Motherhood, poetry and loss

‘I think my poems are full of words that I’m afraid to say’ – Pam Rehm*

In the weeks following my baby daughter’s death, there were days I could not speak. One particular day, my husband and I went for a drive, in silence.  Not the silence we had sometimes known before: both of us sulking, after a petty row.  This was a dumbstruck silence.  We were dumbstruck by what had happened to us.  It had taken courage from my husband that morning to pull me from our bed, get me upright and out of the house.  Still I couldn’t speak.  My mind however, swirled.  It wouldn’t rest and five years later there would be a book of poems.

That book is being published this year, in August, the month that stores the anniversary of her death.  It is finally going to be a tangible thing and of course, I’m pleased. I have a great publisher, a fine editor and feedback so far has been kind.  But all of that has come at such a cost.  The book would not exist if my daughter was still alive.

Writing the poems has given me a certain amount of control over my grief.  I have been able to express, share, reveal things – often difficult things – that I would have struggled to “say”.  By that I mean, say to people around me, in conversation.  If asked questions about my daughter, I give brief answers, because I’m terrified of upsetting people.  I avoid situations where I might be asked how many children I have, or general ‘baby talk’.  I feel I am the ‘bad news’ in the room – the death of a child is just too awful to explain.  So I keep quiet, but it doesn’t feel right.  Writing the poems has liberated me from that self-censorship.

I was once asked ‘Why didn’t you just write a memoir?’  Well, I’m a poet and there is a place in poetry for this type of autobiographical collection.  Look at Christopher Reid, Tim Liardet, Jill Bialoksy, Julia Copus, Penelope Shuttle – the list for ‘loss’ is endless.  Poems offer up a huge amount of information in a small, intimate space.  That’s what I love about them.  They are also an invitation to look very closely at something and that’s what I want to do with this book.  I’m asking people to look closely at the details of child loss.  I promised myself I would write this collection.  As a mother I long for my daughter, as a poet I am inspired by her.  It took me four years to write.  It’s a manuscript of only 6,438 words. But if I hadn’t written those words down, I’m not sure I would have ever said them.

 Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, Carcanet/Northern House, July 2013.  Shortlisted for The 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection. You can read ‘Lost’ from the collection here.  And my interview in The Observer about the book here.


*From:The Grand Permission: new writings on poetics and motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

13 thoughts on “Motherhood, poetry and loss

  1. I sense that what you have done in writing this book has been extraordinarily brave and I’m grateful that you have shared this post. There are so many people who are unable, or not brave enough, to begin to articulate loss and I know that poetry (and other art forms) can be transforming and comforting to them. I look forward to reading your forthcoming book.

  2. Pingback: ‘The Old and the Young’ by Rebecca Goss | peony moon

  3. Thank you Rebecca for your poems in ‘Her Birth’. The book strikes an important chord with me and it will do so for others I know who have experienced the death of a child. It frustrates me that so often women who experience the death of a baby are characterised in films and on TV as mad, or at least uncontrollable and unapproachable, rather than potentially visionary. My daughter Ingrid died soon after birth in 1994 and I found that poetry was the only way to say the unsayable. This was my own tribute to her life and death entitled: ‘Among the Untrodden Ways’. I hope you don’t mind if I share it with you and the others reading this.

    I. Grave

    New recruit
    Front line

    Tiny bulge

    II. Birth

    From nowhere
    Black hair shock
    Pip squeak

    Sliding seal
    Purple blue
    Limb bunch

    Sudden light
    Second child

    III. Death

    Mother beside
    Daughter below
    Female set
    Fired by a vision

    We spin

    Pump beats
    Survival time
    Can’t live
    Must die

    She was the centre

    We scatter
    Candle gone out

    IV. Photograph

    Dark sea surrounds
    Beached pearl
    Herring bone wrap
    Starch framed
    Desert island child

    Blue lips set
    Nostrils flared
    Eye lids closed
    Curved hand
    Bares a pink plaster

  4. You are right Caroline to mention the need to ‘say the unsayable’. I am pleased you have found comfort from writing and thank you for sharing these very moving poems written for your daughter.

  5. Rebecca,
    I cannot begin to imagine your suffering and dare not try; I just wish to thank you for your bravery. Somehow, amid all your anguish and suffering, you found an avenue and a voice to express your grief in the most profound and elegant way – no longer are you the silent ‘bad news’ in the room. Your bravery is not only an inspiration to poets, but to people everywhere who are afraid to speak. You have given them hope.

  6. I have been reading, and listening to you read poems on the loss of your daughter. ‘Help Line’ stood out for me because I am near my 80s and lost a son to a congential heart condition in the ’60s. Our son was one of many whose organs were kept by hospitals whose infants had died in their charge. I need to explain that I am from New Zealand and am married into a Maori family. Certain cultural practises are very important in our culture. Therefore there was family consultations on the seeking of a return of those organs. This followed a careful process and close liason with the hospital concerned and in due time our infant’s heart and lungs were returned to us. We had a ceremony exactly as any Maori funeral, known here as a ‘tangi’. It was nearly 40 years after his death and I personally called that ceremony a homecoming. It was a healthy and wise and incredibly healing process for us to go through as a family. My infant was flown to a major city with no possibility of me accompanying him when he was 12 days old. He died in a subsequent operation, 17 days old.

    I am a poet and share a little of a longer poem named ‘Homecoming’ here.

    a woman wails
    the dry eyes of the men
    are weeping too


    across a cushion
    a daughter’s hand reaches
    stone and shell on the casket


    a bluebottle
    flies into the room
    oratory continues

    7. it was his birthday yesterday

    before the Lord’s Prayer
    his sister requests
    we sing Happy Birthday

    something that belonged to him

    I do hope this posts successfully.

    • Dear Benita,

      Thank you for getting in touch and for sharing your experience here. I found ‘Homecoming’ very moving. I don’t think we ever get over the death of our children, but I do hope you have begun to find some peace. And I’m sure that the writing will help.

      • How time frames vary. Here I am in N.Z. and it’s 7.56 – 14.10.2012 as your reply filters into my box. (An early morning start on a poem).

        I have an addition I’d very much like to share. Some years ago I was visiting my daughter in Australia. It was at the time Andrew, the son of whom I write above, would have been turning 25 years on that day. It was not until 2 days later that I recalled the specialness (and the anguish) of that particular day and I wept with a sort of relief that I had in fact not remembered. It was strange but important. The ‘homecoming’ ceremony completed a kind of healing. We will in time let them go. Now when I think of him I see him as a grown man. I hope my dear that it will get easier for you too – but no we never get over it. His baptism in the incubator my most poignant memory.

  7. This blog has been somewhat neglected of late, but thank you for your moving comment. I recognised your ‘strange but important’ experience – and all those complicated emotions. Wishing you a peaceful Christmas Benita.

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