Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review: Some Girls’ Mothers

Some Girls’ Mothers
edited by Anne Caldwell

Published by Route Publishing

Reviewed by Radcliff Gregory

This anthology of potted autobiographies by six poets, thankfully, avoids the clichés the title and cover blurb cause one to dread. The book is something of an enigma, but positively so. For example, it is not made clear why poets have been asked to write prose chapters, though this curiosity has resulted in an anthology that transcends its genre, the language often dragging the reader into unexpected corners of unknown rooms and dragging them around unfamiliar psyches. It is a profoundly unsettling experience, and one that left me wondering about the way parent-offspring bonds are stereotyped by both generations. The reality usually falls between the cracks of consciousness, and undergoes a curious transformation when we attempt to communicate it. Far too many books about parent-offspring relationships have reinforced, rather than explored, the social mythologies generated by decades of ‘progress’.

Nell Farrell illustrates the power of rewritten recollection in the opening chapter, My Mother Dreams of Lovelace Watkins, though some of the essay’s power is lost through the over-cataloguing of records. Between these tedious descriptions of her collection, Farrell neatly expresses how routine can be a coping mechanism and a way of unseeing, and how the whole illusion and script can be instantly demolished by the slightest change in actions, even something as insignificant as peeling potatoes, when all parties know by experience what their role is, and all possible denouements.

River Wolton explores the effects of gaps in youthful knowledge that expand exponentially to preoccupy memory and identity, such as the sudden, unexplained departure of a nanny who fulfils the maternal role, and the chasm of questions that gradually unfurls and then snaps brutally open as the mystery of menstruation begins its insidious invasion into unprepared young lives. She also opens up questions of bond and intimacy, being compelled to communicate her most private bodily development to her very busy mother via an intercom.

As most of us have found, tackling what matters to us most with who matters to us most can be something of a lurking volcano. Anne Caldwell writes with excruciating courage and clarity about taking her mother on a visit to the psychotherapist. Sometimes we all often wonder why people who care about us look away when we are most vulnerable, and perhaps the only explanation we don’t see is the difficulty of comprehension and the need to cope.

Char March writes with passion and poetry about the invisible process of enforced alienation, the brittleness of reconstructing shattered loves, and how split-second miscalculations hot-wire us to scrabble around for the jagged little pieces to try to put them back together whilst we’re too shell-shocked to co-ordinate, or even fully understand our efforts.

Out of this anthology, I was most affected by Susan Batty’s beautiful contribution, ‘The Gorge’. Her chapter is unusual in that it is about a mother-daughter relationship that hasn’t physically come into being, but is so powerful that it took on its own very real existence. Being the mother of child whose conception occurred on every level but the literal is both a powerful and fragile existence, and one that left her vulnerable to isolation and other people’s concept of her identity. This author’s unique exploration of the different challenges to becoming a mother as a lesbian does so in a way that opens even the most jaded eyes.

Clare Shaw completes the anthology by describing her difficult journey to motherhood in a lesbian relationship, and negotiating respect with parents whose homphobia had deeply marred her adolescence. She describes the birth of her baby in a way that is graphic and yet poetically compelling.

Overall, Some Girls’ Mothers presents a challenging and rewarding read, and should not be dismissed as a ‘female read’. The stories are real and complex, operating under the radar of gender politics. It caused me to ponder male relationships with their fathers, and any child’s experience with their opposite-sex parent, and what it is exactly that creates and constitutes those relationships. These aren’t cosy ‘mummy and me’ stories, nor the railings of rebellious teenagers. In places, there are fleeting explosions that mothers had wholly different lives before their children were born, that there were other people, other relationships, and, shockingly, secrets and rebellions of their own.

Radcliff Gregory is the author of Everywhere, Except…, and the sold-out Fragile Art, and Figaro’s Cabin (under a pseudondym), and also anthologised in Chroma, Poemata, Coffee House and Poets International literary publications, and a dozen books by publishers including Crystal Clear, Forward Press and Poetry Now. Outright winner of six UK poetry competitions. Also writes non-fiction articles and essays on literary criticism, literature, disability and gender issues. Currently organising Polyverse Poetry Festival, which he founded. He also tries to find time to complete his first full-length prose work.

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