Big questions lie at the heart of The Green Bell. What is love? Madness? Poetry? Are there boundaries? The focus is on Paula Keogh’s intense relationship with poet Michael Dransfield when they meet in M Ward, the psychiatric ward of Canberra Community Hospital, in 1972.
Keogh was admitted after a breakdown following the death of her best friend Julianne, but with Dransfield’s arrival in M Ward their story takes flight. ‘‘His eyes are teasing’’ as he smiles at her. They bond with wordplay and poetry and find refuge nearby under the green bell of a willow by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. We seem to inhabit the same skin, often exclaiming, in the way lovers do, how one of us has said what the other was thinking. It’s all or nothing, total immersion. Falling in love is a madness. Not the involuted madness of brokenness and loss, but an inspired, expansive madness. Poetry, music, art, love.
Their engagement is announced but their plans to marry are complicated by the requirements of treatment and Dransfield’s addictions.
At this point I should say that Dransfield and I were close friends. He came to be like a brother, and I met Keogh soon after his death but we had not been in contact for many years. And so it was astonishing to meet Dransfield once more in these pages, not the weirdo freak of myth but the recognisable flesh-and-blood character. Of the many accounts of him, this is the one that best captures his mercurial qualities.
Dransfield’s poems keep resurfacing. Many are still fresh today, like one of his surreal haikus that was highlighted in bus shelters across Sydney: i was flying over Sydney in a giant dog things looked bad
Rodney Hall calls him ‘‘the most talented poet of his generation’’. He remains with us because his poetry has an uncanny way of finding new relevance. And yet a negative mythology has grown around him, as though he should carry the blame for a generation’s excesses during the 1960s and early 70s. He’s the poet many love to hate. In spite of an ongoing popularity (or should that be infamy?), he’s too often described in derogatory terms and Keogh’s book suffers by association, as if she was taken in by romantic hippie bullshit. The Green Bell: A Memoir of Love, Madness and Poetry By Paula Keogh Affirm Press, 275pp, $29.99
Should the memoir and its all-too human tragedy be conflated with the legends of Dransfield? Is this book delusional?
He sent letters and notes, much as he wrote fragments of poetry. One letter to me, when he