Spoiler alert! This is a seriously good book, but it pulls no punches about the nuts and bolts of motherhood. No quaint, cooing here. Instead, there’s blood and milk; love and its shadow; the joys and the sheer brain-boiling frustrations of responsibility.
In the opening poem, Water Birth, we’re being tossed about in an open boat, helping a young refugee give birth. The language is gripping, the horrific situation palpable, the rhythm of waves and contractions perfectly tuned:
The sea swells, nearly time to push
but now she’s trying not to push
juddering through breaths
of thick fog, sick pea soup and the sea-
fire is swallowing it all, burning this girl
up so she blazes. When the head
crowns she grips, scorches my hand.
A powerful metaphor, not only for what war and poverty reduces us to, but for that all-at-sea feeling of new motherhood.
Bower’s range of tone is impressive. She gives us the simple and incisive, in poems like Flood, set in Bangladesh, where a mother stands on a raft:
Her feet are bare, tired.
She does not think of grilled corn
or sugar and rice pounded to lai.
Lime trees wait on the horizon
casually kicking brown water.
This is not a lake so there is no shore.
In Christmas Day, Daughter Arriving we enter Plath territory: observational pith in the midst of emotion.
You arrive early, impatient and purple
gaping for milk, small fists
battering without aim.
But Bowers can also give us experimental poems which use space, symbol and enjambment to shake up the reader – most successfully in Mother/Not Normal and Mother in Law, with their scatter of images; less successful, perhaps, in Light and Smog, where for me, the spaces become an irritant tic, and lines-breaks appear to come randomly. I’m all for interesting forms if they support meaning, but not if they undermine the emotional rhythm that runs through an idea.
For a synthesis of narration and impressionism, the final poem of the collection, Continue on Loop, is hard to beat. This evocation of motherhood rings so true. We follow a woman’s daily round (literally) of child care and the love that makes it possible:
We all fall down in the ring of roses.
Crushed rice cakes spill from my pocket.
Flushed, I wipe the parquet floor, keep singing,
down at the bottom of the deep blue sea,
catching fishes for our tea! A mug of milky
brew goes cold. Atishoo, atishoo, we all jump
- up. I am sweating. My baby is a jumping
bean. I escape the church hall, inhale roses,
the baby on my back, crying for milk.
There is wit aplenty here, and tenderness too:
I sing of green bottles, the invisible work of the rose
the falling of petals, the swell of the sea, the rising
again from severed stems, and we jump up and sing
of pockets of rye, then lay close together in milk.
There is so much honesty in Bowers’ poetry, so much skill in letting the emotions speak. Without waving flags or storming barricades, her poems pitch important questions to a world that ignores or misunderstands motherhood. The kind of world that forces a woman to paddle for her children’s lives, or turns breast-feeding into an obstacle course.
Bowers sees beyond her own personal experiences, and universalizes them. Some of the poems touch on experiences in Asia, or archaic attitudes to mental health, as in Madwoman:
You don’t want madhouse in your bed, in your room,
near the children, shouting at strangers in the street –
that big red building with the clock will soon
sort it out – you don’t want madhouse under your feet,
Other poems take on eco-themes, with the earth needful of our maternal instincts. Wordling is short enough to quote in full:
A baby blackbird hops madly at the base of an oak.
Unable to get lift. It lurches from tree to tree,
A conker falls too soon. When the child stamps
she finds only a pale heart nestled in velvet,
Offal falls from the womb. Crocuses sprout under paving.
A chicken spots a streak of wet yolk and crumples,
These are noises in the throat, not yet formed.
These Mothers of Gods is a deeply felt, skillfully crafted collection, which sparkles with verbal dexterity, originality and well-chosen imagery. At its heart is the potency and inter-connectedness of life, so touchingly expressed in Hive Mother’s Prayer.
May the nights bring you pollen
and sun-bright sheets, may the hours
we rocked you still lull you
to sleep, release you from grief . . .
may your nights close in a glimmer
of wings, may your belly keep its heat.
You can order your copy of These Mothers of Gods by Rachel Bower, here: flyonthewallpress.co.uk