‘Handfast’, Poetry Duets by Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough
Mother’s Milk Books, 2016 £5.00
Does it matter who wrote the poem?
In a sense no, and in another sense, yes, yes. This beautifully designed pamphlet holds the work of two poets, blending work with two distinct focuses. In one case it’s a son with autism; in the other, a mother with dementia. At start and finish, there’s a poem written jointly. As the publication continues, the facing pages have one poem by each writer, but the order alternates (Ruth/Beth, Beth/Ruth, Ruth/Beth, Beth/Ruth). If you’re reading from beginning to end, you’ll read two poems by each person in a row, but the facing pages hold different poets. (You can check the names of the authors on the contents page and if you're really canny you'll spot the little face in the footer that identifies its author — you can see the two faces in the cover displayed on this page.)
It is a compelling publication, and the idea of the 'duets' is fascinating. But I found I did want to know, for each poem, whose perspective I was occupying. I failed to notice the subtle signifier of the wee faces in the footer. So I wrote the authors’ names on the pages in pencil, and was happier. It isn’t the authorship as such that matters (the author, unless you know her personally, is only a name). It’s the context in which each poem is set. Dementia and autism have connections, but they aren't the same.
After I had who was who clear in my head, I savoured the contrasts and similarities between the paired poems. There’s love and vulnerability at the heart of everything here: the poet allowing herself to be as vulnerable on the page as the loved one. And for Ruth Aylett, there’s loss, as her mother gradually disappears, leaving her ‘glorious smile’ only as memory. Some potent and poignant writing by both poets.
The facing pages 16 and 17 capture two sets of ‘wanderings’, one much happier (the lad trekking over the Sidlaws in the mist) than the other (the mother lost in the streets at night, cold in her ‘nightie and slippers / and your front door / locked against you’. But these are acute realities, real existences, in the middle of a world we think we know. They’re not far away from any of us. I think we need to know they’re there, to inhabit them, to feel with them. This unusual publication invites us to do just that.