Review: Memory, Mourning and Memorialisation

Stand.jpgThis is a proof of my review of three books, recently published in Stand 14.3

Bromley, Carole. The Stonegate Devil. Sheffield: smith|doorstop Books, 2015 (ISBN 978-1-910367-54-4)

Madec, Mary. Demeter Does Not Remember. County Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2014 (ISBN 978-1-908836-31-1)

Williams, Merryn. Letter to My Rival. Nottingham: Shoe String Press, 2015 (ISBN 978-1-910323-39-7)

Carole Bromley’s striking second collection, The Stonegate Devil, is haunted. The opening poem sets the tone, precise and playful in its juxtaposition of the variations of everyday life with that which steadfastly remains – the Stonegate Devil who has ‘crouched on that ledge/ since Coffee Yard was Langton Lane/ and Stonegate the Street of the Printers’ (9). The poem, like many in the collection, is set in York, and cleverly presents the past and present at the same time. In this poem, it is ‘the missing student on the poster’ who haunts the street and ‘smiles her pretty smile’ (10). In the main, it is women who haunt the collection, from the ‘hanged woman’ of Lund’s Court (11) and the laundress of ‘Beningbrough Hall’ (13) to the young girl watching an earwig in the headmaster’s office in ‘On The Carpet’ (14). There are also ex-girlfriends, missing wands (‘The Doll With a Hole in Its Hand’), and painful poems about lost friends and the death of the speaker’s mother. Bromley deftly weaves sadness and wit. If it is true that her collection is haunted, it is also true that the poems are intensely alive and human, breathing with warm everyday language. Frequent word-play creates layers not only within the poems, but also throughout the collection as a whole, threading together the ‘golden cloak’ of a boy at school (‘Oberon’s Cloak’, 47) with ‘Plumbers’, ‘like gold dust’ (48). There is a cluster of poems at the heart of the book which are especially bright and tender. Several explore the startling experience of becoming a grandparent: ‘Poem with a Satsuma in it’ (50) shares something fresh and new with the grand-daughter, ‘School Gates’ (49) captures small losses, ‘Meeting’ (51) juxtaposes death and birth and ‘Mabel’ (52) captures the astonishment of new life: the first cry, the new name, ‘soap bubbles/ trembling from a wand’ (52). The sharp sweetness of orange zest and tangerines runs throughout and perhaps best captures this lovely collection.

Memory and age are also at the heart of Mary Madec’s unusual take on the Persephone story in Demeter Does Not Remember. This is Madec’s second collection, published by the Irish publisher, Salmon Poetry. The title suggests that the story is told from the perspective of Demeter, but the collection frequently unseats us: we often become unsure of whose voice we are hearing, and the speakers range from Demeter and Persephone to Hades himself. The imagery also shifts frequently, striking and bold, and there are some surprising contemporary references. There is a sense of dialogue throughout, and questions are layered in titles and poems, so that we, as readers, are called on to actively participate in the conversation. Although the Persephone myth strings the poems together, it is not a linear narrative. The collection closes with ‘Forecast’ (69), whilst ‘Afterthought’ (40) comes halfway through the book. ‘Afterthought’ stands out, desolate, dense and packed with images: ‘each morning’s doily of burnt milk,/ the knife wounds on the bread board, /the dry crumbs’. Inescapable habits are listed: ‘the mouth’s need of them,/ your embarrassed, tired, empty arms,/ your thighs’ stiff-boned descent,/ the skin falling ever so slightly away/ from your arms,/ separating muscle and fascia’ (40). Although the collection embraces the legacy of maternity (64), it also offers a devastating portrait of ageing, experienced physically by a woman, seen most clearly perhaps in ‘Demeter: Coming of Age’ (64), where the speaker bathes alone with hair spreading out ‘like thong-weed in the sea’, whilst her ‘middle-aged body lops/ and the water makes/ tides around my hips/ and breasts’ (64). The portrait contrasts sharply with the young sensuality of the opening poem, ‘Persephone: Coming of Age’, and the entire collection meditates on the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, most starkly in the straw hair and broken nails of ‘Soon it Will be Winter’ (39). Here, she ‘thinks of Persephone, the daughter she fed/ and is jealous of those pert little breasts,/ those eyes, reminding her of another bed/ where she was desirable as a wife’ (39).

Merryn Williams’ intricate Letter to My Rival reminds us of the mothers and daughters who have not been remembered, offering portraits of those lost people – ordinary girls, women, boys and men – not memorialised by official narratives. The collection seems to have a twin purpose: firstly, to remember those who history has forgotten and provide a rich archive through which we can recover them, or hold them; and secondly, to ask difficult questions about power – about why and how particular people are remembered or valued, and who decides. Each finely crafted poem offers a little story, so that the collection becomes an album of portraits of the forgotten, or more accurately, of the people we never even heard about in the first place. The effect is a layering of wounds and a suggestion that this underpins the very fabric of who we are and where we came from. The deep loss that runs throughout this collection is, then, not only that of the remembered lost, but also the anonymous, the unknown, those we do not know, or were deleted before we even saw them. There is great-uncle George Dalling with ‘no posterity’ (42), the ‘Missing Person’ (37), the single plaque ‘for nine young men’ in ‘Shorthampton’ (43), the cousin who cleaned the Grand Hotel somewhere in Bournemouth (45). The book is also about rivalry – about the women who are not chosen, those who have fame (‘A. N. Other’ 5), and those who are cast in the shadows, the understudy, the discarded lover (‘Letter to My Rival’ 6), the ‘brilliant, youngest sister’ (7). There is also the woman at the literary festival, the ‘rising star’, her books stacked with those of the ‘great man’, ‘readers in long queues, waiting for him to sign’ (15). Above all, perhaps, the ‘Still Small Voice’ reigns – the voice that quietly says ‘I don’t agree’ (35). ‘Letter to my Children’ sits at the heart of the book, warning, ‘Remember where you came from’, and reminding us that, ‘Your ancestors are those whose names are lost’ (26). There is a deep sense of mourning for the small things, the ‘carefully-tended garden’, ‘the delicate glass’, and also of their futility: ‘that vintage wine, which somebody else will glug’ (‘Eheu Fugaces’ 2). And still, the book takes us full-cycle towards a note of optimism, where protection is offered to a child: ‘To Lydia, Born 2010’, in the roaring night wind: ‘No wind shall ever breach this wall./ The bough won’t break, your cot won’t fall’ (31). The final poem is for Martha Evans (49), ‘baby bulge of 2013’, offering, perhaps, the hope of meaning and transformation beyond the life of the speaker.

Here we have three significant books about memory, mourning and memorialisation: about who or what is lost, forgotten or devalued with age, and what is gained and understood. Quite different collections, but read together they provide a wonderful portrait, from the perspective of the female writer, of these complicated issues in our current times.

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Review by Rachel Bower

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