Long 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 –
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 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’.