Alice Beer 1912 – 2011

Alice Beer, who had published three poetry collections, “Facing Forward, Looking Back” (Poetry Monthly 1999), “Talking of Pots, People and Points of View” (poetry pf, 2005) and “Window on the Square” (Soundswrite 2009) and was based in Leicester, died earlier this month. She was born to an Orthodox Jewish family inViennain 1912. By the 1930s Vienna was dangerous for her so she came to Britain. She married Franz Beer in 1938 and settled inLeicester. Franz died in 1979. Alice began writing poetry seriously after taking a poetry course taught by U A Fanthorpe.

My review of her “Window on the Square” was first published in Assent magazine.

Alice Beer writes observational poetry, her 98 years giving her an extensive archive of experience to interpret her observations and use the actions of others to illustrate that knowledge.  She takes an intimate detail and draws out the universal sentiment beneath, eg in “St Valentine’s Day” a man with roses, “wrapped in indigo/ paper, his face a broad smile/ anticipating.// For an instant his/ smile makes me wish those six red/ roses were for me.”

“Window on the Square” has an introduction from Michael Laskey which suggests, “The Square’s a real place we can picture and inhabit imaginatively, even if we’ve never been there… Paradoxically it’s because the poems are so grounded, so specific to Leicester, that they travel so well, have such a general appeal and application.”  In the opening poem, “From My Window”:

“Then, a lone cyclist
riding up New Walk
without lights, disappears
towards the park.

Can’t help wondering
about him.
Street lights are on
windows dark.
One star visible…”

It’s not explained, but the lack of lights isn’t the only law being broken as it’s illegal to cycle on New Walk so the cyclist (presumed bicyclist as I’ve never seen a motorbike on New Walk, but not clear from the poem) is doubly confident his transgressions won’t be reported or acted on.  The park isn’t the only destination of New Walk: it crosses University Road, can be used as a path to De Montfort Hall or residential areas off the A6 or student accommodation on the western side of the city.  I wanted to know more: is he a hoodie-wearing mugger or a fresher?  The poet informs us she “can’t help wondering about him” but promptly moves on to contemplating the star, undermining her own assertion.  A similarly observational poem falls into telling rather than trusting readers to draw out the poet’s intent, in “De Montfort Square”:

“…raised on a pedestal the figure of a man
who in his lifetime stood in a pulpit
preaching the joys of virtue, temperance,
of Baptist faith.

This Saturday morning
a man in crumpled clothes,
waking from his befuddled dreams
to cold and damp under the hedge
where he had stumbled after a drinking session,
stands up and shouts his anger, his misery
for everyone to hear.
The trees look on – they’ve heard it all before.”

Perhaps Alice Beer is too polite to record what he actually said so resorts to telling and I’m not convinced he’s shouting “for everyone to hear” in his insular, hungover state, shouting “so everyone can hear” perhaps.  New Walk and De Montfort Square is home to offices and pedestrians forget it’s also a residential area.  The poem does have a simple, conversational rhythm (not easy to achieve) that welcomes readers in.

Naturally her age turns her thoughts to “Winter”,

“Desperate for food
birds leave exquisite imprints
stencilled in the snow.

Small heap of feathers
next to the hedge, foxes go
hungry in the cold.

Spring, summer, autumn,
winter – should I be prepared
to face ice and snow?”

The detail and assonance in “exquisite imprints stencilled” is finely-judged.  The line break between “autumn,/ winter” hints at hesitation as if the poet is not quite ready to move to or admit to a final season.  Here readers are trusted to draw and tease out the poet’s intent and the poem is stronger for it.  The pamphlet ends on three haiku and a cheering “Down leafy New Walk/ laughing girls skip arm in arm./ Make sad people smile.”

These poems do communicate and share the poet’s knowledge and experience and that makes them worth reading.

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