Sarah Hesketh (ed)
(The Emma Press, 2015); pbk, £10.00
Ageing is something we all experience and, as a society, to some degree fear. This fear is manifested in the selling of “anti-ageing products” – a market worth extortionate amounts of money that claims to reverse the outward signs of this process and, at its most extreme, even to outsmart life itself. The candid collection of poems in The Emma Press Anthology of Age tackles this taboo subject with courage. At times solemn, and at others, warming, they are always affecting. This collection is successful in combining the complexity of its subject matter with humble, effective writing.
Part of what makes ageing such a collective experience is that we all go through it, even in “youth”. However, our anxiety stems from not only the fear of our own aging; we equally fear the ageing process in those for whom we care. This collection explores both aspects of this inevitability. The struggles that we observe in others as they experience pain and loneliness frightens us, reinforces the recognition of the certainty of death. Take “Remembrance”:
Whose mind is yours? I see
your jaw clap closed, eyes strained
with each morning. I bring you
the small relief of tea and toast
you make a smile for a stranger.
On Sunday you shat on the floor
and blamed the cat. Its size was the giveaway,
and that you’ve not owned a cat in twelve years.
It’s both easier and more devastating to joke
than to reveal to myself, to say you’re sick
rather than dying … (“Remembrance”, Russell Jones)
Jones’s painfully honest poem expresses the troubles of being old for both the individual and for the caring and necessarily complicit narrator, and also with regard to the overwhelming nature of the situation. The impact of ageing and being old goes beyond the “individual” experiencing it – as it were – reaching out and striking those around them. His dark comedy here only intensifies the sympathy evoked, and his confession that this is a defence mechanism makes the reading even more touching.
Alison Brackenbury’s poem, “8 a.m.”, by contrast, is an example of the more uplifting poems in the collection that demonstrate ageing as an experience to relish:
I am cycling, in a sensible, bright coat.
A girl comes pedalling quickly by, loose shawls
skidding from shoulders, hitched skirt, silver pumps.
I was that girl. O may she ride her falls. (“8 a.m.”, Alison Brackenbury)
The poet here reflects fondly upon the life she’s led, but also sees herself in the inexperienced girl, hoping that she might take the same youthful enthusiasm and energy to meet life’s inescapable complications. We see here that with age comes the understanding and insight that can only be gained through this process of getting older, through living. The undesirable parts of life, including ageing, are not something to fear or avoid, Brackenbury suggests, but we should face them head on.
These examples by Jones and Brackenbury demonstrate just a fraction of the perspectives on ageing in this anthology. As Sarah Hesketh notes in the introduction, The Emma Press Anthology of Age aims to explore the “complex, messy, multi-faceted view of age”, and the collection is successful in that endeavour. There are angry poems, passive poems, sad poems and warming poems, sampling the many ways people view the aging process. Although all centred on the idea of getting old, this collection is suitable for all ages due to the universality of the personal experiences shared. Life is messy, bumpy and tough to understand or accept at times but what these poems do is illuminate and celebrate the collectivity behind these concerns.