Michele Leggott: Talking about The Fascicles
I was born in Taranaki and grew up there, living in Stratford, then Urenui and New Plymouth. I left home when I was eighteen to begin an arts degree at Canterbury, and the rest is history. But it troubled me that I knew so little of the bitter racial conflict that swarmed over the coastal plains of Taranaki in the 1860s and has never really gone away. Unsettled, bumpy ground beneath the surfaces we walked or drove over a hundred years later.
What to do? I constructed a dual drive work, imagining a female ancestor, Dorcas Carrell, reading accounts of the Taranaki war in newspapers that I was reading a century and a half later. Dorcas was the sister of my great-great-grandfather. She was twenty-four in 1860 and had recently arrived in Lyttelton from Dublin with her gardener husband. The couple had no children and I invented for Dorcas a rich life as the compiler of a herbarium and the maker of little booklets (fascicles) for her many nieces and nephews.
Dorcas understood war. Her father was a soldier in the British army before he was court-martialled for stealing company pay. Now in this new land the old spectres were rising again. What was that like? She couldn’t see the places described by the war correspondents, but I knew them, or thought I did. Waitara. Waireka. Puketakauere. Huirangi. Mahoetahi. Te Ārei. Pukerangiora. Places where men stood or fell, smoke wreathing above river valleys, the ground planted with lead.
Then there was my young writing self, just over the hills in Christchurch, on ground that would one day shake a city to pieces. Dorcas and I became a ghostly duo. She showed me the contours of her new life, its worries and disasters, her channelling of the conflict raging over the plains five hundred miles to the north. I tried to imagine what she might have written in her little booklets, the ones she made for her own writing. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson, writing into hand-made booklets (fascicles) in Massachusetts in the 1860s, removed from but not unaffected by the Civil War raging in the south.
I found I couldn’t write poems for Dorcas, but I repurposed some of my own early writing from the Christchurch years, remembering a time when I stood on the Summit Road at dawn and knew I was dancing on the rim of an old volcano. It seemed like a fair exchange.
The project grew to be seven sections in length and I called it ‘The Fascicles’. Here is the first section.
In darkness, redcoats marching out to the Pekapeka block.
It cannot be true. But imagine for a moment it is. Two women
stand almost in the same place which is the rim of an old volcano.
One is remembering her father stepping out of the blockhouse
when she was a little girl going down an Irish road wherever they
were just then. The other is stunned by a memory of fruit falling
in a dark garden, soft sounds in long lines or sweet juice over
stops and starts. An orchard? A volcano?
Neither can be sure because the ground is shifting. They pick
themselves up and go on, unaware of the jolt that has put them
on the same page and will now tie them to this place, whatever it
is. One watches the shadow of a long skirt ripple ahead of her in
the afternoon wind. The other has almost reached home with her
quire of clean white paper, walking uphill from the shops around
the quay. There is dinner to get, the washing to be folded, but no
children so there is time for everything connected or unconnected
with the red jackets of the soldiers moving along the Devon road
in darkness or in daylight.
I love him, she thinks. I vocate, says the other, haptic with risk.
Each sits with her head in a pool of lamplight, mind and fingers
flying over the mending of works and days, now and then,
yes and no. They have torn up the pegs, they dispute the sale,
they build a fighting pā on the ridge to the south west, Te Kohia,
and draw fire from the valley running down to the bony sea.
This is the beginning, a transfer of words for deeds with tails
as long as kite strings in a clear blue sky. She folds the creamy
sheets of paper and pulls red silk after the needle that pierces and
pierces the fold, binding, stitching, tying together the new pages
of a little book, a booklet really, pliable, plausible, something to
fold down and begin writing. The valley in the dark, the ridge
abandoned. The lamplight, the flashing needle, the words I will
write from the orchard that is a volcano. For you have shown
me the valley in the north and its river running down to the sea
where redcoats, militia and volunteer rifles are landing to begin
the work of destruction. One moment I am in a dark orchard.
The next I feel the ground shake under my feet. I am a soldier’s
daughter, fled away from my father over the sea and finding him
again here in the new land.
What shall I write? Where should I bury my flashing needle with
its red silk tail as long as kite strings in a clear sky?
I found it
in a dictionary
it comes true
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Publisher: Auckland University Press