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.

From ‘Routes’:

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

the man stands, shakes us
with her obituary.

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?


7 Replies to “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. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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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