My new op-ed piece for The Guardian on grief, and parenthood. Here’s a snippet, and you can read the rest here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/18/dont-hide-grief-children-emotional-understanding
The morning I discovered my brother Matthew had died, there was no hiding it. The shock sent me into a volatile state. I threw the phone against the wall, shattering it, then hurled myself into the front room of the house, banging the doors and walls and weeping, while my daughter sat listening at the top of the stairs. Hours later we were at my parents’ house, where everyone in the family had gathered, and over the next 48 hours, she experienced all the sights and sounds of our collective and profound loss.
A new review of ‘Unable Mother‘ by Victoria Richards, has been published in ‘Arfur’ this month.
Reviewing Helen Calcutt’s glorious collection, Unable Mother, feels a little like reading the diary of a close friend, a letter to myself, or the delicate and kaleidoscopic thoughts of the many women I’ve walked, talked and cried with since we were bonded by one single, cataclysmic event – birth. And this, too, is a birth. Unable Mother is an unfinished poem, the author tells us, whose trace threads through the whole collection.
The physical act of birth is savage and haunting in ‘White almond’ – the pain of the body “widening at the shoulders, a consistency of skins”, the biting body words of “sweat” and “cunt” and “coccyx flung wide open”. The final, transition phase of labour “stings” and “pulses” and I felt my heart racing along with the stanzas as I remembered the vividity of the burning (“I throw my arms to the sun”), the unalterable change (“my twenty-odd years fall away with old lungs”), the “apex”, the “everywhere white”. That “old way-of-doing-things heart” is scarred forever. And yet, I found myself returning again and again to the start of the poem: “We fit near perfect.”’
Women have fought hard and long against being silenced. So why are some now calling for men to shut up? Read my opinion piece for Unbound reflecting on gender politics, language, and male mental health as the government appoints a suicide prevention minister.
Since Unable Mother came into being, people have asked me what the book is about. We know it’s about motherhood, of course. But why the phrase ‘Unable Mother’. What can and/or does this mean?
In many ways I’ve avoided answering this question directly, as ideally I’d like the writing to speak for itself. But after a powerfully intimate launch two weeks ago, where I opened the book and its backstory up to the room, I feel that we should be carry on the conversation. I was overwhelmed with the moving responses from listeners; the tears, the compliments, the questions. And so for you (and also for me) here are some further thoughts on Unable Mother in a little more detail…
Unable Mother is essentially about the dual terror-beauty of motherhood, in all its nuanced glory, complexity, and new-life befuddlement. This is something maybe all moms (all parents) can relate to, but never in exactly the same way .
My own motherhood experience revolved around the absolute denial of being pregnant in the first place. But in equal measure, the joy of knowing I was. Linked with this, was this desperate want for a child, coupled also with the fear of it being true. This was a major struggle for me during the first quarter of the pregnancy, and one of the most confusing and frustrating periods of my life.
I was entirely disconnected as a would-be mom, especially from my body and from what was happening inside of it. The poem ‘Flesh’, a blow-by-blow account of childbirth, probably apexes this sense of detachment. Here, I describe in the detail the moment of my daughter’s birth, but with no real resolve or follow through to meeting the child at the end. Really all the poem wants to do is focus its energy on how I experienced the moment. Or rather, how the disconnected part of myself – experienced it:
‘You couldn’t accept the natural give, the heavy flower
of your uterus. Someone had to drug every knot in your spine
so you could hide beyond the yellow mask of sleep;….’
Hiding ‘beyond the yellow mask of sleep’ was something I felt I’d done throughout the pregnancy. And this came to the fore when I agreed to take an epidural. Once again I was totally unable to hear or connect with the little person growing inside me. Although little did I know, that somewhere deep down, I was hearing and connecting with her all the time. And this realisation comes out in other poems, of which there are maybe three or four. True and absolute love poems to Josephene.
Unable Mother poem
The Unable Mother poem itself, is very specific to one event. Though the phrase could relate to many mothers out there (we all at one point or another feel like utter failures) this poem looks at one central incident from my story.
I lost a life early on in the pregnancy due to something called fetal absorption. A child, normally a twin, is absorbed back into the body – dying back, as it were, into the mother. This was a blow. More-so because a second life went on, and at the time I didn’t know how to move forward – whether to grieve the life lost, or nurture the new one. As admitted in the poem;
‘I’m unable to feel I’m creating a daughter. In my head
this thing is a boy it sits on a throne, and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.’
I avoided writing about this to begin with because I knew it would mean shaping a very raw, and quite regrettable landscape of inner life into a public piece of work. It was only when I came across Kathrine Sheers’ art work ‘Retreat’ (which also graces the cover) that I realised this struggle could be announced. The image is so nude; so open and closed all at once. It visually encompassed everything that had happened to me. Those opening lines; ‘I hide/yet I open my mouth to the light‘ simply poured out, and at last I felt I’d touched on the pinnacle of what that ‘terror-beauty’ had meant. The twin existence of joy and pain. Of one life lost and one life gained. All in the heart and soul of one, soon-to-be mother.
Inherent uniqueness; and other themes
Motherhood is as much a universal subject as it is entirely unique. This is a central detail I would perhaps give to the book. Motherhood is like a box, and each box for each mother is very different. This book is my own, very unique account of my journey into motherhood – but it’s also I feel, a symbol for this inherent uniqueness. This idea that each and every single motherhood journey is entirely its own, and almost incomparable to any other.
There’s also that theme of loss. Coupled with love of many kinds, and domestic disturbances. Losing the first baby, the twin, in unusual and confusing circumstances is something I’ve delicately addressed several times in the book, with one other poem in particular, ‘Dissolving’.
Too, have I attempted to intimately expose the terror-beauty of my personal relationships with men. One man in particular, who is very dear to me and always will be.
Jane Commane beautifully describes the poetry of Unable Mother as ‘ unfolding origami’. This is so true. In fact, I would say the whole collection reads like this – a deft, origami package. And while each poem has it’s own moment, really it needs to be read in full. And so my advice would be to let yourself be open to these un-foldings. Go with it, because things will fall into place in the end. All the emotional urges I explore are separate – but urgently linked. And what I am really saying when I say ‘Unable Mother’, announces one single thing – that yes, we can and do feel, unable. And our reasons are distinct. But if we say the phrase ‘unable’ for long enough, we undoubtedly begin to hear the chimes of ‘able’ too. We are all of us, so much more.