Handfast: Poetry Duets by Ruth Aylett & Beth McDonough

Reviewed by Emma Lee

Handfast is a sequence of poetry duets, in which one poet writes on a theme which is then explored by the second. However, Aylett and McDonough are not limited by each other’s form or approach, and might have a very different take on the same theme. For example, one poet explores bringing up an autistic son, whilst the other an ageing father with dementia. In the contents, the poets’ names are listed against their poem titles, but they are not named on the individual pages, so I come to each poem with an open mind, not knowing which poet is writing. On the theme of birthdays, “Birthday postings” ends:

I thread round his bolt from the car door,
his repeat pattern stalk in and away from
this party, pizza to toilet and back,
all unravelled presents, his never never want
to be there.

I filigree something round this day’s holes
as Gran crocheted doilies
to save tables from vases. I silk him
beautiful onto the Facebook page
he’ll never know
accept all the likes of our day.

In response, “Birthday” ends after a list of guests who might have been invited,

And the Indian officer who
bought you a wonderful cloth
printed with scenes of France.
Your mother told you off
forbade you to write
now you’ll be able to apologise.

A shower clatters on the window,
candle flames on your cake flicker
in the breath of your absent guests.
Uninvited but here, there’s us.
And when you see your two sons
that brilliant smile reaches your eyes.

The first is by Beth McDonough, the second Ruth Aylett. The poems invite the reader to see different versions of a similar situation: the boy who doesn’t see the need for social interaction and the man living among guests no longer able to join him. All poems in the pamphlet have the same considered, compassionate approach; the desire to understand another’s view, no matter how apparently strange. Ruth Aylett’s “Waterworld” ends:

Standing under the shower
my head up, eyes shut
light flares at each drop’s impact,
my darkness glows with your shape.

Beth McDonough skips over the panic at discovering her son is missing in “His autism in the power of rain”

Lost him for a million terrifies of seconds —

found him. Found him out in that Kirrie garden, danced
by the hard rain, stung-skinned on his seven year
naked of self, drenched in the joy of storms,
laughed happy. Wild in flashed lightning, he spun

joys our dried-out flesh still missed.

Discarding her panic enables her to feel the joy of the storm that her son finds. It’s a common experience: a child’s delight in something new pushes the parent to look anew, to share their child’s wonder. Here that discovery is charged by his laughter, the storm catching him off guard. That is the strength of these poems: the desire to explore and understand without telling readers what to think, or building up clutter in extraneous details. The thick card cover and inner pages makes this feel similar to a HappenStance pamphlet, although the design is different. I wouldn’t mistake a Mother’s Milk pamphlet for a HappenStance one, but the care and attention to detail are of the same order.