Aug 27 2023
Poetry review – BEYOND THE GATE: Alex Josephy reviews a collection by Clare Best which skillfully tackles difficult issues
Clare Best’s resonant new collection takes a lead from its epigraph, which is an extract from Audre Lorde’s Litany for Survival, in which women’s constant fears are countered by the courage they find to keep moving forward:
So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.
As I read them, Best’s poems ‘speak’ through forays ‘beyond the gate’, into potential danger and harm, but also beyond – or at least in defiance of – fear. In this spirit, the shadow of Sarah Everard is evoked in the title poem in which ‘we are walking’ among a list of named and known trees, many of them endangered or scarred themselves, which might or might not offer protection. The forest could be a place of peril for walkers, but these trees are also life-affirming and sympathetic companions:
so many hornbeam so many birch out here stripped leafless by fine sleet as we are walking
If this sounds dark, then, yes, it’s true there is darkness here. But there iare also luminosity and moments of playful beauty. With captivating brevity, the opening poem offers mind, breath and:
…a small heart in an upturned palm imperfect in its solitude as we are.
I want to start by looking at the structure of the collection. On a first reading, the five named sections seemed simply a way to bring together a number of sequences on different topics; but after several readings I think it’s one of the subtly brilliant aspects of the book. Best has united a wide range of poems with care and tact, in a way that seems to me in itself musical, so that the whole collection plays out its themes across the five inter-connected parts. At the heart of it, the central section “Cinder Path” is focused on the traumatic termination of a pregnancy marred by ‘foetal abnormalities’. This is surrounded, as if for comfort or company, by four other sections. First there are poems set in the English countryside, and a series “By Night”, ending on a very moving piece on the death of a loved dog, which links with gentle tonal consistency to the poems in “Cinder Path”. Next is “By Water”, a sequence of reflections on transience, grief and beyond. The final section, “Flight Path” might suggest a triumphant resolution: but in fact it opens into wider forays into danger, loss and eventual extinction – though not before pausing for joyful appreciation of life, for instance in “Late fig”, a luscious shape poem celebrating the sensual pleasures of a ‘single fig-surpassing fig.’
The poems in “Cinder Path’ form a lament written with great tenderness and brave passages of raw emotion:
you are my rage my comfort enough enough beloved child how I want you cold table where I sit hours of trance unable to feel light leaning in a garden
Physically wrenching lines on the termination and its aftermath are interwoven with descriptions of a river – I imagine the narrator going there often for solitude or solace. Words and water still carry the emotions, but move forward in time; in the final stanzas, she delicately tilts the transience of the river against the lost birth:
a place before the first place where the river turns away into bracken sodden peat and sunlight skims the surface
Unpunctuated text and an alternating left- and right-justified layout work unobtrusively to reinforce the evocation of a distressed and fluctuating state of mind.
Other poems in this section move beyond singular personal experience, making broader points about women’s stories, the sometimes brutal ways in which the medical and wider world refer to them, and what real understanding might sound like. For instance at the end of “What do we know”, a list poem, perhaps a found poem, we find possible explanations for a termination of pregnancy:
she’s woman not god she’s exhausted she’s working out how to be the best mother this might be her only way to be the best mother
There are many poignant poems to discover in Beyond the Gate. Just one of those from the final section that has particularly stayed with me, probably because for me it’s a familiar fear, is “I’m writing”. It deals with a foreboding of loss, the thought of losing a loved partner, of how it might be ‘if you go first and I am left.’ Best is very good at pinpointing small gestures that carry layers of meaning. In held-breath, anxious lines:
…I listened for breath a hand whispering the sheet the slight shift of your head
Whispering. Just the right word for dry night skin on cotton. As in other poems, she makes fluent use of unpunctuated lines with spacing used to guide pace and grammar; this also works very well to suggest the movement of thought.
How should poets write about the natural world in this time of current and imminent extinctions? Throughout the collection, Best is in conversation with nature. Country life, its people and history are present in almost all the poems. There are moments of pure delight: a child’s enjoyment of bees brings her attention to their ‘hover and dance’, the way they ‘leave, arrive and leave, living the blur and the buzz.’ The language dances too.
An even closer identification occurs in the prose poem, “Once my home”, where the poet’s old home has been taken over by tree roots and is starting to become compost. The dreaming poet is entirely open to the process:
…A few seedlings erupt from this friable soil – twigs with leaf buds at their tips. Lying down, my ear to one of the fattest roots, I know a pale, whispered calm, like distant low singing formed of vowel sounds.
The opening hovers very close to reality, then takes off with wild energy. What could have been seen as an invasion becomes a resurrection as a giant beech rises from the ruins,
It’s this intense imaginative identification that allows Best to show without ‘telling’ too stridently her concerns for the environment. Not suggesting specific solutions, her poems assert the importance of noticing and caring. In “Watering hole”, she watches deer discovering that their drinking place has dried out:
My mind says dehydration, death.
Then there’s the appearance of another deer:
…all ease and vigour. My mind says hope, necessity. Did I see that third deer or was it my wanting?
This warmly intelligent, questioning collection demonstrates the value of that wanting.