently unfailing good spirits and optimism. Earlier this year I spent a day with Margaret in her wonderful new house helping her to choose material for the celebratory volume which was launched a few months ago. Over a game of scrabble that evening — she beat me hollow, by the way — we talked about one thing and another and I found myself in the curious position of bemoaning certain aspects of my life. Even as I spoke I was thinking, “Hang on. Shouldn’t this be the other way around? Shouldn’t she be doing the complaining about life’s trials?” I seldom if ever heard her do so. Her cheerfulness of outlook and enthusiasm never faltered.
It was during the mid to late eighties, before Margaret had moved to the Tasman Peninsula, that I saw her most frequently. Along with our fellow friends and poets Sarah Day and Andrew Sant we used to have regular dinners and a tradition was established of setting a topic on which we would all write a poem, which we would read at the next dinner. This tradition was fixed at the very first of these dinners (held to say goodbye to her before she went on a trip to England) because by coincidence it occurred on the night of the big snowstorm in 1986. That snow of course became the topic for the first dinner poem and I will read Margaret’s contribution to you.
for Andrew Sant
Snow lies thick in this city once in a lifetime.
For years it keeps to the mountains,
breathes in the wind from the south,
troubling the people with myths of the great untamed.
But one night, as we sat by the fire,
eating and drinking in Andrew’s house on the hill,
out of the luminous sky,
swirling across the window that looks to sea,
down it came!
We ran and gazed up in a crowd
at air alive with sailing, wiry grey
as though all the ratlines and halyards of a huge ship
were reeling and sliding down to the swallowing earth
in flick after flick of an eye.
Out in the road perfectly sober men
were whooping away like owls,
laughing and dodging about between parked cars —
Holdens and sullen Toyotas, rugged white,
humping their backs like cattle against the wind.
Down in the little garden the earth was wet,
flakes hissing and dying like matches among the plants,
yet already, as night drew on, a ministering frost
was secretly working the damp to the snow’s pitch.
It was hard getting home,
harder to sleep in the knowledge of all that
stealthy, perpetual flying and soft settling.
At dawn it was all there — the virgin roofs,
the streets like country lanes on Christmas cards,
neighbours in dressing gowns hurrying out with cameras,
and everyone talking together as they never did—
a helmeted youth on his skis,
a child rolling a lumpy ball of snow
round and round on a little trampled lawn —
as though in the night some predator out of the waste
had slipped in among us to lie by a fire and sleep.
I have no idea who all those sober men were. Certainly not us. No wonder she found it hard getting home.
It was only a little over a month ago that Sarah, Andrew and I saw Margaret for the last time. Andrew was not long returned from almost a year in England and, wishing to see her, had the happy inspiration to suggest we all go: the dinner party revisited. It was a fine sunny day in late July and we drove down to the new house, bringing the various makings of the lunch that we had promised to provide. Margaret was under strict instructions not to worry about having anything ready for us — instructions which needless to say were ignored. As ever it was distressing to see how physically frail she had become, how dependent on the oxygen tanks to which she was attached by apparently endlessly extendible tubes which snaked behind her wheelchair throughout the house. But it was also cheering to see how undiminished her mental powers, her wit and her spirit were. She was still planning new projects, though she seemed upset that she had not written any poems for some time.
Andrew suggested that we set ourselves another topic for a dinner party poem, an idea which Margaret took up with alacrity. Something on birds, was her suggested theme. It was a very happy occasion; conversation ranged widely against the backdrop of that astonishing view, in the light of which the house seemed almost disembodied. After lunch we went out to the front verandah. The day was cool but in the full sunshine there, out of the wind, warm enough to be pleasant. There was a pause in conversation and Margaret said: “Andrew, can I ask a favour of you?” What sort of request might this be, we wondered. “Of course, Margaret.” “Do you think I could have a puff of your cigarette?” Showing admirable strength of character in the circumstances, Andrew refused.
None of Margaret’s writings are without interest but I know that she would have considered herself a poet first and foremost, and I have no doubt that her poems are the best expression and distilment of her talents. Despite her wonderful sense of humour, they are, as she herself observed, for the most part short on laughs, being about serious matters. But wit appears in various guises and they are full of wit, and wisdom. They avoid the high-flown but with economy and grace say much by simple means, as the best poetry does. They are full of the beauties of the world and the griefs and exaltations of the human heart. They are what we would all wish our poems to be: memorable.
Let me conclude with one more of her poems, “Feast”:
The smoke of the barbecue drifts up
like sand rising and swaying in a clear pool.
The women with cool arms and light clothes—
sky blue, white, pink and wattle yellow—
move round the table, touching forks and plates,
checking the bowls of radishes and lettuce,
tomatoes speckled with basil, avocados sliced in a creamy fan.
One sets down a basket of brown rolls,
another a dish of fruit—oranges, sharp green apples,
bananas and nectarines with cheeks like the petals of lolling
The boughs overhead are all ladders and props
with the sheen of young flesh.
The sun reaches down to stroke them through latticed wells,
through glistening leaves bunched in the long branches
like swarming bees.
When the fish are ready, grilled from silver to bronze,
some peeling to show the white flakes under the skin,
they’re piled on a blue plate with lemons and parsley.
The men open the wine,
ruby and topaz light dancing every which way,
the children come running, chattering over the grass,
and everyone sits down in the speckled shade,
their hands and laughter weaving a bright net
like sun through water.
Stephen Edgar, Margaret Scott Memorial, Moorilla Estate, 11 September 2005.
As a fellow poet as well as a friend, I was always struck by her extraordinary generosity: generosity with her time, of course, but generosity of spirit, of advice and enthusiasm. It is a besetting sin of artists in general, and perhaps poets in particular, to be jealous of the good fortune of fellow practitioners
Another trait, all the more remarkable in the light of her declining health and the awful restrictions she was burdened with by emphysema, was her apparently unfailing good spirits and optimism.