new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell



A Note about Kakemono

Graham Lindsay

The Japanese word Ursula Bethell used to title her poem ‘Kakemono’ means a painted or an inscribed wall-hanging. As the poem reads like notes for a painting, and its theme is in the vein of the art it refers to, the choice is a good one.

The art it refers to is ukiyo-e, 'pictures of the floating world.' It came into being with the change of leadership in Japanese society in the sixteenth century which saw the Samurai superseded by warlords and businessmen.

Originally, ukiyo-e was a Buddhist term, reflecting the idea that life is suffering. This was especially the case in sixteenth century Japan which was ravaged by political instability and civil war. When things eventually settled into some kind of order and people started to enjoy their lives again, the meaning of ukiyo-e shifted; 'the lamentable world' took on hedonistic connotations, viz. the 'stylish world of pleasure ... of easy women and handsome actors.' [1]

‘Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating, caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current; this is the floating world.' [2]

When the new men of power started buying art, it wasn't the kind of art favoured by their predecessors – which was full of allusions they didn't understand – it was art featuring themselves and their fashionable world. The subjects were actors, courtesans, battles, beautiful women, ghosts, demons, lovers, erotica. And also still lifes, birds and flowers, landscapes, and domestic scenes.

By the end of the eighteenth century, ukiyo-e was in decline, coinciding with the decline of one of its foremost artists, Kitigawa Utamaro (1753-1806). By the middle of the nineteenth century it was all over, finished off by America's forced opening of Japan in 1854 (just twenty years before Bethell was born).

The purpose of the forced entry was trade, but Japan wasn't geared up for trade, and didn't have much to offer, other than its culture and art, and for that there was an insatiable demand: vast quantities of ukiyo-e, of cloisonne, were relocated to the West to satisfy its craze for things oriental. It was everywhere. By the 1920s, the Canterbury Museum had a substantial collection, as did private collectors, including the Christchurch architects Heaton Rhodes and Heathcote Helmore; Gordon MacArthur, husband of the painter Chrystabel Aitken; Sir Joseph Kinsey. Francis Shurrock, who taught at the Canterbury College School of Art, had a collection.

Bethell, who had studied painting in Geneva in the mid 1890s, had a wide circle of friends, including painters, teachers, writers, journalists; people she would have discussed ukiyo-e with. She attended exhibitions of art. She had views about art.

After visiting an exhibition of Chinese ceramics, she found that on ‘Emerging into Chch streets the barbarity struck me more acutely than ever.’ In the same vein she remarked ‘Doesn't one learn to select in N.Z.! To leave out the houses. I seldom saw those on either side of Rise C. but in photographs they cannot not be seen.' [3]


My pale blue iris, Caterina, is more than four foot high,
My pale yellow snapdragon is as tall as Caterina,
And my pale blue delphinium is much taller even than they.

Look at all those possessives; two Caterinas in consecutive lines. Consider that flowers are the reproductive organs of plants, and don't overlook (despite the bad pun) Bethell's companion's surname, Pollen.

In an extensive note in the copy of From a Garden in the Antipodes she gave Rise Cottage's new owner in 1935, she wrote that the poems had been written between 1925 and 1928 while digging and lawnmowing, and we can readily imagine her pausing from this labour to rest and admire, as well as the view, the growth of her plants. The house had been built for her and so the garden had to be started from scratch. As the soil was mostly clay, she had good reason to admire their growth. At four foot (or even five – one of her fair copies has five), the 1909 cultivar Caterina is doing very well. The snapdragon is as tall, the delphinium much taller; as tall as she perhaps, and she was tall – men commented on the fact. Effie ('the little Raven'), by contrast, was short, maybe as high as a 'five foot' Caterina?

The poem is not about biography, but biography is not irrelevant either. The decade at Rise Cottage was Bethell's happiest, Effie's companionship made her writing possible – she 'prompted all'. 4 The memorial poems she wrote each spring following Effie's death were her last. Close friend and biographer, M.H. Holcroft, is certain had Effie died a few years earlier we would not have had the last two collections. He is also categorical about the relationship, quoting Bethell's description of it as 'prevailingly maternal.' And that 'They are mistaken who think that such relationships are only known when physically based.' [5]

What beautiful lines they make! what delicate patterns!
Arrowy jets of limpid hues, –

In the second part of this short poem, following two exclamatory gestures toward the ineffable, themselves not without male/female cues, the male form is celebrated in a context affirming innocence and purity. Beautiful lines, delicate patterns, arrowy jets – I can just see my old poetry lecturer's eyebows arching. And then comes an ecstatic statement of the transcendent, a storm of erotic and divine imagery.

Lives there still a Japanese artist
Who, with his paint brush, could make us tremble
To see those lines, those tenuous colours
Spring again vibrant as I now see them springing
In their fugacity?

What does she mean? It took me a while to cotton on. When I thought I was getting close, I was thinking: she's referring to a particular image of an actual landscape, and she's asking herself this amazing question, namely, is there anybody still living there painting ukiyo-e of it?

My problem was deciphering the inversion, misplacing the emphasis, putting it on 'there', when it was more likely intended for 'still'. So what I now think she's asking is: is there an ukiyo-e artist out there still who can replicate my vision?

She means as well to include all art's big questions: how separate/together are we, what can we hope to share of what is important to us, can one enter the same river twice after all? The big themes of Japanese art too: humanity versus nature, the everyday world versus the Ultimate, the individual versus society. She might also be lamenting the lost tradition, imagining herself transposed into it.

Rilke says somewhere something about a quality of looking where after a while you may begin to feel the subtlety of the subject and finding it unbearable, look away. There is a meditation practice, originating in India and refined in Japan (Ch'an Buddhism), which enhances attention to subtlety, which itself is a kind of gateway (a gateless gate) to deeper consciousness, and I think it is that kind of metaphysical brink Bethell is poised on in this poem (and the experience generating it).

It's easy to overlook her straightforward diction. She is not a poet of overstatement, so when she says 'tremble' she means you to take it literally, ie an involuntary spasm due to excitement or fear. Probably both, given the context – some pivotal, epochal, experience which is nonetheless no more ordinary or extraordinary than the apperception of time, the visceral cognition of the present moment.

'Tenuous' takes tremble a step further with its echo of tremulousness, and calls to mind the fading vegetable dyes of ukiyo-e – the pale blues ('Aigami, a delicate blue, which could be obtained by dipping the paper in the juice of tsuyukusa, or commelina communis. A most delicate soft blue could be obtained by soaking aigami in water, but this colour was fugitive and easily blurred if the printed colour became wet' [6]); the pale yellow ('Ukon, a delicate vegetable yellow, which was extracted from the root of a plant of the same name, also called curcuma longa.' [7])

Spring again vibrant as I now see them springing

Shunga means 'spring pictures', a euphemism for erotica featuring genitalia in graphic and exaggerated detail in all the permutations of coupling. Placing the verb and its present participle in the two most active positions a line has going for it has also to be a sly nod in the direction of this branch of ukiyo-e. Bethell was no prude.

'Vibrant' is another plangent chord in the fugue: 'tense with a specified emotion ... exuberant', and in regard to colour: 'vivid, intense ... quivering, vibrating' (OECD). Cresswell in his idiosyncratic, insightful way catches the light that doubtless transported Bethell in his description of the garden as 'a modest little garden – a square patch between the sitting room windows and the awful, blinding gulf beyond, a piece of lawn and some soil rather than a garden.... It wasn't one of those homes with a view. The view was for before and after, morning and evening – very early morning I should say, from the verses.... I think the view was like morning and evening prayers.' [8]

To see those lines, those tenuous colours
Spring again vibrant as I now see them springing
In their fugacity.

Fugacity is a mouthful, it's a big word to save up for your last word, the one to bow out on. You can get its drift from the context, but you'll need a dictionary to find or lose your way in its fugitive meanings. Fugacity links back to 'jets' in the subordinate sense (here) of a property of gas, and shows an author big enough to have a dig at herself in another subordinate sense, the reference to a literature of passing interest (occasional, ephemeral). There's the partial homonym in fugue, and the sharing of that word's Latin root fugere, to flee. In fugacity, we're slap bang up against, and set adrift by, Bethell's argument. Life is fleeting, transient, evanescent. Everything changes.

So why kakemono for the title? As above, so below: the poem reads like notes for a painting, its theme is in the vein of the art it refers to. Maybe also because the poem so vividly evokes its absent (pictorial) partner?

Kakemono generally were printed on two sheets of paper pasted together, so perhaps it names various dualisms: (of theme and meta-theme) reality/the world versus art/articulation (the sense in which the sheet the poem is written on could be felt to be a wall-hanging 'pasted' on that other sheet which is the originary experience); impermanence versus an 'unwavering belief in the goodness of the Power behind the universe' [9]; (of form) simply, the two stanzas.

Mostly, the subject of kakemono-e was the standing figure of a courtesan, so perhaps she was thinking of a particular image? Or was it that the colours of her flowers suggested the prevailing colours of kakemono? Was she thinking of a particular piece of cloisonne in the Canterbury Museum, featuring the petals of an iris in 3D fidelity? Or one of the 'Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji' by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), in particular the one called 'Under the Wave at Kanagawa', in which three pale yellow cargo boats are about to be capsized by a towering wave, the showering crest of which bears more than a passing resemblance to panicles of pale blue flowers?

In a letter to Rodney Kennedy, written from the flat in the Webb Street house she had bequeathed to the Anglican Church, 'Two years after Effie's death, and soon after the Caxton Press had published Time and Place, [when] she was able to say at Christmas that she was stronger, and 'getting over the nervous shock' [10], she wrote:

What does give me a real thrill of joy, (I have discovered,) again, is putting flowers about my rooms, I wasn't the one to do that at Rise Cottage. I wish I could paint quickly, the bunches in my room now – Spiry pale blue delphiniums & just as spiry snapdragons (the tall sort) & a very pale pink lupin – and again ‘bleeding heart’ (have you that delightful cottage garden plant?) with pinks & jasmine. I made some notes on the preceding arrangement – iris & lupin – wonderful colours – for a possible piece of needlework – but my stodgy drawing is nothing like the reality ‘springing in their fugacity' if I may quote my own words. [11]


  1. Richard Lane, Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. London: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1978, p.11
  2. Asai Ryoi. Tales of the Floating World. In Pinckard, William. Japanese Prints and the World of Go. Ed Richard Bozulich. On-line at
  3. Ursula Bethell, Collected Poems. Ed Vincent O'Sullivan. Wellington: Victoria UP, 1997, p.xii
  4. M.H. Holcroft, Mary Ursula Bethell. Wellington: Oxford UP, 1975, p.12
  5. op.cit, p.14
  6. Chie Hirano, 'The Making of Japanese Prints and the History of Ukiyo-e' extracted from Kiyonaga, A Study of his Life and Times.             Boston, 1939. On-line at
  7. op.cit.
  8. D’Arcy Cresswell, in 'Ursula Bethell: Some Personal Memories'. Landfall (Dec 1948), pp.282-3
  9. op.cit. L.G. Whitehead, p.294
  10. Holcroft, op.cit, p.40
  11. Ursula Bethell, Letter to Rodney Kennedy, Dec 3, 1936. My thanks to Peter Whiteford for pointing out this reprise of the poem.


Mihoka Ford. Peter Whiteford, Victoria University of Wellington. Jeff Palmer, Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. Neil Roberts, Christchurch Art Gallery. Roger Fife, Canterbury Museum. Michele Leggott, Auckland University.


© Graham Lindsay


Last updated 22 May, 2005