Overlap, Valerie BenceThe jacket is white with a pink and mauve design of little girls or dolls in scarecrow positions, like the paper dolls you can cut out in a string. Between them are pink blobs of different sizes. The title is on large white hand drawn caps set against a band or banner of pink about one third down. Just below this in tiny white caps on a darker pink area is the author's name.

The Emma Press, 2022   £6.50

What lies beneath the surface

In ‘Press me in peat’, the final poem in Valerie Bence’s debut pamphlet Overlapthe poet expresses her wish to ‘sink into mud like those warrior women’. She implores: ‘Let layers form above me’. This desire to be embalmed beneath layers of earth and mud resounds throughout the poems, as does a sense that the past is lying just beneath the surface — perfectly intact and waiting to reach back up through the generations.

Overlap charts the poet’s family history, beginning with the lives of her grandmothers Winifred and Harriet, and moving on to her own experience of becoming a grandmother. But she doesn’t present time as linear. Instead, buried within the overarching chronological structure, memories pulse, resurfacing in flashes of image and sensation.

In particular, Lily of the valley, the title ‘queen’, and the image of the mirror recurIn this way — much like Bence’s patchwork bedcover made from her grandmother’‘one smart frock’ (in ‘The summer of ’72’— memory seems to be comprised of a series of ‘small blocks’, all of which overlap.

These overlaps are perhaps most strikingly shown in the repeated image of the mirror. Bence’s grandmother, we are told (in ‘The man with a hook for a hand’), turned all the mirrors in her house to face the wall. She did this for fear that she might suffer a similar fate to her father, whose iron hand was struck by lightning during a storm. Bence, however, decides on a different destiny. On finding a piece of metal, she confides that it was:

one of the attachments he made. I hold it in my hand,
keep it in full view of a window, just in case of a storm.

As a symbol of connection, both with herself and with her past, the mirror looms large throughout Overlap. Rather than turn away from its reflections of the past, however, Bence chooses to confront them, face on. How else, she asks us, is she to truly know herself?

Katy Mack