The dancing boy of the title is the poet’s son who has Tourette’s syndrome and the title poem starts with, “Woof! Woof! Scream!/ The harsh alarm/ as we enter morning’s mouth.” The jolt is entirely appropriate but not the only mood in the collection, which includes joy, grief, humour and anger all underlined with compassion.
“The Dancing Boy” starts with the poet’s own childhood, pre-birth with a warning, “Do not go to Kilburn,”
“Let the caesarean scalpel slip.
Let me be miscarried all over the bathroom floor.
Shoo the jiggly white racers
Do not drink in that Irish bar.
Do not meet vacuous
sperm donor father.”
This isn’t misery-memoir but honesty and acknowledgement that not all pregnancies are planned, not all childhoods ideal and motherhood is a series of compromises and hard work. Other writers too have explored the downsides and rejected the rose-tinted view of motherhood’s rewards and Michelle Diaz does with hindsight and the knowledge of becoming a mother herself. “How Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth” explores both aspects,
a kind of alchemy,
each fresh head the imprint of a mother’s soul,
soft-cheek faces keen to emulate,
to parrot turn of phrase.
Now monsters live in every room,
. the the
. garden, up
She can’t get off the sofa,
learns to scream in several keys.
As grown ups, they spit the past back at her,
she turns to Shakespeare, who knows her heart.”
This is motherhood without judgement and sentimentality. Michelle Diaz turns her attention to her own journey to motherhood in “A Birth Journey in Nine Movements,” that starts,
“We are en route to Yorkshire.
I stir my latte with a pregnancy test,
it shows up positive.
All the waiters do the Macarena.”
And ends after a caesarean section,
“My old skin lines the corridor,
the curt nurse picks it up.
Strangely, I cry because you are no longer inside.
Your dad closes the curtain in case they think I am depressed.
I’m not. It’s just that I will never again know such intimacy.”
The surrealness of the opening quoted stanza capture the celebration and panic of pregnancy. The ending is a reminder that birth is about two lives, not just the baby. It encompasses a ride of mixed emotions and the transformation a mother’s body goes through in delivering a baby. Even in a positive outcome, sadness can make an appearance. Bodies don’t snap back into shape and the rest and recuperation needed doesn’t always result in the joyful bonding shown in magazine images. Other poems explore the grief of menopause: it marks the loss of fertility but also the start of a new chapter. Aptly, the last poem contains advice, “Trust your life,”
“Kiss the open hand of acceptance,
not giving up, not handing in your notice,
just the smooth thrill of following the river,
swimming. Dodging too, but even when you catch
on the sharpness, licking your wounds,
“The Dancing Boy” is a very human, flaws included, look at motherhood both from a child’s and a mother’s viewpoint. Becoming a parent can make our own parents’ flaws more excusable. Michelle Diaz also explores the cliche of the self-less mother only existing to nurture her children both in terms of it being unrealistic and for the way it erases a mother’s identity beyond the label of mother as if becoming a mother means leaving behind who you were before you became pregnant. She doesn’t rant or preach but explores with humour, craft and compassion.
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