Valerie Bence completed her doctorate in her mid-fifties and completed a Poetry MA at MMU in 2017. She is a widely published writer, and her first collection Falling in love with a dead man was published in 2019 by Cinnamon Press.
Her latest collection, Overlap, began life as a collection of texts about the ‘transition from granddaughter to grandmother’, but this changed against the backdrop of Covid-19 as so much did for so many. The poems are dedicated to Bence’s grandmothers, part of an unsung generation who knew how to cope.
The collection opens with French cricket at Grandma’s, circa 1960 – a poem that focuses on the small, homely details, ‘I threw a soft ball to her in her floral overall/ with stockings rolled down to her ankles’. It is nostalgic and conjurs images of a merry England – ‘Only now I think of her’ writes the poet. The mood and tone is set.
Collusion has a feeling of familiarity. I know this kitchen. I feel like I spent weekends there during my own salad days – I’ve written about this room myself! Having established this sense of place, Bence pulls the rug from under us, ‘until the day she faints outside Boots in the rain […] thinking she is dead’, with the stroke of her pen Bence has revealed our utter vulnerability.
In The changing nature of friendship much is said about the reserved nature of past generations, ‘After her friends funeral she said/ Lovely woman. I wish I’d known her first name.’ A point that is furthered by the line, ‘Her face didn’t change when the hospital rang/ to say he’d died’ in the poem The summer of ’72.
All the strength of character of the poet-speaker’s forebears must be called up in themselves as the work begins to deal with the pandemic landscape aginst which it was written, ‘I haven’t touched my son’s son/ for twenty weeks, almost half his little life.’ Is it any wonder the stoicism of generations past in held in such high esteem by many? The honesty that the speaker reveals in I must remember that this is a good thing is everything, ‘I ache for him to hold out his arms, to know the smell of me.’ It is here the granddaughter to grandmother transition is complete.
Change is key throughout. Time passing is of such significance – but above all, for this reader anyhow, is the empowerment of women from our own lives. I’ve written this before, we all bring our own past experiences to a text, and I see so much of my own grandmothers within these pages. A testament to the accessibility of Bence’s writing, and her astute observations of everything from the floral prints and rooms where events take place, to the snippets of conversation. That Bence had her first successes later in life has perhaps impacted how the writer deals with memory and displays perspicacity. Bence’s writing is always canny, attentive, and imbued with high emotion.