Charles Olson went looking for Herman Melville’s library, dispersed since 1892 across New England, New York and points beyond. We have found hand-coloured sets of Emily Harris’s New Zealand Flowers, Berries and Ferns (1890) in public collections in New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch; in Sydney and Adelaide; then further afield in London, Cambridge and Edinburgh and at Harvard University and the New York Public Library. Now something like Olson’s hunt for Melville’s books has appeared before us: the twelve large flower studies in oil that were commissioned from Emily Harris for the West Coast Court of the 1906-07 Christchurch International Exhibition. We knew there were twelve and we knew where three of them were, all signed in red and dated. Then two more appeared, plus a newspaper article outlining the scope of the commission as a list of titles and many more plants than twelve. They are out there somewhere, the seven paintings we can’t see, unlikely to have been destroyed (they are impressive framed panels, and one was sold at auction 20 years ago). They constitute perhaps Emily Harris’s most significant collection of flower paintings, made when the artist was 69 and still going strong, a single woman who carved out a professional career in art at a time when it was difficult to do so. We would like to see the twelve again.
My poem is a sun-catcher, made for walking through the conundrums of appearance and disappearance. It pulls earlier lines from a poem about disappearances and research (‘Dark Emily’), in the hope of coming upon the next turn of the path. One voice follows the compositional field of one of the twelve, eyeing up the landscape that is a keyhole in the composition, a visual escape, a ground offered to the eye that is not a background, just as the first-seen plants are not really (or not only) a foreground. In Emily’s paintings you can often get from one place to another through these keyhole views that suggest a context but not a straightforward one.
It is this twistiness that attracts me, the more than what appears on the surface of what looks like a flower painting but could be something quite other if we knew how to read it. Of course, I don’t have that key, the view is offered but it is private, perhaps shared but not with me. In my turn, I can bring to the story a watercolour sketch in one of the folders still held by Harris descendants. The sketch is not Emily’s, though it may have been given to her by the artist. It is inscribed ‘Mouth of Port Underwood Teranora 29/7 92′. It is what I need for my poem. The cable steamer Terranora was in the vicinity on that date, repairing the Cook Strait telegraph cable that runs from Lyall Bay in Wellington to White’s Bay near Port Underwood, Marlborough. Who is on board the vessel as it takes a break from its labours in the Strait, five weeks now and counting? And who but Emily knows that the view replicates her own entry to Port Underwood in March 1841 when she was four years old, an emigrant with her family making a first landfall in Aotearoa where she would spend her long life, some of it in New Plymouth and the rest over the hills in Nelson. There is foreground and there is background, never simple and often moving attention from one zone to the other. Or others.