Elaine Beckett

Elaine BeckettFaber New Poets 13
Available from The Book Shop, South Street, £5

BR Rating *****

By John Pownall

Elaine Beckett is a Faber New Poet. She lives here in the Bridport area, and has written for the Review on several occasions. She is one of 16 selected by Faber, the publishing house that is the apotheosis of poetry publishing.

Elaine arrives with a collection of 15 poems, none of them overlong, and all of them seemingly accessible and lucent. This is the trick of her work, to have the surface of simplicity, but the depth of complexity.

The opening poem, for example, Melting, appears to work on a simple narrative level. A conversation is struck up between strangers; a fishmonger and his customer –the poet herself perhaps. It’s the melting of polar ice and social barriers which works the core meanings in the poem; everything is going to water, it seems, including the atmosphere outside the shop:

..he sloshed about with his bucket/and I enjoyed the rain/that was coming down like a veil/between us, and the passers by

So ends the piece. The collision of sibilants acting as a sonic echo to the poem’s meanings; everything is liquid – even the consonants.

The collection takes in a broad range of ostensible subjects; ecological issues sit side by side with stories of love and loss, and indeed it is the latter which often stand out. A poem such as The Woman Who Cries does what any great psychological poem should: it encapsulates a moment, or series of moments, that resonates in a life – it distils, even more successfully than a good short story does, the gist of an epiphany. Here, the poet (perhaps) receives a postcard of a Picasso painting, and a message from (one assumes) her lover. The message instructs her not to be the woman in the painting:

don’t be La femme Qui Pleure –

it says. First she thinks of the poor woman in the painting, but then turns to think of him, the lover who sent the postcard:

a man who could match me to a painting/that summarised the trouble we were in.

That final couplet is utterly perfect, and astoundingly revelatory. This is tight, polished, wonderfully economical language that signifies a depth and acuteness of feeling, subtly understated because of the tightness of the verse.

Possibly the best poem of the collection, Sometime This Month, is saved until the end. It is a lovely lyric about spring that updates Wordsworth and Shelley with its talk of texting boys and sunbathing girls. It works with repetition and wonderfully observed detail, and is worth quoting at length for the effect of its music:

By the hedge at the end of the lane/where the gate has swung open,a may tree will bloom; /
Five petals to each milk flower, pink- /tipped with stamens; a thousand buds/ by the hedge at the end of the lane.

The poem pivots on these alternating tautologies, the may tree blooming, the hedge at the end of the lane, focussing our eye upon and tuning our ear to the patterns and rhythms of the year as they pass. But this is not picture postcard nature:

… boys walking home/will be struck by the stink of it down/by the hedge.

What is it here that stinks? The blossom, nature, or is there something else going on – the hint of sex perhaps as they check their text messages in the following stanza? Spring is about fecundity, not just prettiness – you sense that somewhere in the undergrowth, off the page, other stamens and buds will be ripening.

Beckett’s poetry is strong and effective; not a word is wasted. Faber has, as you would expect, selected extremely well.

    • Elaine Beckett’s collection can also be bought online from the Faber shop: Click here.

 

By |April 12th, 2016|Elaine Beckett, John Pownall|0 Comments

John Donne

john-donne-from-national-portrait-galleryA talk by Graham Fawcett
Sladers Yard 1 October 2015

BR Rating ***

By Elaine Beckett

The poet John Donne, born in 1572, has been described as ‘a man whose mind was never still’. He studied law, hunted Spanish treasure ships off the Azores, sailed with Essex to sack Cadiz, built a distinguished career in public service (as assistant to the Keeper of the Seal), converted from Catholic to Protestant, took holy orders and eventually served as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.

A gift of a subject then for the prolific Graham Fawcett, who has investigated an astonishingly wide range of subjects resulting in a wealth of radio documentaries, radio interviews, and translations, including, for example, a translation of Federico Fellini’s Cinecittà (Studio Vista) and Giorgio Bagnoli’s La Scala Encyclopedia of Opera (Simon and Schuster).

Donne spurned opportunities to share his deepest thoughts, preferring to keep his poems private, showing his manuscripts to only a few close friends, refusing offers of publication.

Fawcett, on the other hand, has had his poems published in elevated magazines, such as Poetry Review and PN Review, had them broadcast on Radio 3, and published numerous lectures on poetry and communication in several languages.

So it was that these two thinkers met, in collision, at Sladers Yard. Both able to render an argument witty, both able to render complex states of mind; Donne through an economic use of language that draws the listener in, Fawcett through continuous monologue, designed to keep the listener at arms’ length.

Next time, for there are more of these astonishing Fawcett talks coming up, prepare for total immersion, but don’t miss the opportunity of listening to someone who is prepared to delve deep.

By |October 4th, 2015|Elaine Beckett|0 Comments

Dante

Alighieri_Dante

Alighieri Dante

A talk by Graham Fawcett
Sladers Yard 21 May 2015

BR Rating ****

By Elaine Beckett

Given the complexity of Dante’s epic poem, and the potential for going down a metaphorical rabbit hole, it was reassuring that Graham Fawcett started at the beginning, with his own translation:

Halfway through the lifetime of our years
I came to, in a dark and sombre wood –
the path I should be on had disappeared.

‘How many of us have not felt that’? asked Fawcett. No one replied, and from this silence grew such an intensity of listening, sustained throughout the first and second half, as if the truth of the thing were about to be unveiled. But Fawcett reminded us of course that homework was needed; we couldn’t just sit there expecting him to take us to it, he didn’t want to rob us of the unexpected pleasures and shocks of discovering it; yes, we could have the three main themes – the journeying to the brink of Hell, the stop off at Purgatory, the ascent into Paradise – but we’d have to go home and dust off the book, and read the whole of it, cover to cover, all 14,322 lines of it, preferably in one sitting, like he had once done.

Unlike the previous talks I’ve attended, it was helpful not to be confused between Fawcett experimenting with his own imagery, as opposed to reading lines from an actual poem. At times we were treated to passages read in Italian, as Dante ‘would have thought them’. When the three rhythms of the Italian lines, and the 11 syllables of the same, were heard, it was easy to imagine how 14th-Century folk might have been immersed in the music of Dante’s vision, travelling alongside him in his eventual flight to Paradise, Beatrice’s beauty winging them on.

Fawcett’s marvellous ability to shine light on that which endures through poetry, that which employs the healing power of art, is compelling. He pointed out that in Dante’s time purgatory was thought to be a real place, somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Was the audience left wondering, as I was, about how little appears to have changed since then, what with sub-saharan Africa in meltdown, and climate change soon to render the Pacific uninhabitable? As for the Inferno, who is not filled with ‘self-flooding despair’ at the daily descriptions of ‘relentless evil’?

By |May 23rd, 2015|Elaine Beckett|0 Comments

The Imitation Game

imitationgame

Benedict Cumberback as Alan Turing

Electric Palace 8 March 2015
BR Rating ***

By Elaine Beckett

The problem with film posters that feature huge close-ups of famous actors thinly disguised as historic individuals is that once inside a cinema it’s often impossible to suspend disbelief.

And The Imitation Game has its own complicated provenance: the title was first used by Alan Turing in his 1950 research paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, in which he asked the question ‘can machines think?’ In 1980, Ian McEwan’s TV play of the same name was produced by the BBC. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that information about Bletchley Park and its operations had begun to filter out. McEwan focused on the plight of women decoders working there, in particular a female character mistakenly thought to have lured Alan Turing towards revealing his secret (played by Harriet Walter). Three years later, Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, emerged. This, in turn, spawned Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play, Breaking the Code, adapted 10 years later for the BBC, and Robert Harris’s 1995 novel, Enigma, adapted for cinema in 2001.

No pressure then. How would American screenwriter Graham Moore un-scrabble such a backlog? His award-winning novel, The Sherlockian, features everything you’d ever want to know about Benedict Cumberbatch, I mean Sherlock Holmes, but how would he cope with homophobic 1940s Britain?

I hoped for something completely fresh, a film that would help me forget that the lead actor keeps being voted best this and sexiest that, and appears to be having a simply marvellous time, unlike Turing. And I hoped Keira Knightley would not sound too much like Cecilia Tallis because that might, under the circumstances, bring to mind the author of Atonement again and one might start to wonder about fame and what it does to actors who keep switching roles, and before you know it The Imitation Game might be over. It wasn’t.

I came to know the fictional Alan Turing, marvelled at his intelligent persistence, despaired at what he had to go through. A brilliant cast and inspired film editor, ditto film composer, did however leave a few unanswered questions about historical versus fictional reality. The screenplay relies so heavily on historical evidence that mixing fact with fiction for the sake of a better story seems particularly at odds with Bletchley Park’s need for accuracy. For example, according to Hodges’ biography, a mathematician named Gordon Welchman collaborated with Turing on the design for the machine that broke the Enigma code. He is not even mentioned in the film.

Answers to further fact/fiction questions can be found at www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/imitation-game/

  • Reviews of two of today’s Festival films, Wise Blood and Testament of Youth, will be in Bridport Review tomorrow morning.
By |April 9th, 2015|Elaine Beckett, Film, From Page to Screen Festival|0 Comments

D H Lawrence’s Poetry

Graham Fawcett

Graham Fawcett

A talk by Graham Fawcett
Sladers Yard
19 March 2015
BR Rating ****

By Elaine Beckett

Lawrence wrote well over 800 poems, many of which he later revised. How, I wondered, would Graham Fawcett manage so much material? Would he provide some kind of route map? None was offered and from the look of the audience, none had been expected. Fawcett simply plunged us into a description of his own 1970s escape from Winchester (destination Florence), interweaving this with accounts of Lawrence’s escape to that city from humdrum Croydon.

It was confusing but it didn’t matter. Fawcett brought Florence to life: the noise, the smell, the heat, the disappointments. So when, at the end of the first 45-minute set, Fawcett read Lawrence’s Man And Bat, our imaginations were primed; we were in the room with Lawrence and all the dreadful choices he had to make about that disgusting creature ‘blind with frenzy, with cluttered fear’. We hoped he wouldn’t kill it, were amazed that after so much whizzing about, the poet was kind enough to wait until the bat finally dropped to the floor ‘like a clot’, inviting him to wrap it gently in his flannel jacket and shake it out from whence it came so that the bat could scream up and down along the Arno again;

And away he went!
Fear craven in his tail.
Great haste, and straight, almost bird straight above the
Via de’ Bardi.
Above that crash gulf of exploding whips,
Towards the Borgo San Jacobo.

DH Lawrence

D H Lawrence

The fact that Fawcett had been prepared to travel From London, running a high temperature as a result of ’flu, so as not to disappoint his audience (indeed needing to take his jacket on and off throughout his talk in order to regulate it) says much about the man and his infectious enthusiasm for all things poetic. Fawcett was on fire.

The second half led us dipping in and out of Lawrence’s early life, his break away from all that he feared might entrap him, via Frieda, to Sicily: always on the move, never willing to compromise, tortured by the prospect of an ordinary life, Fawcett suggested that Lawrence’s observational powers were probably at their peak in the heat of that place. And Fawcett made sure to give us the whole of Snake so we could immerse ourselves in the slow, dry details of the heat, the fear, the awe, the oedipal, class-conscious   self-criticism:

He reached down from the fissure in the earth-wall in the
gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down,
over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat on the bottom . . .

These superb readings impelled me to reach again for my copy of Lawrence’s collected poems. The next talk, on 21 May, is on Dante. Go experience the Fawcett effect. To be treasured, not to be missed.

By |March 21st, 2015|Elaine Beckett, Review|1 Comment