BEATTIE IS THREE
At the top of the stairs
I ask for her hand. O.K.
She gives it to me.
How her fist fits my palm,
A bunch of consolation.
We take our time
Down the steep carpetway
As I wish silently
That the stairs were endless.
[from The Apeman Cometh, Cape 1975]
Tell me you didn’t go ‘aaahhh’ when you read it. Of course you did. You recognise that feeling, that experience.
Unlike yesterday’s Larkin, there aren’t any fireworks or special effects in this one. Don’t stare at it like a Magic Eye print in hopes that a hidden structure will appear. It works more or less as it seems to, as a simple moment of recollection. Hardly worth calling a poem, right?
But still, you went ‘aaah’. Mitchell’s poetry is meaningful, memorable and humane. What craft there is here helps to make the piece effective, and what there isn’t lends it simplicity, spontaneity and an innocence which is perfect for the subject matter.
First, look at the title. By the time we reach the first line of the poem, we already know that we’re talking about a three year old girl. Mitchell doesn’t waste two or three lines establishing how old she is, nor does he tell us who she is exactly. We don’t know for sure if she’s his daughter, granddaughter or a little friend (though in fact she was his daughter). He concentrates on the moment: the child’s trusting answer, O.K., with no description of her mood or manner; the sensation of the fist in his palm, showing us how small her hand is; the shared decision to ‘take our time’. Five full stops in nine lines slow us down and give us a halting pace. And so we descend carefully through the poem till we reach the bottom.
There’s not much else to say about this one. You might find the ‘bunch of consolation’ a little mawkish, you might think the ‘silently’ is superfluous. But the snapshot of an important, ordinary moment is true and felt. I read a lot of poetry, and much of it is beautifully crafted but forgets to actually say anything. Free verse, by the same token, can be an excuse for formless or lazy writing – or (as here) an appropriately handspun form for a recollection that wouldn’t look quite right in Larkin’s haute couture.