I’m sure there are many writers in our community who, today, would love to be launching Betty Nicholson’s long awaited poetry collection South of the Border, so I feel most privileged to have been asked and I thank Betty’s family, her editor, Fiona Cooke and representative of Bumblee Books, Robyn Mathison, for this honour.
Betty played a major role in my life, not only as a family friend, but also as adviser to my rather obscure poetry back in the days when I was learning the craft and I lived with her for several months when my first marriage broke down. She fed me rice cakes, Pritikin bread and soup and she helped me to rebuild my life. She had good values, old school values, and she was one of the kindest people I have ever known.
Betty lived where the cooking was, this is where she communicated with her many visitors and lodgers, sitting near the open fire, around the long kitchen table, eating and sharing lovely wines, in moderation, that she used to order by the crate load from interstate. People were expected to be there, she was a centre for the arts. I like to think of her as a one woman writer’s centre. She turned her home into a meeting place for artists of all genres, exotic or plain, it didn’t matter to Betty. She was just happy to be amidst the hub of intelligent and flowing conversations. She was always the mediator and she loved being surrounded by people, whether they be family, political figures, writers or refugees.
I would often sit in on the writing workshops or literary functions at Betty’s house, with my late parents, Norma and Colin Knight and we shared these afternoons with other writers in the community such as Robyn Mathison, Fiona Cooke, Lyn Reeves, Liz Winfield, Ralph Wessman, Fran Graham, Jenny Barnard, Liz Winfield, the late Terri Moore and Vera Read. I first met Anne Kellas at No. 52. She probably doesn’t realise it, but her amazing original style of writing greatly influenced me when I was finding my own voice. Anne pays a superb tribute to Betty’s life and poetry on the back cover of this book.
Even the late Dorothy Porter conducted a workshop at No. 52.
And of course there were always familiar faces that regularly attended the various literary functions and workshops. During these constructive writing workshops, we’d share bottomless pots of tea and lavish spreads of afternoon snacks as we crooned to Betty’s accepting cat, Putana, who used to float in and out of the kitchen throughout our conversations. And, before we’d leave the famous No. 52 Montagu Street, New Town, Betty always treated us to a positive reading of our futures by reading our palms.
And now to Betty’s book.
South of the Border is a rest stop and roadside attraction between the US States of South Carolina and North Carolina. Its mascot is Pedro, an extravagant Mexican in poncho and sombrero. Signs featuring Pedro appear along surrounding highways that start 175 miles away. So I think the title of this book is very relevant as Betty’s home was certainly a rest stop and attraction and she was certainly an extravagant and colourful character.
Throughout this collection of over 130 poems, Betty writes of family, love, history, travel, war, nature, science, her work as a physiotherapist and her patients. Quite a vast range of subject material.
As Betty’s son Frank, states in the introduction to this book, that this collection reflects a lifetime of pleasure in making sense of the world through poetry.
Betty writes sensually about ‘blondes with half-moon hips’ and ‘teacups so fine you’d want to bite them’.
Readers can witness the childhood magic of Xmas Eve where Betty describes ‘the tree, glowing, laden, rich as a sultan’s purse’ and there is a wonderful poem about a dog she loved, called Tess, a dog of great sensitivity.
Betty’s titles are deceptively simple, this is how she wrote, mainly on the spot, she didn’t like to edit too much as they were a spur of the moment emotion that you will all feel when you read these refreshing poems. She had plastic bags full of handwritten lines, written on scraps of paper and on the back of shopping dockets. Her writing was pretty indecipherable, they read almost like a doctor’s prescription as she would jot down her ideas quickly in various parts of the house, in taxis on her way to and from work, and on her exercise bike that lived on the back verandah, amongst the threatening beehive.
I really love her poem ‘Special’ which is about a grieving mother who lost one of her 17 children to fire and I quote:
He had a gift.
He talked to the flowers.
They opened for him.
He made them grow.
There is also an extroardinary piece titled ‘Rape Camp’ on Page 118, which relates to the horrors of any given war, the title, so stark, too unbearable for me to read aloud today. This is, however, my favourite kind of poetry.
I was also taken with Betty’s ode to a mouse, with a name of Henrietta, who gave up her life for cellular research. And the last lines of this poem read:
You may rest easy.
Your sassy little cells
Have done you proud.
There is a unique childlike quality in Betty’s work that also reveals rich life experiences. In her poem ‘To Alfie’ she bluntly states:
We need to feel the fine edge of living –
We are dead for so very long.
My favourite poem out of this large body of work is ‘Willows Creek’ because of how Betty has combined the fragility of life and nature, the beauty and the horror.
South of the Border has been grouped into eight themes, each with its own section and photos, that cover Betty’s early childhood until the week before she died at the age of 77.
In West Africa, when an elderly person dies, it is said, a library has burnt down. I’m sure those who were fortunate enough to know Betty and her famous house, No. 52 would relate strongly to this belief.
It is with great pleasure that I launch South of the Border and I urge you to purchase a copy or two to share with your loved ones and friends.