Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Patricia Beer and The Lost Woman
The Lost Woman is a curious poem that takes the reader from the present to the past and back again, reflecting on the relationship between mother and daughter.
Now that the mother is dead, the daughter attempts to try and understand the life she led. One of the major themes in the poem is grief and the stages one has to go through in order to deal with the passing away of a mother.
- All the while there is this feeling that things aren't quite as they should be, that the daughter's relationship with her mother was distant and detached. As the poem progresses, the speaker's language and approach to her mother's death changes.
It's as if there's an internal struggle going on, an attempt to clarify the mother's role in her life. Strong imagery comes into play as the narrative intensifies. The syntax alters to reflect hesitancy and emotional disturbance.
This is the hallmark of the poet Beer. The reader can get so close to the inner workings yet never close enough to experience open confession or a heart on a sleeve. Out and out confession would be one step too far. Cool detachment and tight unsentimental control are preferred.
There is also a weird kind of irony in this poem. It's evident that the relationship between mother and daughter was emotionally cold, yet near the end of the poem the mother is speaking to the daughter, communicating with her, telling her of love held back and opportunities taken. All a bit too late, all a bit eerie.
So, a neatly structured poem, with order and formality masking the rather unusual content, climaxing in the odd twist of the final stanza.
The Lost Woman was written in 1982, appearing in the London Review of Books, and published in Collected Poems, 1990.
The Lost Woman
My mother went with no more warning
than a bright voice and a bad pain.
Home from school on a June morning
And where the brook goes under the lane
I saw the back of a shocking white
Ambulance drawing away from the gate.
She never returned and I never saw
Her buried. So a romance began.
The ivy-mother turned into a tree
That still hops away like a rainbow down
The avenue as I approach.
My tendrils are the ones that clutch.
I made a life for her over the years.
Frustrated no more by a dull marriage
She ran a canteen through several wars.
The wit of a cliché-ridden village
She met her match at an extra-mural
Class and the OU summer school.
Many a hero in his time
And every poet has acquired
A lost woman to haunt the home,
To be compensated and desired,
Who will not alter, who will not grow,
A corpse they need never get to know.
She is nearly always benign. Her habit
Is not to stride at dead of night.
Soft and crepuscular in rabbit-
Light she comes out. Hear how they hate
Themselves for losing her as they did.
Her country is bland and she does not chide.
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But my lost woman evermore snaps
From somewhere else: ‘You did not love me.
I sacrificed too much perhaps,
I showed you the way to rise above me
And you took it. You are the ghost
With the bat-voice, my dear. I am not lost.’
Analysis of The Lost Woman
From the ambiguous title to the last line, this poem simultaneously puzzles and bemuses. There is both denial and detachment as the speaker attempts to come to terms with the death of her mother.
The opening line and the use of 'went' suggests that the mother has simply left the house, gone shopping perhaps, or for a walk, without telling anyone her destination or reason for leaving.
It is an odd choice of word but in keeping with the general tone of the poem, which is really the confused, hurt and traumatised mind of a young girl?
The signs become clearer. The mother was ill, still able to show optimism in her voice but beyond help. Such an opening scenario - picture the girl returning home, crossing the brook, surely a metaphor here for the life blood, or the family memories, both flowing away as she approaches the house. All she sees is the white ambulance; the woman who brought her into the world, the ailing mother, is being taken away, forever.
White, is that to signify the cold, the pure cold feeling of death?
- How peculiar to learn that the speaker, the girl, never got to see her mother buried. This is a dreadful situation to be in. Little wonder that the girl has to resort to fantasy in order to cope with the onset of grieving. Because she has to go through the grieving process surely? She can't simpy dismiss the loss. No one can avoid grief, even if consciously denying they feel the loss.
The girl admits to romanticising the whole death of mother. It's as if there's no alternative, or the alternative is too painful to consider. She sees mother initially as ivy - clinging, a parasite, something unwelcoming? - and then a tree, and a rainbow - more positive images.
They are joined in together, the girl with tendrils (on a plant, a special stem that curls around other plants and objects for support and further growth) which implies a fresh relationship with mother, mutually beneficial, instinctive.
As the poem progresses the speaker starts to create a fantasy world for the dead mother (or is she taking the reader back to a time when the mother, free of her husband, began to express herself for the first time?)
- Stanza four introduces the idea of a universal lost woman, at least for those heroes and poets who need such a phenomenon, a woman who haunts, who for all intents and purposes is dead, so cannot be known, cannot be emotionally attached to.
This woman is harmless and kind, not creepy or ghostly, (is she a muse?) but can be lost in more ways than the hero and poet realise - this is why they get angry and shout at one another - but the lost woman doesn't chide (rebuke or scold).
Stanza six turns the whole previous five stanzas on their heads. The speaker's lost woman is just the opposite and is always snapping, telling the girl how she sacrificed herself so that the girl could prosper, become something better. Only that, in the process, the girl failed to love the mother, couldn't bring herself to show love.
The mother now tells the girl that she is in fact not lost, she is not the ghost. It is the girl who is lost. Chillingly, the image of the bat-voiced ghost is a bit disturbing. Bats squeal or use high frequency to call. They use sonar and have extremely poor eyesight, if any at all. Is this the mother having a go at the 'blind' daughter?
This could be seen as a warning, as a dark piece of advice - the mother is telling the girl to move on, to find a new direction in life. After all that's gone on in the heart and mind of the daughter, she has discovered that she is the lost woman.
Perhaps this is the price she has paid for idealising her mother and failing to treat her death in a sober and dignified manner.
Analysis of The Lost Woman
The Lost Woman is a six stanza poem, each stanza having 6 lines making a total of thirty six. On the page it appears to be an ordered, formal poem of harmony and balance.
The rhyme scheme is a basic ababcc and there is a mix of full end rhyme and half (or slant) rhyme. For example:
warning/morning, grow/know and approach/clutch and ghost/lost.
This mix of full and slant tends to produce harmony and dissonance, a pattern of togetherness and apartness, which reflects the relationship of mother and daughter. They're never quite in synch.
Metre (Meter in USA)
This poem has a mix of different rhythms beating through its confused heart, which I suspect is a conscious effort on behalf of the poet to keep the reader challenged.
- On the one hand there is the regular, eight syllable, familiar feel of iambic tetrameter:
My ten /drils are / the ones / that clutch. (line 12)
Is not / to stride / at dead / of night. (line 26)
- Contrast this with the eleven syllable mix of trochaic pentameter:
She is / nearly / always / benign. / Her ha / bit (line 25)
- And also with another eight syllable tetramic special:
than a / bright voice / and a / bad pain. (line 2)
This little line is a passive/aggressive mix of pyrrhic and spondee. Out of the quiet comes the loud pulse of life, somewhat ironic.
There are several examples of alliteration throughout the poem, adding texture and interest to the sound. The first line for example:
My mother went with no more warning
and there is also:
turned into a tree...met her match...need never....Hear how they hate.
An unusual simile - that hops away like a rainbow - conjures up a sort of magical image.
Mother is turned into a tree in the second stanza, and she is already an ivy-mother, clinging on.