“Spools of Thread” was the winner of Mother’s Milk inaugural pamphlet prize. The title comes from the opening poem “I Measure My Mother’s Love” which starts “In spools of thread:/ royal blue Sylko and scarlet Gütermann./In sixpenny cards of buttons” and ends
“in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric
to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.
In smocking and twice-sewn French seams,
in the electric hum of the black and gold Singer,
in turned hems, let down as we grew.”
The evocative details create an image of a thrifty mother making clothes for children: the smocking can expand for growing bodies and French seams are used to prevent fraying so the clothes are designed to last.
The threads of family relationships is a theme throughout. “Other Mothers’ Sons and the Publican’s Wife” features sons who had to find a substitute mother figure. A publican’s wife encouraged US soldiers stationed in the UK to talk of home and taught them British pub games. Letters were found stuffed in a desk long after the war, letters from “Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho.”
“And when her son came home – whole despite a body pocked
with shrapnel – she wondered how those other boys had fared,
how many made it back. And then the precious letters came
from grateful mothers, who hearing of her kindness
thanked for her being there, when they could not; thanked her
for cherishing those Stateside boys, those other mothers’ sons.”
A mothering instinct is not restricted to blood relations. I suspect the publican’s wife felt motherly towards most her of the pub’s clientele, creating a protective sense of community. The preservation of the letters confirms this need to nurture and protect. This instinctive motherliness contrasts with a nosy professional who queries why an adult son hugs his mother in “Son”
“‘I’m a professional,’ she says. ‘Special needs.’
As if to explain the directness of the question.
His kiss burns my cheek like a touch of sun
as I grope for an appropriate answer
somewhere along the autistic spectrum.”
The shock of a mother’s instinct being challenged stops the narrating mother telling the nosy woman to butt out. A professional woman who is used to having her questions answered, doesn’t see how inappropriate her question is in a social setting where issues of confidentiality and stigma haven’t been considered.
The pamphlet isn’t just about mothering. “Weekend Solstice” looks at the tenderness in a long-term partnership after a family gathering.
“Later there’s woodsmoke, the scent of barbecue and chiminea,
the tang of zested lager, cider, Pimms in glasses topped
with mint and strawberries, ice and chunks of cucumber.
There will be ice-cream and Eton Mess.
And finally between those linen sheets we’ll touch and kiss
and spoon away the shortest night.”
The evocative, lyrical details build the scene. The short listing of drinks gives away to more details in the food. There’s comfort in “chunks of cucumber”, rather than wafer-thin slices designed to be spread as far as possible, and the promise of ice-cream. The children of “I Measure My Mother’s Love” wouldn’t have known of barbecues and patio heaters but have learnt to nurture and share.
“Spools of Thread” is a cohesive, contained pamphlet of poems with sensory details that accumulate to build to resonate beyond their evocative scenes. These poems are stitched as carefully as those French seams, giving a smooth outline so readers focus on the pattern and shape of words and images.