Review in Sphinx 12 (2010)
by 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.
(‘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.
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.