The Lost Woman – Patricia Beer
Patricia Beer was born into a Plymouth Brethren family in Exeter and the influence of that religious training became one of the forces that shaped her poetry. Devon and its beautiful countryside were other factors of influence. Other significant influences were the passing of time and the workings of good and evil. Though Patricia Beer moved away from the religious teachings of her childhood, they remained a dominant influence in her life.
This is an uncomfortable elegy for her mother that reveals unsettling feelings of insecurity and envy. This poem speaks of the tendency people have of idealizing the dead but the poet’s mother speaks in a chiding voice to her daughter. Like other poets have their muse, her muse was her mother but she was only “nearly always benign”. There were times when she was toxic. The last stanza reveals tones of envy in her mother’s voice. She has the last word when she says “I am not lost”. Which implies that the poet is the wandering ghost.
The poet’s mother took ill suddenly and was in pain before being taken away in an ambulance. The poet was in school when most of this happened, coming home just in time to see the ambulance bearing the mother away. The mother dies in hospital. The poet does not get to attend the funeral. In her mind the poet starts weaving a tale where her mother is not the clingy person she was in real life but strong as a tree, and unapproachable as she moves away before the poet can reach out to her.
In the story that the poet weaves of her mother, she leads an interesting life quite unlike the real life she led when alive. It is common for heroes and poets to have a personal muse who inspires them. These muses are benevolent and soft, they tread softly and flit about in soft twilight without startling people. They are given to speak softly and do not nag. But the poet’s mother-muse was very different. She spoke sharply in a complaining voice about not receiving enough love from her daughter for whom she had sacrificed so much. Her parting shot is that it is her daughter who is the lost wandering soul, not her.
The mother’s death came about without much warning. All she had was a bad pain. When the poet returns from school one day, she sees an ambulance pulling away from the gate bearing her mother. She does not return. The poet does not see the burial. In her mind she begins idealizing her mother. Her mother was clingy, but the poet creates a strong and cheerful image of her mother in her mind.
In real life her mother had been the prisoner of a dull and boring marriage but the poet imagines her mother as an individual who had an interesting life managing a canteen while the country was at war. She meets her future partner at the Open University art classes. Most poets have a personal muse who is the image of a perfect women – soft spoken, changeless and always young. These women flit about noiselessly in the twilight. The poets mourn the loss of these women who were dear to them when they were alive. They were perfect in every way.
But the poet’s muse who is her mother is very different. She speaks in a sharp whining voice. She claims to have loved her daughter too well while her daughter exploits her mother’s love to reach success that had been denied to the mother. As a parting shot, the mother brands the daughter a lost ghost while she is not.
The language used is taut and tense. When softness is required the poet achieves it through enjambment and half rhymes.
Patricia Beer lost her mother to a sudden illness when she was fourteen and this incident made her view death with a strange fascination and fear. What marks this poem is the care with which it is crafted. Beer’s attitude towards death and the ambivalence with which she viewed her late mother makes this poem intense.