Katie Clark, a Reader Organisation outreach worker recommends ‘The Beautiful Lie’ by Sheenagh Pugh.
I recently read this poem with my reading group at the Kevin White drugs detox Unit. I was so moved by the discussion it evoked that I came away and read it again myself, noticing things that I had not picked up on at first. After we had finished reading in the group, one member of staff told us that he read the poem from the point of view of the Grandma, and said ‘I think it is the Grandma who is telling the poem–it’s her voice. That’s why she cuts off in the last stanza’. Two other group members said that they had read it from the child’s point of view, finding themselves back at the moment where they first realised that it is possible to ‘say the world different’. One young woman said quietly ‘We all have experience of that in here I think. But it can go both ways. I’ve sometimes got into trouble for being too straight’. We thought that it was interesting the way this lie is reported, as ‘beautiful’, and just another important development phase in this child’s journey through life. It raises questions such as ‘is lying important? Do we need to do it to be human? What would we be like if we didn’t lie?’ Questions which remain with me, like a haunting presence, days after reading the poem.
The Beautiful Lie by Sheenagh Pugh
He was about four, I think… it was so long ago.
In a garden; he’d done some damage
behind a bright screen of sweet-peas
– snapped a stalk, a stake, I don’t recall,
but the grandmother came and saw, and asked him
“Did you do that?”
Now, if she’d said why did you do that,
he’d never have denied it. She showed him
he had a choice. I could see in his face
the new sense, the possible. That word and deed
need not match, that you could say the world
different, to suit you.
When he said “No”, I swear it was as moving
as the first time a baby’s fist clenches
on a finger, as momentous as the first
taste of fruit. I could feel his eyes looking
through a new window, at a world whose form
and colour weren’t fixed
but fluid, that poured like a snake, trembled
around the edges like northern lights, shape-shifted
at the spell of a voice. I could sense him filling
like a glass, hear the unreal sea in his ears.
This is how to make songs, create men, paint pictures,
tell a story.
I think I made up the screen of sweet-peas.
Maybe they were beans, maybe there was no screen:
it just felt as if there should be, somehow.
And he was my – no, I don’t need to tell that.
I know I made up the screen. And I recall very well
what he had done
This poem was first published in the TLS. It was the title poem of the collection The Beautiful Lie, Seren 2002 and appears here by permission of the author. Sheenagh Pugh’s next collection is Long-Haul Travellers and is published in autumn 2008. Her Selected Poems is available from Seren.