Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Soundswrite Press, 2009    £3.00

www.soundswrite-poetry.co.uk

www.poetrypf.co.uk/alicebeerpage.html

Sphinx seven and a half striper

Reviewed by Nick Asbury, Rob A Mackenzie and Ross Kightly

 

Nick Asbury:

I have a habit of starting books at the back, so these last three (untitled) lines were the ones I read first:

 

Only love can change

these seventeen syllables

into a haiku.

 

Striking and quotable, but they left me apprehensive. I’m ambivalent about haikus, wondering if they serve any purpose in English beyond a crossword-like game.

 

I went back to the beginning.

 

It turns out the haiku is a recurring feature throughout this collection, sometimes as a unit to itself, on other occasions as a structural device linking a series of verses in the same poem. The collection is also held together by a satisfying sense of place—the Square of the title, and specifically the “thin sheet of glass” through which the poet views life passing.

 

And life is passing, too quickly. What you won’t find here are complex metaphors or tricksy turns of phrase requiring lengthy decoding. We find out from the brief information on the back of the book that Alice was born in 1912. I don’t know whether she’s still alive or how old she was when writing most of this collection, but you get the strong impression that this is a poet without the time for verbal trickery—she gets straight to the point, often disarmingly so.

 

How many people would write lines as direct as this?—

 

All people have to die, some young ones too.

Old people are more likely.

 

No subtext there, it’s all in the open. The lines come from ‘In Sheltered Accommodation’, which talks plainly of the experience of living surrounded by people approaching the end of their days:

 

Then little Nellie, a sparrow of a woman,

lively, with her wits about her,

not in much pain, but cancer took its toll.

 

This is verse that deals in the everyday language of conversation and even cliché (cancer always “takes its toll”), but infuses it with new force. The same poem ends with characteristic directness:

 

We others don’t say much, but wonder,

which of us will be next.

 

There is no great revelation here, no surprising twist—just a commonplace observation, plainly stated, but with a weight of insight and emotion behind it.

 

This is what energises the whole collection and has left it lingering in my mind a long while—the emotion that charges the simplest turns of phrase. The choice of haiku as a structural device is exactly right in this respect, with its characteristic capacity for capturing a single unit of thought or emotion, often inspired by natural phenomena. I came to recognise and appreciate its gentle, understated rhythm.

 

Returning to the final three lines, they suddenly made a lot more sense.

 

Rob A Mackenzie:

When I saw the title of this pamphlet and then read the second sentence of Michael Laskey’s introduction, which describes the poet “puzzling at the significance of the ordinary small occurrences that she observes through her window”, I confess my heart sank. Most poetry written on such a premise is of the kind I want to throw across the room or perhaps even out the window. However, I reminded myself that good poetry can be made from any raw material. If language is used well, views particularly intriguing, insights unexpected with a ring of truth, poems can be worth reading.

 

At times, Alice Beer succeeded on all fronts. Her diction is typically plain and she does describe everyday incidents, and this untitled haiku-like poem, in full, illustrates her strengths:

 

Pink-gold?

no such colour—and yet

this morning sky.

 

No verb is necessary. The colour combination is indeed absurd but the reader can nevertheless see this sky as precisely as the poet can on this specific morning, and the “this” has the force of a present tense active verb.

 

Too often, however, the poems drifted into prosy reportage and there was nothing subtle in the language, and little real insight, to hold my attention. Once I’d read them and knew the story, there was no reason to return. ‘From My Window’ opens by describing the view at 4am. After describing the stirring of tree branches, she continues:

 

Then a lone cyclist

riding up New Walk

without lights, disappears

towards the park.

Can’t help wondering

about him.

 

Seriously, that ‘then’ kills the spell the opening stanza had promised. Rather than being drawn into a series of evocative images, the reader switches attention to the poet, as observer, writing a narrative of events in her notebook. The final casual phrase is, again, the poet talking to herself, imposing herself on the scene. Alice Beer might have gone on to make something of the dark silence with its lone star “a tinge of glacier blue,” but the poem petered out without really getting anywhere.

 

‘De Montford Square’ is my pick from this pamphlet. It describes the statue of a fiery Baptist preacher in the first stanza and a man waking under a hedge after a night’s drinking in the second. He stands up and

 

[. . .] shouts his anger, his misery

for everyone to hear.

The trees look on—they’ve heard it all before.

 

That poem poses interesting questions on the psychology of the first stanza’s preacher. The narrative is well paced and strikes below the surface of what’s happening. And yes, I did want to read this one again.

 

Ross Kightly:

While I was reading this pamphlet for the third time a favourite story came to mind: The Three Bears, beloved by all my children.

 

It occurred to me that some pamphlets seem too slight, as though a limited sensibility has timidly taken refuge within the narrow confines of the publication. Other pamphlets seem to be straining and groaning to contain the seething material within, as if a JCB and a ram have been used to stuff the receptacle to bursting point. But then, along comes a pamphlet that feels—and is—Just Right. Everything fits together: the compass of the publication, the sensibility of the poet, the technique and the emotion.

 

Most of these poems are not so much pared down as meditated upon before being carefully decanted onto the page:

 

One star visible

low above the empty streets,

very bright silver

with a tinge of glacier blue,

looking deadly cold.

Sirius?

(‘From my Window’)

 

The concrete reality of De Monfort Square in Leicester is, as Michael Laskey points out in his ‘Introduction’, ‘a real place we can picture and inhabit imaginatively. . .’ Using this vantage point, Alice Beer sometimes creates images of almost Douanier Rousseau-like clarity as in this snapshot of an early morning urban fox:

 

[. . . ] The spotlight on the statue

half lit the Square as it stood, head lowered,

watching something I could not see.

(‘Puzzling’)

 

The little collection is studded with brief cameo appearances for other people in whose fates the poet is somehow involved—from the “lone cyclist” “riding up New Walk/ without lights” about whom she “Can’t help wondering” to the “laughing girls” in the final series of three haiku whose ability to “make sad people smile” leads to the poignant reflection that “To stay loving through/ life, that’s for grown ups”.

 

This section of the pamphlet is a magnificent demonstration of the virtues of ‘much in little’. In a wonderfully varied sequence of six poems we begin in the Square where “a man in crumpled clothes” stands up, awakening the morning after a drinking session and “shouts his anger, his misery/ for everyone to hear”.

 

From the outside we move into a strange, affecting dream-poem in which the poet finds herself shifting in time and encountering her deceased husband as a young man.

She then modulates into an elegiac trio of meditations on loss and the compensations that are available. The melancholy tone is beautifully tempered by a continued focus upon others: “one’s children of any age”, the strangers whom “it is easier to get to know . . . / when not part of a couple” and Eric, little Nellie, Hilda and Steve whose various departures from the ‘Sheltered Accommodation’ lead to the arrival of “the ambulance . . . police, the doctor, lastly the undertaker” and the final thought of the poem:

 

We others don’t say much, but wonder,

which of us will be next.

 

Of course, this is not where the collection ends. After a moving list-poem about “what (the poet) would leave behind/ when it is time to leave” we arrive at the third of the linked haiku already mentioned:

 

Only love can change

these seventeen syllables

into a haiku.

 

And there, delighted by the emotional truth and hard-won affirmation of the poetry, I reluctantly close the pamphlet for the sixth time.