John Blay

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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