Aug 24 2023
Poetry review – THE PRETENCE OF AN UNDERSTANDING: Thomas Ovans enjoys the sense of optimism in a first pamphlet collection by Beth Davies
The Pretence of an Understanding Beth Davies The Poetry Business New Poets List ISBN: 978 -1- 914914 - 52 -2 £6
Beth Davies begins this collection with the startlingly graphic “Rat Dissection”. Without any scene setting to prepare us, we learn ‘She is crucified against cardboard / stomach cruelly exposed.’ And, if we haven’t previously found the fact out for ourselves, we soon discover ‘how easy it is to cut through skin.’ One wonders if this is going to be a collection full of brutal realism; but the next few poems are much gentler reflections and recollections of domestic life. And it turns out that Davies is just as good at producing immediately arresting opening lines in this homely context as she was in the biology laboratory. She confides, for instance, that ‘In my house, we are a family / of atheists with biblical names.’ And she begins an affectionate account of visiting an elderly relative by reporting
The plants have outlawed us from your house by barricading the garden door. We become fairytale princes, pushing aside briars
But, just when we might have been thinking that the rat poem was an aberration, we are soon reminded of the presence of death in the natural world. “Cleaning the pool” begins
Each day we fished six- and eight-legged things from the water, the net teeming with bugs that had met their chlorinated end.
“We” turn out to be a group of children morbidly fascinated by the bundle of invertebrate corpses – ‘unsorted tangle of shell and wing and abdomen’ – which when collected nearly fill a glass jar within a single week of an Italian holiday.
And so the pattern continues. Groups of reminiscences of family and friends are interrupted by (often fatal) encounters with the animal kingdom: the mass slaughter of hatchling crabs crossing a busy road; an earthworm cut in two; mice invading a student house. It is as if Davies is aware that her own relatively secure circumstances exist within a wider world which can be rougher and riskier than anything she has yet met; but she chooses to acknowledge it through what she knows of animal mortality rather than tackling instances of deeper human suffering.
Not that suffering is entirely absent from the poems. The back cover states that the book sets out to explore loss. But the concern seems primarily to be the loss of youth and adolescence at a time when the writer is still close enough to them for the memories and regrets to be quite vivid. And Davies has enough self-awareness and perspective to be able to look at her past with a twinkle as well as a tear in her eye. She also has a lively imagination as when ‘about to take a gulp of vodka-coke’ at a dance she observes her own eight-year-old self.
I never got the hang of talking to children, nor to myself. She asks What’s it like to be old? I protest that I’m only twenty-five. But you are grown up, she declares like she’s won an argument.
Then there is the mysterious room of which she asks ‘What strangers live here?’ And one suspects she does in fact know who it is that repeatedly re=reads favourite books and ‘buys a new copy each time (the same edition), / hoping for a different ending.’ Fortunately the other occupant of the house doesn’t mind multiple copies of identical books ‘because the spines / match the wallpaper.’ This sense of questioning and seeking to establish (or re-calibrate) connections and relationships is a recurring theme and comes through again in the book’s strong closing poem where the poet says (in another of her engaging openings)
Last night I emerged into a long room. Two rows of cots lined the walls, a baby in each one. I somehow knew each baby would grow into someone from my life.
After recognizing a few school and university friends however there comes the urge ‘to find the baby / who would become me.’ But after walking between the rows and ‘looking left then right // at each pair of cots as if carefully crossing / a very wide road’ she fails to find the child seeks; and she leaves us to consider whether we all share that same longing ‘to cradle the smallest, softest / versions of ourselves’.
This is a very engaging collection which shows that Davies has a knack for apt imagery and enjoys using language well and creatively. Her poems will surely appeal to her contemporaries but are entirely accessible to readers who are considerably older. This is indeed, as advertised, a book that deals with various kinds of loss; and yet there is an underlying note of optimism and generosity – extending even to the Acknowledgements pages! – which I find most refreshing (because it is not overwhelmingly present in my reading of contemporary poetry).