No 2 - May 2009
Writing from the Rough: Poems About Grief
Remembering not to call
When I began to write poetry, it came soon after a long process of cautious, but radical, rebuilding of what had been an untenable relationship with my mother.
She was an aggressive woman who gave little quarter when it came to the needs and feelings of others, particularly children and especially her own. She was also very cleverly manipulative and if you were going to survive with your licence-for-free-will intact, you had to face up to that, stay alert (for surreptitious moves!) and, most importantly, you had to step up and fight your corner. And ‘Yes’ – even during the dying years.
I often say, rather ashamedly, ‘I’ve written some terrible stuff about my mother’. But, given a fully conscious awareness of this process, this necessity and tension, why would I avoid it in my writing? As poets, isn’t it important to explore how relationships work? To try to understand what it is we respond to and why? Isn’t ‘why we might tolerate and even become complicit in, abusive behaviour towards us’ – particularly given its devastating and lasting effects – as important to understand as tenderness and love? Surely, this is a topic that can’t be put out of bounds?
So, what is this ‘terrible stuff’? In The Truth About My Mother, I acknowledge, “but not to her” – that “She may have saved me” (from the consequences of drunken behaviour) – because “A man stripped for flaying must live elsewhere”. In The Wad, in response to an imagined response from her, I say “this is how the road feels – somewhere between dismissed and hunted down”.
We were also, after the ‘rebuild’, seriously close friends. I love her and admire her and here I am, several years after her death, still missing her and finding myself about to ‘just give my mum a call’. I have tender poems about her too. In Drying the Flowers: “What am I to do with all the dead things / I’m too attached to?” I think, though, that writing about the rough with the smooth is as important as living with it.
We were lucky, my mother and father and I. She recovered, powerful and infuriating and against all expectation, from unconsciousness in intensive care. We were given the gift of more years – three years – in which we were able to spend more time together, to comfort each other and prepare, to address the previously-unsaid... in short, we were able to share some of the grieving process.
Most of the poems I wrote then had her in it, specifically or obliquely. I didn’t show her these poems – or many at all as she had made it clear early on that she planned not to think much of my poetry – but I learned to trust her capacity for rejecting my point of view and standing her own corner if she did see them. After her death, the timbre of my writing about her gradually changed and mellowed.
This was written about a year after she died.
Things my Mother Gave Me
Twin sisters. My birth. Her death.
And, somewhere in between, a fear of losing,
and of success;
of life without a man. The comfort of hot buttered eggs,
cut up rough; the word ‘oxters’ at my command.
A gran and grandad for a while, it would have served her
better to reject.
Hatred of manipulation, of its effects.
Where people are concerned, a willingness to understand
that she was scathingly dismissive of. Something tighter,
lonelier than fear,
of never being good enough. It wasn’t her
who gave me failure at my own death, yet,
she kept a note of mine for thirty five years, hidden
in a white leather writing case.
Later, friendship; a generosity of love-filled gifts:
a necklace of silver and black, a favourite photograph,
an oil painting of my cats. Laughter –
a world of it,
often when I needed it the most. And, yes, envy.
Of her strength. Of what she knew. Of her determination
to bluster through, knowing no words
and that nothing she could ever do could save
her daughters from the whole unpalatable mess.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The