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Review of Ursula Bethell, Collected Poems. Ed. Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria UP, 1997)

Janet Charman


Originally published in Landfall 195 (Autumn 1998): 174-76.

On the cover of these poems is a Toss Woollaston drawing of Ursula Bethell. Ironically its murkiness is in keeping with the book’s back note that this author may not be readily recognisable to prospective readers. ‘Ursula Bethell stands with R.A.K. Mason at the beginnings of modern poetry in New Zealand.’ Bethell’s name is also linked with Mason’s here because in this patriarchal myth of literary creation Eve may not stand without her Adam.

Editor Vincent O’Sullivan’s introductory essay is silent on Bethell’s relationship with Mason. However he comments on the work of various other writers in regard to Bethell’s poetry.

The freshness and clarity of Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese . . . pointed the way to the restraint, the good manners one could almost say, of her first book.

It was Whitman, surely, who gave her the confidence for the cataloguing of ‘Homage.’

Hopkins’s discovery of total metrical freshness assisted Bethell towards an effective reshaping of her own sense of line.

The language of these accounts, focusing as it does on indebtedness and influence, has the effect of patronising Bethell as the derivative minor in a major league. However in this revised introduction I was pleased to find additions that do allow Bethell areas of technical originality and innovation.

Structurally, apart from some footnotes from a correspondence Bethell had with Rodney Kennedy, the layout of the poems and their reference material seem to be identical with that of the 1985 edition. I wish that the original collections were more generously intertitled and that they could have afforded a bigger visual break between poems.

New ’discoveries and insights’ concerning Bethell’s relationship with Effie Pollen are promised in the collection’s back cover note. These appear in O’Sullivan’s introductory essay as an extract from a letter (possibly not available for the 1985 edition although this is unclear) which Bethell wrote to Eileen Duggan. Effie Pollen has died unexpectedly and Bethell is in mourning. O’Sullivan says:

It was to Eileen Duggan, a woman she liked and admired but seldom met, that she wrote most directly of how she saw her poetry, and her love for Effie, so intimately bound. ‘I must explain that T& P [Time and Place], tho’ it appeared so much later, is made up of things written about the same time as the Garden pieces -- in the same burst of excitement of . . . Now I am a tree struck by lightning -- dead. I can think things but not feel them . . . All joy is lost.’

This inclusion signals no major reappraisals of the poet’s life or work. For O’Sullivan, Bethell belongs at her deepest ‘and at her best even originally, in the great tradition of Anglican devotional writing.’ In his new essay he concludes that Bethell is best described as ‘a Christian humanist.’ This trades one kind of obscurity for another.

Out of the crockpot into the blender.

When he considers the place of the personal in Bethell’s poetry, O’Sullivan uses a phrase that encodes his ambivalent appraisal of her ‘spinster’ status: He assures us that, ‘Certainly she was neither prudish nor remote’. He goes on to undermine this disclaimer by telling us that his subject describes herself as ‘Being a Victorian . . . and enjoying Trollope’s fiction because I recall the remnants of that society’ [my italics]

This ‘Victorian’ womanly good breeding (I can never understand how people part with their privacy so readily’) then becomes O’Sullivan’s explanation for Bethell’s decision to publish all her writing pseudonymously. In his words, ‘showing ‘a natural reluctance for any kind of self promotion’.

But what is natural about this reluctance? A man putting his name on his work is asserting copyright, the Victorian Trollope not excepted. And if that is self-promotion so much the better.

It was because of the misogyny and homophobia of her era that Bethell had reason to fear invasion of her privacy. It would have been catastrophic to have a lesbian attachment anywhere publicly admitted. That was then. Fifty two years after her death there is still little acknowledgement of how sexual politics defined the poet’s life and writing. O’Sullivan is not unaware of the ambiguities in Bethell’s position and alerts us to that fact in this way:

One feels she would greatly have disliked the ‘confessional’ verse that tends to equate intensity with the degree of self exposure.

I don’t think O’Sullivan is presuming here what Bethell might have thought of the poetry of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, three writers whose work is historically, if not very usefully, referred to as confessional.  Rather, here the term is used as a synonym for verse ‘one’ finds embarrassing. By way of contrast Bethell is praised for understanding that a poem is:

always a careful communication, aware of tradition, and certainly not a piece of writing where spontaneity in itself would be thought any claim for attention.

However I always suspect critics who use the term ‘confessional’ of reading a text whose first offence has been to address matters foreign to their own world-view. Confession implies shame and the need for absolution. The confessional suppresses the political in favour of the psychoanalytic. In the sense that confessional poetry is synonymous with Plath’s wind-up poem ‘Daddy’, the term serves as a patriarchal codeword for badwoman’s art.

Bethell was obliged to adopt a range of textual strategies to handle any ambivalence her readers might feel about her material. No-one puts this better than O’Sullivan himself in a point I was disappointed to find omitted from the newly revised version of his essay. Addressing Bethell’s reconstruction of the colonial voice as an indigenous one, in his 1985 conclusion he said:

Her finest poems remain a tough minded and impressive answer to how she manages an inevitable division of loyalties -- to speak in one place with responses she felt so strongly were drawn from another.

This observation reflects cogently on Bethell’s expression of lesbian identity in a culture which prescribed compulsory heterosexuality.

The Antipodes poems have a shiftingly gendered narrator. The Mourning poems lament not just Effie Pollen’s passing, but also the mortal closure of a woman’s relationship. In many poems (‘Morning Walk’ below, for example) it’s no accident that Eden is sited in the South Island of New Zealand.

               like tender bloom on curve of immature peach-skin
              clung fugitive frost to the foot of winter green gullies
              shone, sun-glossed gold and silver, the satiny tussock. . .

              I kissed the chains that bind the body to bounty of earthly scene

Bethell celebrates eros, and so her home in this our upside-down antipodean world is never an exile. Her relationship with Effie Pollen was the origin point of a poetic voice which refuses to admit that life lived as and with another woman could ever be a fall from grace.



Last updated 18 May, 2002