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
of your uterus.
Someone had to drug
every knot in your spine
so you could hide
beyond the yellow mask
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.
Had a fantastic morning with the students at the Uni of Birmingham on another choreography masterclass, developing movement from language, and ensemble choreography. Here are some snippets of the day!
On average, 84 men kill themselves every week in the UK.
This is unacceptable.
It's not just that they're dying. It's that they're choosing to die. Reasons can range from financial problems, to abuse within the home.
My beautiful older brother Matthew (featured above) took his own life 6 months ago. The news was shocking enough. But so was the quick realisation, that suicide among men under the age of 45 is extremely common, and the way families and friends are left broken and isolated within a very particular, and 'complicated grief', is more widespread than anyone might think.
#project84, created by the charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is the first project of any kind that's really taken a stand on this epidemic, one that's been largely ignored by society and almost anyone with political influence. Mental health issues of any kind are rarely taken notice of unless people start shouting about them - because how can we know, or see? I've done a lot of reading up and research since Matt died, and this is the first thing I've seen that's actually taken hold, and that people are responding to. But our work doesn't end here.
I'm writing this post to say, thank you to CALM and to the courageous people who shared their intimate personal stories with the world for #project84.
I'm also writing this to say, enough is enough. #project84 drew in thousands of responses. This doesn't mean we dust off our hands, and move on to something else. We need to keep talking, keep generating awareness of this crisis among men - of identity, purpose, and value. But also, among us. We expect too much of the same thing, don't we? It's like we almost want to be lied to. About what and who we really are; about what truly hurts us, and what potentially pushes us over the edge.
The video I've posted below is fascinating to me. Watch it, and see the difference in response from a man harassing a woman, to a woman harassing a man. For me this sums it all up. Male suicide is an issue in its own right. But it's also linked to a much broader social problem. Did you know there are only a handful of charities for men who suffer abuse in the home? Compared with the hundreds for women? Why is it considered harder for a man to cry than a woman? Why is a woman harassing a man funny?
Some things to think about.
ManKind Initiative: http://www.mankind.org.uk/
A.i.R. | In conversation with the wonderful Sian Norris about the PIKPA refugee camp in Greece.
On first impressions…
“The quiet. It’s so heavy, and controlled: and beyond any kind of sadness you can imagine. It’s goes further than sadness. You can feel how much has happened there. The volunteer and aid workers are remarkably positive, and they bring a huge amount of life and light to the air. But the quietness….it almost hums. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. There’s a vacancy behind the eyes of the people on the camp too that’s disturbing – with the men especially. Sadly, I feel there may be no way out for them now. With the children, you feel a certain level of fight and vivacity. But the men – they’re gone.”
"The morning after my daughter was born, I got straight back into writing. She had been late, and struggling to find a way out. We both underwent a speedy and painful induction. When induced, the body suffers contraction after contraction, without rest. The natural rhythms are suspended, and a new chemical urgency swamps the body. I couldn’t manage the pain (or the fear) and screamed for an epidural. From this point, I couldn’t feel. She was struggling to reach me, and I couldn’t answer. I’d been numbed to her throughout the pregnancy – fighting her every step of the way. But still, somewhere inside, I’d sensed her insistence; her slow, relentless beauty. Now in these crucial throws, I had no way of communicating with her at all, and it was mortifying.
In the final pushes, I was heavily assisted. My partner tells me the floor of the hospital room was like a butcher’s blood bath. ‘She was the real sea, and all the blood to follow.’ I didn’t know how to push, so had to lie on my back attached to a monster of machines by tricks and wires. When the last toe, slipped soft and white from the vertical wound, she spleened into the world. Hungry for life, she suckled perfectly.
And despite being left alone that night on the hospital ward, torn and psychically dislocated, having to feed every 3 hours and sleep none, I still found energy for inspiration. The morning after the dreadful day, and the long, clicking hours of the night (it never ceases to amaze how many machines there are in hospitals; how many people breathe like crickets) I woke to a nest of crumpled silk. Her lily hands, her familiar face. I watched her sleep in the plastic bed, I ate biscuits. I took out my yellow notebook (in that new sense of quiet, that uneasy calm) and began to write.
I, or we, have been operating like this ever since. And she has always, selflessly, allowed me to spill my ink. Some might think this is selfish of me. I think it’s magic.
When first asked to review Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology, the free, unbridled ‘account’ of motherhood that I’ve given above is much what I’d hoped for. I wasn’t disappointed."
Read the full article here
Publication rights The Wales Arts Review, June 2017
At the Alan Garner Centre, Wolverhampton, February
The translation of pain into language gives remarkable energy to piece of writing. Literature that draws from the suffering of another, or of oneself, is crucially honest, and while most writings are ‘not equipped for life in a world where people actually die’, some master the articulation. The brutal honesty of this kind of writing (I can think of Janos Pilinszky’s Fable, Homer’s Odyssey, Poe’sConqueror Worm) sustain the inevitable erosion that time’s passing impedes, and in their learned immortality, inherit a bleaker strength that somehow outlasts – and furthermore defines – what we (should) consider to be ‘long-standing literature’.
This idea – that things must make their mark – seems to have deeply embedded itself within the anatomy of Owen Sheers’ work. It occurs again and again, whether in writings of contemporary war, the beauty of the Welsh landscape, or ‘the victory of human spirit’. This is a good sign – both the writer and his work are developing in synchrony. And the integral subject of the writing (that infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing) seems to be revealing itself…
Continue reading – Wales Arts Review Issue 10
On the 25th of April (exactly twenty-four days from now) I’ll be reading at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival with support from Helen Harvey, and Joy Amy Wigman. Three beautiful poets, in a beautiful month.
My first collection (Perdika Press) is out very soon this year – but I won’t be reading from that. Instead I’d like to introduce some new material, gathered over the last six months or so.
There’s been a period of absence since October – though this doesn’t mean I haven’t been working. The long hours spent ‘half-at-write’ as TH put it, seems to have paid off. Things are finally starting to fall into place, creatively. And I’d like to share the results.
This new material will be grouped under the heading North Light – currently unpublished and unread. For those interested, ‘north light’ refers to the consistent light necessary for any artist at work, preferably from a north facing window.