Forever Young – Brenda Williams
Sixties Press, 2015 £5.00
A sea of grief
This sequence of 190 poems (mainly, but not entirely sonnets) is dedicated to the memory of Professor Gertrude Falk ‘who gave the last year of her life to public protest against NHS cuts and left unfinished her last paper on vision’. Reading them is an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had in poetry.
One hundred and ninety poems. That’s undoubtedly a lot of text, and it fills a bulky, saddle-stitched publication of 80 pages, longer than many full collections. Picking out single poems here doesn’t work. You have to immerse yourself and let the lines flow over you one by one, like wave after wave of a tragic, ebbing sea. It’s poetry to drown in. The method draws on continuous repetition: the lines are metrical and deliberate, key phrases recur over and over, and certain rhymes are revisited right through the book – they’re plangent, aching words like: ‘lane’, ‘pain’, ‘vain’, ‘rain’, ‘again’.
There’s a true story underpinning the grief: the story of the Pond Street Protest in central London, a protest against NHS mental health cuts started by Brenda Williams in 2001. Gertrude Falk was a fellow protester, lost in action (she had a fatal cancer) like the protest placards seized by Camden Council. Brenda Williams was devastated by her death, so much so that she stopped the protest to write the poem. ‘Devastated’ is an adjective that’s lightly used these days. But to remember what ‘devastation’ really means, read this sequence. It is intensely personal, for which it makes no apology: it is bigger than that. I can’t quote from the work meaningfully. The effect is cumulative, the effect of wave after wave of naked grief. A protest, an eternal keening against human loss.
These days we’re often embarrassed by emotional spillage. The taste of the age is for understatement. These poems run directly counter to all of that: they rage with grief, they sustain anguish over eighty pages. I did not find this self-indulgent or embarrassing. I found it truthful and strange. I will not forget it.
Paper version available from Sixties Press, 89 Connaught Road, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 3PJ or 99p on Amazon Kindle.