Review: Beads, Lyn Reeves (Picaro Press)

In many jewellery boxes there are flashy dazzling pieces along with more subtle enduring objects. Take beads for example. Lately I’ve been rediscovering the unobtrusive beauty of my small collection of beads from girlhood as well as my African beads. As I get older, these simple objects, mostly wooden, glass or stone, mean much more to me than the dazzling ostentatious accessories I once wore as attention seekers.

Lyn Reeves’ latest collection of poems doesn’t seek attention but certainly repays it. In a format as understated as its subject, Beads was published earlier this year by Picaro Press and has since remained unobtrusively gathering power. And how appropriate, for the hidden significance and beauty of beads in their many forms and hues is the subject of this new collection. In a series of compact, beautifully crafted poems, beads are catalysts and metaphors for long-held memories and rich cultural histories and traditions. Lyn Reeves’ extensive discipline in haiku gives these new poems focus, compression and clarity.

Using a variety of forms and layered strands of thought, Reeves deftly threads together a range of emotional experiences and cultural insights. It’s deeply satisfying and provokes long contemplation and deep introspection. It’s not simply the content of each well-crafted poem but also the juxtaposition of each ‘bead’ alongside its neighbour.

From the outset, there’s an emphasis on the female significance of beads: " It begins with the nipple – " (‘Origin of Beads’). The form of the bead evokes ‘breasts’ and the ‘milk-soft head’ and ‘cheek’ of the newborn.

‘Pendant’ continues the maternal thread as the mother superstitiously places the pendant as amulet ‘against / her son’s chest to sound / his bloodsongs’ only too aware that ‘worms made the hole / through which she draws the thread.’

A recurrent thread, the ‘need for strong magic’, protection against death, is taken up later too in ‘The Sailors’ Amulets’ where beads are potent with protective agency; again in ‘Magic Eyes’, ‘No one is safe from the glance …’ so we are entreated to arm ourselves always with a bead of some kind, and at night, to ‘pull down the brightly / beaded sky with its mosaic / of magical eyes…’

Throughout this small collection, there are wonderful lilting rhythms and a sensitivity to cosmic forces, seasonal change and natural cycles. One of my favourite poems is ‘Maireener Shells’, where Reeves immediately captures the drama of the seasonal arrival of the shells: ‘When the moon’s a fire-filled cave and yolla are rafts of shadows…’ Like the Palawa women, we peel away the outer shell of these poems and reveal their inner lustre to discover a whole history in one small bead / poem.

And beautifully offset by this poem is the richly colourful ‘The Beads of Nagaland’ also containing a lament for the loss of mystery and magic brought about by the intrusion of those who (like The Conciliator in ‘Maireener Shells’), bring western ways to replace centuries of ancient culture. ‘Now / Naga have their own home page.’

Similarly in ‘I want a Rudraksa bead’, Reeves trenchantly ‘vinegars’ the surface, to expose the commercialism behind certain eastern religions where beads of enlightenment can be ‘ordered online’.

Many cultural mythologies are contained in the bead (we are reminded in the notes that ‘bede’ was derived from the Anglo Saxon: a prayer). Reeves’ magical mystery tour via beads takes us through many centuries, many lands. From the Cro-Magnon era (‘Earth Children’) to the present, from Flinders Island to Africa, from Chinese to Greek mythology, this small round object has far reaching spiritual and cultural significance. Perhaps one could re-phrase St Augustine: ‘(The Bead) is a circle whose centre is everywhere.’

As well as deriving cultural insights from beads, Reeves exposes them as storehouses of adolescent desire and religious yearning. In ‘Love letters from a Zulu girl’, we see the love-longing, the anguish of unsatisfied desire, yet the pride which comes from being in love and flaunting ‘the secret’. The Zulu girl wears ‘bright beads / matching his…’ Her ‘ornaments glint. / They chime…’ They are ‘ropes of fire and blood, / night’s dark, sun’s gold, the cool / of lush valleys.’

Juxtaposed with this is the religious passion, the ardent asexual yearning of the young woman in ‘The Walled Garden’, ‘repeating the name / she hopes will save.’ Hers is a dubious faith, but one filled with heightened imaginings sparked by the Christian religion, the subject also of ‘Communion’.

From pagan to Christian, from adolescent to mature adult, human beings have always needed dreams and desires, mythologies and mysteries; Reeves shows how beads can encapsulate all these human yearnings, from the everyday yearnings of girls impatient to be women (‘Seeds’ and ‘Shimmer’) to the rarefied religious yearning for union with a greater power (‘Communion’).With wry detachment, Reeves recreates the immediacy of her own envy as a small girl spying on a ’grown-up cousin’ dolled up for a night out. ‘The rope of pearls around her throat’ triggers the memory, which is brilliantly captured in the funny light-hearted poem, ‘Shimmer’, while ‘Seeds’ is a lush recapturing of adolescent sexuality, for which the cantaloupe and its seeds are metaphors.

Beads are also conduits for memory in ‘Baubles, bangles…’ and again it’s the vividness, the light-hearted recreation of a stored moment which is marvelously realized. This poem celebrates a time shared with the poet’s mother to whom the collection is dedicated. It has an appealing dancing rhythm: ‘…finery / and frippery, glamour and glitz, cabaret / and Tivoli, Cup Day, the Ritz…’ The daughter discovers how imagination and desires dwelt also in her mother’s beads. Immediately after this poem, so feminine and fancy-free, comes a darker more virile piece, ‘Tooth and bone’, conveying a sinister aspect to the powers and significance of beads: the Royal executioner of Ghana’s ‘beads’ have a grim purpose as do the bison’s bones for the hunter. ‘Memento Mori’, another darker-hued poem, like ‘Tooth and bone’, makes an effective contrast with the preceding ones.

What I love about this collection is its music as well as its imagery. ‘Earth Children’ is an example of a poem so visually and aurally splendid that it’s able to transport us back to pre-history through two ancient small bodies discovered in the permafrost. ‘Beads bracelet their wrists / and ring their fingers…// ten thousand ornate discs / sliced from mammoth tusk.’ The music of these lines is still ringing as we see before our eyes, ‘the wind-scoured steppe’ and watch as ‘Beads of polished ivory gleam / on their small skeletons - sparks of light / strike the glacier’s face.’ Such skilful patterning of language comes from Reeves’ long experience in the craft of poetry.

Beads are not only links to other times, other places, but also to storehouses of memory and emotion. The final lovely poem in the collection, "I sent you a string of beads…’ conveys a sense of personal vulnerability – tread softly, for these beads/poems are fragile.

I came away after these magical journeys, knowing much more and mesmerized by so much power in a small unobtrusive artefact.