Beatrice Garland, The Drum Templar Poetry £10.00

A key note in Beatrice Garland’s debut collection, The Invention of Fireworks, was the tension between stability and change. In that first book, Garland reconciles that tension technically by using an adroit combination of lyric and narrative, working between epiphany and process. Garland’s new book, The Drum, also has such a tension and technical focus. And in this book, too, Garland’s technique often hinges on her ability with the sentence, with moving an idea through a poem by moving the syntax fluidly and adeptly.

Sometimes the sentences are short and sprightly, as in the villanelle, ‘Valentine’ which bounces along with the sentences emerging from and reinforcing the structure. Much like Elizabeth Bishop’s magisterial ‘One Art’, Garland uses the form to deadly, ironic effect. ‘Valentine’ begins:

She was a woman that you used to know
with ink-black hair and eyes of greeny-grey.
It was a love affair as these things go.

And ends:

All life is change, each a become an o:
the heart grows quiet, black fades to silver-grey.
It was a love-affair – but these things go:
she was a woman that you used to know.

In ‘Valentine’, Garland moves the ‘story’ of the poem through the details of the relationship; from the carnelian ring the woman wore, and the love songs which seem to witness the relationship, through to the way ‘the music’s yes became a no’. And on to the play, in the opening of the final verse, of ‘each a become an o’, mimicking both the rhyme scheme of the poem and the alpha and omega of the trajectory of the relationship.

Elsewhere Garland might work a whole story through a single sentence. On the opposite page to ‘Valentine’ is the poem ‘Day Care’ in which the sounding of the security alarm in the day care centre occasions a range of behaviours among those who attend, ‘Roberts finishes the miniatures concealed // in the multiple pockets of his combat gear / before standing to attention at the Assembly Point, / at the green sign showing two adults / and two children holding hands, and four arrows // pointing inwards, one for each of them;’ Garland’s carefully unadorned writing not only renders Roberts situation all the more poignant, but in the second half of these lines, her powers of observation again point up the irony of the ‘assembly point’ with its carefully delineated ‘family’ emphasised by the inward pointing arrows; a family from which Roberts is clearly excluded.

Poems in the final, third section of The Drum introduce a slightly newer note to Garland’s poetry. Here, the narratives of these poems reach out towards to situations which are more mysterious and less explicable. One such is ‘The Rock’, in which Garland explores the story of the apostle Peter. After a lifetime of service, Peter reflects on his life, ‘Yet still some things – the glow of charcoal / after dark; at dawn, the farm bird’s call / to arms, the knowing questions of young girls // that day I still had promises to keep – / all make me turn away. I cannot speak / and such thoughts, even now, can make me weep.’ Garland sees the Bishop of Rome as prone to the same range of doubts and ambivalence as the rest of humanity, and she does this with the kind of detailing which renders Peter’s humanity both accessible and spiritual.

The final section of the book also contains some very fine landscape poems. The speculative, pondering nature of Garland’s concerns allows her to move around the landscape listening to the sounds and voices she hears there, ‘From time to time there drifts upwards / that slow complex random music / from the valley – tiles hammered/ one by one along a roof beam, / a barking dog, an occasional voice – / and as we descend, // the scrape of spade on stone / and the rising note of water / filling a bucket slowly.’ ‘El Maestrazgo’. In this piece, the movement through landscape becomes a metaphor for the movement through life itself; the poem continues, ‘Perhaps it will come just once: / when the blood has ceased its round / and the marching comes to an end // because we have arrived, and all breath is stopped with clay.’ If the poem is a kind of elegy, it is an elegy to a life of careful observation and powerful empathies. This is a collection which is driven by considerable imaginative elegance and precision.

Ian Pople

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