Review: Hymnal: An Early Life in Verse

Maisie Allen reviews Julia Bell’s debut poetry collection Hymnal, published in April 2023 by Parthian Books.

Julia Bell’s first poetry collection Hymnal tells her early life in verse, as that’s ‘how [she] remembers it’. Following the story of her family after her father uprooted them to minister the Welsh upon hearing the voice of God on a trip to Aberaeron, Bell tenderly lays bare the journey of her adolescence in a deeply religious family against a poetic landscape. 

As she reflects in the collection, Bell always found solace in writing, having studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia before becoming a lecturer at Birkbeck University. Hymnal is her debut poetry collection, and exposes her internal adolescence in a sepia-toned portrait of Welsh communities.

The timeline for this collection, which Bell refers to as a memoir, is situated in an atmosphere fuelled with social and political tension. Bell’s life in Welsh-language speaking communities is set against building pressures from Welsh-language activist group Cymdeithas yr Iaith as her English family attempt to assimilate. Her teen years are tinged with filmy hints to her queerness in the early 1980s as the HIV/AIDS epidemic began to take hold. While these tensions take hold of the communities Bell reflects on, her internal world is drowned in religious rhetoric, suppression, and eventually rebellion as her perception of the world is blurred. 

The collection is therefore divided between a sense of restriction associated with both a biological and divine Father and a yearning for freedom which feels associated with her own queerness.

The collection is split into five sections: ‘Before’, ‘Llangeler’, ‘Aberaeron Part One’, ‘Aberaeron Part Two’, and ‘Aberystwyth’. Each section marks the significance of place in Bell’s upbringing and ties her to a physical space; her confessions are rooted in the soil of each location. There is an entrapment in Bell’s verse because of this – her reflections are shaped by the ghosts of her past, creating a narrow understanding of her own perception, marked by a constant feeling of surveillance.

The collection is therefore divided between a sense of restriction associated with both a biological and divine Father and a yearning for freedom which feels associated with her own queerness. In the opening poem ‘Our Father’, which dually references God and Bell’s own father, she calls on him as the ‘star of your own Bible story/ born-again Welshman, pregethwr’, setting the scene of rebirth for the Bell family, in which her father is the figure around whom they all revolve. The premise of an omnipresent father in both the divine and biological sense is one which Hymnal shapes itself around as Bell recounts her growth into a young adult – ‘father talks of the nearness of the spirit’ in ‘Gifts of the Spirit’ while she reflects on her sexuality and rebellion. This brings a sense of secrecy that implicates the reader in Bell’s own rebellion; they too are looking directly into Bell’s adolescent mind. 

Hymnal moves from childlike innocence and curiosity into a guttural sob as Bell begins to separate herself from her family and their beliefs, in emotionally-charged rhetoric. In ‘Red Tea Set’, Bell is ‘learning how we do vicarage afternoons’ as her young self is tied into domestic practices of Christianity which are deeply contrasted with her later experiences of her developing queerness where she ‘smokes through…hangovers and skip prayer meetings’ with a ‘South African butch called Fran’ and ‘Matthew who is as camp as tents’. This is reflected in her verse, going from poems that are short and stilted, much like her absorption of family life as a child – everything feels as if it is gospel – to long stanzas swept up in teenage melancholy. The collection charts the evolution from snapshots of childhood summers spent eating sandwiches in the sunshine to long and arid treks around the Holy Land, in ‘Diary of a Young Crusader: Tour of the Holy Land 1987’ in which Bell consciously splits the poem into seven individual parts. 

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The collection’s linear structure feels like a list of personal anecdotes focused on set events, rather than allowing distinct feelings to shape its structure through the display of a fragmented self. Memories seem hazy throughout, perhaps more so in the earlier poems, a reflection of her childhood self’s storytelling capabilities. This means that while Bell’s emotions and feelings are tied to specific places, like the reflective shame around her nascent queerness inexplicably seeping through throughout her Aberystwyth section, there is little to fix Bell’s words in the mind of a reader; each poem slips away as easily as it is read. The flimsiness of the collection is due to the sheer length of it. The poems cover approximately eighteen years of life in short verse , and necessarily leave out many aspects of her life, discarding them in favour of the more dramatic elements. 

Hymnal moves from childlike innocence and curiosity into a guttural sob

These dramatic elements build to a crescendo for her final poem ‘Lot’s Wife’ in which she turns back on her ‘old life’ which has been set ablaze and ‘turned to ruin’. There is a distinct shock throughout this. However, she still finds peace in comparing this fire to the works of Monet, leading her to reflect that from pain and destruction comes the creation of art and love. She finishes the poem by referring to herself as a ‘traveller’ and revels in her future possibilities as an adult as ‘the trick is to keep moving while you can’ as if she is outrunning a beast. This is contrasted with the preceding work ‘Oswestry’ in which her teenage self skips ‘earnest Bible study’ to wander around the town and finds herself immersed in ‘Tarot cards’, ‘Ganesh and Kali, a laughing Buddha’  while her mother’s voice haunts her with claims of the devil in her ear. Bell’s mother’s voice is prominent throughout the collection, but near the end Bell is able to dismiss it with ease as she marks her own freedom and growth. 

Hymnal is wrapped up in a longing for adolescent confusion that comes with maturing. The metaphors of fire and destruction, armoury and battles sitting alongside contrasting desires for peace create a collection full of sorrow for Bell’s younger self. Aberystwyth itself is tainted with seeming regret as Bell positions herself and the reader as an onlooker towards her younger self, far removed from her childhood. For a collection sold as a memoir, Hymnal follows Bell’s chronology faithfully. In its lyricism, however, the collection dilutes the rich imagery that could have emerged of the socio-cultural pressure points of her surroundings, which leaves her poetic conclusions lacking in realism.

Hymnal (2023)

Julia Bell

This review was written by Maisie Allen thanks to the Books Council of Wales’ New Audiences Fund.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider becoming a member.

Maisie Allen is a freelance writer, director, and producer.

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