REVIEW by Georgia Carys Williams

NWR Issue 104


by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Carolyn Jess-Cooke, award-winning author of The Guardian Angel’s Journal (Little Brown/Piatkus, 2011), The Boy Who Could See Demons (Piatkus, 2012), and the poetry collection Inroads (Seren, 2010) has written a second collection entitled Boom! This single word brings to mind explosion, destruction, a sudden and otherworldly appearance, or as the poet herself describes in the opening title poem, ʻa hand grenadeʼ that ʻappeared one day in the centre of our marriage’. Any of these inclinations, as well as that of a baby boom, would be correct because this collection, is unapologetically about motherhood. And why shouldn’t it be? As far back as anyone can remember, a poet’s central subject has been life and death, so it would be nonsensical to dismiss the genesis of it all. For any readers who sigh at the very idea of pregnancy writing, these poems are somehow unique, laying motherhood bare, written at the raw moment of pain and ecstasy at each strange and miraculous stage. We can only gain further insight from such vivid descriptions of how this experience affects time, identity and relationships.

They said she was stuck,
as though she was a nine-pound human fork
pronged in the dishwasher

The beginning of ʻHome Birthʼ illustrates a gritty and unromanticised pregnancy journey, consisting of awe and disillusionment that does not end at the hospital wing. The baby throughout is impersonalised, just like the writer who speaks with a disembodied voice. It is a physical familiar, ʻtobogannedʼ out ʻin a gush of brineʼ, made of its mother’s very own skin and at the same time, a stranger she does not yet know.

but I had forgotten
that a species of pain rises up in giving birth that is lord above all others,
persuades dominion of my heart, rules penitence, makes me kneel

As in ‘Thetis’, a somewhat spiritual feeling appears, that nature always rules in the end. This sentiment considers that we may only be bystanders of our own actions, even to the human within us because we, paradoxically, are nature.

Gradually, the growing child gains an unspoken power. My eyes welled up while reading ʻWhat Mattersʼ, an honest poem that instead of focusing on a baby’s sudden appearance in life, magnifies the disappearance of a young child at a beach scene:

I pleaded with people,
described her,
we scanned the glass sea,
shouted across the parasols, her sister
on my hip,
each second felt like it was bleeding from me.

The second half of the collection is more nostalgic, reflecting a sense that childhood never truly retreats but lies dormant through the generations. There is a haunting pleasure in ʻPuppyʼ as it illustrates how giving birth may encourages a state of mental regression: ‘There was this childhood that thought it was a puppy. / It followed me around everywhere, whimpering.'

ʻWhat we talk about when we talk about motherhoodʼ is a true example of the personal being political as it is at the same time a large slither of a woman’s life:

I was not thinking about any of this at all
but feminism, about the government,
about Africa, about astronomy, about history,
about nature, creativity, about God

This collection left me feeling that even after fifty two poems about motherhood, there is much more to be said. It is no surprise that Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s books have been published in twenty-two languages nor that she has previously received an Eric Gregory Award, a Tyrone Guthrie Award, a Major Arts Council of England Award, and twice received a Northern Promise Award. Boom! is a collection that digs into the blood, guts and heart of life at its very beginning.

Georgia Carys Williams writes for NWR online.

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previous review: Openings: A European Journal
next review: The Hospital


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