Whilst much contemporary fiction just hasn't cut it for me this summer, other books have and so I have gone with the flow, and that flow has included several excellent poetry collections.
Now I find good poetry collections an absolute pleasure to read, and to then write about here, but that writing and thinking about what to write, takes an extraordinary amount of time to happen. None of this read-it-over-a-weekend-and-on-the-blog-on-Monday sort of thing, it can be weeks if not months before I have finished reading, and then maybe longer for a re-read and for thoughts to surface.
I am a good girl now too because I am no longer writing in poetry books. Blame the Open University for starting that one, but though I have been reading for pleasure not pain for years now, old habits and securities die hard. From now on I have decided poems must remain unmarked, unlined, unannotated in the original so that I can come to them time and again, and with a mind open to finding new meanings, rather than dotting my thoughts around amongst the poet's words. To this end I have draughted in a poetry notebook, the 'customised with a homemade Ravilious collage on the cover' one, allowing a page per poem that I can return to and add more notes on subsequent reading, it's a huge success and I love it.
The first collection, Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, and how grateful I am to Susannah Herbert of The Forward Arts Foundation for bringing this one to my attention, and to Carcanet Press for then sending me a copy, along with Parallax by Sinead Morrissey, both shortlisted for this year's Forward Prize for Best Collection to be announced tomorrow, October 1st.
Now when you learn of the subject matter you might think this collection would be far too sad to read and maybe pass it by for those reasons ..
"In 2007 Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with Severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition. She lived for sixteen months. Her Birth is a book-length sequence of poems beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child. Goss navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss in poems that are spare, tender and haunting: ‘Going home, back down / the river road, will be a foreign route without her."
...and I'll admit that reluctance was my first thought, quickly followed by my second thought. After my release from thirty years on the health visiting frontline, followed by four years of working across the loss and bereavement forums as on online health visitor for that Biggest UK Parenting Website ... and having only just emerged from the stresses and demands of all that, well did I really want to read more of the same??
And during my first golden summer of not working might this be a little too much like work...
All this until I opened and started reading what I think maybe one of the most beautiful, tender and lovingly written poetry collections I have read in a very long time.
Though unflinching and courageously honest in her observations, Rebecca Goss never slips into self-pity. As a reader I was alongside her but still watching from afar...somehow she created that distance for me, or maybe I am too well practised at boundaries. This wasn't my grief or my sadness it was Rebecca's, but I was witness to it, every facet and nuance shared and revealed, the unsayable frequently voiced, but often in a very new way.
Who ever gives any thought to the hospital room where the bad news is broken...
'No tabloids, no vending cups, no debris
of the bored and hungry, Instead
carpet, fireplace, neat homely items.
'This is not the room where you wait for news,
this is the room where you are told it.'
And instantly, after all those years of nursing, I saw something about that room which I had never noticed before either.
There are fresh new interpretations of the familiar, the happy things, but expressed in terms of loss rather than the more customary joy and frivolity. The moment when, during an echocardiogram bubbles are wafted around the room to distract Ella...
'.................Keep clear spheres
coming around her head, wanting them to last,
each pop a small, inexplicable loss.'
...and with those few lines I felt I understood something of the desperation of a parent willing the results to be optimistic, willing their child to live.
Rebecca is no stranger to denial. The bare facts have been explained, spelt out, drawn in diagrams, cannot be avoided, but that won't stop a mother swathing herself in hope, reading meaning into the words in the dictionary, turning to the word 'palliative' and then shaping that meaning into something she would prefer to hear.
And then the dreams, I defy anyone not to be moved or comforted by Rebecca's A Dream of Heart Babies ( a poem for their mothers) as gathered on the deck of a ship 'a shoal of heart babies' slip into the sea
'in a search for chambers more complex than coral.'
Hauled back into the ship, the catch, the babies,
'Each one cups a new heart...'
I gasped and blinked back tears and knew that Her Birth is a poetry collection freighted with riches; insight and understanding to those of us who may not have been through this experience, congruence and comfort to those who have, but ultimately I suspect every reader will also emerge uplifted, lighter of step and filled with bright hope for tomorrow. This is not a book that weighs you down.
Rebecca Goss makes sure of that with her final section entitled Welcome. It begins with a poem that explains why she and her husband decide to try for another baby, before going on to catalogue the realities of the next pregnancy with all its memories of the past...
'The midwife holds a file, the sad biography
of my procreative life. My ability to bear
the unhealthy means the doctor must locate
a lump of thumping muscle...'
Along with the fears that I remember so many mothers expressing so often after the loss of a baby, there is another one, of how to love the next baby as much..
'I am hoping I will love you
each time I find you, usurping another's cot.'
The clothes, the birth, the shadows of Ella as Rebecca cradles Molly, how to eventually tell Molly about her sister. the true pleasures and delights of a child who is well, the pilgrimage to the seashore, wading into the sea where Ella's ashes were scattered, but ultimately how time, though it's considered the worst thing to say to anyone, does do its work, and heals..
'Come and hold my hand, little one,
stand beside me in your small shoes,
let's head for your undiscovered life,
your mother's ready now, let's run.'
Though I haven't read the other collections on the short list as thoroughly (this one at least three times) so I shouldn't really declare, but I want to wish Rebecca Goss much good fortune with Her Birth in the Forward Poetry Prize announcements tomorrow, it would be a very worthy winner indeed.