Emily and her sisters

‘Emily and her sisters’ from Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points (Auckland University Press, 2017) pp. 92-97.

a beginning

Someone in the distance, a voice on the wind. Mesembryanthe- mum australe and Adiantum (Sugar Loaves, Taranaki). Light pencil. Samolus repens. 1860. Iceplant, maidenhair, primrose. A little spray and the big breakers washing ashore at Back Beach or leaping at the base of Paritutu. I had written a long letter, she said, but on reading it over thought best not to send it.



She is a watercolour. Mauve silk in bright sun and out of the wind caught at the corner of a composing eye. She moves papaver against the light and words fly from every selvedge of her floating veils. It must have been such fun to get ready for a wedding in such a hurry. Dear little Katie took it and was dangerously ill. I collected a great many burnt articles and made cloth shoes for the children. Their thin arms and tear-shaped ribs. Their bare legs. Their anther feet. They ran wild among the rocks and streams stoning crabs and paddling tin canoes. He made bows of supplejack and arrows fledged with iridescent feathers picked up he said in Mama’s duck pen. Hoydens he called us. Pirate Jennies. Tribe of hubbub ripped skirts and raspberry mouths. Fuchsia and sophora tucked up together in the wedding album and only three of us mindful of the place they came from. Its littoral hideouts, its forbidden gullies full of boulders and birdsong. The arrow found its mark, the bird fell. Draw us together, she said. I am like the active verb to be and to do, I am too necessary an appendage to be left out.


a fine girl

She is always there, the fine girl born on the boat and taken from them five days later. There, did you not hear, they are conveying our darling to the deep. Back she swims and never leaves off calling to us, mirthful, tantalising, one who knows the next step and the one after that. One who was on the beach at Waitara and when he wouldn’t listen flung herself between his head and the bullet. A fine girl following the shell back to town through rippling winter sunlight, crying like a gull in the jade green waves. She is another watercolour. She is a covered cup. Bindweed, mānuka, native bluebell. Mama temporises. I long to take a walk with the dear children. The forest is behind me and the sea in front, but I dare not venture in the former for fear of losing myself and the beach is often too exposed to high winds making us almost blind with the iron sand and the great waves dashing against the rocks. Then she has more courage. I have seen a beautiful waterspout and the whales sometimes but not often. She is always counted, the fine girl lost on the outward voyage.



She is my rebel soul, my other self, the one who draws me out and folds me away. She is a brush tipped with paint, a Conté crayon poised above white paper. She is running after Frank Standish, wearing out her heart on him, waterscape, landscape, natural rock archway destroyed by the quarry opened up for breakwater construction and at last there was safe harbour for landing in. Frances, fourth daughter, my sister across the sea when I despaired of ever coming home. Who kept Papa and his harp happy on the cart taking them both to the port. Frances who sails back to the rough shore, then the sheltered one. Who stays in a sister’s house and dies there, sleeping not beside Frank but our ghostly brother. Voices on the wind crying his name, the two of them elbowing each other as in the old bed where we slept top and tail giggling uncontrollably until Mama put her head around the door. A native orchid in flower against a dark background. Slender leaves with panicles of delicate white and yellow flowers. Earina autumnalis, springtime autumn fragrance in the forest. What could you be but watercolour to me? We will not look back, it is too painful, she said. And I cannot look forward, it is too dreary. We will watch the gauzy clouds float by. A snowy veil athwart a sky. Of deepest blue. I left.



Points first a pair of scissors drops from the wall she is scrubbing and cuts open her arm. Blood gouts, children scream. Emily just off the boat. Emily in the doorway with her carpetbag, her easel and her painting box. Aunty, aunty, aunty. We bind the wound, we calm the sobbing children. We get the cases of paintings off the cart and to the back porch. Has it ever been different we ask ourselves. Fire and sword, chaos and ruin. I watched her sail back to the fatal shore with her trousseau indivisa. Mary so full of hope in her clematis veils. Mary climbing plumose, Mary collecting and growing, her hands in muck and ground truth. My lightness in springing over every little obstacle, she said. I swung down in a moment. We picked up the torn and trampled papers, we put the boxes in storage and sent the harp by schooner to Papa. Mary in Eltham, Mary at Awatuna. Mary in Havelock with her orcharding boys. Mary journeying to farewell Kate, Mary in Waimea, Mary in oils. Mary the traveller, outlasting us all and returning to take up with Kate on the hill at Te Henui. Between them they see that the boxes and paintings are safe and will come to light. The married names, she said. A rhizomatic insurance and a joy. Puawhananga. Some authorities leave out the h.



She is a dark archive. My hands go in and out of the boxes looking for her and finding only rain in the night. During this time a moth dies in a pool. Ethos and pathos. Elevated slightly and the artist has drawn the drop-shadow on the ground beneath. Shadow and light. Without them the most perfectly executed drawing will fail. Astelia grandis. Listen to a piece of music. Agaves and allies. Listen to it from another room. Order Asparagales. A spilled jar of ball bearings. Rolling cloud. Toitoi. I saw her on the riverbank at Mohakatino, drawing perching lilies and saying don’t you see they will never find me. I have destroyed the map, I have given the wrong name, I am over the edge of the world, ungazetted and fading from view. She said as long as she had any I should have some flowers for the grave. My hand goes in and out of the bushes without injury, she said. For of course I did not undeceive him. There is low composition with shadowy plants growing toward a lighter upper half of the page. There is the gorge and the coast. Soft hyphen. Look, holes.



She is the girl on the path running to meet three figures on horseback outside the gate on the Frankley road. Her mother stands in the doorway of the house, its garden and fences neat, the mountain on view through cleared bush. The sun shines, the sheep and bullocks are fat. Ellen my seventh daughter. The veranda posts were made of fern trees and the creepers grew rapidly round them which gave a pretty appearance to the cottage. Dear Corbyn at the gate with Kate and Emily. Before the house burned, before I took my daughters all but one to Nelson, before my son was killed. The family chain so roughly severed, she said. I wish Augusta and Ellen would make me some crochet edging. I wish you would send back the box with my poems and letters for copying. One purple flower spike and three pink ones against sea and coast, below them Stilbocarpa leaves and flowers. Youngest and most intricate of compositions. Flowers now called Aralia lyalli, Ligusticum latifolium and Ligusticum antipodium. It was you for whom the gift of the sewing machine meant most. Five-fingered jack and two anisotomes. Who could see us making books as well as gowns and children’s costumes with that flying wheel and its piercing needle. Run for the gate, little sister. Run as far as you can down the road and don’t look back at the mountain getting ready to strangle your happiness.



The deck heaves. Her three important baskets have been brought on board among the boxes and trunks of the family she is working for. The baskets hold everything she will need from this point forward. A memory theatre. An art museum. A life of the mind. Also the rock arch and spray drifting. She gathers them up and goes below, trying not to look back at Paritutu and the islands black against a stormy sunset. The sea swept them off the rock. One body was washed ashore but the others were never found. Listen. When I went down to the cabin again the vessel was fairly on her way. Our darling. I went to bed to prevent myself from being sick, she said. The Screwpalm family. The vessel an immense churn and I a lump of butter continually thumped about in it while the waves splashed like gallons of buttermilk. A wind muff, a dead cat. Velar filaments most probably modified arms. Dreadful noise and motion of the screw. Relict, the only surviving member of its order. Someone in the distance holding out a small gloved hand.


Later she became a well-known botanical artist and the writer of lively diaries that showed how difficult it was to make a living teaching and painting in the 1880s and 90s. But Emily Cumming Harris (1837‒1925) was a writer all her life, and it is the young woman of 1860, already a confident, archiving poet, whose trajectory I trace here. Like her contemporary Emily Dickinson, Emily Harris copied her poems into letters and sent them to friends and family members. Unlike Dickinson, whose almost 1800 poems were discovered bound in small handmade manuscript books after her death, Emily Harris’s poems have largely disappeared. But not quite. At Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth are two handmade booklets (fascicles), and in them are two poems about what it was like to live under military occupation in the town in 1860. Two poems and their contexts make visible a vanished world.

Other key images are six works by Emily Harris in the collection at Puke Ariki (one for each of her sisters), inwreathed with the responses of four contemporary women writers and what can be made of other voices in the archive. Thanks to Anna Boswell, Makyla Curtis, Bronwyn Lloyd and Erena Shingade for their generous contributions to the project.

 Michele Leggott’s New Fellow’s Seminar ‘Emily and her sisters’. Royal Society Te Apārangi, 2018.