TEXT review

Up-hill all the way?

review by Susie Utting


Susan Bradley Smith
Beds for All Who Come
Five Islands Press, Parkville, Victoria 2014
ISBN 9780734048950
Pb 78pp AUD25.00


The title of a poetry collection always intrigues – what directions and connections does the poet anticipate the reader to make before entering the text? Susan Bradley Smith’s Beds for All Who Come is no exception. The complete last verse of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Up-Hill’ forms the epigraph of this book, its title drawn from the final line: ‘Yea, beds for all who come’. The opening of Rossetti’s poem, ‘Does the road wind up-hill all the way? / Yes, to the very end’ establishes a question and answer format in which an unnamed traveller queries the anonymous guide regarding the journey. So, what journey is Smith asking the reader of her collection to embark upon?

The contents page of Beds for All Who Come suggestsa poetic ride rich in intertextual and sub-textual allusions, as well as public and personal historical details. The Prologue, with its single poem entry ‘Girl on fire in the eucalypt gulag: Germaine Greer witnessing the end of the world’ introduces a cast of characters who appear in three separate Acts: Clementine and Sarah Churchill, Sylvia Plath and Frieda Hughes, and Ulrike Meinhof and Bettina Röhl. All these mothers and daughters write poems. With this cast in mind the reader begins her own journey to explore Smith’s collection. As in Rossetti’s poem, does the road for the traveller wind up-hill all the way, and will there be answers to the questions such a fabulous assembly of women raise?

An overview of the characters in Beds for All Who Come reveals less than perfect marriages and troubled female progeny who do not become mothers themselves. All except Clementine are described as writers – poets and journalists. Several suffer violent deaths, including suicide. Bookending these voices with that of Greer, the struggles by these women in their private and public lives to determine their own values and identities, is the path the poems follow.

The Prologue poem evokes a ‘psychedelic tsunami’ (Smith, 17). Is this the little girl who ran in the famous/infamous 1972 Vietnam photo and/or a stultifying 1950s suburban Melbourne ‘place of burning edges’ (17) where Greer lived? The voice promises: ‘If I get out / of here alive, the girl / promised. I will do it. I / will’ (17). Overtones of Sharon Olds’ ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ (‘Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it’) is later echoed in Smith’s Frieda poem ‘I go back to 1963’. The allusions are dense and enticing. The reader must also assimilate the different ideas and feelings of these women in their roles as mothers and daughters, their places along the evolution of contemporary Western female identity, the uniqueness of each voice, as well as attempt to register other interconnections Smith’s poems suggest. In the first Act the Churchill upper class family world is initially accessed through the interior monologue ‘Infinite London’. Clementine’s strong maternal voice addresses Sarah, and later her other daughters:

This I wish for
you, for all girls: that you might better
learn how to wield your own weapons,

because this city she needs staunch
women unafraid of the entrails
of life. (Smith, 23)

The poems that follow reveal Clementine’s joys and regrets in her marriage, as a wife and mother who outlives her husband and three of her five children. The voice of Sarah, beginning with her first poem ‘Me and Lynne and the L-shaped rooms we know’, is crowded with imagery. She describes herself and Lynne Reid Banks as ‘the grainy / bottom of a bottle of bad wine, we / are the red screamers of lost latchkeys to / home, to history’ (33). The reflections in the six following poems reveal ambiguous feelings towards both parents but especially her father: ‘Why do they ask me? Am / I always, only his daughter?’ (‘It was only ever Soho’, 39). Smith’s ability to evoke two distinct voices who reveal much about their personal and public personas is skilfully crafted. Sets of images interconnect within and between the poems in this first Act, enabling the reader to process much in few lines. Increased meaning comes with reading more widely about the lives of both women. This is prompted by what Bradley Smith leaves unsaid in the nuanced spaces that her poetry allows.

In my reading I move ‘up-hill’ with Sylvia and Frieda. I recognise the voice of Plath’s Ariel. Strategically positioned words evoke moments from her collection. The word ‘fat’ in the opening poem by Smith’s Sylvia recalls ‘Morning Song’ with its ‘fat gold watch’; ‘bees and boxes’ appears in ‘On not moving to Yorkshire’; and the colour blue (often employed by the real Plath) is repeatedly alluded to in the poem ‘The stigmata of marriage’. Smith’s affection for the dead poet as well as Olds has been previously noted. Smith’s Frieda poems evoke her overriding sense of loss for her mother Sylvia, her brother Nicholas, and a fierce loyalty/love for her father Ted Hughes. In ‘You came here to live’ Frieda addresses her mother for the last time: ‘you were a character / stuck in the bell of your own novel’ and ‘you went / back to black, as though stuck in the bog / of your father’s manic-depressive / Prussian hamlet’ (64). This is reminiscent of Plath’s ‘man in black with a Meinkampf look’ in her poem ‘Daddy’. The relationship of Ulrike and Bettina as represented in Smith’s third Act, concludes on a more positive note with Bettina’s words: ‘I know you are behind me’ (85). Mother and daughter are united in their mission to rewrite the history books and women’s role in the reformation of the world.

Greer’s voice in the closing poem of the collection in ‘On being three million dollars richer after selling my papers to the university’ seems tired, jaded, even resigned: the anonymous biographer at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival ‘made me feel cheerless’ (92). Smith’s Greer seems disillusioned with contemporary women’s understanding of the place they have reached: ‘it was too late … to / begin a proper education. It was too late / for me to promise her one’ (92). Yet the final line, ‘The view from this terrace is spectacular’ suggests there is an ongoing journey for women to resolve the conflicts in and between their private and public lives (93). This terrace is not the last nor the final resting place. The reader recalls Rossetti’s verse, the epigraph at the beginning of the journey into Beds for All Who Come:

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum,
Will there be beds for all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come. (np)

The title once again reinforces the notion that there will always be travellers who follow in the wake of the women Smith presents so cleverly in her collection; the journey isn’t over, and there will be beds for all who continue to come.




Susie Utting has recently submitted her doctorate for examination at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Her book of poems Flame in the Fire, published by Ginninderra Press in 2012 will be followed by a further collection in 2015.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins