This is my madness, and I can’t tell it as it is. Madness is anti-story, anti-chronology, anti-plot, anti-character. It breaks language. It throws mud in the face. It makes story impossible. The minds within the mind won’t let me be.
I know Michael in my soul while at the same time I don’t know him at all. I like this sense that he exists beyond my understanding and somehow beyond this life, in the world of his poetry where there are no limitations and no rules.
In her sublime memoir, The Green Bell (2017), Paula Keogh shares experiences of mental illness, growing-up Catholic and her relationship with the poet, Michael Dransfield, whose life ended prematurely at just 24 years of age on Good Friday, 1973.
Those with an interest in Australian poetry and the period of the late-60s and early 70s – or in representations of creativity and “madness” – will find Keogh’s writing praiseworthy. If, like me, you admired the lyricism of this poet-trickster’s apparently confessional poetry and other publications about Dransfield and his work, you will devour Keogh’s memoir valuing her personal insights into the man and his travails.
Some books and writers are strangely perfect for individual readers at particular junctures in their lives and we always remember those reading experiences with extraordinary fondness. One of the many life-long joys of reading is how a new book can transport us forwards and backwards along our own personal reading trajectories, sometimes hurtling us further into new ways of thinking about much-loved topics or providing comfort, when revisiting a time and place that is precious, although near-forgotten. Memoirs are particularly powerful, quite indescribably, to our own interior lives and memories.
In my case, when reading (on the train-trip to work) that Keogh’s book had just been published instantly downloaded it to the Kindle iPhone app and started reading immediately (almost missing my stop). It has been many years since I read his poetry but remember attending Rodney Hall‘s reading – on what would have been the anniversary of Dransfield’s 50th birthday – and around this time finished a biography by Patricia Dobrez and re-read an excellent essay by Geoff Page (1978) plus Livio Dobrez’s, Parnassus Mad Ward. In short, it has been almost two decades since I had really thought about Dransfield or his poetry.
Originally, totally enamoured with Dransfield’s poetry when introduced to his work as an undergraduate Arts student, by Dr Cliff Hanna in 1987, I read and re-read his output marvelling at how much was published by such a young poet. Keogh’s book captures him, as this reader knew him, from very fond reading and frequent re-reading of his poetry. The Dransfield Keogh describes is marvellously of his time and place. I do wonder how those not acquainted with the poet’s work will respond to Keogh’s memoir? The strength of her writing will engage most but it is worth noting that none of Dransfield’s publications are currently in print.
From time to time, when I’m with Michael, I feel a flash of energy, a surge of confidence.
There we are: Julianne and I sitting cross-legged on the bed. Julianne is telling me about a vision she had that revealed to her the connection between music and mathematics. She explains carefully that music is a series of interlinked mathematical problems and their solutions. She closes her eyes for a few seconds, enclosing this thought in the interior space of her being. Her voice is slow and deliberate, each word drawn up from somewhere deep inside her. She says that music is in our bodies, in the sky. In someone’s scream. It’s in a flower. In everything.
Keogh meets Dransfield when she was at her lowest ebb, confined to M Ward, a psychiatric facility at Canberra Hospital in 1972. Those familiar with Dransfield’s publications will know that poems in his posthumous, The Second Month of Spring, were written in this facility – some dedicated to ‘Paula’. The pair connect, plan marriage in a very short period of time and drift apart as Dransfield spirals into a restless, transient life of addiction.
It was not the first time that Keogh had struggled with “madness” and been institutionalised. The death of her school and university friend Julianne being the catalyst that triggered her mental illness. The story of their friendship and Keogh’s own investigations, as part of her PhD studies, make for interesting reading about the arc of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill and the writer’s own life-long effort to know herself.
Although I read the memoir because of my interest in poetry, some of Keogh’s insights in to post-war Australia were very familiar. Growing-up as a devout Roman Catholic, the author renounces this religious belief in her late teens but sometimes struggles to replace what this faith system provided.
Our parents never argued or raised their voices to each other, and we didn’t raise our voices to them. Occasionally a door was slammed, and if Mum was upset with someone, an oppressive silence descended on the house. There were also times when I stormed off into the bush as a teenager or hid myself in my room with a book, but the direct expression of negative emotion wasn’t acceptable. Our response to conflict was to withdraw, repress, adapt.
For me, Catholicism was a religion of dark compulsions, dark mysteries, guilt and sin. The belief that God could see everything I did, hear every wicked thought, dominated all the small and large dramas of my childhood. In the wooden confessional, I admitted my sins to a shadowy figure behind the grille, desperate for my guilty soul to be wiped clean.
The day of my First Confession I wet my pants as I knelt in the pew, waiting to confess something; I was seven years old and terrified of what would happen behind the wooden door. I knew my badness was much worse than the petty sins I confessed to, but I couldn’t name it, so I couldn’t be forgiven. It was nothing I did exactly, it was just something I was, and Confession could offer no relief. I prayed anxiously about everything, but especially I prayed to be good. I dreamed of being a nun.
My own feelings when first “confessing” to the priest came back strongly when reading this memoir. I was in second class and the challenge was I could not think of anything that I had really done wrong but there I was, in the confessional, needing to perform as expected. “I have been cheeky to mum” was probably true but if I had of been pushed on what that exactly entailed would have come up short. I said my three “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” diligently enough but it was a deeply weird and unsettling experience.
Keogh fantasises about becoming a nun. It made me recall a long-forgotten time when my mother mentioned that her friend became a ‘Bride of Christ’ and how romantic and special it seemed at the time. Decades later, when this friend left the convent and married, I met her. It was an interesting experience as it is so often when a parent’s past enters the loungeroom. Some time after this event Brides of Christ screened on television leading to further discussion about some very challenging topics for the more devout in our extended family. I related to Keogh’s challenges.
Rodney Hall, the poet who championed Dransfield’s work, first as poetry editor at The Australian newspaper and later, when compiling and publishing the poet’s work posthumously, reviewed Paula Keogh’s memoir eloquently, saying:
The Green Bell is a lyrical and profoundly moving memoir about love and madness. Ultimately, it reveals itself to be a hymn to life. A requiem for lost friends. A coming of age story that takes a lifetime. In 1972, Paula Keogh fell in love with Michael Dransfield, the most gifted poet of his generation. Her portrait of him – and the brief period they spent together – recaptures that time with remarkable freshness and insight.
It saddens me that Dransfield’s poetry is no longer in print. Perhaps Keogh’s fine memoir will spur some interest in re-publishing the Collected Poems or even better, a new selection, chosen by a Younger Poet, discussing Dransfield’s writing from new perspectives; perhaps alongside a re-evaluation from those who first admired his achievement.