Collecting Bottle Tops. Selected Poems 1960-2008
Introduction by Sam Milne
February 2009. 200 pp. ISBN-13 978-3-901993-27-5
"Although Anthony Selbourne has praised the 'unflinching openness' of William Bedford's poetry, and John Gurney 'a certain austere simplicity of style', this is only to scratch the surface of his work. It is what the poet knows that matters and, like all fine poets, Bedford knows much about poetry and how to approach its critical materials. There is a controlling intelligence at work in the compass of each of his poems, an underlying dedication to the craft ('the perfection you calculate / by line' he calls it) sustained over many years. [...] Bedford's poetry is far from transparent then; it is full of the meat of other substantial poems and literary histories; it has a sense of the significance of the European and North American cultural heritage that much of contemporary poetry lacks, what he calls 'the integrity of the reflecting mind' [...] Collecting Bottle Tops: Selected Poems 1960-2008 is a volume spanning a life which never at any point, and this is a rarity, falls into moral or artistic complacency. Aesthetics is not just a word for its own sake in Bedford's approach to composition: it is aesthesis in its original Greek meaning, the source of perception itself necessarily grounded in experience and in love."
Sam Milne, "Introduction"
Excerpts from Collecting Bottle Tops
Collecting Bottle Tops
Emptied into the yard, the sack of bottle tops
spun like silver fish on washed-down cobbles,
clattered and shimmered like a field of coins.
There you are, the publican grinned his pleasure,
rubbing his enormous, barrel-shifting arms,
flexing his tattooed fingers. I saved them for you.
Do with as you like. That's every beer we handle.
Her arms buried in her spring-flowered apron,
my mother stood speechless at the kitchen door,
giggling on our polished, red-stone doorstep
at her yard suddenly full of gyrating eyes,
spinning-tops swimming round the red geraniums.
Behind curtains, a neighbour sniffed her derision.
When my father got home, he danced on cobbles,
racing across the yard in a drunken waltz,
cursing publicans and my deranged collections -
of stamps, of fish, and now silver marbles -
skidding beneath his feet like unspendable coins.
Delighted, the neighbour came to her door,
and asked if he was celebrating the new year,
six months early.
My mother choked into her field of flowers,
a dream of buttercups filling her arms.
I watched it all from the bedroom window:
bottle tops swivelling in the moon's glare,
pennies for the eyes of the uncountable dead.
Behind a cloud, the moon courted a cold sun,
waiting for somebody to reverse the tides.
Down the backs, a trawler's siren whistled.
He must have taken them to the docks for drowning,
flinging them out beyond the lockpit pier,
grumbling about sacks that kept floating
like the sacks of vermin flung from the quays,
dosed with white powder to explode in darkness.
Amazed, a watchman asked him for tobacco,
thinking he was drunk with the midnight air,
shouting his fury at my mother's daftness.
I imagine the bottle tops floating out to sea,
cherry blossom petals with serrated rims,
a cargo of stars, dumped into the estuary,
drowned in the wake of a departing trawler.
In the morning,
our yard was all cobbles,
and the neighbour swept dust into my eyes,
sneering at my mother's fancy apron.
A publican's a strange friend for a boy,
she smiled as I ran up the narrow passage,
urgent to catch the dawn tide.
"Bedford is particularly skilled at recreating a vanished way of life. His moving sequence, The Redlit Boys, is a sustained elegy for a whole lost culture and the working class roots of his family."
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