The Dancers of Colbek by William Bedford – reviewed by Rennie Halstead

9781909747579The Dancers of Colbek by William Bedford

Two Rivers Press 2020

The Dancers of Colbek is the latest collection from William Bedford. There are so many poems in this collection that strike a chord with the reader that it is impossible to do them all justice.

The opening section, Slow Stopping Trains looks at the period up to the end of the Second World War and the 1950s. 

The Kitchen Garden tells the story of Mrs. Pearson’s son, who looked after the kitchen garden at the Big House in 1941, and brought eggs from the estate, quietly, to help the rationing. ‘Don’t tell they nosy neighbours / they gets none’ Bedford creates a sense of character in a few words, as he does so often in this collection. The son takes the poet to visit the kitchen garden, a country kind of Eden with an abundance of produce, a regular harvest supper / of fruit and vegetables though the gardener also allowed wild flowers to flourish: ‘Not weeds … windfalls, survivors’

The gardener sees the bombers returning to their Lincolnshire bases, salutes them by waving his red handkerchief, and joins up, abandoning Eden for war. The poem concludes ambiguously: The rabbits were soon after the carrots / They never found the hoe.

In Memoriam has the narrator visiting a churchyard, the church folded in mist … the patient snow a holy wreath for grief. Against this cold background the village choir is a clamour of new life. But there is no rest, no staying to grieve here. Grief must be more active, experienced in solitude. The narrator has to leave the churchyard and return to the blue ache of the Wolds / as lonely in my years as you in yours. The church bells may peal, the choir may sing, but underneath there is the long yearning to walk away.

Flitting, the central section of the book, focuses on the life of poet John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864). Bedford writes in Clare’s voice and retells key events from his point of view. In I Stood By Your Cot Bedford shows the scene when Clare is committed to Matthew Allen’s private Asylum. We see Clare looking at his children in their cots, and reflecting on his circumstances:

You were asleep
Best, mebbe.
Too many tears if I’d stayed.

Too many when I’d gone.

allus loved my childern.
Reckoned the fields

But now no-one is listening. No one writes to him. He is going back to an asylum, against his will, to be cut off from those he loves.

I have lost what I loved
the most,
taken away.

The poem ends with reference to his internal conflict between poetry and family.

They have the words,
written legal.
But not the poetry.

The poem The Flitting looks at Clare’s visit home after he escaped from the asylum and walked ninety miles to see his family, believing he was married both to Mary and Martha. He tells of his journey through:

bramble, hazard,
carters’ wiles
a gypsey crawl

to find
a home in Mary’s smile.

He whistles and sings, walking at night and finds fields and commons enclosed. He walks acrost bare fields of stubble, … where Eden used to be.

The poem loops back on itself, repeating Two wives I have, and starting stanzas with I walk / where wind whips elms, and again where Eden used to be. Finally Clare reaches home to be told:

Then Patty
sayas me home.
Sweet Mary died.
And how can I forget?

Bedford’s apparent rambling, and repetitious style shows us Clare’s quiet desperation, in tellingly simple dialect. We see his concerns about the industrial revolution and his memories of the countryside as a childhood Eden.

The last section, The Moving Field picks up the local history theme with arrival of American Air Force to Lincolnshire bases in the early sixties.

The Badger sets the persecution of the creature in the context of passing time. The opening line establishes the scene:

I grunt for a wisdom men don’t know;
trees where I dig for roots,
a badger’s kingdom. Night is my time.

We move to the persecution: the sticks & stones of boys, / men with poison to the reflection that Time has more chance than guns.

The poem takes us to the true meaning of Time in nature.

Time’s a different kind of hunt.

Men need weapons and know fear, when the badger turns to bare my bone teeth. Time is on nature’s side:
Time doesn’t mind. Likes to creep.
Or waits round corners no one finds.
Time has heavier stones than boys.
Sharper sticks.

The poem finishes recalling the opening line and ending

I bait them all. Catch all.

The final poem in the collection, The Dancers of Colbek retells the traditional German folktale, translated by Robert Mannying in the fourteenth century. The dancers sing and dance in the churchyard whilst the priest is conducting Mass and are cursed for their sacrilege by the priest. For the dancers:

This is fairyland despite what the sermons say
They knew what dancing in church would mean,
the doors locked, the altar denied,
the magic of wafer and wine taken away.

It makes a fitting ending to a collection of poetry that is full of references to the countryside changing and disappearing through the fifties and sixties and on into our present time.

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