Margaret Beston

Long Reach River reviewed by Angela France

longLong Reach River   Margaret Beston (Indigo Dreams Publishing, £7.99)

Reviewed by Angela France

The final poem in Margaret Beston’s debut collection is in the form of instructions for making a papier mâché bowl. The poem ends

from births, deaths, marriages –
fragments of other people’s lives

which sums up the book rather well, for this is primarily a book of lives; lives which have touched Margaret Beston’s life in passing, lives of those who have been loved, lives of those who are long gone, who are fading, who have moved far away, who are still here. There are risks inherent in writing about those we have loved but Beston neatly sidesteps them; she avoids sentimentality and doesn’t feel the need to editorialise or scatter clues to let the reader know who the subjects of the poems are, but avoids the traps through following the language and concentrating on craft.

These are not showy poems; there is a quiet assurance about them which makes me, as a reader, feel the poet knows what she is doing. Beston has a good eye for the memorable image and talent in finding the startlingly apt metaphor or simile: in the poem ‘Feeling for Words’, a book-loving woman – elderly, perhaps with dementia –

traces her hand across the covers
like faces of old friends
whose name she has forgotten,
grasps at words
as they drift across the page –
dust motes
slipping through her fingers.

And in ‘On the Wing’, a delicately handled sestina written in the voice of a prisoner renovating wheelchairs for Africa, the prisoner imagines

… Africa’s colours spin in her wheels,
catch the malachite glint of kingfisher wing,
rich red earth of the tracks, clattering steel

Anyone who writes poetry will acknowledge how difficult it can be to find the right title. Both of the above titles, and a number of others in the collection, are deceptively simple; they revealed layers and ambiguities as I read the poems as, I believe, the best titles must. The care Beston has clearly taken in finding the right title is indicative of the care and attention to detail shown throughout the collection.

Some of the poems in Long Reach River are ekphrastic; a category of poem I am often ambivalent about. The best examples take the reader outside the frame in unexpected ways while also being able to stand alone, while the merely adequate do little more than explicate the artwork. I have no such concerns about these poems; they all move beyond the artwork in different ways and I was particularly taken with ‘Installation’ with its wonderful ending ‘phalanges fanned, mantling/ their kill’ and ‘Objects of War’ in which the pantoum form builds on the bleakness of

glass cabinets crammed with artefacts,
snatched from a house of cards,
where windows are stained with shadows.

Margaret Beston is well travelled and a number of poems are set in other countries. She evokes the settings through tone and form, ranging from the irony of ‘Pashmina and Pearls in Rural Romania’, in which a tourist complains that the ‘charming’ village without electricity or made roads will be spoiled by updating, to the delicate haiku-like stanzas of ‘Tabidachi’. I have sometimes seen critics question whether poets can, or should, write about great disasters or tragedies (whether natural or man-made) if they were not involved. It is certainly a human impulse to mark such things, even if we have only witnessed them on a screen or read about them; and it is an impulse which has often caused swathes of mediocre to dreadful poetry to appear – online and in print. If a poet is going to tackle such events as the Holocaust or the Haitian earthquake then attention to craft, and seeing slant, is essential and I think Beston has pulled it off in two poems in particular. ‘Like Any Day’, about Haiti, uses the specular form to good effect as it reflects the wave of the earthquake as it builds and wanes. The form, together with plain language and domestic detail such as ‘dominoes scattered’ also evokes the way horror rips into an ordinary day. The poem ‘Stonemason’ comes from, a note tells us, a plaque commemorating the deportation of 165 Jewish children from Paris and the poem works because it only concentrates on the mason cutting the plaque; allowing allusion and metaphor to carry the mood:

Crystal fragments spill like tears
around his bench, as tungsten
chips the keening marble

A second poem about ‘La Grande Rafle’ (the Great Roundup) of Jews in Paris is a villanelle focusing on the annual laying of flowers and is not as successful for this reader; I found it rather expected and the villanelle is a form I find hard to like; they have to be very, very, good for me to warm to them. However, this is a rare miss-step in this book. With an editor’s eye, there are odd words I might cut, occasional places I might ask the poet to tighten but that is true of any poetry collection. Overall, this is an assured and enjoyable debut which will reward re-reading and contains some poems I know I will return to as they unfold and reveal themselves over time.

Long Reach River can be bought here.

Angela France

AngelaAngela France works for a youth charity and lectures creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire. She has an MA from the University of Gloucestershire and is studying for a PhD. Her publications include ‘Occupation’ (Ragged Raven Press, 2009), ‘Lessons in Mallemaroking’ (Nine Arches Press, 2011) and her latest collection, ‘Hide’ (Nine Arches Press, 2013). Angela is features editor of Iota and runs a monthly poetry cafe, ‘Buzzwords’.

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December poems part 2: John Arnold, Angela France, Graham Mummery

Spring Weather - March 12th

CANDLE BRIDGE

One by one
the certainties, the hopes
fall away… and I
am adrift in a winter- white land.

Alighting at the station,
I sense a homecoming,
yet know the old folks
have long since passed on.

Smothered in a deep unbroken snow,
the town is not as I remember:
A few lights peep from windows,
festive wreaths are pinned to doors.

Yet – surely – here’s the place:
a house lost in reverie,
a twinkling tree within
and, in the window, a candle bridge.

.

.
SNOW IN FLANDERS

(after Valerius De Saedeleer, 1928)

I’ve tried so long
to enter this frame,
it’s weight of dark winter cloud,
the tracery of lifeless trees
against embers of sunset,
a smothering of snow.

Maybe there, in that buried cottage,
I’d huddle by the hearth, dreaming
of Christmas or spring —
animals safely in the byre — forgetting
a war-pocked landscape, thoughts
dissolving in that vast night sky.

John Arnold

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John Arnold is a retired town planner who lives with his wife in East Sussex. He has two grown up daughters and a granddaughter. His poems have been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio. He is a member of the Kent & Sussex Poetry Society.

 

.snowscape-sm

Artwork: Sandy Dooley

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After deep snow

Five days later a cold gasp of moon
sinks shadows into the crust of snow
where footprints and pawprints
pock the field down to muddied grass.
The ice has gone, its clarity drizzled
away into darkening slush.
Already, I miss the sharpness of icicles,
the soft creak of new snow under footfall,
the raw texture of too cold air.
It is as if life gains definition under snow,
like the way frost defines shape and delicacy,
only to melt and soften into grey slush
in the gutter as days wear on.

Pond Life

New layers of frost on bent grasses
and dead rushes lineate, pick out detail
in cold light. From the pond edge,
long iris leaves dip under the surface,
trapped in ice which clutches at the bank.
The pond creaks in answer to the moonlight
sliding over the surface, seems to grow
bold, glitters. Under the willows,
where filigree shadows blur the edges,
a gritty swoosh snags my attention.
As I turn, pinpoints like stars seem to play
over a full skirt, a fur collar,
an outstretched arm.

Angela France

Angela France has an MA in ‘Creative and Critical Writing’ from the University of Gloucestershire and is studying for a PhD. Her second collection, Occupation, is available from Ragged Raven Press, followed by a pamphlet, ‘Lessons in Mallemaroking’ from Nine Arches Press in July 2011. ‘Hide’ came out from Nine Arches in March 2013.

winter

Artwork: Maggie Painting

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A KIND OF SNOW
            I

Snow is the commonest of nouns in poetry.
At this moment I see each word
scatter outside my house
as if someone had torn up every poem
with the word in its lines.

            II

The garage’s shape blurs.
The garden path has stored daylight
in fluorescent arcs that throw out into dark sky.
A blizzard muffles sounds
from a heavy railway track.

            III

Earlier today, I walked into town.
A snowy field’s silence hung over it.
As I looked above the roofs
a child pulled by a parent laughed,
toboggan blades shredded snow.

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WINTER TASK

Usually, you love it: the new thought;
captaining a spaceship to a distant planet;
the con of an experimental submarine
that discovers new species under the sea.

Today you are scrubbing hard on a step,
sawing at logs whose sap resists the blade,
doing five-finger exercises without
improvising, or playing Mozart –

except after scales and arpeggios,
the fingers suddenly become supple,
your pen flows over the page even if,
later, you throw the poem away.

The January sky outside is dull.
There’s frost on the ground. Later, it may rain.
Yet, somehow, you’ve kept the door open
into another place, where you see light.

Graham Mummery

Graham Mummery lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. For a time he worked in investment banking and is now training to become a psychotherapist. His poems have appeared in various UK magazines including Ambit and Brittle Star. His first full collection is forthcoming from Pindrop. His poems have appeared in Gobby Deegan’s Riposte (Donut Press) as well as on websites such as poetrypf.co.uk. His own pamphlet, The Gods Have Become Diseases appeared in 2006.