Fifteen Beads, Michèle Roberts

Melos Press, 2019   £5.00

Peaks and troughs

Fifteen Beads consists of a run of numbered poems, each one fifty words long. They are infused with sensory visual imagery which, to me, communicates peaks and troughs in mood. So, in the first two poems the narrator invokes a prayer for release from earthly ties — here, from poem number 2:

Take everything
all my gifts
clusters of hazelnuts in red skirts
glass jars of cherries in eau-de-vie
these scarred pears 

Roberts then goes on to introduce a husband, father and sister — through experiences of marriage, and bereavement. Memory connects loss to physical spaces, such as a house, bedroom, kitchen, the Town Hall Market and a (French?) restaurant, guiding the reader through perspectives coloured by dramatic mood swings. Here, from poem 5: 'Memory that corridor / connects me back / to a forgotten / extra room'; from poem 8: 'I have been dreaming / about the dead / & in particular Dad'. And from 9:

My lost sister
shrunk to a casket of ash
all by herself
on the floor of the aisle.
The lid jerks up:
her sandalwood smell. 

The lyrical mood heightens even more through the visceral language of the last several poems. For example, from poem 11, ‘Tin grasshoppers roar and bristle’, ‘the yellow beetle bus scuttles’ while the narrator throws coins ‘into ice-pure cracked-mirror streams’ and:

I can’t push the winter back
clutch the sun’s silver rim

Darkness crushes us.

Poem 12 speaks of bully boys ‘who lever off my skin in flakes’ as poisonous air engulfs the helpless narrator. Finally, in 15, we are offered uplifting signs of hope under a ‘blue sky carnival of leaves’ on ‘pink embers of cloud’ on a ‘pearl morning’, flavoured with a secret and kisses. Through these ‘Fifteen Beads’, we are offered a journey from despair and anxiety back to the edge of hope. 

Maggie Mackay