Victoria Bennett takes readers on a journey through bereavement, specifically the loss of her mother in the final stages of mesothelioma and acceptance with small signs of hope in the aftermath. The opening poem, “The Suede Shoes” asks,
“Why bother planting that seed?
Why turn the beds
for a summer that will never come?
Why bother buying the pretty suede shoes?”
It also answers,
“We choose the shoes because
we can still find joy in a step.
We plant the seed because
we still love the way
it insists itself into life.
We turn the beds because
there will always be a summer,
even after you are gone.”
The description of “pretty” suggests the shoes are not being bought for their practical qualities, but are decorative and make the wearer feel good. They become a symbol for life continuing after a loved one’s death. Something to look forward to despite being caught in the limbo of not knowing how much longer the patient has. “Calendar” begins to mark that time through watching the sunrise in the morning,
“It’s another beautiful dawn, I say
but they get harder.
Another one, she says,
eyes turning away.
The last one
and it is just me.
The rain begins.”
The mother accepts that she hasn’t got much time left. The weather becomes a metaphor: sun for continued life, rain for the grief when that life has ended. This ending is revisited in “The Last Vigil”, the final part at just after midnight:
“After it all, three small breaths —
I almost missed you leaving.
You travel upwards,
turning cartwheels —
why did no‐one tell me
death felt like this —
an unbearable joy?
You leap from star
to star and then,
you are gone.”
The mother, the addresse of the poem, is not saying the reported question. The daughter left behind is projecting, hoping her mother is aware of her release from pain, the limbo of being near death but not quite there. There is nothing tethering the mother to her final pain-filled days now.
The journey continues into the aftermath. In “Planting”, “I dig bulbs into your bones” and later,
“The Almanac tells me
I am too late.
Even so, I wait, patient,
for the flowers to show.”
There’s a need for the speaker to feel as if she’s doing something, even if unproductive. Despite the loss, there’s still a sense of the mother’s spirit being present. In “Postcard Home” the speaker has a vision of her mother
“living by the sea at last, your paints out beside you,
brushes dipped in ink as the day closes.
I like to think of you this free, but still,
I miss you being here with me.”
The mother is rewarded with the house of her dreams, however, the daughter still misses her mother. The title poem ends the collection,
“into an hour
of not doing,
to stand, long enough
to hear the curlew call;
to remember our lives
opening to it all.”
“To Start the Year From Its Quiet Centre” is an unsentimental pamphlet of poems that explore a mother/daughter relationship as the mother’s life ends and the daughter’s continues. I would have appreciated a picture of who the mother was before she became ill: she’s painted as someone who was much-loved and who liked the natural world and the coast. But I don’t know what her favourite flower was or whether she preferred the rugged Northumbrian coast or sun-warmed Cornwall. The poems don’t stop with the mother’s death but continue into a life adjusting to her absence. Victoria Bennett has created a fine tribute.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.