Wild Places: Kathleen Mansfield and Flowers
When I open my eyes Mansfield is sitting on the end of my bed looking at me in that dark, accusing way she has. Everyone has their own haunting, and she is mine. Tonight, I’m sleeping in a budget hotel in Wellington listening to a category two cyclone throwing an ocean’s worth of rain at the window like gravel. I should be working on a new story, but I haven’t written anything worth keeping for weeks. Mansfield disapproves of my inertia.
‘Shouldn’t you be doing something?’ she says. ‘Don’t you think this is a complete waste of your life?’
She’s holding out a bunch of primroses arranged in a blue bowl. A still life; une nature morte. They smell of the forest, damp moss, undergrowth – The Wild.
‘You know they’ll die, of course,’ she says, arching one perfect eyebrow. ‘They always do.’ And then she vanishes in a waft of yellow broom and white manuka.
Sometimes she brings chrysanthemum blooms floating in a black Japanese dish. Yellow chrysanthemums remind her of sunflowers, a painting by Van Gogh, a new way of writing. On another occasion she brought me purple lilac in a green jug. Lilacs are for grief, she told me, their scent a memory keeper from the time she travelled on a train across Germany, pregnant with the baby that didn’t live. Lilacs are for abandonment. Lilacs are Garnett Trowell.
Once she appeared in a navy blue suit, very elegant, with an ivory marguerite brooch on the lapel, flaunting a daisy ring she said had been given to her by a new lover. I didn’t know whether to believe her, since Middleton Murry never seemed the kind of man to buy jewellery, or to be fond of daisies.
‘The mind I love must have wild places,’ she told me extravagantly, when I asked about the lovers who had, one by one, proved unsatisfactory. There had to be ‘little flowers planted by the wind’, and ‘dark damsons’ bruising themselves in the tangled grass. A cultivated garden was death to creativity, she insisted, impossible to order perfect paragraphs from something already pruned naked.
I’m imagining the motel room on Tinakori Road. I can’t go back there, any more than she could. A global pandemic, not TB this time, keeps me here. ‘You should be writing,’ she says again. But I can’t write, can’t breathe. Pure panic. Mansfield knows all about that.
I let her tell me about Karori, about the wild garden around the house, and the pear trees in the orchard. She talks about the aloe, that flowered only once every ten years. ‘The very essence of truth’. All that fertility, a bud pushing up inside the skull, finding its way out of darkness, shaking the flower free.
The motel is quite close to the Botanical Gardens, now manicured, well managed, but, in Mansfield’s time the gardens were close to the bush, where darker, more disturbing forms waited in the margins of her imagination. They lurked inside her body too, throwing an ink bottle, a book, switching identities from Maori to Pakeha and back. ‘You are a little savage from New Zealand,’ someone told her, and she was pleased.
Neurologists say that the sense which stimulates memory the most is that of scent. A whiff of fragrance can take us straight back to a particular place or time. Mansfield is fond of an expensive perfume called Genet de Fleurie. It takes her back to Thorndon, and the hills where broom and gorse bushes grew like flocks of golden sheep, where she loved to run wild when she was a girl. She has never been so free since.
It’s spring in Europe, and the wild jonquils are seeding themselves among the rocks in the alpine meadows, and swaying in yellow clouds further down in fields grown for perfume. Mansfield is in southern France, mourning the death of her brother. She is alone, once more abandoned, drawing the scent of jonquils into her rotting lungs. By now, a quarter of the population of Europe has died from what her lover refers to as the ‘romantic disease’. In the past it has claimed the Brontë sisters, Keats, and one of Mansfield’s favourite Russian writers, Chekhov, but Mansfield is determined to survive. The elusive Middleton Murry is persuaded to return and, in the market, she buys six bunches of violets to welcome her reluctant lover, ‘in a state of lively, terrified joy’. She rents a house with an almond tree in the garden, economises on food, lives on omelettes and oranges, and is often hungry. Then comes the agony of another parting. Another disappointment. The sound of the gate closing behind her. Pas de nougat pour le Noel.
But now she is experimenting with the word ‘husband’. And she is pale, fragile as the violets she takes from the collar of her coat and crushes in quick, nervous movements. Is he faithful? ‘There are letters,’ she says. They lie on the hall table like fatal white petals.
The scent that takes me home is the astringent smell of sphagnum moss and pine bark, the sweetness of moorland gorse, with bitter undertones of peat. The fox-coloured hills I grew up on were rich with these odours. I wrote my first poem under a larch tree, breathing them in. This was the primal imprint, like Thorndon, or Karori. You can find echoes of it in other places, but never so strong, with so much life in the breath of it.
Mansfield is critical of my poetry and reminds me sternly to remember to be accurate – the exact word – nothing else will do. The ‘detail of detail - the life of life’. She herself is forensic.
‘Colour. Pink. 5 petalled flower with seed purse darker colour, thick reddish stem, small leaf like a bramble leaf. The seed purse is highly glazed, it is – in 3, one long wing & 2 little ones. Attached to it is the 5 petalled flower. It always falls in delicate clusters.’
She frowns at my cheap hotel room. Her life has been a procession of rooms like this, she says; worn carpets, faded roses on the wallpaper, swelling and reddening in the middle of a feverish night. ‘I know I shall die in one,’ she tells me. ‘I shall stand in front of a crochet dressing-table cover, pick up a long invisible hairpin left by the last “lady” and die with disgust’. In a more comfortable hotel in Cornwall, her friend Anne Rice brings a bunch of flesh-and-blood red roses. They bloom in Katherine’s cheeks, on her tongue, and on the white lawn squares she tucks up her sleeves. She tells me about her ideal house, the Heron, which must have a magnolia in the garden, wisteria on the wall, and a medlar tree. And there must certainly be bees.
‘Why flowers?’ I ask her. ‘Why?’ She shows me a moonlit pear tree at the bottom of the garden. It is perfect, but the blossom is already falling, rotting down into the grass, leaving just the promise of fruit.
From a chalet in the alps, drifted under snow, Mansfield erects a marquee in a garden in Wellington, orders lilies and roses, trails her fingers through the lavender that grows beside the path. At the bay she runs to the sea, through blue grass and toi-toi, sea pinks and dew-pearled nasturtiums, swims out into the cold, blue waters towards the snow-tipped mountains of the South Island. Mansfield’s husband talks of nettles and danger, quoting Shakespeare. But it’s January and she has already escaped him.
‘What was it like?’ I ask her. ‘Really?’
She shrugs her shoulders, her face a mask. She’s holding out a notebook that opens to reveal pressed flowers between the pages; petals that still seem to move and breathe in the draught from the cyclone-battered window. She raises another, enigmatic eyebrow. ‘You can still find me here, can’t you?’
And there is Kezia, admiring the moon-white cosmias grown from a 3d packet of seed, now as tall as herself, but ‘frail as butterflies’, their petals fluttering ‘like wings in the gently breathing air’.
© Kathleen Jones 2021