Beatrice Garland has won both the National Poetry Competition and the Strokestown International Poetry Prize, and was shortlisted for the inaugural Picador Poetry Prize. Her first collection The Invention of Fireworks was published by Templar in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis prize for Best First Collection among the Forward Prizes. She is working on a second collection. She lives and works in London.
In the crook of the elbow of a curving road of red brick houses I ring a large fat doorbell that reads PRESS. There is a glaze of sun on all the buildings and Hampstead looks entirely at ease with itself in these hot conditions. On one side of the doorframe is a bell I do not ring, labeled ‘Consulting Room’. Beatrice meets me in the hall and takes me through to the kitchen where we talk about the area and her work as a group analyst and psychoanalyst. We talk a little about how she came to write poetry, latish in life, and she describes it as the thing that grows through the cracks left between everything else, between work and family and people. She has lived in this house for 49 years and everything, she tells me, has happened here. The house is very beautiful. It is a hot June day and the door to the garden is open and her cat is with us at the start of the interview, but gone by the time it has ended. She makes me coffee with warm milk and gives me a slice of almond and orange cake that she made using whole mandarins. Beatrice boils some milk. Spoons and forks are placed on saucers. Foamy milk is scraped into coffee.
I wanted to start by talking about what came before writing. Aftermath has an etymology which clearly got into the poem – it means ‘a second or later mowing; a crop of grass growing after mowing or harvest’ – but rather than this offering comfort I found myself dwelling on the math, the mowing, which seemed all the more violent and devastating in the phrasing of this ostensibly peaceful occurrence. Whilst there is solace to be taken in a metaphor of people as grass there is also a sense of bodies and lives as easily cut off as grass, and as unable to resist that cutting. The potential volume of this mowing, and the lack of resistance to it, was disturbingly present throughout the poem. What had happened?
Was it not clear what it was?
I thought at first a bomb. And then an earthquake. And then I thought about war – though it was clear that the violence had taken place in a city. So I thought again about structures falling down, people being looked for and then the search stopping.
In a way what you’re saying shows me how young you are. Because it’s about 9/11 and the twin towers coming down. I lived in America for three years. I didn’t live in New York though I visited it a lot. But it meant that when it happened I had a visceral connection with the event. And although there’s a great deal about America that I can’t stand it felt terrible to do this for whatever reason. I tried after 9/11 to write something about it and couldn’t – I failed. In fact I think most poets failed – except for Simon Armitage who wrote a good post 9/11 poem about the destruction of the twin towers, which is why I think he will make, he would make, a very good Professor of Poetry. Because he can turn his hand to these public events and produce something that is still a poem.
So I wrote a poem about 9/11 and I was never satisfied with it and never did anything with it. Quite a lot later on I read a book review by Tim Dee about grass and in the course of this review, he mentioned the derivation of the word ‘aftermath’ and that really struck me, because although a mowing is in one sense destructive, when you grow grass, it’s necessary. If you want a good crop the following year, you must cut it so you get a renewal, if you don’t cut it, it will be matted and tangled and rubbishy.
And so that linked for me with the fact that I knew the Americans were arguing like mad about what on earth they were going to do with the site which I saw in its destroyed state and it was shattering. I mean it had been shattered and it was shattering. And so many people died and so many people could not be found. Nobody knew quite what had happened to them. All round that site there were photographs of the missing, has anybody seen them, does anybody have news of them, so it was very powerful.
Now there are other images there – one is of the phantom limbs which comes from… my husband’s a doctor – I have a biological background – my father’s a biologist – and I know something about what a phantom limb feels like, it’s gone but it feels as though it’s still there and it hurts. It aches.
One of the best things I read after the towers came down was Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers which is exactly that phantom limb feeling, a shadow cast by something that isn’t there.
Let’s look at the passage from Isaiah:
You have taken the phrase from Isaiah and turned it on its head. In what could be quite a worrying way – the sense that to get a good crop you need to mow something down.
That is actually something I only learnt three weeks ago from a farmer who was cutting a field. I did not know that at the time, so it’s not in the poem for me. What is in the poem is that death is inevitable, however it comes and whoever does it. Whoever dies and whoever kills. And the death of the killer is also inevitable and – yes – life and the generations go on.
So the second half of the poem that I discarded – I kept quite a lot of the first half – was more reflective, and less about the violence of what actually happened. It is a fact that on the 6th of May 2002 the search was declared closed, and all the lights went out. Because it had been lit up night and day with the looking for the dead. And the cross that’s made of the girders was still there. It’s all factual, the Mass for those who’ve never been found, and I thought well then what happens? The fact that all these seeds that blow through the air fall on that ground and something grows – it’s not what there was, but it is something that’s alive – seemed very important to me. At the same time, there’s no comfort to be had for those who’ve lost those friends, relatives, colleagues. At this time, quite separately, I had become interested in grass. There are so many varieties of grass. And I’d been to Wisley – do you know what Wisley is?
It’s the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden, the place where they grow things, it’s just outside London. And the number of grasses that are there, I wanted them all! I wanted to fill the garden because when they grow and they blow in the wind it’s the most extraordinary sight. In fact you can see it on Hampstead Heath, there are dozens of varieties there.
And it’s so old.
It’s so old. It’s been there forever. And it always regrows. Always. So – there were a number of things that all came together. For instance a place we’d been to in Spain where there’d been a terrible fire and it had destroyed all the vegetation on the mountainside that we walked on. And two years later we went back and there were these blackened stumps of trees but amongst them, all of the ground vegetation had grown back. And you know that with sequoias – I mean that’s not in the poem – but these huge American trees that last forever, they actually require a fire on the ground in order to split open the seed pods with the heat. So I call it the catastrophe of fire.
Yes, the beautiful catastrophe, there is a double edge of amazement at these things and their continuation and the fact of there being so little comfort in this brazen continuation. This seems to repeat itself in your poems. I’m thinking of ‘Postcard’ where the life of nature is seen at a distance and where it leaves the speaker out –
Where does it leave you? Seeing like this, shutting your door, and everything still going on? Walking on the mountainside and seeing the repaired ground?
Well, in a way I know where it leaves me. Which is aware of growing older. And that hasn’t happened to you yet, but it is a very distinct turning point in a woman’s life. It changes the way you see everything. It changes the way you see people who are older than you and it changes the way you see people who are younger – and you can take enormous pleasure in them, my grandchildren are absolutely intoxicating, but you also know that the same things will happen to them, you just won’t be there to see it.
Death itself is an absolutely momentous event in anyone’s life. There’s a book by Atul Gawande, Being Mortal – do you know it? In the middle of the book it’s not so good, endless case histories, but the beginning and the end are very powerful. Particularly the end, where although he doesn’t believe in the Hindu religion, he takes his father’s ashes to Varanasi and sprinkles them on the Ganges, and it’s clear that he knows he’s taking part in an ancient ritual that’s repeated generation after generation after generation. We’ve just been there a month ago, it’s quite something to be on the Ganges at dawn.
So. Seeds burst, yes. I didn’t know about the sequoia then. The grasses, I liked them and I know them.
We’ve been talking about mortality but the poem and the phrase it takes after definitely speak of immortality – the poem giving a sense of continuation and regrowth in the face of trauma and the Isaiah speaking of course of the everlasting word of God. Is there a case to be made for writing after events like 9/11 being another form of regrowth, another bid for immortality? You have talked about writing poems in terms of grass growing through the cracks in a pavement: they are unruly, they can’t be kept down…
I would be a very self-satisfied poet to think my poems would last that long! But I think we do write to remember. And to let memory do what it does which is not to stand still. Writing is very different to taking a picture which gives you nothing but what it is: photographs stop memory. When I went back to this poem after some time, and when I go back to poems, I look to see if they have changed or if they have held something still. The mental process is such that it changes – and writing permits that. Our children are the only form of immortality we have.
I wondered if you’d say a little about the work that you’re writing now and the timidity – or guilt I think was the word you used – about embellishing fact with fiction. Filling in gaps.
Using imagination – well the question is really about truth. Because there is such a thing as poetic truth, in other words, when something is emotionally true. Whether it actually happened or not it can make a point about something which is authentic and resonant. And one can’t – or I can’t – always tell until quite a lot later on when I add something which might be a visual detail which exists in my head but which I didn’t actually notice at the time, if it works or not, and so that’s why you rely on other people. If it’s convincing, if it carries conviction – I mean good poetry has something that’s truthful about it. It’s like psychoanalysis in a way, that’s about truth and reality, emotional reality and utterly truthful, even if it didn’t actually happen like that.
Separating fact and fiction always makes me think of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook. In it Anna Wulf records her life in four separate notebooks: black for her life before coming to Britain, red for her experience as a member of the Communist Party, yellow for a novel in progress and blue for her memories, dreams and emotions.
I couldn’t do that. I mean partly because of time! I write in a notebook given to me by my daughter-in-law and everything goes in it. An advertisement, an address, a combination of words that strikes me. And sometimes something that I think I will write a poem about but it rarely happens like that. The thing I thought would be a poem becomes just a fragment of a line. Never be without a book to read. Never be without a notebook and never be without a pen. Sometimes if I find myself without one of those things I panic.
I think in general it’s all right to make things up as long as they’ve got enough basis in your own knowledge of the world and your own experience to carry conviction.
It’s a collection that I’m writing now. I’ve been wanting a story. I thought I had a story actually, my father was a scientist who was born in another country and he was sent to England, to boarding school as a child, and because he looked dark and foreign and was very tall, he had a lot of difficulty in fitting in, the English couldn’t accept him. And later when he became a scientist his work, for which he got the highest scientific prizes, was concerned with how you get a host body to accept foreign tissue. How do you manage a skin graft for instance, how do you transplant an organ. That seems to me a real theme, this boy sent to boarding school – but I can’t do it! I think it’s so interesting that his research addressed a real life problem, which is organ transplantation, which really needed to be solved, but also, an internal emotional problem. And that’s why he was successful. Because the two came together. So – that’s my story but how the fuck do I do it?
Maybe it’s not a poem.
It’s not a poem. I was asked to give a lecture once on scientific biography and I used it then but if I told my father what I’ve just told you he’d say ‘Don’t be absurd my dear’. But I used that as the example, and it carried a lot of conviction, for the fact that research that you’re good at solves a number of problems, not just one.
I love genealogies of research. Bachelard was a postman in his youth. And Roland Barthes’ mother was a bookbinder and his father a sailor.
Let’s talk about your analytical work in terms of poetry. There is an observational tone to much of your work and as a result a palpable distance between what the poem describes and the voice that speaks that description. I’m thinking of ‘The Experiment’ where the speaker’s body becomes an it:
There’s so much space between the body and the body as –
– A self. I think that is a habit of thought I’ve always had actually. It’s certainly increased by being a working analyst because what you do in an analytic session as well as listening to what’s said and the general feeling of what’s said, is you notice the effect that the patient is having on you and you observe it and you use it as information about what is going on. It’s called counter-transference and it’s very very crucial in the sort of work that we do.
Let me try and give you an example – I haven’t got a – I can’t – see, this is one of the things about being an analyst and being a poet – I cannot join the two. If I am in one mode I am absolutely not in the other, but there are instances where for instance, somebody will be telling you about something in a completely neutral way and you start to feel enormously sad and you’re not sure why, but you register it, and you then wait for a moment in which there might be a minute perception of something other than this neutrality in the patient and what they’re saying and then you can say something about how there seemed to be some other feelings around as well that are perhaps not quite as apparent to them. And you know, if you get it right, it’s such a relief to the patient to have something that they hadn’t quite recognised in themselves recognised by someone else and spoken about, or the opportunity for them to speak about it is made available. And the process of being understood is in itself therapeutic.
So – I can’t… when I’m thinking or writing like an analyst, I can’t think about poetry. It just doesn’t happen. I’ve got to be free of all that. Because it is analytical and it’s very different from allowing stuff to come up from the unconscious and into your head as in a dream when, you know it’s a sort of waking dream, you don’t really know, you didn’t know that that’s what you were thinking about. And I may say that my analysis was enormously helpful in helping me to discover that I had things in my head that I could write about – think about, feel, you know, it’s like enlarging your own horizons, that’s really what it does. I can’t remember your question now. It was how do I mix the two?
It was about being at a remove from things you write about, a sort of observational mode.
Yes. When you’re an analyst you are two things, you’re both highly tuned in, very connected; in fact, making emotional contact with the patient is the most important thing you do. But also, there’s a part of you, an observing part of the ego that is noticing what is going on between you. Noticing it and registering what you’re feeling and seeing – what sort of sense it makes in terms of what the patient is saying or how they’re being – they may be being silent.
So it’s a very finely tuned thing, to be able to feel and to step back and notice that feeling.
Yes it is. You learn it.
It feels as though it would be quite easy to observe but to be present and feeling –
– In touch. In touch is the key. Now some analysts or some people who practice versions of analysis are very removed and observe and comment on what they observe, some are over-in touch and can’t observe – and the skill and the art is to manage the two. Now sometimes you’ll get overwhelmed, there’s no doubt about that. And, angry or upset or amused (I don’t mind being amused, ever) but sometimes a patient can enrage you, or upset you, or you can be upset on their behalf – but it doesn’t help the patient to shout at them or be overly caught up in what they’re saying. You are caught up, it is important, but you also keep that little bit of observing self available.
Once you’ve had a touch of psychosis, and we all have somewhere or other, it doesn’t leave you. And actually it’s quite useful if you’re going to be a poet, because to be able to access the non-logical, non-rational, bizarre aspects of one’s own imagination is essential. That’s why I so like that Jean Sprackland poem in the LRB (‘Tourism’, 4 June 2015), because she’s done that and yet it’s a masterpiece in terms of craft.
I wanted to ask about the word ‘unassuaged’, which you use in ‘Aftermath’ and which I think connects to these thoughts about watchful bodies. I found it to be the lynchpin of the first stanza, giving a real sense of the continuation of pain and a painful restlessness, this unanswered thing that’s happening when a body is not found or buried. As I was thinking about the bodies in your other poems, I was struck by the fact that many of them are overwhelmingly restless. They are seeking assuagement. Lots of it comes out in a very desiring fashion, as in ‘Lady and Fox’, and ‘Gitanes’, where the bodies are restless and want not to be.
Don’t know how to be. Yes, yes, ‘Gitanes’ especially, being asked to dance by this gypsy prince and you know you don’t know how to do it, not the way the girls on the beach did. Yes. The body is so crucial in our knowledge of ourselves – it’s what we are, we are embodied persons and if you can’t deal the body in, if it’s all about what’s going on up here. It’s like psychoanalysis that’s conducted as an analysis without being in touch with the patient. And you know, touch is a metaphor for connection, and yet of course you don’t actually literally touch the patient ever. Except you might shake hands at the very end of an analysis – I usually do. It’s like restoring the patient to his own body and adulthood again. I mean it sounds silly but where would we be without our bodies, and of course it’s the body that perishes isn’t it? And that’s what ageing is. It isn’t the end of the world but it certainly has an effect.
Is there a phantom limb phenomenon for the young body?
Yes, because of course one always visualises oneself as five or ten years younger than one actually is. Yes, there is a phantom limb effect. And I think it’s a very good way to put it. And in fact one can see it in both women and men, they’re not happy with the age they clearly are and there’s an awful lot of blonding and eyelash dyeing and tit-enhancing – and with men it’s the Matador! [We both laugh loudly at this image] The one thing I’d say about growing older is you must have someone to do it with, then it’s tolerable. If you’re doing it on your own I imagine that’s very very hard. But it’s a fact of life and there are very few real facts of life but growing older and the difference between the generations and eventual death is one of them. And you know all poems are about sex or death in one way.
My final question is about who you write for and if you think of an audience when you write, because I liked what you have said previously about Jeremy Paxman’s quip that poets only write for one another – not for ordinary people – I liked how you took that idea to task.
I don’t like it – what is an ordinary person? Bloody man, what a nerve. It’s quite bizarre. I suppose in a way, my most immediate audience is my working group, the workshop. When I write something I think to myself, they’re not going to like that, but I’m going to say it anyway. The work of the group is not criticism of the impulse behind the poem, it’s how well have you succeeded in achieving what you wanted to do. I have a good workshop group now; there’s a sense of being engaged in a common endeavour which is hard. You’re lucky if you can find one like that. What I also like is that there are poets in this workshop who are better than I am. That’s very important. If you feel you’re one of the grown ups, as it were, you don’t learn as much. As if there are people who have done it for longer and who have got a different set of mind and a different kind of imagination. It’s marvellous.
So it’s got to go past them and then after that, the whole business of getting published is what somebody happens to like. You cannot write for a particular audience because in a way there isn’t one beyond your working group, and if it passes muster with them and if you like it – you know you’ve got to like your own poem… There are some poems that I look at and they make my skin crawl, and I think how could I have written that? So waiting to publish is quite a good thing because those poems have all had to pass a test of being looked at a long time after being written.
And the ones you don’t like, the ones that make you wince, what about them was it?
Sentimentality. Or Molesworthiness – do you know what I mean by that? Ronald Searle’s schoolboy poet – ‘Hello trees! Hello birds!’
It’s funny, those are poems you really want to write when you write them, you’re so taken.
I know, I know: ‘Hello moon!’ And I was very ‘hello moon, hello trees’ for a long time. And actually, they’ve got a kind of childish sort of adolescent authenticity about them, but you can’t publish them. It’s a bit self-referring, but it is a fact that I do write for myself. I want to pin something down, I want to say something that I can go back to and it – it’s like those Japanese paper flowers, you drop them in water and they open up again. It’s like opening up the whole experience and in that way it’s not like a photograph.
You’ve talked about the pleasure of getting something, of writing something accurately, but there is also a need to do it.
There is, it’s to record your own experience. Yes.
Finally the search is declared closed.
The brilliant lights yellow and expire,
the mechanical diggers fall quiet,
folding awkwardly upon themselves,
touching their knuckles gently to the rubble –
old beasts preparing for the winter sleep.
Beneath the crossed girders is held the Mass
for those who have never been found:
the missing, the not-known, the gone-away,
and the next day the seeds and the pollen
that blow through the city fall undisturbed,
a slow veiling of this jumbled grave.
What’s left is what’s not there: two phantom limbs,
untouchable, aching, the body unassuaged.
The voice said cry. And the city answered
what shall we cry? And the voice answered
all flesh is grass and all its beauty
no more than the flowers of the field.
Yet look at the meadow after the scythe
has swept across it, see the mountainside
after the beautiful catastrophe of fire, or
the desert levelled by the sun’s blank stare.
This is the aftermath: how days later,
sparse, a few fine shoots of grass
shining and green, push through
the cut swathes bleached dry by the sun.
Though tender, they push aside the chaff,
the flattened stalks, reach for the day.
This is the after-mowing, indestructible.
The mountain scrub springs back, seeds burst,
the nodes of grass divide, renew themselves.
Their beauty is that of the generations.
My young replace me: they resemble
me and will also be different,
seeding themselves across the world.
Like grass, they carpet the earth.
Ryegrass, fescue, sea oats, rush,
switch grass, bluegrass, foxtail, sedge.
First Published by Prac Crit.