“Unable Mother” Helen Calcutt (V Press) – poetry review

Unable Mother Helen CalcuttThe poems in “Unable Mother” focus on the not-so-rosy notions of motherhood: the doubts, fears, questioning and sense of failures. The language is precise and allows the poems to build layers of insight. The second poem, “God”, starts with the image of planting a tulip bulb and watching it grow (much of the growing happening underground and out of sight),

“as the suckle of sleep, as a child warms
to the yolk of a breast,
it warmed to the air it repeated.

It comes back, year on year.”

The poem ends,

“Even when I sit in the shadows
of the house
and the trees are looping through

with not a single path that’s lit to see you –
it’s the promise of what you are,
what you will become.”

The shadows suggest uncertainty and the sense that no mother knows what her baby will become. Much of motherhood is about nudging and steering a child in the right direction. A moral compass can be passed on but no one knows in advance where a child’s strengths and talents lie. The metaphor of a gardener planting a bulb with the faith that it will flower but also the doubt and uncertainty that it will is very apt.

“Melon Picker” starts “Death touched your feet/ with its wing.” and continues

“Could I ever
understand the pain
of broken feet? Where you knelt

under the night’s drunken expanse,
bleeding the lines

you walked, you wept…
sheer tiredness
was the thing that killed us

as it killed you then.
Seeing the same sun

bloat gold,
over black boulder seeds,
knocking like enormous breasts.

To greet the toll
that carried the dawn,

lifting your song-lines
and you
back, to the barren harvest.”

It explores the physicality of grief and loss, and the exhaustion that goes beyond a broken night’s sleep. The images carry a weight of tragedy and aloneness, ending on the emptiness of a “barren harvest”.

The title poem explores longing and disappointment,

“I’m unable to feel
I’m creating a daughter.
In my head,
this thing is a boy,

it sits on a throne,
and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.
It’s like squeezing
flesh and fruit from the bone,
this terrible love.”

Like planting a bulb, a pregnant woman is never sure that the baby will be as she imagines as she prepares for its arrival. For fathers, the baby is still a fairly abstract notion before the birth, but a mother can feel the baby moving, stretching and hiccupping. If image and reality clash, there’s a sense of bereavement. The language is spare and unflinching but not judgmental.

“Anvil” touches on the ultimate unable mother, who suffers a miscarriage,

“into the blow of the smite
that buried you like winter.

In my bed,
skin-clots furred.
Blood

climbed
throat, and lip. My mother’s shadow
danced on the wall. “

The poems are intimate in their offerings of insights and draw from considered experience using precise, spare language to explore vulnerability and to seek clarity. It’s good to see the less-explored side of motherhood expressed with compassion and intelligence.

“Unable Mother” is available from V Press.

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