Denise Bennett, ‘Cabbage Patch’: Poem of the Month (February 2022)

In the return of our occasional series, Poem of the Month, we are delighted to feature an amazing verse by one of Portsmouth’s finest poets. ‘Cabbage Patch’ by Denise Bennett is a typically vivid and sensitive reflection on a painting by Portsmouth artist Edward King whose story is moving and an often-overlooked part of Portsmouth’s past. Its focus on returning life – in the soil, through the seasons, and in an individual’s painful existence – is chosen precisely because of its resonance at this time of the year as we see the first signs of spring appearing around us. Late winter confronts us, on the one hand, with a sense of the fragility of life and its struggles, and, on the other, the abiding hope of overcoming, and of better things to come. Bennett’s poem also straddles these different feelings in a manner both understated and wonderfully evocative.

The poet: Denise Bennett

Denise Bennett was born in Festing Road Southsea and has lived locally all her life. Her first poem appeared in The Hot Potato, the magazine of John Pounds School, Portsea (the Portsea educator-philanthropist has been an abiding influence throughout her life as she explains in a September 2021 post on our blog). Denise was awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, and has three excellent collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). She has written a sequence of poems about the loss of HMS Royal George which foundered off Spithead in 1782 with catastrophic results. With Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp, Denise co-edited the wonderful anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010). She is, quite simply, a brilliant poet whose work is deeply rooted in this city.

The artist: Edward King

Born in Kensington in 1863, King was a talented violinist as well as an artist, but painting quickly became his chief vocation and passion, and he studied in Paris, Leipzig, and London. As Denise Bennett points out, ‘by 1904 he had exhibited 54 paintings at the Royal Academy’, but the illustrious career that followed was cut short when ‘he was committed to St James’ psychiatric hospital in 1925 after he suffered a breakdown when his beloved wife died’. A patient there for over 25 years, he continued to paint. ‘During WW2’, the poet reflects, ‘he was appointed as the war artist for the city and painted many scenes of the blitz damage. He also painted the grounds of the hospital’. King died of a stroke in 1951. Readers wanting to find out more about King will find this 2016 piece by Susan King an invaluable starting point – it also has several examples of King’s extraordinary paintings.

The poem

Cabbage Patch

After the painting, The Cabbage Field by Edward King 1862–1951


I step out from the ward

into the quiet afternoon

load my brush to paint

the thin, white, drum-skin sky

that stretches far away


to the house on the hill –

start to paint the cabbage field, 

vegetables laid out in tight rows

like the hospital bedsteads, 

so close, we scrabble up from the foot

to climb in. No space to pray.


By day, patients come

in their rough grey uniforms

to till the field, free

to take a daily dose of salty air. 

Warmed by the sun, 

buffeted by the wind, they sing.

----------

Today surveyors tramp the site

in hi-vis jackets, hard hats, 

with measuring sticks, theodolites, 

clipboards – busy making plans

for executive houses.


No one remembers the farm now: 

the thatched barn, 

row of cool, cypress trees, 

potting sheds, the piggery, 

cabbage patch –

patient’s hands that worked the land.

 

Word and Image

Denise’s poetry regularly finds inspiration from artworks displayed at Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery and this one reflects on an unhappy period in King’s life, but also of the restorative and salutary effects of art and landscape.

As she reflects:

The poem was inspired after I saw a painting entitled The Cabbage Field by local artist Edward King, in Portsmouth City Museum. King regularly painted images of the hospital farm where the patients worked as part of their healing process. By the late 60s much of the land, including the farm, orchard and piggery, had been sold to provide extra housing in the city.

(Denise Bennett, in conversation).

There are also powerful personal resonances for the poet, as she explains:

Seeing the painting reminded me of the many occasions I spent with my mother when she was a patient, walking in the grounds of the hospital enjoying the gardens or just sitting admiring the open green spaces away from the bustle of the wards. To feel the sun and wind on her face was very important to her and was a great step to managing her condition. Even in old age she had a chair by the window in her nursing home so that she could know what the weather was doing.

(Denise Bennett, in conversation).

Past and present

Such reflections built the connection Bennett began to feel for the artist and set off trains of thought and many questions:

I wondered how the artist would feel now; to know that because of new thinking about treatments for those with mental illnesses and the advent of ‘care in the community’, even more land is set to be developed for residential purposes. In King’s day, patients spent lots of time outside because it offered ‘freedom' and escape from their restricted living conditions. For this reason, the poem is in two voices: The first three stanzas are in the voice of the artist who uses painting as his therapy, describing, in colour the beauty of the natural world. The last two stanzas are my own voice lamenting the loss of open space.

(Denise Bennett, in conversation).

Reflecting Denise’s unusually keen eye for the passage of time, then, the poem vividly collides King’s life with the present, as building works go on at the site, and in doing so offers a poignant attempt to maintain the city’s cultural memory against the depredations of time. The poem, perhaps one of Bennett’s finest, is included here with her kind permission.