A MANY-JEWELLED CROWN

AS GOOD AS SALT
by Elizabeth Bewick
[136pp, £7.95, Peterloo Poets]


This is a remarkable book, the product of a lifetime's endeavour. Elizabeth Bewick, now in her late eighties, has produced in As Good As Salt a collection of poems which does everything you would want of good poetry. It is her third Peterloo collection, the others being Heartsease from 1991 and Making a Roux from 2000. Before these came Comfort Me With Apples in 1987 in a limited edition from Florin Press. Readers who know the earlier collections will unfailingly recognise a poet who can be relied on to produce not only meticulously crafted work but writing which is moving, engaged, deeply thoughtful and unhesitatingly honest. It is a perfect combination: mature experience honestly confronted and explored in beautifully disciplined poems. Those who do not yet know her work are advised to remedy the situation immediately.

Though she has written for most of her life, Elizabeth Bewick only began publishing after her retirement from a career in librarianship, in particular in the School Library Service, which, following her move from County Durham, she set up in Hampshire in 1941. She has for over thirty-odd years lived in a centuries-old cottage in Winchester and been active for a long time in local poetry groups there.

Love is not just the province of the young. In her sixties Elizabeth Bewick was surprised by joy: she fell in love. In her own words: 'Falling literally madly in love at over sixty was both a shock and a delight and resulted in number of love poems.' The first third of
As Good As Salt gives us poems of extraordinary tenderness and, to use a word Jeremy Hooker likes to apply to her work, vulnerability. These love-songs-in-age are unflinchingly open and honest and tinged with inevitable sadness, regret and a difficult-to-attain stoicism following her beloved's death. I read these poems with a lump in my throat, the kind of lump-in-the-throat the late poems of Hardy bring – not because they lean on you emotionally but because they are heart-stoppingly true. This is life lived in the pulse.

They are so hard to quote from, because, like true poems, they follow their own inevitable trajectories to endings that deliver real clinchers. But try this sinuous fifth section from the sequence
Love Songs Grave and Gray: 

     Swathed in the lapping silk
     of Badedas-scented water –
     foaming like ass's milk –
     a Cleopatra's daughter,
     content to dream away
     the time that should be spent
     in planning of my day
     with purposeful intent,
     I lie and think of you
     in sensuous delight,
     as green Badedas dew
     dispels the shades of night.

or the splendidly erotic last dozen lines of
Sahara Dust:

     But not for you I made
     the bitter-sweet of marmalade;
     for you there'll always be
     a store of natural honey
     waiting to be spread
     upon my home-baked bread,
     honey so pure and rare
     you will not even care
     how long it has been stored,
     in heart of oak matured,
     or mellowed by the years
     of my too-certain tears.

or the ending of
Grief Is…

     A kind of anger, love crossed
     with self-pity and a strange
     resentment because you have left me only
     a sense of loss, a gap
     that no-one can ever fill,
     an emptiness where there should be music.

Such directness, to paraphrase Eliot, costs not less than everything.

And the same has to be said for all the other poems in the book, poems for example of suffering and serious illness, of being in hospital – all documented with clear-sighted honesty, without a whiff of self-pity or special pleading, and with no desire to rub the reader's nose in it:

     Confused and tearful
     the new patient lies, convinced it is late
     and she has not eaten,
     not remembering the visitors who came
     with flowers and love.

     Three weeks is not long
     to get used to the fear of total dependency,
     but long enough
     to recognise the stark terror of skidding
     out of control.
          ['Confusion']

Painful though the experiences detailed in many of the poems may be, Elizabeth Bewick makes us constantly aware in all of them of a solid core of life lived consciously and to the full, accepting the good with the bad, and still able to find consolations in the daily round, in simple domestic activities like making jam, in aspects of nature and certain landscapes, in her Christianity and her faith in poetry but above all in friendship as the most sustaining and valuable of human interactions. The book is dedicated to friends and its title is taken from an anonymous poem quoted as epigraph whose last line is 'As good as salt my friends to me.' In other words the real and abiding subject of the book is love and the 'holiness of the heart's affections.'

Whether in sonnet or villanelle or free verse Elizabeth Bewick's craftsmanship is exemplary. A lifetime of honing away at serious poetry composition has born extraordinary fruit. The poems in this collection celebrate love; they accept vulnerability and make beautiful poems out of it. The collection ends with the words:

          Still a teenager at heart, I revel in now,
     confounding convention, surrounding myself with
     admiring young men, and living it up
     in my eighties.

Long may Elizabeth Bewick revel in the now.

         © Matt Simpson 2006