Fiona Sinclair reviews ‘A Radiance’ by Bethany W Pope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of this collection’s skill lies in the maintenance of a coherent narrative throughout the poems.  The story is that of a remarkable family. Whilst each individual work is long, the poems are not baggy and every detail furthers some aspect of the story. Moreover each poem is itself a complete vignette and may be read separately.

The seminal relationship in the family history is that of the narrator’s grandparents. Theirs was a marriage across a class divide which affected the lives of two generations. As so often happens, it falls upon the grand-daughter, with the benefit of hindsight to interpret these events. Indeed the narrator herself enters the collection part way through thereby reinforcing the strong sense of continuity thought-out the collection.

There is something of the oral tradition about A Radiance. It is this that keeps the lengthy works poetic at all times avoiding the pitfall of straying into prose. This oral feel is achieved by repetition for example in the poem ‘ White Wedding ‘ which describes  grandmother’s hushed up wedding to the lower class grandfather ” You were married in December” “ You dropped out of school” “ You were always his favourite “,  the short phrases  also helping the to maintain a  consistent rhythm.

As the narrative unfolds it is clear that this family has an unusual history. Whilst many of the poems deal with moving and affecting events it is to her credit that Pope is neither maudlin nor sentimental.  Indeed there is a matter-of-factness about the writing which copies the way her grandmother finding herself in reduced circumstances simply knuckled down to her lot. Another tactic deployed throughout the work is to hint rather than expand on darker events. Thus the narrator throws in “In one week my father shall send me to an orphanage in South Carolina.”  This arresting information is never given flesh suggesting perhaps that some things are too painful to be divulged.

There are rich characters studies in the collection. Pope much like a novelist concentrates on building and then developing the characters throughout the work as they respond to the various events of their lives. Thus in ‘What We Know’ we encounter first her grandfather “Daniel Bell the farmers’ son” who  initially appears romantic “He had been a sharp shooter in Japan before trading guns for desk’’  and who sweeps the higher class grandmother off her feet. However by ‘Last Calls’ he has become a drunk who “staggers in, dark haired; and waltzing in a liquored broken rhythm ‘’ his twelve year old son waiting up to fulfil the ‘’eldest son’s job’’ as he offers his ”shoulder as brace for his father to rise’’,  whilst the querulous dad explains away his drinking with   ‘’It’s just the jobs, boy. That awful luck.’’

The second poem ‘White Wedding’ introduces grandmother. Whilst subsequent works detail the poverty  she found herself in after her marriage, this poems hints that she married to escape the “ grip of your parents’’, the mother whose  ” strong hands left red marks on your bicep as you tore free”.

Throughout the narrative, there is an admiration for grandmother that is lacking for grandfather. For she is resilient, crossing the country by train with a sick child to find the best hospital to treat him.  “No, Daddy said to get him here”.  Who Masters housekeeping that she was not born to do, the poem ‘Ruth’ an homage to her excellent domestic skills “I watch my grandmother dismember a chicken”.

Yet the poem ‘Mirrors’ is perhaps the most touching,  after years of struggle when “Dan has made it at last” the middle aged grandmother takes stock of her lost looks before a looking glass. Although she “could afford a beautician now’’ she prides herself on still cutting her own hair out of a habit that “gives her triumph, a hard satisfaction” She is preparing herself for her husband’s return in the evening to a house where “ The no-longer children are out now:”  The poem hints at love that is still alive despite the hardships the two have been through , the excitement evident in “ He’ll be coming soon” ending with the subtle consummation in the  lines “There is time now, and the space to take a long unstifled breath.”

I was particularly interested when the narrative switched to the second generation, that of the narrator’s own father and uncle who receiving an education where able to go into the professions. The poems focussing on her father who “interned as a junior Pasteur in the Georgia Retardation Center’  are  vivid. Although probably set only some 30 years ago, the very title of the institution ‘Retardation Center’ seems archaic now. The poems themselves show the shocking   lack of nurture, social interaction or intellectual stimulation within the place.  Here Pope sees through her father’s eyes and makes good use of specific details:

 

a forest of linoleum

corridors, a  rats nest of mazes, overlaying smells of old sweat ,

fresh urine, strong clear pine.

 

Smell is well used here and will resonate with any reader who has visited  loved ones  in an institution even if it be a care home.  The horror of this particular place is summed up in the understated “This is where we keep the children.’’ The use of direct speech marks indicating a statement remembered gives the words a chilling authenticity.  The ensuing description of the children’s ward blends imagery with fact to set a grim scene;

 

Stunted bodies, drool, a few heads

as soft and conical as remedial

dunce caps.

 

A teenager in diapers sat slumped in his chair

blowing spit bubbles

 

the detail copying well the impact on the father as he views the scene for the fist time.

A Radiance is a remarkable collection which presents us with a family who encountered extraordinary events. Yet the  predominate tone of the narrator is pride at relations who suffered  but were strong as pioneers and by the end of their lives had been rewarded for their pains.

 

 

Bethany W. Pope’s A Radiance is from Cultured Llama Publishing. 2012, priced at £8.  Buy your copy here or here.

 

 

 

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