Janet Paul: we work in a basement of small truths

On seeing letters from conscientious objectors’ camps written invisibly with orange juice
by Janet Paul

So little truth will tell…
it stains painfully
yellowed drawing
and ironed orange secret letter
opening an objector’s prison
after thirty year’s peace.

We work in a basement
of small truths –
but who will connect?

What a stunning poem by Dame Janet Paul (1919 – 2004)! What a killer line, ‘We work in a basement of small truths’, and one that you could relate to so many things, not least of all our understanding of the human condition as still signifying a ‘basement of small truths’, even after thousands of years of human questioning and contemplation of ourselves and the world. Paul was a librarian for nine years at the Turnbull, so I’m assuming she literally did work in a ‘basement’ archive, bursting no doubt with revealing documents, records and papers. And the final question too – who will connect? Implied here is also the ‘how’ of connecting and understanding, and Janet Paul’s life seems to have been a rich, manifold, rigorous and open consideration of who connects what and how.

The poem above is taken from a book of her poems and art-work and you can read it when you visit the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery until November 21.


I beg, literally beg anyone with an interest in New Zealand writing and art and creative culture to see this exhibition and any other future exhibitions of Paul’s work. I had a vague notion of Paul’s contribution to our artistic history, however was ashamed to find I really knew so little about her life and work. While I’m sure some people know about Paul, my assumption would be that the Turnbull Gallery is seeking to redress a wider lack of knowledge about Paul’s contribution through this show. Any redress really means nothing however if we don’t go and see it and then talk to each other about the work and Paul’s varied activities – supporting numerous writers, writing poems, making drawings, paintings, etchings, publishing with her husband Blackwood Paul such significant works as Hone Tuwhare’s No Ordinary Sun….

I’m going to part of a lunchtime reading this Thursday (Nov 13) with a group of poets who have written new work in response to this exhibition. I’m really looking forward to hearing about what other poets have discovered and thought about in relation to Paul.
In addition to seeing the show, there is also a bit of information available about Paul online:

Janet Paul obituary

NZETC works related to Paul

Review of Landmarks in New Zealand publishing: Blackwood & Janet Paul 1945 -68 Turnbull Room, National Library Gallery
17 November 1995- 28 February 1996 

Paul in the Te Papa collections

Lunchtime reading: Poetry from Victoria University
Date: 13 November 2014 Time: 12.10 pm
Venue: Ground floor programme rooms, National Library, cnr Molesworth and Aitken St

The National Library presents a poetry reading by MA in Creative Writing graduates, in response to the exhibition No less than everything: the art and times of Janet Paul, currently on display in the Turnbull Gallery.

Join Airini Beautrais (MA 2005), Anna Livesey (MA 2002), Mary Macpherson (MA 2006), Hannah Mettner (MA 2012), Frances Samuel (MA 2003), and Rachel O’Neill (MA 2008)as they read poems written in response to the life and work of an artist who actively supported other artists and writers throughout her life.

4 thoughts on “Janet Paul: we work in a basement of small truths

  1. Janet worked as the art librarian in the old Turnbull Library, up on The Terrace (?44) It wasn’t a basement. I remember walking across the beautiful carpet in the reception area and through a door, down the corridor and then opening the first door on the right. She was always very welcoming. And I remember her as always joyous too. Can’t wait to see the exhibition because although I knew her daughter Joanna as a poet and painter I don’t think of Janet as a poet yet. Many thanks for this lovely post, reminding me to get a move on to get there before the show closes!

    1. I can picture her exactly as you describe Marian – there is a strong sense of openness in her work. I quite like knowing that the ‘basement’ wasn’t a biographical image, but something else. Hopefully we get a chance to chat sometime about the exhibition – thanks for your comment.

  2. So I went to the exhibition and loved the poems and the beautiful book they’re in. And when I reread ‘On seeing letters…’, there in the Turnbull, I thought that it *was* very likely a real basement. Back then there were all kinds of storehouses around the town and because it was a letter it could even have been in a National Archives basement. I also loved the family video with all those cameras (!) and Janet’s book covers perhaps most of all. And yes, it would be good to chat about it sometime.

    1. Great to hear about your impressions Marian – I also liked the family video – and made some note about a ‘family of cameras’. Really pleased I got to see the exhibition.

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