new zealand electronic poetry centre

Bernadette Hall



Launching The Merino Princess

Vincent O’Sullivan

Poetry can say a lot of different things, and of course so can individual poets. But if I had to choose, say, just a few lines to represent Bernadette, lines to catch her in passing as it were, I would go for something like these:

                               All the windows
are open. Ivory tides wash out, wash in
& you sing the mysteries: that love
is a gift; that nothing is ever lost;
that death is the centre of a long life.

That’s from a poem called ‘Amica’, Latin for a female friend. They are lines that could hardly be more direct or unhurried; or more precise, even in their shading towards more than they say; or more confident in their tone, in their certainty that this is what needs to be said, for the moment. There’s a sense of life informing a fragment, so that the fragment too is complete, because we know that to be inherently part of something is another kind of completeness.

And how typical, in those lines, is that unexpected but exact word, ‘ivory’, its effect like so many others in her poetry, metaphor not as decoration but as exploration, as knowledge – ‘the knocking waves like smocking on the baby’s dress.’ That sense of elegant surprise, when thought and image and emotion don’t simply run together, but are the same thing. There are so many poems in this selection that do that so well, that bring off the difficult business of equilibrium only very good poems convey.

What I mean by that is the sustained, the aesthetic balancing of what the poem wants to say, the technical finesse in the way the lines evolve, the linguistic charm in its saying. To put this more exactly, let me quote Paul Valery, the French poet and critic, who said it like this. A poem ‘never possesses me wholly unless I find in it traces of a thought whose power is equal to that of language itself. The force to bend the common word to unexpected ends without violating the “time-honoured forms”, the capture of things that are difficult to say, and above all, the simultaneous management of syntax, harmony and ideas.’

This isn’t at all an easy thing to bring off, the ‘management’ Valery speaks of. Among the Canterbury poets – and this is how I see Hall’s pedigree – Bethell often did it, Curnow did it even more often. But it’s a rare gift. You can’t write that kind of poetry by imitating models, or tap-dancing for applause, or joining a fashion-school.   When it comes off, it is poetry that leaves you, as one of Bernadette’s poems concludes, ‘Still wondering how on earth it is to be done.’

This is a book about many things. But what it most conveys to me is its sense of feeling at ease, the robust sense of a writer knowing who and where she is; a poet not fussed (I could think of a good deal of New Zealand poetry as I say this), a poet not fussed into thinking her job is to preserve tiny epiphanies as sort of poetical pickled onions. I so admire this book because it isn’t small scale, because it’s a poetry that reveals, without ostentation, without glare, how a mind works when it engages with the whole of life; and how it engages the reader too with the processes of her craft. And with her take, as you might say, on tradition.

Part of the confidence, part of the fullness, of this selection, is the way in which its poems move so easily, so naturally, in a broad stream of Franciscan Catholicism that has nothing to do with dogma, nothing to do with compliances, but a lot to do with culture and temperament – with knowing where you are placed by chance, and where you then choose to be placed by choice. How history becomes oneself.

You might say ‘focus’ is another word for that kind of confidence. As I read Bernadette I sometimes think of Wallace Stevens’ line in ‘A Pastoral Nun’, that line that says ‘I live in an immense activity.’ He means an activity enriched, engraved even, by perspective, by commitment, by openness to events. It’s a line that applies as well, again, to Ursula Bethell, although it does not apply to Baxter, because Stevens is not talking about display and declaration, but about a particular kind of attention that is brought to bear. That is what I respect and delight in, in Bernadette’s poetry – the invitation to attend as she does, and the way she speaks of that attention in a language, an imagery, that is so completely her own. Think of those splendid St Francis poems, the sonnets, the beautiful poems to her brother, the title poem, the ‘waitara canticle’ that concludes,

hey, hang on a minute,
we’d better all listen
this time, don’t you reckon.

I’ll finish by saying, Yeah, I reckon.

Madras Café Bookshop, Christchurch
8 November 2004

Vincent O’Sullivan

Last updated 25 March, 2005