Maggie Mackay reviews Hymnal by Julia Bell (Parthian, 2023)
I’m always intrigued by a memoir in verse. It offers so many possibilities. A memoir can be raw storytelling, red in tooth and claw. It can be a surprising voyage of self-discovery, or a liberation of the soul, for the writer, and it can be an enlightening experience for the reader, whatever life they’ve led. And it can be problematic too, where family members are still living or where the assumptions and perceptions that underpin a family are involved.
I choose to read Bell’s work as confessional, due to the intimate use of the first-person point of view. Hymnal is vivid, intense and freeing. There is so much to release; so much deep emotional confusion is explored. Her poems remind me of Sharon Olds’ The Father and Pascale Petit’s The Zoo Father, woven through with threads of trauma and self-discovery. The reading experience imitates the living experience, with the reader a witness to sessions on a therapist’s couch. And of course, in examining one’s own life, societal issues rise to the top. There is commentary laced into each of these poems about identity and the world at large.
Speaking for myself, I am the product of a mother who was a member of the Church of Scotland and who became an elder, and of an atheist father. Free will and expression of opinion was encouraged in my home as I grew up, and no pressure was applied either way. So this was always going to be a thought provoking read.
Each poem is a film shot, a diary entry, a moment in time, a dream, a holiday, caught in the memory and laid down chronologically in rich, unflinching detail
In Hymnal, Bell recounts her formative years as the daughter of a Englishman who is propelled by his religious beliefs to become a vicar in a Welsh town. The father’s journey runs parallel to the poet’s path towards sexual identity. But poet and father adopt radically different routes to fulfilment, and there’s a cultish edge to the latter’s pursuit of faith. The title of the collection feels appropriate given the father’s calling, the religious references, and the gathering of personal truths and celebrations. The epigraph cites R.S. Thomas and references ‘secret prayers’ questioning faith and belief and implying unspoken desire. It prepares the reader for what is to come – the testimony of a young girl breaking free from the chains of expectation.
The collection is divided into sections – two poems in ‘Before’, two poems in ‘Aberaeron Part 1 (1971–1974)’, then two longer sections, ‘Llangeler (1974–80)’ and ‘Aberaeron Part 2 (1980–1988)’, and a shorter final section, ‘Aberystwyth (1988–89). These chronicle the life of the daughter on her journey towards openness and independent thought and a life free from negative influences and control. Each poem is a film shot, a diary entry, a moment in time, a dream, a holiday, caught in the memory and laid down chronologically in rich, unflinching detail. There are many bizarre scenes. Bell has packed the poems with places. People crowd her life. There’s little tolerance for privacy, contemplation or compassion despite those being fundamental requirements of Christian faith.
In the poem ‘Red Tea Set’, from ‘Aberaeron Part 1’, we meet the child practising making tea for vicarage afternoons, rather than playing, as a toddler might. It is interesting that someone so young should speak of the tea set as “plastic as the fire of hell”. She concerns herself, when pouring for her toys, with fairness, with “who’s had more than their share”, already keenly aware of such concepts. She’s to be a good little conformist girl and ruffle no feathers. Approval pervades much of this memoir.
‘Visiting the people’, from the ‘Llangeler’ section, recounts her father’s encounters enlisting parishioners in their homes with her as witness.
He added them, like pennies for the missionaries.
Souls who walked in darkness, now bathing in the light
of all the angels and archangels,
It is subtitled by a quote from Revelations. The experiences in these houses are sensory in the extreme: dust in the parlours, gnarly hands, the range of voice tones, weeping. The lines are constructed around judgement: the man was looking for “the sorrowful, the guilty, the ignored”. This is an early dissection of the father. Fathers are a dynamic focus for writers, their faults and failures, how they are role models. Here the daughter is used by the father as the “cherub-cheeked” appeal, and ends up feeling like a “mendicant” or beggar.
It’s a record of an exhausting, lonely coming of age, hard won
My first memories of holidays are those spent in self-catering flats on an island in the Firth of Clyde. I recall excitement, the bike shop, the Ritz café and the smell of fresh bread baking from the baker’s nearby. ‘Machynlleth Holiday Cottage’ suggests something more oppressive. “A dark house with damp furniture”. The lines spill over with fearful, isolating, claustrophobic imagery which infuses this third section. The narrator is intimidated by the avocado bathroom and statement floral kitchen tiles. She didn’t mean to hurt her brother “but it was the kind of place that provoked murder”. Paranoia lurks in the girl’s mind.
Detailed observations on community life and individual events witnessed by the narrator leave me worried for the narrator’s state of mind. Storm and apocalypse rest inside these poems. Everything seems to involve denial, vertigo, darkness. An invisible pane of glass seems to obstruct Bell’s ability to engage unless focussed on Old Testament scriptures. There’s a marvellously sensory experience of a beached whale on Pendine Sands. This is not an easy coming of age.
The fourth section, ‘Aberaeron Part 2, opens with a move to a new parish. ‘Aberaeron Vicarage’ gives a detailed guide of the house. The narrator doesn’t take to it. The collection’s pressure cooker is building steam. Beneath the lid all manner of adolescent turmoil is waiting to explode. ‘Urdd Gobaith Cymru’ offers the terrifying experience of grappling with Welsh, nuns and a runaway pony. Sickness results, parents are called, a way out is negotiated. For the narrator life becomes:
a slipshod beast with careless reins and baggy tack,
galloping somewhere just beyond sight
with me on the back, practising directionality.
In the poignant poem ‘Hair Curlers’, mother and daughter share a moment of intimacy when the daughter feels able to ask about something which has been troubling her. She says, “Mum, what’s a lesbian?” The image of the mother as “alien, modern and somehow sexual” makes her seem accessible, even though, the daughter says, “I don’t know why I want to know it”.
This work bursts forth in relentless, rich images
The family disapproval led by the dominant father is voiced in ‘Greenham Common.’ Women with “cropped hair and mannish clothes” and “lesbians holding hands” hold a secret pleasure for the narrator: “Inside me, something quivers.” However the overriding pressure is preparation for the apocalypse, the end of days. The tension between the daughter’s support for the protest and the father’s disdain is palpable.
The pace quickens as the narrator works through her teenage years, on a voyage of personal discovery. ‘Kings Hall, Aberystwyth’ opens, “Den of iniquity is what she calls it, and I am dying to go in.” ‘Dyke on a Bike’ sees her parents “praying the gay away” with a parishioner who later “runs off with the verger’s wife”. ‘La Rochelle’ speaks of an infatuation with “Michelle from school”, “dry lips dreaming of a kiss / the whole of that salted afternoon”. D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow’ is dramatised on the TV and watched by mother and daughter until someone pulls the plug. The daughter’s personal sense of arousal is felt in “the thrill of soft curves, touching”. And there’s a moment of understanding between mother and daughter, as the poem ends, “My mother, the colour of / communion wine. God intended me to know, she says. / Often, I think he wanted me to know too.”
This work bursts forth in relentless, rich images. It’s a record of an exhausting, lonely coming of age, hard won. Its overriding power resides in the knowledge that one must understand one’s own needs, escape conformity, and find a way of living which liberates the true self.
Book a place for Remembering in Verse – a reading from Hymnal and Q&A with Julia Bell at Birkbeck, University of London at 6pm on 25/04/23
Maggie Mackay‘s poetry has been published in many publications and anthologies. Her pamphlet The Heart of the Run was published by Picaroon Poetry in 2018 and her collection A West Coast Psalter by Kelsay Books in 2021. The Poetry Archive WordView 2020 awarded her poem ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’ a place in the permanent collection. Her second collection, The Babel of Human Travel, was published in December 2022 by Impspired Press. She enjoys a whisky, a good jazz band, and daydreaming with her gorgeous rescue greyhound.