Tuesday 11 July 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "The Pretence of Understanding" by Beth Davies

When you read The Pretence of Understanding (The Poetry Business), it’s not hard to see why Beth Davies won the 2022 New Poet’s Prize. 

Her debut collection is a considered response to the realities of transition, exploring both the resultant rewards and losses. Her voice is clear and unambiguous. It re-visits childhood, acknowledging the immovable family roots that are woven in and uses them to help make sense of past and present experiences.  

There is a reflective tension throughout. A sense of belonging and valuing what matters competes with the inevitable change, autonomy and distraction that come with leaving home, university life and starting work, as seen in “A Plea for Future Winters”:

           … if one day, these Christmas card mornings cannot
           make me child again, throw a snowball 
           In my face. 

Davies dedicates this volume to her Grandparents and there are several poems that will resonate with anyone who has known the sorrow of dealing with elderly relatives and witnessing the slow decline. “The Garden at William Street” uses their overgrown garden as a metaphor:

          Later at the care home, you don’t notice 
         our scratched legs, dirty shoes, the tang
         of grass clippings. Your mind is too overgrown,
         your words behind thorns, my name
         a house you cannot reach. I hold your hand
         wishing I could tame that wilderness.

There may be retrospection in this collection, but there is no sense of over-sentimentality or sugar-coating. The poetry has its own motif of loss, decay, decline and death. This is often intelligently articulated using nature, notably through a lens of some of its not-so-cute inhabitants such as rats, crabs, insects, earthworms and (rotting) fish. The restrained, everyday portrayal of their visceral fates subtly serves to remind us on a metaphysical level of our own human experience.

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry while studying English at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB), The Female Line (NIWRM) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib. She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House) and she has also been a reader at Purely Poetry - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

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