“The Telling” Julia Webb (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Julia Webb The Telling book cover

“The Telling” holds a mirror up to family relationships, the good, the bad and the ugly of them, and the stories they generate. Can we trust stories handed down from previous generations? Who gets to tell these stories and does who is telling influence the listener’s reactions? Whose voices are dismissed, unheard? Are children’s voices more or less valid than adults’ voices? What happens when a child’s perspective differs from an adult’s? This is particularly pertinent in “Crash Site”, where the mother is a crashed plane,

“We never did find that black box
so it was always unclear exactly what had happened,
and each survivor told a different story.
But the wreckage was there for all to see –
seats and belongings scattered far and wide,
things broken open,
life jackets snagged on jagged branches.

Though our mother’s windows
had popped out with the pressure,
she sometimes talked affectionately about the plummet,
but swore she could remember nothing
of our other life, before take-off.
Our first memory was the screaming of metal
and the silence which came after.”

The missing black box seems to have been given the role of providing the truth since every survivor has a different version of what happened. However, the black box merely records facts, it doesn’t tell a story so, if it had been found, each survivor is at risk of interpreting those facts to fit their own story. So perhaps the answer lies in there not being one story but an almagam of many stories, which will never satisfy the original players. The mother’s affection for the plummet, is an illustration of how we can still feel connected to people who hurt us either because the hurt was rare and unintentional or because social conditioning keeps even dysfunctional families together.

That awkwardness of a changed relationship as a child becomes an adult but falls into the role of child around a parent is explored in the title poem where the mother is sobbing during a phone call to her adult daughter who lives too far away to get to her mother and in any case has to pick up her own child from school,

“and nothing I could do but stay on the phone
with the miles between us
eaten up with her grief and my misery
and the guilt we don’t speak of
and my father’s words piling up behind me
shoving me over the precipice –
you tell her, you tell her, I can’t face it
and me just a kid for a minute
but sucking myself back to adult
picking up the phone –
standing there, a rabbit in the headlights
inviting her grief to mow me down.”

The father’s shrugged off his responsibility onto the daughter, whom the mother is making feel like a child. Both of them are ignoring the impact of their actions on the daughter. Is it her place to be the adult her father couldn’t be? Is it fair of the mother to vent on someone also affected by the grevious news?

The importance of who tells a story and the consequences who the person who doesn’t are explored in “You hit her harder than you meant to” where one sister is punished for shoving the other, the first ‘she’ is the mother,

……………………………………….And, of course, she
didn’t want to hear your side of the story, because
there is no good reason to resort to violence. And, of
course, she told your friends what you had done when
they knocked for you for school, and they felt sorry for
your sister and turned their backs and walked ahead
with her. And she did those sneaky little glances over
her shoulder and that smirk that made you want to
knock the smile clean off her face. And then they sat
with her at lunch, gave you the silent treatment. And,
of course, you felt guilty, but the guilt was overtaken
by the hurt of the situation. And you still loved her
because she’s your sister,”

Readers don’t get to find out why the speaker hit her sister so the speaker’s story remains unheard, but has real consequences in punishment from her mother and friends snubbing her while the sister’s smirk suggests she’s enjoying the attention although she knows it’s not fairly won. The speaker knows lashing out was wrong, but hasn’t been allowed to tell of what led up to that moment. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to stop her loving her sister because of the family connection. The sisters get back together again, but never talk about the situation which suggests it has not been resolved and is in danger of flaring up in the future.

Families can be a source of joy too. In “In the hospital they pricked my bright new boy with pins”, a new mother struggling to breastfeed under the threat “that they would take him away/ and feed him a bottle”,

“and they let me try one final time
with the nurse tapping her foot
in the doorway bottle in hand
and a trainee midwife who arrived
with a cup of tea and a biscuit
to try and mend my broken face
it’s the ear she said watch his ear
when it moves you know he’s swallowing
and she sat with me as the day grew dark
and my little fish taught himself to swim.”

A kind act from the midwife achieves more than the previous threats from nurses who were too busy to blame the mother for not feeding her child, than to actually help her achieve that feeding. As if the fact that breastfeeding doesn’t just magically happen wasn’t part of their training. They were happy to regard the mother as a nuisance instead of recognising she needed assistance. But the midwife offered the mother tea and sympathy and then taught her how to know her son was feeding. Hopefully an approach that won’t be trained out of her. Small acts matter and can make a huge difference. So can treating a new mother as a human and not just a vessel for delivering a child, discarded in favour of a sole focus on the newborn.

“Women as collateral damage” explores lessons we pass on to girls that boys avoid,

“if I seem like someone else
it’s because I have my grandmother inside me
as well as my mother and my sister
I never knew when to stop talking
or how to let a man win an argument
I never learnt decorum
that girls should be seen and not heard
that intelligence is not attractive in a woman
I was cloudburst as a child
never a fluffy pink jumper
I was a pair of denim dungarees and a knot of opinions
they may have eventually let me climb the tree
but secretly they hoped I would fall.”

Long may the girl who is now a woman continue to be “a knot of opinions” and proof that being female doesn’t and shouldn’t stop you climbing trees (real or metaphorical).

The last poem brings readers back to the daughter/mother relationship, from “Remaking Mother”, where a model of wire, string, buttons, bottle lids, lollipop sticks, cardboard tubes, pins and pebbles comes to life as the daughter sings,

“She shuffles towards me and I can’t turn away.
I sing her name out: Carol, Carol.
The sunlight moves across the window
and lights up her face.”

“The Telling” reflects on family relationships and connections, how they are nutured or disrupted and who gets to tell their story and who gets silenced and the consequences of speech/silence. Julia Webb’s family bonds are complex, hurtful behaviour doesn’t lead to hate and respect isn’t automatically bestowed if someone is not acting respectfully. These eloquent poems pose questions a reader is invited to answer.

“The Telling” is available from Nine Arches Press.

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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.

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