On reading Karen McCarthy Woolf

This is not a review. This is a short piece about spending eight hours on trains last week, getting to and from a reading, and having uninterrupted time to open several neglected books, including Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds.

The collection, about the poet’s stillborn son, is something I have been keen to read. For obvious reasons, some may say, and yes I was deeply curious to see how another poet and mother writes about the death of a child. By the sixth poem, and the ‘tiny white vests, unworn’ I was crying so much I had to put the book back in my bag. I was surprised to be upset. That may sound naive but I’ve got used to keeping myself together for Her Birth readings. I thought I could cope with the subject matter. Talking to poet Martin Figura once, about his performance of Whistle – a mesmerising, autobiographical piece about the death of his mother, we both agreed that keeping a boundary between how we felt about our experiences and what we revealed to the audience was essential. It would be detrimental for the audience to see us upset. He did make me laugh when he said, ‘Nobody wants to see that Rebecca.’ True.

But this time, reading An Aviary of Small Birds, I was in the audience. I did finish the book, later, at home, and at the end of it, I was thinking about the poet’s dead baby, not mine. I was immersed in McCarthy Woolf’s acute, sensory images. I was immersed in all the beauty she has been able to create. I was immersed in the water ‘…because it is a comfort,/this return to water, to the stream, to the earth;//the mindless torrent of the brook,’ (from ‘Hawk’).  It made me think of Robert Peake’s moving, elegiac pamphlet The Silence Teacher with its many watery images and scenes. I mentioned the connection between water and bereavement to Robert. ‘I suppose grief is fluid somehow’, was his response. The fluidity of McCarthy Woolf’s book carries us through her experience. Rivers ‘press, insinuate, overwhelm, insist, endure,’ and we are passengers, sometimes clinging to the sides, sometimes peering over the edge to look more closely.  There were harrowing parts:

‘Under Other requests or concerns:
hands, feet, face, hair – all must be left intact.
Brain restored to head, skin
stitched neatly and correctly.’

(from ‘The Paperwork’)

Harrowing yes, but it felt right to read them, because such experiences need to be exposed and discovered if we are to understand ‘difficult’ things. McCarthy Woolf’s poems have made me understand more about this very particular grief and its impact. There was a lot I could relate to, obviously, but the experience was so uniquely hers, the poems became illuminating. I may not have gained comfort from reading An Aviary of Small Birds, but what I did glean from its pages was knowledge.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf will be appearing at The 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend.

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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).

Perfect Places

October saw the launch of Perfect Places, a Time-To-Read initiative aiming to encourage poetry reading and borrowing in libraries.

I was delighted to be one of the twelve poets from the North West selected to take part.   We each submitted a poem, set in the North West.   The poems were illustrated and made into posters, postcards and then shared in libraries, community centres, surgeries and so on.   My poem, taken from my forthcoming collection, is titled ‘A Child Dies in Liverpool’.  I am aware how bleak that sounds, but was heartened by the selection panel’s decision to accept it.  We do turn to poetry at times of distress, I certainly do.  Poetry addresses sad and difficult topics.   The poster version of my poem is displayed at The Alder Centre, at Liverpool Alder Hey Hospital, where help and support is provided for bereaved families.  A poster is also at the Head Office of Child Bereavement UK and in the offices of Dying Matters.  I am grateful to the support of all these organisations.

As part of the project each poet gave readings at libraries.  I had two very enjoyable afternoons at Blackburn library and Bebington library.  Both libraries had full and interesting calendars when it came to hosting a range of literary events. I met some incredibly nice people through this project – and remain inspired by the enthusiasm, passion and commitment shown by librarians.

To see the poster, read the poem and listen to me reading it click here.