Michael Tolkien

Hearing Things (Katabasis)

(Publ. in Agenda vol.39 (1-3) 2002-3)        


    In her previous book, No Place for Cowards, Anne Beresford, continuing her quietly attentive search for spiritually-based moral truths, explored and dramatised, often in monologue, many states of mind: limboid, despondent, resigned, elevated. In a series that highlighted such contrasts, keeping one's soul intact felt like a struggle that might end in damnation. Hearing Things, like its predecessor, is a kind of pilgrimage, and there are potent travel/ wanderer allegories, but each stage or poem integrates directly or by implication various ways of interpreting an experience. There's an apt comment in 'Airborne'. At the moment before take-off there's a sense of our being in constant transition and suspense:

                             All journeys are double-edged:

                             all landings whether smooth or bumpy,

                             hold an element of fear.

The book is faithful to this comprehensive image. Even pithy, paradoxical pieces, aimed quizzically at our appetite for illusion and over-simplification ramify hints from what precedes or follows; and almost every narrative or meditative poem suspends the reader between options. You can grope along at a mundane level in a world full of illusion and disappointment or discover the inner stillness and strength to apprehend more than meets the eye or ear.

    'Advice from a Friend' advocates renewal by giving creative vent to the ingredients of grief. The closing lines are central to the book's approach and tone:

                             The world is a bleak place,

                             it always was,

                             but who can judge the heart,

                             let alone the mind ?

                             Living well for a short time

                             is long enough.

    More poignantly, though, it is frequently implied that one must reappraise the here and now, value what has been taken for granted, or merely accept that there is no easy answer. This is particularly cogent in a series of mourning poems, preluded by a gently mocking anti-celebration of the poet's own birthday. 'For Max' offsets the bleakness felt in smoking one of his now unneeded cigarettes by the miracle of a sudden thaw, 'enabling us to sit in the Norman church/ and wonder at your violent passing'. But even in the lifelong search for an elusive divine presence ('Who Can Follow with the Eyes of Sense ?') it is the tangibly human and natural phenomena which provide hope and a sense of closeness:

                             Eternity stretches out a hand.

                             You push me towards it

                             hiding a smile in the falling snow.

In fact the poem could be read as a rebuke to a disappointing human lover who 'doggedly followed me/ refusing all denial...'

    These few excerpts indicate that Beresford has maintained and indeed refined her characteristic compression and economy of language and imagery, delivered in a voice that never needs to exceed mezzo forte. But the vision, or range of what is heard, is seldom exclusive. Although she periodically suggests a need for stillness envisaged in the colour and music of a garden or meadow-like retreat, it is significant that a fine poem about early Christian monastic life, 'Desert Fathers', suggests that the more self-denying kind of contemplative life is as full of adversities and conflicts as those endured by people forcibly deprived of their security and well-being.

                             In the long silences of night

                             the legs cease to have feeling,

                             the brain stagnates,

                             and a voice hoarse with prayer

                             breaks inwardly.

Feelings applicable to the pathetic Mr Buzby who late in life is compelled to sell his house, or to 'The Widow', supposed by her neighbours to be coping well while she is 'marking time/filling the hours/ with meaningless actions/ not even hoping for the inevitable.' You cannot avoid confronting the world as it is or your own limitations. 'Always in Another Country' suggests an attempt to come to terms with violence and political persecution by rerunning images of it as in a documentary. Irony at the expense of our tendency to live on a diet of superficial snapshots and our aspiration to understand without direct experience. In one of several engaging New Testament monologues Martha describes subtly the deprivation of Lazarus who has become inarticulate. He had '...reached/ the other side and further,' and now tends 'the vineyard/silent as the grave.'

     Complementing such diurnal struggles there is a group of poems, several of them jocular, concerned with the mysteries of prayer, destiny, creation and the search for apocalypse. Among these is 'St Francis on the Mountain'. In eight lines of remarkable verbal dexterity it digests a range of paradoxes which reveal the unlikely achievement of his contemplative vision.

    Beresford's talent for emblematic narrative is also undiminished. Once again myth, history and contemporary incidents are explored. Descriptive settings, action and speech are all in proportion, and there are silences and spaces to leave us room for conjecture and reflection. Qualities displayed in 'A Crusader's Story' which maintains tension and pathos from the moment a trusted traveller sets out for Palestine with a lady's ransom until it's unwrapped: ' slightly bloodstained/ and there nestling in moss/ lay a hand with a delicate wrist.' But despite Saladin's gracious response and tribute to the lady we are not told if she survives the amputation or if her lord returns. In contrast but still conveying a kind of unconditional, practical love exercised against all odds, is 'Wartime Incident'. A child attempts to quell incessant family turmoil during an air raid, begging her W.R.E.N sister not to go to sea and leave her to deal with such conflict. Both accounts are of a piece with a book of poems which are always larger than their apparent subject matter, and do not advertise their powers of observation.

    This impression is distilled in the last words of the monologue, 'Heron'. After all it says, so nonchalantly and yet all the more movingly, of its aloof and detached nature, it declares:

                             Read what you can of my secrets

                             in my long-winged flight across your path.




 No Place For Cowards (Katabasis)

(Publ. in Agenda vol.37 No.1 Summer 1999)


 Anne Beresford looks back and forward on a ‘pilgrimage’, which as the Crazy Pilgrim of the first two poems warns, is no genuine exploration of your inner core and may risk 'losing oneself' by merely conceiving 'a desire for a new life', unless the poet-itinerant avoids fear, and self-abasement, celebrates and loves unstintingly, and strips away preconceptions, for:

                        '...have you ever thought

                        that we might be in hell already ?

                        That the talk of paradise, utopia

                        is a left-over dream

                        from when we were flesh and blood ?


In ‘Big Deal’ hell is subjected to commercial speculation, a ‘valuable asset’ that’s ‘widened its boundaries’, illusory as high finance, but glimpsed again in the labyrinthine hotel of ‘Night Life’

and relished by the old lady ‘who offers me a box of half-eaten chocolates’ before she evaporates. Yet this characteristic ghostly ‘dissociation’ can elevate us. In ‘Instead of Writing to You’ the poem that replaces a querulous letter embraces the mood of ‘the mournful wind’ yet runs counter to it with images of fishermen at work, transformations made by sunlight and festivity, ‘and the music of your marriage’ that ‘sings out from the frozen roses’.


This process is a function of what ‘Dichotomy‘ suggests: true self-examination encounters the world in its entirely, a place of 'human horror/ and a perfection beyond words' by 'seeing two sides of everything', an apparent weakness until the closing stages of the purgatorial process when the poet can voice a prayerfully ambivalent ‘Credo’ that embraces absurdities like ‘the path you indicate/ is hardly wide enough for a soul to pass’ or ‘take my love with its many facets/ imperfect and at times ridiculous.’ Reminiscent of the closing stages of Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the ironically entitled ‘Finale’, at the close of the purgatorial journey, presents the soul with symbolically forbidding and desolate territory, 'no place for cowards' any more than everyday life. But as two of the penultimate poems hint, even those who have had near-death encounters with the light or who have floated towards it with apparent inevitability are challenged by an altogether new insight into their one-dimensional experiences. ‘On the edge of immensity’, the swimmer-soul of ‘Washed Up’ ‘begins to fathom/ the rhythm of waves/ and voices of planets.’


As she tells her own shivering soul at the end, there’s ‘no turning back’, only implicit metanoia, a change of perception comes from having, as Yeats says, followed ‘to its source/

Every event in action or in thought’, though Beresford would not assert with Yeats that:

‘Everything we look on is blest’ or adopt Eliot’s mystical resolution of paradox in Ash Wednesday. Her figures find no apotheosis from the cycle of self-confrontation. The penitent in ‘Hard Core’ is eaten alive by charitable sanctity in the convent of the Golden Heart and realises: ‘if my heart was ever gold/ it must have melted in the furnace/ they call hell.’


But ‘Death on the N.H.S.’ plumbs the depths, a Solzhenitsyn-like ‘Cancer Ward’ metaphor for the social machine whose efficiency is disputed by the dead and the living. The tone is both bleak and compassionate with its ‘last glimpse’ of ‘one laid out by a read curtain/ hands folded, respectable/ not so very peaceful’, and the finale eloquent brush-off that offers mourners a ‘paper hankie’ but no water, for ‘the carafe is empty’.


The book’s apogee, though, is a tribute to Elgar’s emotional and artistic progress through unfulfilling triumphs to the unresolved symphony that draws on his earliest instinct for music beyond notational registers. This is parallel to the poet’s commendation of dreaming when her feet ‘tread carefully to avoid lines’ and the acceptance of impulse in ‘The Uninvited’, cruelly innocent horses that stampede through house and garden ‘enticing what is born of the spirit/ to rise up and worship an alien god.’


Beresford’s best work unearths or draws from aether what is inexplicitly illuminating; it’s diminished by explanations like ‘I withdraw from the world of reality’(about dreaming) or ‘the final scene of nightmare’ ( at the end of a dream about Savonarola).

Narrative recall is also sometimes overextended: the brief infernal twilight encounter, ‘Demon Lover’, for example, says far more about the delusions of passion than ‘Past Love’ that takes pages to deflate a romance. Meanwhile, the memorable ‘legendary’ poems avoid the ‘knowingness’ of Jairus’s daughter comparing experiences of post-miracle stress with Lazarus. Contrast with this Naomi’s understated view of her mirror image in Ruth, implying so movingly the redemptive quality of accepted and shared suffering at the heart of the book.


We look into each other’s eyes

I see your soul

you mine.

Our own are as alien as the fields

where we have wept

with the loneliness which love

inevitably brings

and with the homesickness of old age…

   Anne Beresford