|Obligatory mildly embarrassing family photo, 2010.|
My mother (like my partner, Kevin Devaney) hates being referred to or introduced as "a poet" - she would prefer writer, or maybe person. She writes excellent prose (she's got a new book out!) and she's a professional editor (which has given me an unfair advantage in the writerly pursuit of proving ones worth through superior deployment of punctuation) but I would be lying if I didn't say that what I love best is her poetry. Thus, in recognition of her gifts and to express gratitude for her existence on this earth, I give you a heartfelt and genuine review of her two books of poems, Misappropriations and Self-Portrait as Ruth. Fulsome in my praise as I may be, I hope you will agree that my appreciation is not, in fact, misplaced or overblown: I am grateful to be the child of a writer I would one day like to emulate in clarity, thoughtfulness, and depth of longing.
My mother's poems, though often beautiful, are not pretty. I may have been too young for her first book when it came out, or maybe I just hadn't started reading real poetry yet; I was still in high school and I thought I was very cool for having read a lot of anguished 19th-century French poetry in the original. I don't know if I'd bothered to read anything else, and I don't think I really knew what a throat-sticking, heart-stopping line was until I was somewhere in college. I suspect that's why I was baffled by Misappropriations (Parthian, 2006) when I first read it at 18: wait a second, there's a lot of real pain in this! In the years since, however, the things that puzzled me - the thing, really, which is to say, yearning - ceased to be disconcerting and became, really, the reason I read poetry at all.
The line that has stayed with me from my very first reading, however, is from the poem called Faith, about the Jehovah's Witnesses who used to come to knock on our door (wearing "immaculate politeness like an ironed raincoat"):
After they've gone I go out to weed
the wet garden and touch the grass roots
glistening with mud. On every leaf
there's a tongue of water, and the rosemary
leans her porcupine body against me, shivering.
I read voraciously as a kid and I was big into fantastical, descriptive, image-heavy books, but that might well be the first image I remember from a poem. I know exactly how that rosemary bush feels, damp and almost animal, the weight of it, its presence. The exactness and intensity of the physical sensation that line conjures up in me has stayed with me for years. I don't remember that particular bush: I know when that poem was written and where it was set, and the rosemary bushes that I can specifically recall are elsewhere. It's the sensation of rosemary that the poem carries for me. Leans her porcupine body. A plant transformed into something more, weighty, breathing, the way that plants are, sometimes (although I was a literal tree-hugger as a kid, so maybe this happens less to other people) - this was, I think, my first inkling of the way that language can work in poetry.
Misappropriations is a dark book, and there are some lonesome, frightening things in there about motherhood. Even Beatrix Potter, usually considered a paragon of old-fashioned sweetness in the children's book arena, is revealed as being uncomfortably aligned with the Grimm (pun intended) tradition of quietly horrible things happening in nursery rhymes and fairy tales. It's not hard to tell, for example, that the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is a cautionary story about the perils of rebellion. (For those not familiar, it's the tale of a bunch of squirrels who every year bring a propitiatory offering to the local owl, Old Brown - except for naughty little Nutkin, who not only fails to participate in preparing the sacrifice but also has the audacity to tease Old Brown with riddles and dancing. The story ends with Old Brown trying to eat Nutkin, who is lucky to escape with just a bit snatched off his tail.) The poem Socialisation isn't a retelling or a commentary on Nutkin. It has nothing new to say about the story. Instead, it offers a harsh reflection of what the story says about us.
for what's coming - from the first page menace
hangs over Nutkin and we need
his come-uppance, so we can be sure
that risk is not worth taking.
It's not a poem about rebellion; it is a poem about acquiescence. And what I love is that it offers no judgement either way. It simply tells the truth: we are frightened of rebellion. Most of us, at one time or another, search for excuses to look the other way. (And for that reason, this poem has also always reminded me of a really extraordinary song by Scottish folk great Dick Gaughan called "Song of Choice," which you can listen to here. Do it.) As a book, this is what Misappropriations does best: it asks us to look, unflinching, at the wretched, messy truth of things. Look, the book says soberly, no need for delight or for despair, just be this brave, just this brave, just look - as in Your Blitz, 1969, about the time my father's parents burned everything they owned:
...You watch the eyes of your toy animals melt,
while round the fire the grownups dance,
beginning to come down but still filled with love,
joyously free of ownership, and liberated
as they thought you also ought to be, aged eight
and already resolute, learning to take internal stock
like these Blitz children, swinging their boxes.
In the mother leaning elephantine and goggled
across a pram, I see the harm no one would
protect you from, thirty years ago bearing up
under barrage, holding it all in, holding on.
In some way this is even more true in her second book, Self-Portrait as Ruth (Salt, 2009). Ask a dozen people what it's about and you might get a dozen different answers, although "the Israel-Palestine conflict" would probably figure loudly in most of them. Ask me, and I'll tell you that it's about a woman who has a sense of connection to a place, a homesickness, a yearning that is compounded by the fact that the landscape she longs for is a battleground of longing for everyone who lives there and thousands, maybe millions, more who don't. It is a book about homesickness for an imagined homeland, a place that cannot be reached anymore by anyone: it has retreated too far behind the walls of bitterness and bloodshed to ever be inhabited again. It is a book of poems about something that has been lost. The poet could ask why, and how, and when; but other people do that, and so instead she just turns her face to the feeling itself:
that we've lost what it means, welcome,
baruch ha'ba, a blessing that you've come.
(from The Bus to Ramallah)
Want heats you like a sour sweat:
to be so certain or so ignorant you can make a claim --
not to belongings, accrued over a lifetime
and set out like this in one place, but to the singular
which permits you to say here, this is where I'm from.
That yearning for home, I have it too: maybe for a different land, maybe an unknown one, but I come from a family of nomads, quiet people who love solitude and are often lonely and suffer from a certain kind of fierce, sweet dispossession, itself a thing both bitter and beautiful, nothing to be done. For giving me the language with which to express it, for being the first to show me what poetry is for: Mum, my brilliant & exquisite mother, I am so grateful. And I will leave you, gentle readers, with a lovely little video of her in her house in Wales, talking about Self-Portrait as Ruth and reading one of my favorite poems from the collection, Gaza, summer 2006:
Jasmine Donahaye from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.
Happy birthday, Mum, I'm so glad you are alive and writing; you make the world richer with your voice.