Delight, Puzzle and Inform: Raewyn Alexander reviews ‘Never too Late’ by Beth Spencer

Never Too Late by Beth Spencer, Press Press 2018

Such hope in the title on a smart looking small book, then a rather sweetly distressed illustration, but still a lovely white feather on the cover. A sense of danger and also a lightness about it. In the work itself, amusement is ably shown and echoes of chances to live better or rethink some attitude, with variations on family life, friendships, love affairs, and other serious, close human matters. Many fine lines offer a sense of positivity and urgency. The language itself is ordered in ways to delight, puzzle and inform.

Hopeful and entertained characters seem immersed in some pathos, other lines hint at seeking a better way, through a kind of storm or endless stream of many things going on. There’s perhaps too much happening to mention it all, so glimpses help the reader to imagine the rest, and so we gain a real feeling for family life, TV shows, refugee situations, or immigrant experiences, worries, loneliness, dry or twisty wit and more.

Beth Spencer has produced poetry, fiction, essays and performance pieces. Her latest delightful book  illustrates how someone may bring elements of many kinds of writing, into poetry. Some poems read like a short short story, ‘White noise’, for instance, about being on a plane, starts in mid-air viewing clouds, then, midway through, offers a clear, light picture  with some darker elements. On board passengers are offered refreshments.

…and the tickity check of
talk at ten thousand
‘tea? tea? Tea?
the steward mows down the aisle
spoons clinking paper on screens
a new coal mine the boats pushed back…

The crammed quickness of the plane poem somehow evokes a crowded cabin, while also using careful, admirable humour. The work finishes with a descent, all the while offering a “don’t worry be happy” kind of attitude. Don’t many of us know certain cheery people, those who remain perky no matter what? The poem seems to both celebrate and make fun of them, like its writer feels close enough to be allowed to get truly personal.

Some hidden messages also appear in this writing provoking further thinking about the poems and rewarding further analysis. There is the mention of a coal mine and (mysterious) signs, more heat – nothing to worry about –  the oil-industry-controlled, media propaganda pretending climate change doesn’t exist. Passengers who “fiddle” recall the emperor Nero who fiddled while Rome burnt. These days some say the West is falling like Rome did, so maybe little emperors  with not a lot to do in isolated luxury, entertain themselves on planes zooming about the world, divorced from what trouble those planes cause to global warming? Thus so much of importance is signalled to the reader, using only a little over a page.

Potent, revealing, witty poetry, written using a light hand and an insightful mind. This careful, watchful Beth Spencer spins and embellishes some truly satisfying, nourishing confections; often the work delivers a somber message but in amusing code, palatable and encouraging without moralising or demanding too much attention. She makes what she’s concerned about far more likely to be listened toOther readers may not get such a meaning from the poem, or refuse to see it, but in any case, the layering of meaning is another beautiful aspect of this writing, and you may see simply a fine series of images about flying and travelling.

Readers may each take something quite different from Never Too Late. The best writing is not too obvious and offers many  ways into the meanings and images of the work.

Much of Spencer’s work appears as simply familiar, reassuring and at times poems are offered like snappy capsules of experience, such as with the aeroplane poem. Maybe these poems could help make a crammed flight seem more comfortable.

On first enjoying single poems from Never too Late, I found myself wanting to read the book in its entirely, and then carry it about with me, to revisit aspects, original language, the freshness, and in-depth but amusing qualities of her poems, while waiting for a bus, or stuck in the car outside an appointment.

I hope everyone has a “car library” and a book in their bag for such times. A small volume, Never Too Late is accessible, enjoyable and writing we may also share easily with others. To introduce more poetry into other people’s everyday improves so much. This kind of small, well written, amusing, insightful and accessible poetry book is a perfect gift for almost anyone. 

Some lines delighted me so much I went back to them and reread them a few times, smiling or blinking in astonishment. From ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ which means, ‘Let the buyer beware”:

I savour the immense unthinkable joy
of the
ordinary

and then

I think of my chest as a map now.

To me the poem could be about surviving a serious operation, but it could also feasibly be about wisdom, and what we may grow to be believe over time. So in a way Spencer could be saying, we take life on like we’re buying a dream, and then we try to live the dream while discovering reality, (often quite different to what we imagined). Then that’s referred to in our memory, a faulty place and able to be changed, or dismissed, but good memories linger and assist us. Or so it seems

For Spencer our body, which our life shapes for us, gives and shows indications about our past, and hopes for the future. Some kind of eternity’s involved as well, a connection with mysteries and powerful forces we do not completely control ourselves, nor know everything about. This grand sense of being part of an inexplicable but wondrous existence is shown so well, so finely, and carefully.

A great pleasure in such excellent poetry, the words may  hold and offer original powerful ideas, or reworked classic notions, fascinating language, flexible and intriguing syntax. Those many elements form to a framework for the word play suggesting to the reader they too have the capability of sensing greatness in everyday life, or moving others with their language and so on.

Lovers of poetry can feel transported, changed, entertained and may rejoice, upon reading through books like Never Too Late.

The writing also holds much allusion hinting at hard and difficult times, like showing how a dream can be wiped of evidence, and  how we then find it hard to know what it really meant, or how it even started. Other poems talk about relationships as if they’re some kind of consumer item. This couched in such a smooth yet vibrant manner, with fine original imagery, and just enough cliche to make it  seem truly like every day life.

The every day often appears magical and exciting, like when you’re happy, or truly engaged with what’s going on. ‘Dance with red woolstates, 

The poem fidgets like a five year old
with a fist of red wool & a pair of needles,

apparently talking about writing and then, possibly remembering  her own childhood. The chaos and order of a household in action, a cat, then magpies are mentioned, and a sister pirouetting, in a setting made up of various kitchen accoutrements, but her mother blurred (busy I guess), the radio on and so much more…. A twisty turny way of trying to kind of do and undo, in a poem, while wishing it could be knitted together, then not quite making it. Poetry like this is so vivid, memorable and rewarding.

A small book is a great way to promote a poet’s other work. Beth Spencer is the author of The Age of Fibs which won the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award and was published by Spineless Wonders as an e-book; A complete list of her work is available at www.bethspencer.com

 – Raewyn Alexander

 ———————————————

Raewyn Alexander, novelist, poet, non-fiction writer and lately working on graphic poetry about her love for fiancé Chris Knox – Nowhere and Nothing (but Love). Hamiltron: City of the Future published her growing-up-in-the-Tron comic, 2015, and she has work in the Three Words comic anthology. Residing in Tamaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa NZ and descended from French, Irish, Scots, and English, she has published seventeen books including the Five star review third novel, Glam Rock Boyfriends, which is available on Amazon. Raewyn can be found at http://poeticjourneytoamerica.blogspot.co.nz/ and more information is available at – www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/alexanderraewyn.html

Never too Late is available from http://www.presspress.com.au/spencer.html