In memory of Helen Bascand

This morning I’ve just found out that yet another person I loved has died – the poet Helen Bascand, two days ago (April 27th). She was 86.

Helen, Nov 2011I’m going to try to keep it together enough to make this a seemly obituary, but it’s going to be a bit of a struggle. Helen was my writing partner for most of the last seventeen years. She was my mentor, my student, and my best friend. I am (in theory, at least) her literary executor.

I have many complicated feelings here. She was a damn fine poet, and her work was getting even stronger. But Helen … wasn’t. She had survived a couple of heart scares, and was frustrated about getting physically weaker. We used to talk a lot about her fears of getting woolly-brained (she wasn’t – a little forgetful sometimes, but still very much herself). And we had met to work on our poetry together every fortnight for the last sixteen years or so (other than the three years I spent in the UK). We would talk, and write, and edit, and read, and giggle. I swear Helen knew every coffee house in Christchurch – I would order coffees, and the staff would correct me if I got Helen’s part of the order not quite right (she varied it a bit depending on how good the coffee at that establishment happened to be). But about a year ago, it all changed. After a series of last-minute cancellations (about three months’ worth), I asked her if she was feeling the need to take a break from regular sessions for a bit. And she said yes.

I hadn’t expected it to be a permanent break.

Helen at Terra Viva, Nov ‘11I saw her only a couple of times after that. Had actually been planning to drop in and see her tomorrow. She had always said that I was good for her (hah!), and she certainly seemed to come alive, fizz with energy and enthusiasm when we had our sessions. But that was the problem, apparently. That although she enjoyed the time, it took too much out of her. I tried saying that I didn’t mind, that I was happy to come and sit by her bedside if need be. But she didn’t want that. And I was hurt by what felt like rejection, so I said I would leave it to her to decide when we would meet again. We never did.

One of the many pities here was the attitude to her writing by her family. They knew it was important to her, and respected that, but didn’t quite understand that her poetry wasn’t just a hobby, a (more embarrassing) variation on knitting for an old lady. I’m not sure if it’s just that they didn’t see poetry itself as an artform with any particular merit, or if they couldn’t see past Helen as ‘mum’ to being a serious and accomplished artist in her own right. Her husband Brian had started to really understand that – the last conversation I had with Brian (actually the morning of the day when he had his catastrophic stroke) had been about Helen’s work, and how good the poems were. He was so proud of her, of what she had achieved, and the reputation she had carved out for herself. A little astonished, but proud.

I worked with Helen extensively on Nautilus, her collection dealing with Brian’s eventual death. After two knock-backs from publishers, her son Bruce decided to bring it out under one of the Caxton Press imprints. Which is a pity, because the book is superb, but being (essentially) self-published, it has vanished more or less without trace. I know that Bruce felt it was a collection ‘for the family’ because of the subject matter, (I can only assume he didn’t actually read many of the poems) and so there were some things added to it that did make Helen and me cringe – especially the blurb on the back cover about ‘her enduring passion in writing … Helen is drawn to the rhythm and sounds of words and the almost spiritual way her ideas arrive’ (horrible language, and a sentimentality that couldn’t be further from Helen’s actual self) Things like that which might make it ‘sweet’ as a piece of family history, but which undermine the work itself. (Yes, I was quite annoyed about it. Still am. Does it show?) But Helen had already addressed that, in her own way. From ‘Routes’:

We only know our mothers
from the day of our
importance –

then
the man stands, shakes us
with her obituary.

Ultimately Helen went along with everything because it was too tiring to fight against what were, after all, good intentions. And because she didn’t have the energy to keep sending Nautilus out to publishers. But most of all, because she had a new book starting to take shape in her notes.

Which she never had the chance to complete.

There are so many things I wish I could tell you about Helen. Her wicked sense of humour. Her compassion. That incredible ear for the music of language. People used to assume she was my grandmother, which amused the heck out of both of us. Every day she taught me how utterly irrelevant age is to relationships. She had a gorgeously loopy side too. We spent a lot of time laughing, and being very silly. But most of all, we spent time immersed together in poetry. I loved her. And Love you were the last words she ever said to me. Way too long ago.

There are too many things I want to say, but which I can’t find words for. And I can hear her voice in my head, laughing at my foolishness. I am so full of regrets for all the time we didn’t spend together. For staying away, rather than overriding her and turning up regardless. For all the poems she didn’t write. For how invisible her work became, as she found the energy required to submit poems and send out manuscripts became more effort than she wanted to expend. (Helen’s poems are something of a secret pleasure among connoisseurs of New Zealand poetry.)

I’ll put some of her poems up over the next few weeks, but for now I want to end with the last poem from Nautilus. Helen’s own words.

I’ve never seen a nautilus alive

I’ve never seen a bud break, or petals
separate from a cluster. I hear
the apple hit the ground, fail
to see one fruit,
from all that crop, snap its tether,

faint fall of leaves.

I saw my new granddaughter crowning through,
marked the timing of her first breath –

heard a man’s last breath,
laid my ear against his chest,
remember – his heart
throbbed a moment longer.

Bugger you Helen. How dare you leave?

WindowsSkyVanishNautilus

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6 thoughts on “In memory of Helen Bascand

  1. Jo – I really liked your words about Helen. They were honest and on the mark. I thank you
    in many ways – I shall reread them in the next weeks in particular – I saw Helen often
    and heard only perceptive and grateful comments about your work with her. You call her your mentor – and I think she had absolute trust in you as a mentor. It was a two-way thing.
    She said that she learned from you as she did from others.
    In a personal way, your words are particularly comforting as I saw her often in recent times
    and found it hard realizing how much pain she was experiencing. She did not complain
    that life was tough for her.
    I found her extremely stoical. Even when she stopped writing at the very end, she said words sang to her when she had her shower in the morning. And she enjoyed talking about writing
    and taking an interest in other people’s work..
    I found that period when she no longer wrote, a most sad one. I think her work deserves to be
    more widely known. She was a modest person and a poet of sensitivity and depth.
    Thank you. I do appreciate your memoir. Love Jan And yes, yes. Nautilus is an excellent
    book and deserves to be more widely known

  2. Hi Joanna,

    I am very sorry to hear this news. Like you, I had lost touch with Helen over recent years, partly because of the all-consuming business of the novels, partly the aftermath of earthquakes, and partly, as you observe, because she herself withdrew from previous contacts. But I will always regard it as a privilege to have known her and learned from her, too, during the years we were in the same poetry group.

  3. Pingback: “Garden peas (Mendel’s Law, 1866)” by Helen Bascand » Helen Lowe

  4. A lovely tribute Joanna. I only met Helen once – at the launch of ‘the taste of nashi’ in 2008 – but we had swapped the odd email. I admired her haiku a great deal and thank you too for the poem of Helen’s that you’ve now posted. Losing someone dear is always a shock, no matter their age. Kia kaha and know that time will do its healing.

  5. Hello Joanna, I share your loss immensely as I am Helen’s granddaughter. Thank you for lovingly retracing your relationship with Gran, the laughter and the time you spent together. I wanted to let you know that I, as family, revel in her poems. I adore them. I carry them with me. An invaluable source of her brilliant heart & perspective.
    Wishing you well.

  6. Irrespectiv of how many years one has lived or where, the loss of a poet such as helen bascand is a loss for all of us.

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