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A talk given by Elizabeth Smither at the launch of Dear Charles, Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence, Gus Fisher Gallery, August 26, 2010


Two weeks ago I found an exciting courier package leaning against my front door. I’d been teaching creative writing at a local boys’ college. Because vampires are in vogue we had been studying Dracula and writing imaginary dialogue for him and his guests. I felt almost as tired as Dracula. And then I realised it was the book Peter Simpson had promised: Dear Charles Dear Janet: Frame & Brasch in Correspondence. Just running my fingers over the cover was a treat. There were addresses I knew: 36a Heriot Row, Dunedin and 9 Juliet Street Stratford.

I have a lovely memory of Janet and one of Charles. Janet, when she lived in Juliet Street, invited me to visit and I took my friend, Beth. We stopped and bought some little gifts first – flowers, I think, and muffins. Hesitantly I knocked; the house seemed very quiet and closed up. Suddenly, like the Blue Flash in ‘Living in the Maniototo’, Janet was at the door, smiling broadly and wearing blue ear muffs. I had wondered what we would find to talk about but we talked like two singing birds. Beth didn’t get a word in.

 And Charles, who had a miraculous ability to fall asleep, perfectly upright and poised,  at a dinner party, then wake and effortlessly re-join the conversation found a poem of mine tacked to Michael and Maureen Hitching’s bedroom wall and phoned the next day to say I should be writing.  

Everything Charles writes about Janet is true: ‘She is so quick, receptive, all her antennae alive, aware’ and everything Janet writes about Charles is the same: ‘When I was leaving and Charles saw it was raining he said innocently, - Would you like a coat? I can give you a coat!  One of the pleasures of the correspondence between them is how threadbare the schemes invented by Charles to conceal his generosity now appear: ‘I’ve got a small fund of dollars doing nothing in New York… It should be used before it becomes worthless…’

How lovely Janet looks in the photo taken by Ruth Dallas at Broad Bay. Charles, arm twined about one of the verandah posts, Karl leaning against the other. Charles’s happiness is as palpable as if he’s got N.Z. literature together.

Both Charles and Janet were shy and retiring. But both had strong intellects and a sense of self based on their gifts. Janet could consider a critic’s remark that she used too many metaphors and answer like a gentle counsel for the defence. ‘I’m afraid I breathe metaphors, mostly bad or indifferent; it is the obsession with images which prompts me to write. I know that the path to good prose isn’t necessarily tangled with metaphors; it can be clearer, more serviceable, more beautiful if the wayside is bare; it can have a dignity and strength which no images blossoming in the hedgerows can provide. I don’t think I am equipped to operate the verbal DDT’.

Charles might have held New Zealand literature on his shoulders like Atlas and edited ‘Landfall’ for twenty-five years without payment, but he lived the day to day life of an artist and could offer sound advice on the qualities that might be required. ‘You have to be prepared to make your own life here. I suppose you will get the shock nearly everyone does… but go into mental training at once, and you’ll be able to take it’. And Janet lived this life too: uncompromising, devoted to language and silence and the nourishing of the imagination. The legacy of both cannot be underestimated. Travelling and coming home.
Overseas beckoned. ‘England is peacefully sleepy after the US. The policemen here carry gloves instead of guns. Yaddo sounds like a fairytale.  I lived for weeks within a golden light and became as drunk with leaves as if I had been drinking leaf-cider, Janet wrote from the MacDowell colony. I have some decisions to make and one – whether I feel too scared to return to New Zealand. Charles found London both exciting and depressing – ‘I’ve swum in the exotic waves of people and traffic with exhilaration, but sometimes sinking overwhelmed. Whether I want to go home or not I can’t be sure’.  In Dunedin soon, the hills will be shadowed gold with the budding broom and gorse; it rains now, I suppose, and you light fires. 

I do find it strange in New Zealand with Charles Brasch gone, as if a familiar city had disappeared, yet I should comfort myself by remembering he’s still here – as he is when one takes his poems to read. Good old immortal artists’. How well Charles and Janet read one another’s books. ‘I’ve been living with The Rainbirds for several days while reading it slowly.’  ‘It is tantalising to listen to words disappearing and not know how to get them back. Where do they go?’ ‘I’ve been reading your Reservoir stories very slowly’. Slow and scrupulous readers are as important to a burgeoning literature as writers are.

Mr Editor:  A story. Crumbly and of poor grade. You probably won’t want it. In that case burn it quickly – quickly.   (Every author feels like this.)
Dear Miss Frame:  I should be very glad to see any more recent work of yours…
Dear Charles: Forgive me for writing about insects.
Dear Janet: Why is that line about the fifth-month grass so haunting? It’s one I never forget.
Charles:           I am the sea, I am the wind,
                        Everything and nothing, with you.
Janet:  there are not enough street bulbs, glow-worms, fireflies to give light
And for a time it seems there will be no more stars.

The progression of this friendship, inside this elegant book, is a real treasure.  Congratulations to Pamela Gordon and Denis Harold for bringing it to us. To Peter for inviting me to launch it tonight. And to the Holloway Press and Tara McLeod for its beautiful and enduring production, so fitting for two of our most loved and enduring authors.


Elizabeth Smither