Claire Askew

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It’s aboot the labour: William Letford’s ‘Bevel’

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After William Letford’s Edinburgh International Book Festival reading, which he shared with Cape poet Sean Borodale, one poem dominated the Q&A. ‘The light and dark of Adeona’ describes an encounter between a young man and his somewhat younger – “young for her age,” the poem notes – female roommate.

                             At breakfast, her arms and legs
                       were crossed with shallow cuts. I asked
                       if she had fallen, this gave her the chance
                       to say yes. So I watch her more closely. Not out of
                       worry, or pity, out of interest. She is a person
                       of course, but she is also a story.

The audience seemed disturbed by the poem’s stance, with all the questioners taking for granted that the speaker was Letford himself. Didn’t you do anything about this? someone asked. One woman wanted to know if the girl Letford describes had seen this poem, and suggested very firmly that he send it to her. “I’m not sure about using people in poems this way,” another audience member mused. “Is it allowed?” While the audience tried to wrap their heads around the poem’s conundrum, Letford smiled, and gave very little away.

This is the great strength of ‘Bevel,’ one of the most idiosyncratic first collections you could hope to find: each poem raises more questions than it answers. So many of the pieces concern a mysterious something, usually referred to as “it”: ‘Wit is it’ offers a series of possible answers – “It’s aboot perspective, son, where eh yi standing / Wit eh yi lookin it” – but the question is conspicuously missing.  In ‘Outside the city’, “the grass is full of it / the trees are alive with it”, but what exactly this “it” is, we never discover.  The collection is peopled by mysterious women, who only ever appear in fragments.  “I suspect that she had tasted asparagus before”; “she has the outlines of stars tattooed onto her spine”; “you know, I had the idea that she had lived.”  But the collection also wears a wry smile, recording funny as well as poignant moments Letford has observed.  ‘It’s aboot the labour’ captures the awkwardness many poets feel about discussing their work with the uninitiated – “widayyemean / dizthatmeanyegetmoneyfurrit” – while ‘Thurs hunners a birds oan the roofs’, a poem Letford favours at readings, revels in playing with sound.  ‘Nut a look / nut a nut plod on then mouldy breed heed woop woop look it that / fingle foogle boogaloo’.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, by far the best poems in this collection are those in which Letford allows his day-to-day work as a roofer to inform the message.  These roof poems convey something way above and beyond their images of hard manual labour.  From his rooftop perch, William Letford offers us a brand new and often startling perspective on the everyday world we all too often take for granted.

            lift properly            
            you’ll need your back to make your money

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Claire Askew is a poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications including The Guardian, The Edinburgh Review, Popshot and PANK.  In early 2012 she received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.  She is currently reading for a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and lectures at Edinburgh's Telford College.  Find out more at onenightstanzas.com

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