“When I Think of My Body as a Horse” is winner of the Smith Doorstop Book and Pamphlet Competition judged by Imtiaz Dharker and Ian McMillan. Throughout the collection, Wendy Pratt explores grief and recovery from the loss of a child and subsequent fertility treatments in a life-affirming acceptance.
In “Broke Horse”, between “bed and bath”,
“My body’s foal-form
of long legs and hot, slim energy rippled
with the joy of movement”
A joy that gives way and blames the body for “breaking the rules/ though we didn’t know there were rules”,
“Foal-body falls backwards,
stung by my punishment.
Our friendship deteriorates,
but at least she can be ridden now.”
It feels like a teenager discovering that a child’s joy in their body’s motion gives way to strains and pain in the morning after. Her body no longer a source of joy but cumbersome, something that has to be treated with care. At least now understanding has been reached and compromises mapped. The exuberance of cartwheels may have given way to yoga-inspired stretches, but the sense of wonder hasn’t been entirely lost. In “The Language of Pre-Motherhood”,
“I became immediately domesticated:
I mimicked my own mother,
and the mothers of my mother,
became more northern, stood
on the step of my terraced house
nattering. I walked the baby aisles
with certainty, making lists,
passing the time while I waited
with the other pre-mothers.”
Pregnancy is an experience that can provide bonds along a matriarchial line and provoke of consciousness of being part of a community, rather than the person who commutes to work or the daughter who is not yet a mother. Sadly, in this case, Matilda was stillborn. Within the poems of grief, one explores deciding what song to play at her funeral, dismissing hymns as “too heavy”, in “Air”
“an armful of air, a slight
weight, you were the weight
of my heart, right there.
Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?
We cried, drank wine, weighed up
your short life and what we knew of you
and chose an ethereal song by a French band”
“But when I heard the song in that hushed
crematorium, I almost didn’t know it.
I didn’t know you on the white stand, alone
in front of our small group. Only afterwards,
I realised we’d got it just right.”
Matilda’s mother steeled herself to hear the chosen song, worried she would be overcome and not be able to get through. However, on the day, the song was so right, it didn’t trigger further grief. There’s a sense of disassociation in “didn’t know you on the white stand, alone”, a sign the mother’s memories are with the baby and not the funeral.
There are a sequence of poems where a hare becomes a motif for the daughter. “The Leveret Dream” ends,
“These Chinese lantern-baby-hares
are glowing. My body is embryonic.
I have no face to speak of
and I have no mouth to speak with.
The leverets grieve in their glass tanks
for all their small potentials
as I swim past their small heat spots
through the wych elm’s branch-bones
and out, feeling the pop and hiss
of all the babies bursting into pink behind me.”
It’s not just the loss of Matilda, but also the losses through failed fertility treatments. The journey continues to acceptance with the poignant “Packing the Maternity Clothes Away”. The title poem which sees “Now my body is a horse, I see/ it is loyal, it is incredible” is transformative,
“I do not blame it for lost babies,
it did its best. I do not blame
myself for lost babies. I did my best.
I ride my body in a slow companionship,
Comforting it at the end of the day
and I say, Body, you are beautiful,
you are beautiful.”
A body that failed to product a longed-for child it still productive, still enables the mother’s life. It may not have provided a new generation, but it still needed by the current one.
In “When I Think of My Body as a Horse” Wendy Pratt explores cycles of pregnancy and grief, the ability of a body to transform and the effects of those transformations through the lens of the natural world. A daughter becomes a hare, a fleeting, furtive visitor of dreams, shaped by her mother so that her mother can survive her loss. The mother’s body starts as a foal, unsure and giddy on its own legs, and becomes a controlled horse of purposeful movement, learning lessons from the natural world. The poems are written with the control and power of their spirit animal and tackle motherhood and loss with poise and a compelling force.
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.