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Ruth Dallas. The Joy of a Ming Vase.

Ruth Dallas. The Joy of a Ming Vase. Kyla Cresswell, ill Dunedin, New Zealand. Otago University Press 2006. 60 pages, ill. NZ$29.95. ISBN 1-877372-30-7

THE JOY OF A MING VASE is a beautifully produced volume by one of New Zealand's poetry doyennes. Ruth Dallas was born in 1919, her first collection of poetry came out in 1953, and her collected work in 1987. This latest collection is of work since then. Her literary career was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, a period when a conservative modernism swept all poetically before it in New Zealand, and to which Dallas's work remains faithful. These poems, too, show strongly rhythmic cadences; language that is straightforward and contemporary yet seldom colloquial; much use of metaphor; a few "poetic" words; and a fondness for endings that point up what the poet has been saying. There is in this poetry, then, a sense of the continuing tradition of romanticism so persistent in New Zealand poetry. The format of the book seems almost to emphasize this with its board cover, page marker, glossy paper, brown font, and sumi-e influenced drawings.

Nevertheless, Dallas's voice is her own. Her poetry's distinctiveness lies in the way it moves from detail to wider focus, even to generalization. "A Blue Jar" begins with a jar: "Round as a full moon ... blue as a periwinkle flower" and goes directly on to talk of "perfection," its "eight centuries" of age and its "communication ... mind with mind." This approach can be effective, though it occasionally smacks of the romantic trait of pressing for a desired reader response.

Dallas has the ability to enter the minds of people from far times and places, such as in "A Dutch Painting," having us think about the "girl-wife" with the book "she has been set to read" rather than the jeweler husband.

Dallas was an early exponent of haiku in New Zealand, and this book includes a double spread. Her deftness is shown in "gentle touch -- / a grasshopper's" feet / crossing my own."

These are all short poems, some brief as haiku. The Joy of a Ming Vase is varied and affords a satisfying read. A reviewer risks sounding patronizing in mentioning Ruth Dallas's age--but we must salute a mind vigorous with poetry, ebullient with the skill of its craft in its eighties. How many younger minds could write as nimbly, tersely, and with full awareness of allusion without letting the precedents weigh heavily, as in "Yeats bends a line / Like a bow / Fits an arrow / And lets fly"?

Bernard Gadd

Papatoetoe, New Zealand
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Author:Gadd, Bernard
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2007
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