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Spooning Light: Moon Milk By Rachel Bower
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Rachel Bower
First, as a bloke, and childless, I might not be best placed to give a thorough reading of poet and academic Rachel Bower’s fabulous new collection. But, as an awestruck celebrant of the astonishingly detailed, and, frankly, informative, lengths she goes to to convey the experience of pregnancy and motherhood, I openly offer admiration and respect.

Moon Milk is a joy. And every experience, every crisis of anticipation, every fear both reasonable and panic-induced, every catching of maternal ecstasy, is steadily recalled, as though the hand at the lyrical tiller was piloting a course the day before yesterday. With an unusually acute power of remembrance, a great skill for channelling emotional anxiety, and a battery of formal approaches with which to convey trepidation, uncertainty, and unrestrained celebration, Bower gifts the reader a dynamically mutable picture of maternity.

It would have been easy to sink into a quagmire of amorphous sentiment in a necessarily inward-looking narrative. But Bower avoids any suggestion of the bathetic by embracing the visceral alongside the beautiful, and measuring the honesty of fear against an instinctive drive to punch the air with happiness. She remains clear-eyed and entirely unblinkered by preconception throughout. Which is why the immediacy of experiences so many will recognise looks entirely fresh in Bower’s representation.

The truncated lineation of the poem ‘One Line’ obliges a vicarious squint at a pregnancy testing stick, alongside a narrator whose desperation for a positive result almost ‘force(s) / that second stripe / to appear’. The split layout of ‘Two Lines’, by contrast, mirrors the new division of the body into two halves of the same being, whilst savouring the interplay of excitement and anticipation in apt effervescent metaphors of ‘fizz’ and tickling ‘bubbles’.

Bower’s use of fruit as metaphors for fecundity is as profuse as a field of strawberries. The bright ‘dancing’ raspberries of the strip in ‘Two Lines’ re-materialise, elsewhere, in the colour of swelling stomach rashes, and the strangely beautiful ‘raspberry threads’ of blood in breast milk (‘Amber’). All congeal in the rich jam of the poem ‘Fruit’ whose rumination on the carrying of a baby is ripe with the succulence of fructiferous imagery. The melding of taste with joyous, salivatory expectation explodes on the figurative tongue, and, redolent of Arcimboldo’s astonishing conflated image in his renaissance masterwork, Vertumnus, is corollary to the synaesthesiac confusions of pregnancy.

‘My feet became paddle fruit, slapping the pavements while my fingers swelled
to bananas. Melon faced, I sat in and sucked nectarines.
Sometimes the birds pecked but they rarely slept.’

The ‘plum floor’ of the shared maternal ‘cave’ is repeated in the fine poem ‘Track’, whose narrative describes the migratory movement of ‘steaming packs’ of reindeer. The call of instinct yields common ground with the human experience as the pregnant deer ‘trust(s) the stink of plum earth and her wet velvet’ for security and procreative purpose. The blood/dark of the earth is as totemic a remembrancer as Homer’s ‘wine dark sea’, and as compelling a hook.

The slow progress towards eight months of pregnancy is realised as a ship’s journey to shore in ‘Slow Ship’, where the ship is the mother, and her vessel, ‘mighty on waves’, rocks yachts in its wake. Bower’s reversal of the mythological journey across the river Styx to an Underworld of irredeemable oblivion, powers the ship, instead, towards a harbour of light. Here, in a profoundly moving tableau, the teeming, effulgent waters bear the bright resonances of ancestry, as though the child’s spiritual essences were foregathering, Magi-like, for the birth:

‘as ancestors spill over railings
bright hair floating around our keel
spirits gleaming in shoals of fish.

They silver the tar of our hull
tracing the route to buttery shores,
to the sands were calves are born.’

The sea and air are persuasive metaphors for a weightlessness which defines the sensory suggestion of foetal presence here and elsewhere. Bower’s use of a long metrical form, and circumlocution of warm sibilant sounds in ‘Fruit’ encourages an easeful, contented narcosis where the ‘wriggling bird’ of the unborn baby takes happy amniotic ‘flight’ in the womb.

The image of the nest is rejoined in the dense and complex ‘Aubade’, whose title hints at post-partum separation, but whose delicate couplets act as an emollient to the trauma. The burning frankincense and personification of ‘Ostare’ suggest another nativity, and the evisceration of birthing is softened in the solemn knowledge of inevitability and preparedness. There is a real feeling of ritualised, instinctive beauty and unconditional love here:

‘Your heart has bloomed with mine
    for nine long months, but soon it will be time

for the wrench of dawn
to crack yolk on our basket of blood.’

Bower’s dialogue with her new self is uncommonly lyrical, lending her linear narrative a continuing, renewed immediacy. The second half of her collection moves to birth and rearing, and a landscape punctuated by disembodied ‘crystal screams’ through partitions (‘Stones’), and seemingly indifferent midwives (‘Foaling’), which, in turn, precipitate a sense of singularity, of aloneness, where the narrator/mother finds anthropomorphic comfort in animal instincts of protective retreat. Here is a place where ‘calves are born’ (‘Slow ship’), and where...

‘I paused at last in a patch of black grass
sweet taste of blood
and, alone in the dark, birthed my foal.’ (‘Stones’)

Italicised voices of readiness, of self-assertion and of naked fear sometimes burst through the narrative’s tight carapace. Bower’s personal reflex in a maelstrom of controlled emotion is Bakhtinian in the best sense, and, in the complex Pantoum, ‘Postnatal Ward’, that register becomes cacophonous as it overwhelms sense and reason in an outpouring of hysteria. Perceiving existential threat in insignificant detail, the narrator’s increasing paranoia is an agency of her new condition, and it is significant that the person to whom she addresses her self-annihilating fears is her own mother, who in the end, placates through complicity:

‘Oh god, now they’re going for his spine.
I stand sobbing at the window in my pyjamas as
the floor starts to vibrate
I hear it, she says, I’m coming.

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The poem is claustrophobically terrifying, and the repetitional demands of the Pantoum form render fear palpable. The same voice of corrective reason re-emerges later as a tendency to catastrophise through a sense of over-protection overwhelms the mother, whose milk, in turn, becomes balm and symbol of both Pavlovian simplicity and continuity (‘Amber’ & ‘Oyster’).

Fully aware of the impossibility of completing a jigsaw whose image-making continues for as long as parenting sustains, Bower’s depiction of the early years of motherhood probes at the heart of childhood in its own polychromatic lexis; which is to suggest that a bigger picture, an interpretation, is subordinate to the sometimes anxious, sometimes transgressive, sometimes howlingly frustrating nature of the journey.

The narrator’s instinctive urge to oppose the rigorous channelling of gender-stereotyping in the fine poem ‘Blue Nails’ fails because she is ‘one woman and they are many’. But the beauty of her definition consists in positioning the boy in his own terms, imagining a process of learning unmitigated by preconception, in an untroubled language of innocence:

‘One day he comes home beaming.
Between his finger and thumb
is a tiny book, its pages small as stamps.
A girl-flower made it for him.
He knows from the silver leaves
that she is his best friend. He shines.’

That the mother is not prepared to accept the blandishments of the surrounding ‘many’ – in the end she ‘prepare(s) for battle’ – is as strong an impulse as her maternal instinct for peace. The poem ‘Sheffield to Aleppo’ – a profoundly fitting coda to a collection about the rewards of parental love but also, indivisibly, anxiety and pain – re-works the lighting of a firework against the prismatic possibility of what fire in the sky might mean to a child in Syria. The juxtaposition of images of easy, child-like joy with those of war’s crucible congeal, almost, to a grand oxymoron of pain and half-recognition, in the eyes of one so young as the narrator’s daughter, light years distant in a garden in South Yorkshire.

When another poet, Tony Harrison, wrote that grieving mothers of the world are all ‘Hecubas’ in spirit, in vicarious suffering on the scorched plains of Troy, he meant us to open our eyes to what the ‘gift’ of fire may mean to the immolated, and to those who are obliged to endure. In her powerfully moving first collection, Rachel Bower’s final lines cauterize hope for the sake of the children:

‘and I ache for it only to be fireworks

for thumbs in the dark to be enough
to stop glazed buns cracking in the dust
for shells that spill only golden fish
for grazes that heal with the fizz

of a rocket and I kneel
in the night and feel her sleep.’

Moon Milk is published by Valley Press

Spooning Light: Moon Milk By Rachel Bower, 1st August 2018, 15:22 PM