Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly it is about a particular poem that tips the balance from hmm, yes, maybe to yes, yes, definitely yes. Other times it’s really simple. As in this case. With Matt Elliott‘s Gathering at the Shoreline it was the line ‘bodies / shaped by other bodies’. I fell in love with it, then and there. Didn’t you?
The poem itself is deceptively simple – fourteen lines, nothing longer than six syllables. Simple, descriptive, over as quickly as a first cautious toe-dip into chilly water. The original poem had some slightly different lineation, and there was one line from the first version that we both agreed could use being rewritten, but the changes didn’t amount to much more than tying up loose laces and tucking stray bits of fringe under a bathing cap.
It’s a wonderfully visual poem. These are old ladies, not just old women. It’s the sort of scene Beryl Cook would have painted – can’t you see the look of concentration on their faces as the make their way over the rough beach down to the water? Maybe they all meet there regularly, to swim together. Or perhaps they’re there on their own, individuals taking to the sea. Maybe they recognise other regulars, give them a nod of recognition. But then it’s back to the business at hand, and the waiting water.
The most obvious thing is to note how rarely it is that elderly women appear in poems, except as cliches. Women over a certain age are, in our culture, virtually invisible. If they make it in to a poem, it tends to be as dried-up old biddies embodying a Gather ye rosebuds kind of warning, set in opposition to someone altogether younger and more flower-like. Or they’re batty old things smelling of cats and stale biscuits. Either way, it’s not a positive depiction. It’s not something that you think yes, I want to be like that! We get uncomfortable thinking about the physicality of anyone much older than our own parents, so Old Women Are Not A Fit Subject of Poems (Except As Witches or Madwomen, In Which Case It’s Fine). But these women feel … real. And while there’s nothing romantic about the way Matt describes them, they’re anything but caricatures. From their tender feet to their bathing suits / and bathing caps, the description is just right. Even the deliberation of the line break – it makes you see the items of clothing as separate, like pieces of armour. The way you can imagine each item being unfolded, shaken out, put on, smoothed into place. It isn’t just a costume. It makes it a ritual.
These are not going to be women who strut and preen – that wonderful phrase, bodies shaped by other bodies. Mums. Grandmas. (Or Grandmothers – there’s a difference between the two, and given the glassy-eyed stare, the latter sounds quite likely.) Old ladies, taking some time away from the shared part of their lives. The bits of their days where other bodies make demands – family, friends, neighbours. Husbands, perhaps. All the other bodies, and their wants and needs. But this is their time away from that. We know this is a regular occurrence – they do it daily. And I can’t help seeing it as morning – it’s just them, the gulls and the sea. And they aren’t strolling down to the water’s edge, the way we do on warm afternoons. There’s no splashing, no laughing, no children and dogs and sunshine. The sea is glistening, and they stop, hands on hips for a moment, at the water’s edge. Maybe it’s cold. Or maybe they’re just sinking in to the moment, getting ready to plunge in and start swimming. Taking a breath. Whatever the reason, you can feel their focus, can’t you? (That wonderful ambiguity about who it is – gulls or ladies – who stares glassily at the sea.) I can’t help seeing these as the kind of old ladies who will swim miles and miles, fearless and seemingly tireless.
And all this from a mere fourteen lines. A gem of a piece.
Viva the elderly ladies! Long may they flourish, and may their towels be always where they left them! And may more poets sing their praises!