‘Beginner’s Luck’, by UA Fanthorpe

Philip Gross reviews 'Beginner’s Luck', by UA Fanthorpe

Close-up of the cover. | Photo: Bloodaxe Books.

What constitutes a voice – that outward-and-audible sign of being who we are? Finding our voice always matters, but it has a special meaning in a poet’s case. The thing that makes the reader say ‘Ah, yes, that’s so-and-so’ in a couple of lines, that’s the writer’s ‘voice’. It’s not simply the sound they make when they speak… nor the distinctive tics and tricks of their technique. It is something subtler – a way of looking/listening, a being at a certain angle to the world, that comes through the words on the page. As with anyone you love – and love is what many readers feel for UA Fanthorpe – it is natural to be curious about how she came to be.

Arriving late to writing at the age of forty-five, UA Fanthorpe was a one-woman riposte to the Romantic myth that poets flourish, and ideally die, young. Spurred by the lives she saw while working as a hospital receptionist, she inspired generations of women to discover their voices in their middle age. Painstakingly traced and selected by her life- and writing-partner RV Bailey, these uncollected early poems are offered as evidence of how the tone and timbre that constituted UA’s voice became. (Look, even in reviewer-mode I’ve slipped into that ‘UA’ – her individual blend of formality and first-name terms.)

The introduction, like the title, is assertively modest – ‘some sort of dog’s dinner of the early artless, the experimental…’ But there’s nothing here that needs apologising for. I was almost disappointed not to find more wild try-outs, paths not taken. Read this hand in hand with her Collected Poems, and you’ll find later work akin to anything here. UA was never above taking on a writing assignment, or some passing ‘occasion’, and finding a real poem in it. The makings of the voice – gentle, not sentimental, acerbic, not unkind – are there from the start. If that tone, more tuned to conversation than literary influence, seems common now, then UA is one of the people we should thank for it.

This picture was painted by Mrs D Bullock,
Part-time clerk. It is not anything
Special. But then I remember
That patients come to this hospital to be
Puzzled out of themselves, and that not anything special
Is exactly what they want to be too.

This sudden modulation of a poem that seems dispassionate, almost detached, into sympathy and insight is a hallmark of her work. True, later in life she might have have taken fewer lines to set it up, but the ingredients are there.

UA’s work came from a blending and balancing of tenderness and indignation. In some poems here, we see them less mixed. Take ‘Diagnosis’ – ‘Well, Angela, so now you know / What the nice doctor thought of you’ – can scarcely contain its outrage on the patient’s behalf. Or we notice a trope, of meeting one’s younger self in ‘We Meet’, that she would give an extra heart-breaking twist in the later ‘Case History: Angela (Head Injury)’. Then again, when ‘Apology For Clarity’ says ‘I am too clear. / I don’t know how to hide / My meaning from your view…’ it might be the poem speaking, or its writer. For that we can be grateful.… as for this whole collection. Seeing UA in the process of becoming invites us to consider how the ingredients of ‘not anything special’ can click into something very special, in anyone’s life – ours too.

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