Review: Girl by Rebecca Goss

This is the proof of my review of Rebecca Goss‘s Girl (Carcanet, 2019), published in the most recent issue of Stand Magazine (17.3), guest edited by Vahni Capildeo.

Rebecca Goss’s Girl sparks with light, electricity, bodies. This collection of spare, precise poems, characterised by Goss’s distinctive control of her material, not only explores what it is to be ‘girl’, but what it is to be bodily; to be in relation; to be alive. It is a book of freckles, knuckles, the curve of the body in water. It is also a book about relationships: between mothers and daughters, between lovers, sisters, friends, and between older and younger selves. These relationships, however, are not softly lit. The opening poem, “The Lightning”, introduces us to the mother, struck by lightning, ‘mouth spitting rods of light’ (5). The book is bursting with light: ‘fiery’ whispers and ‘fingers trailing sparks’ (5), bright celestial objects (28), bulbs popping their filaments (30), hooks fizzing on the grille of the dodgems (45). 

Girl is also full of surprises, from the playful delight of “Ants” (11), where a pregnant woman is lifted, on her yoga mat, by a host of ants, and paraded around the hall – liberated, weightless, free –  to the marvel of human encounters, where a woman tries a coat on with her husband, sliding her ‘slim wrists’ into the arms of a beautiful coat, ‘a swing/ of black ribbon and felt’,  before returning to her son, ‘wasting in hospital’ (15). This sonnet bravely faces the complexities and contradictions of life through everyday realities, where ‘Parents/ of the almost-dead cannot always be bed-side’ (15). Goss’s generosity shines here, as in the overall collection, where the mother ‘leans to kiss/ a dumb mouth and carousels his life, from baby to boy’ (15). 

Stylistically, the poems are tight, carving themselves onto the page. The white space is crucial: finely sculpted, folded, spread, draped. There are several poems inspired by the work of Alison Watt, whose work, Iris, appears on the cover to the book, with its own rich folds of light and dark in pale fabric. The poems inspired by Watt explore desire, pleasure, intimacy and pain, and contrast with the blaring painting the speaker sees in ‘I Was Left to Wipe Myself and Dress’ (18), before the intrusion of the smear test, legs captive and sprawled. Goss’s book meditates on the disconnect between the historic representation of women by men, and the female body reclaimed, and experienced by a woman. This connects to the wider project of the collection, simmering beneath its surface: the desire to reclaim the physical and emotional experiences and labour of women. Goss insists on inscribing this girl, or that woman, in all her specificity, as an inextricable part of recording the wider history of women: on filling in the blank on the birth certificate ‘that did not exist beside my mother’s name,/ or my grandmother’s name’ (41). This requires a defiant reclamation of the female body. The ‘marquise cut’ of the newborn female, for example, that determines how the girl will be dressed, treated and shamed, is reclaimed for female pleasure, curiosity and love. At times, girlhood becomes almost sacred, with its secrets and mysteries. The project of honouring these early experiences becomes holy, in turn, as we are taken back to the girl who wets herself in class, or the boy with a stammer who runs for his sister. In sharing such experiences we are compelled to ‘kneel beside/ that sorry child, absolve her from her sodden lap’ (“Wet” 54). There is a desire to scrape away shame: to release, to forgive, to celebrate. In a more explicit instance of reclaiming women’s experiences, Ida, daughter of the artist Marc Chagall who escaped Nazi-occupied France in 1941, sits, straight backed, guardian of the box of her father’s paintings on the ship to America, and Goss shows us that it is through the undocumented experiences of such girls and women that history is made (21-22).

Elsewhere, we are offered glimpses of the astonishing intimacy between female friends, as in “With Sarah”, where two friends walk ‘very close to each other, the way/ women can’ (26-27). This poem also shows Goss’s ability to describe ordinary experiences with a startling freshness; where the watching mothers become ‘the guardians of coats’, before the children ‘cast themselves into flight’ in the park with bright kites (27). There are flashes of humour in the collection, as well as strong characters. Betty Draper, for instance, appears in her nightgown at noon, shooting at the neighbour’s pigeon, taking her revenge on behalf of womankind, while ‘smoking all the time (17). There is a heartbreaking series of ‘Pleurisy’ poems, which fold together beauty and pain, almost unbearably. Goss’s exploration of this inextricability of love and loss, perhaps culminates in the closing poem, “Something Beautiful Was Created by Their Leaving” (68-9). The title is inspired by Watt, and the poem reverberates with the pain that is an irreducible part of love. It is a fitting end to a collection about the entanglements of grief and laughter, light and darkness, care and shame, tenderness and desire, and the poem captures the contradiction that sits at the heart of the collection, as well as human life – that loving necessitates pain, but that we must love in spite of this, and release those we love, even as their traces continue to mark our lives: ‘their tender/ weights still lovely/ in the cloth’ (69).

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