Collected Poems 1967 – 2006 by Anne Beresford
Review by Sandra Tappenden
When I first started reading these poems I thought them remarkably uncentred and difficult to fix, or hold. Then as I read further I thought them rather flat and/or lifeless, but I’m wondering if this effect is caused partly by the simple language, as Beresford hardly ever uses words of more than three syllables which require the use of a big dictionary, and none of them are being stretched to encompass more than the most obvious meaning. Which is fine, but I do like to be surprised every now and then. So the poems, if/when they work, do so due to a mood or tone. Mostly, that tone is quietly depressed, but always striving hard to find a moment of (spiritual) enlightenment … I can go with quietly depressed however, as any forcing of joy just makes the whole illusion fold. But the all-pervasive tone does end up making this reader feel, well, quietly depressed. And it’s not just the sound of the lines in my head which creates this unvarying air of free-floating albeit understated malaise, but also the structure of the poems, as
the lines often chop
so I must work hard
before I get a chance
to be with the idea
of the line.
The pattern of sound (the music? hmm) is reduced to a kind of hiccoughing discomfort akin to the onset of motion sickness.
Here’s the beginning of “In Memoriam” ( from “The Sele of the Morning” 1988):
She stripped the sheets from your bed
and lay sleepless
in the blank night
fingers grasping tightly
on her own hand.
Repeated use of the truncated line is a peculiar dislike all of my own, however, which has to do with the way a shortened line (in what is evidently a sub-narrative type poem) parcels meanings into chunks, often disguising the fact that there isn’t much to a poem, but hinting in a saucy manner that there may be … so maybe I think this sort of thing, from “Suffolk Future” (“Landscape with Figures” 1994)
The sea splashes forlorn
on an empty beach
listening to the buzz of power.
This car park
is a garden of remembrance
where we sat on a worn bench
and counted butterflies
resting on the sunny wall.
is annoying. Note the ‘forlorn’, ‘empty’ and ‘worn’ above; time for my Prozac.
“Winter Saturday” has both the truncated line and that promise of there being a further ‘something’ waiting to unravel itself. But there isn’t a further anything, and by now I am beginning to want my money back, if I had indeed paid £14.95 for this tome.
Child of my child
holding my hand
we walked on the promenade
to watch the waves
There was no alteration
only our eyes met
as the blood ties
which unite us
Okay, so “blood ties” having been explained in “child of my child” have to be further explained by way of “unite us”? I think not. As to “nothing happened”? Well, precisely.
Curiously, the poems I enjoyed most were some of the earliest. Even curiouser, it’s hard to sense a deepening progression or development over time in these poems. The preoccupations stay the same, often via worthy ‘voices’ telling their stories, (a vast range of mythic/biblical characters from Persephone to the Serpent in the Garden) and the style reverts back to the short line throughout. As story-telling in poetry goes, I rather liked “Farmer’s Fantasy”, wherein a varmer vinds himsen a magical bone. It has all the elements of a good folk tale, and is handled with an air of comic-horror which I liked a lot:
‘I must fetch me a spade from the barn,’
as he left the house,
the spade coming to meet him
you could almost say walking.
Funny and creepy. And I was left wishing that the nerve and verve in this poem had appeared more frequently throughout the book, so that the reading was less of a ‘lesson’, (less deliberately worthy? Is that it? ) in content, and more relaxed, or friendly, or something.
Leaving aside my evident ‘thing’ with short lines, the main complaint I have with Anne Beresford’s poems is that they are almost too aware of themselves, as poems. There is a stolid if slightly over-self-conscious will driving this work, and although the motives are no doubt honourable, the poems could be so much more … where is the joy? I’m just not getting it. Is this even a requirement? Am I saying I want comedy as opposed to gravity? No. I think poems with ‘a message’ are a bit difficult to manage, and the impression I have is of the poet struggling not to do this, which is unfortunate. Beresford wants us to see the ugly and difficult as if we didn’t know it was there, and I find that in itself ugly and difficult. She also wants to lighten our burden with gently applied sops of beauty, drawn from nature, or loving relationships, which is alright, but doesn’t ring true somehow. The overall style is awkward. Or ungainly.
This is a huge book. It’s the poet’s own selection culled from thirteen collections, and runs to 350 pages… Quotes from magazines on the back cover often sound, even more curiously than previously noted curiousnesses, like damning with faint praise; “Poems which do not advertise their powers of observation.” (Agenda) … is that good? And again, “…these poems read easily with a spontaneity that is usually the result of fine crafting.” (Envoi). Usually?
If I were to buy a collection of Anne Beresford’s it would be “Songs a Thracian Taught Me” (1980) as there is more invention evident and a (slightly) lighter or freer touch.
Here’s an extract from “Diploma”, where a woman recounts a particular, recognisable kind of social conditioning taking place, and the falling away of expectation:
Is an exciting place
I've travelled everywhere
In Russia the snow
Would have covered you
Men, said mother, are liars
Women, said father, never tell the truth
The Amazon is in South America,
yellow and blue make green
Napoleon came from Corsica
You, child, are an imbecile
A “selected”, from a poet with such a vast body of work, is often a neat way for the reader to trace that poet’s movement through stages of creative development, giving a greater insight into their world view. And hopefully it will include several corking poems. But I’m afraid so much Anne Beresford, in one go, has left me with the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a lift with the Ancient Mariner.
© Sandra Tappenden, 2007