Speaking Back to Emily Harris

By Michele Leggott

flower illustration ghosted over bush
Toyah Webb, ‘I do not like to burn.’ Video, 2021.

We’ve noticed from the outset of our research into Emily Harris’s art and writing that responding creatively is a powerful tool for reflecting on the differences between Emily’s world and our own. There is the archival collage ‘Emily and Her Sisters,’ composed in the slipstream of discovering family artwork and papers at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth. Later came ‘Sail | Walk | Drown: The Wandering Texts of Sarah and Emily Harris,’ a script for multiple voices performed at a symposium in 2018. Earlier this year summer research scholar Toyah Webb developed ‘I do not like to burn,’ a multimedia response to Emily’s New Zealand Flowers, New Zealand Berries and New Zealand Ferns that addressed gaps in the archive and drew on research and performances by fellow postgraduate students Brianna Vincent and Dasha Zapisetskaya. What these and other creative projects have in common is the excitement of collaborating with those fragments of Emily’s writing that are still available to us after 160 years. If Emily Harris’s poems are lost to us as a body of work, her voice can still be lifted from the archive by those who enter it with ears tuned to the possibilities of juxtaposition and non-linear narrative. Emily the poet is a nineteenth-century woman recording her experience in a colonial landscape using the poetic techniques of her time. What we hear on the far side of Modernist poetics, feminist revisions and archival openings is writing that speaks to us as we speak back to Emily. How different from ours is her world, how recognisable are some of its tropes concerning female experience and power relationships. Each time someone opens the Harris archive and lifts words or images into the breathing world, there she is, a woman on the other side of space time, connected for a moment or two to the hands and eyes bringing her work to light.

We are adding three creative responses to the website: ‘Some Lighted Windows: The Elegy for Corbyn,’ ‘very fine lace knitting’ and ‘Sarah | Emily | Frances.’ All three have connections with research in other sections of the website and were inspired by direct contact with Harris materials.

Some Lighted Windows: The Elegy for Corbyn

Preparation for the section of the website called Lighted Windows: The Death and Resurrection of Corbyn Harris was extensive, involving searches for mention of Corbyn Harris’s death on the beach at Waitara 28 July 1860. I was interested in the different commentaries Corbyn’s death drew from members of the Taranaki community and what few official records we could find about the event. As I assembled a chronology of voices from newspapers, letters and diaries, it became clear that the days after Corbyn died were tragic beyond measure for his family: an eldest child and only son among six living daughters, dead at the age of 25 and no longer able to contribute to the family’s lean finances. His father Edwin Harris’s sketches and paintings of the 3 August 1860 landing of Imperial troops gave me a real-life record to end a week of wartime grief. I tried to imagine that grief and its contexts across the week, starting with the news from Waitara:

My son is ambushed on the beach at Waitara, shot in the head at close range and left for dead. He is a carter attached to the camp, out with a soldier of the 40th Regiment collecting firewood for the army kitchens. Both men are unarmed, nobody knows why. The man of the 40th raises the alarm and the killing party falls back into the fern. It is Saturday 28 July, sleet and snow are reported in town. The mountain is hidden behind a wall of grey cloud.

My son could sing, would have been singing this day except that the Reverend Mr Govett rides from Waitara to Bell Block to New Plymouth with word of his death. They bring the news to me and then it is all over the town. Killed on the beach at Waitara. Cruelly murdered on the beach. Tomahawked about the head. All this we must bear, and receive the poor shell next day when they bring it from Waitara for burial. It is Monday 30 July, clear cold wind.

I also imagined Emily’s response to her brother’s death and pulled it into Edwin’s making of the optical amusement that features the 3 August landing and women and children coming up Marsland Hill to shelter in the barracks. Edwin again:

Soon we will see the town lit up according to order, windows and doors throwing lantern light from empty houses. Soldiers’ tents glowing, the windows of St Mary’s ablaze. A half moon shedding light on a silvery sea. Men carrying a child in one arm and gun in the other with wives following after tear along the streets. I look at my daughter and we begin the work of opening holes in the panorama to let light fall into the world again.

Edwin Harris, New Plymouth Under Siege – 40th Regiment, Marsland Hill, Taranaki, New Plymouth (circa 1860), watercolour with relief cut-out (optical amusement). Collection TSB Bank, New Plymouth.

Edwin’s elegy for Corbyn is a product of my imagination based on archival research. A 2019 post, also called ‘Some Lighted Windows,’ traces the evolution of Edwin’s multiple versions of the troop landing three days after Corbyn’s burial in St Mary’s Churchyard at the foot of Marsland Hill.

very fine lace knitting

My own Taranaki childhood and family stories form one strand of the poem ‘very fine lace knitting.’ Alternating sections pick out some parallels between the Harrises’ experience of New Plymouth in the 1840s, 50s and 60s with my family’s life in Taranaki before and after another war and through into the 1960s. I also imagined Emily weighing up written records of her lost mother, father, brother and sisters:

I look upon these letters and do not like to destroy them
they are a house of memory and when I read
I am my mother on deck at last
searching for a ripple on the flat Pacific Ocean
I am my father making delicate waves
around each of the Sugar Loaves on the map going to London
I am my brother in a choir of breakers
that bring his body to the landing place
I am my sister in the boat
outside the orbit of the moon and the orbit of the sun
I am my sister a bell-shaped skirt
between ship and shore
I am my sister painting a rock arch
that became fill for the breakwater
I am my sister exhausted
by travelling and the house to clear
I am my sister writing poems
that lie between the thin pages of letters
I am my sister singing
ship to shore choir of breakers alpine meadow
I am myself on the other side of nowhere
waiting for a knock on the door

Sarah | Emily | Frances

I assembled a triptych of three small poems whose every word can be traced back to an archival source: The Family Songbook (Sarah), Writing Lines and The Family Songbook (Emily) and A Wonderful Panorama (Frances). I wanted to hear the Harris women in their own words made over as lyric poetry that might bridge the gap between ourselves and their resurgent voices.


I believe I was at that time
the only girl in all Taranaki
who ever wrote a line
I am like the active verb
to be and to do
I am too necessary an appendage
to be left out
we used to swing on the great creepers
climb trees like boys
and walk across the clearings
from one log & branch to another
without touching the ground
Frances could walk all round the stock yard
on the top rails
we kept drifting until we got nearly under the bridge
one of the men, a young Maori, climbed along the broken chain
& just as we were under dropped into the canoe
he quickly rowed us across & we went home
how many times since then
I have tried to cross, in dreams
that broken bridge or drifted down that river

Read the full versions at ‘Some Lighted Windows: The Elegy for Corbyn,’ ‘very fine lace knitting’ and ‘Sarah | Emily | Frances’ 

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