Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I could not go on with my gardening
For dreaming of loved and lost London,
And Regent’s Park on summer Saturdays,
And hearing the shrill calls of young boys playing cricket,
And ceaseless distant scream of captive seals.

My favourite New Zealand poet is Ursula Bethell. My poetry editor Mark Pirie sent me today by email a piece he wrote about Bethell and Dinah Hawken. To Bethell, ‘home’ was England as the quote from ‘Mail’ illustrates. To Hawken in New York, New Zealand was ‘home’. Jenny, my niece in London sent me photographs of London canals. Twice, Anne and I stayed with her friend Sandra who lived near Regent’s Park. We strolled along the canal paths behind the zoo and heard the barking of the seals as well as lions roaring. Bethell’s lines restored that memory.

Speaking of Bethell her contemporary D’Arcy Cresswell said, ‘New Zealand poetry wasn’t truly discovered until [she], “very earnestly digging”, raised her head to look at the mountains.’ For a brief spell – ten years - the serenity and comfort of Rise Cottage on the Cashmere hill inspired Bethell to create some of our finest poems. But when her companion, Effie Pollen, suddenly died, her ‘small fond human enclosure’ was destroyed and her poetic voice became silenced. One of my favourites is ‘Pause’.

When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.

I think how freely the wild grasses flower there
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps.

Pioneer plants on those uplands find their own footing;
No vigorous growth, there, is an evil weed:
All weathers are salutary.

It is only a little while since this hillside
Lay untrammeled likewise,
Increasingly swept by transmarine winds.

In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,

The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.

Rarely has the sublime been so gracefully and practically defined and explained. From the Port Hills the distant Southern Alps convey an aura of distant splendour against which we seem so transient. In time the elements will sweep away our human enclosures. But she picks up her trowel and continues gardening; that is our lot. There is enjoyment and satisfaction in digging in the soil, planting things and looking after plants. She stops work every now and then to look at the mountains, serene and timeless, backdrop for her labour.

One of her poems I particularly like is RUTH H. T. It depicts a characteristic of gardeners, the ability to conceive a future picture.

"Ruth" is my very fine new rose-tree.
Compact in growth" is she, and "fairly vigorous";
Her leaves so "dark and shiny, will not mildew."
"Erect" she carries "large round blooms of copper-carmine."
"Continuous these blooms, and "sweetly scented."

Around her base spring many-coloured tulips
Beside her leans an orange-spotted lily
Beneath her smiles a small bright apricot-hued viola.

- So to my faith, and for your fancy. But the facts are:
Two bare thorny twigs with a pink label;
Stuck in the earth around them several white pegs!

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