“The Unmapped Woman” explores loss and bereavement in a way that taps into grief as a universal experience so that although these poems are based on personal experience, they don’t make the reader feel excluded or as if they are reading a private journal. The collection is split into three parts, the first starts with “Egg”,
“I breathe into the lonely snow-lines on the scan,
tell you how to grow safely, how to throw
and catch a ball, how later, stronger, fleshed out,
you’ll thrust up a hand in class before the question’s asked,
then hush, hush yourself before bed.”
It’s all the hopes and anxiety that pregnancy brings. How an expectant mother imagines the child growing up, teaching the child and passing on skills perhaps learnt from her own parents and offering the child safety and security. This sense of hope, however, is dashed as loss is the unfortunate result, in “Gravid”
“Not until after the front door slams shut
and absence sucks air from its cheeks
do the words in her head, packed tight
as if on postcards, unhook their ink.
She knows their sloping script by rote,
has read each one to the echo of her womb,
laid her palm on her belly as she read them
aloud. She said, Cessation, cessation,”
The blandness of official terminology cannot contain the devastation expectant parents feel. Medical staff trying to get through their day and a long list of appointments can’t offer patients time to take in what’s being said and can inadvertently compound the sense of failure. There are not always answers as to why the miscarriage happened. The remaining poems in the section follow the adjustment to the loss, in “Imminent”, memories of pregnancy surface, a pregnancy during the summer months,
“when it is already too hot to sleep, I watch your
elbow soar like a sail and imagine you journeying
upstream, skin pinking at a confluence of rivers,
body uncertain, smirching the bank. You’re waiting
for liberation, foetus shaping in liquid until you
come adrift on a crib-shaped island with the map
of life crumpled in the tiniest palm I can imagine.
I see you unroll its tide-worn edges years later,”
Her pregnancy was far enough along for the expectant mother to feel her baby moving and to imagine her baby as a child and guiding her child through life. There’s also uncertainty: what the map reveals is unknown so the expectant mother can only imagine her child looking at the map years later because she doesn’t know the map will remain unused.
In “Given up II”,
“A winter bulb; bruised root; pomegranate
seed throbbing. Each word I speak worries
us both, disappoints. She rocks underwater,
skull hardening − an unplucked knot.”
There’s a search for answers, “bruised root” is a suggestion the baby wasn’t getting enough food or oxygen, perhaps planted at the wrong time. Even when no reasons are forthcoming, there’s still a desire to create a narrative to explain why a miscarriage happened.
In “Past Love” a date brings five roses and she’s wondering whether to tell him,
“I hope he’ll ask again, some time when I’m ready,
but he moves effortlessly forward and the blooms of two roses
fall like stardust, soundlessly, like you did, when somehow
your life was sucked, ever so gently, from your lungs.
When I held you, there was no noise from this galaxy
or another or another, and we spent that night wondering
how the sun lit only other people, and how breathless
the universe can be when you need air the most.”
The loss is still carried with her. But there’s an awareness that others have suffered their own losses, in “The Library of Broken People” two girls
“said life’s an unworkable toy. Other victims
are quieter, don’t talk so much, even when
the library’s shut. They drop to the back
of the index, all seal pup-eyed, skittering
at the slightest flex. I survive amongst them,
wear a long jumper, drag sleeves down wrists.”
Libraries are appropriately quiet, places where people are not pushed to talk. Bereaved people do eventually find a way of falling back into the expected routine of life before grief but find it empty of meaning and feel as if they are going through the motions. Later poems suggest an additional loss and deal with finding a balance between returning to something resembling normal life and still remembering those losses, in “On having enough messages from the dead”
“I decide to pin your name to the noticeboard,
stick another to the fridge with a magnet,
to loosen you from me. This morning I find
they’ve dived off, parachuted down
and are hissing on an unwashed floor ‒
paper sun-torn, unbearable to touch.
I watch ink vacate itself from the present.”
The names might fade in time from the pinned notices, but the memories don’t. The fading is also a reminder that the people who owned the names are no longer here.
“The Unmapped Woman” is an exploration of the uncharted territory of grief, a terrain each has to map for themselves. Landmarks are key memories. Even though the bereaved try to return to a normal life, simple images such as a dying flower falling from its stem, can switch the observer into the parallel world of grief. The poems search for recovery after loss and their technical dexterity transform them from a personal journey to one that engages a reader.
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.