New Poetry, Fiction, Essay

Jacqueline Saphra: All My Mad Mothers – a review by Jane Simmons

Circle Logo

Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.


Jacqueline Saphra: All My Mad Mothers

Nine Arches Press

ISBN: 9781911027201


Jacqueline Saphra is, in her own words:

a poet, editor, agitator, teacher, organiser and word-enthusiast, but not necessarily in that order. I’m increasingly interested in genre-bending. You’ll find poems, prose poems and proems in my most recent collection. I’m also an enthusiastic collaborator, working with composers, musicians and visual artists. I love doing readings and organising large scale poetry events. https://jacquelinesaphra.wordpress.com



She has been a founder of The Shuffle, a regular live poetry night, a Poet in Residence for Good Housekeeping and a board member for Magma Poetry. She offers mentoring and also teaches poetry in all kinds of settings including The Poetry School.

Saphra has won a number of prizes and her work has been widely anthologised. Her pamphlet, Rock’n’Roll Mamma was published by Flarestack in 2008. The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions from flipped eye was published in 2011 and nominated for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Her book of prose poemsIf I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women, illustrated by Mark Andrew Webber was published in 2014 by the Emma Press.
There is also a specially composed series of musical miniatures for cello and piano by Benjamin Tassie to accompany the poems in performance. It won the Best Collaborative Work in the Saboteur Awards 2015. Her T.S.Eliot prize shortlisted collection, All My Mad Mothers, is published by Nine Arches Press. Her new chapbook, A Bargain with the Light: poems after Lee Miller was published by Hercules Editions in 2017.

When asked about the title of the collection on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, Saphra argued:

the very condition of being a mother induces a kind of madness.


The mother holds the fate of another being in her hands; she is responsible for a whole new life:


You can’t possibly live up to the demands of that role, let alone live a separate and free existence yourself.


The poems contain much that is autobiographical, as Saphra explained:


I have had many mothers myself: five in fact (all partners of my father).



The collection is divided into four untitled sections. The first begins with In the winter of 1962 my mother, a brief anecdote about a baby being driven round and round Hyde Park Corner in a way which is a metaphor for problems in the relationship between the new baby’s parents. The mother is:


Not sure how to execute the move outwards

Into another lane never having been

Properly taught how to make an exit

The narrator in the next poem, My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury, describes the paraphernalia of beauty as usual instruments of torture and calls:

Woman’s flesh a fading treasure

Braced for pain but honed for pleasure

This is what it means to be a woman in the twentieth century; this is the legacy which each woman expects to pass on to her daughter. However, the daughters may challenge this model of femininity:

Mother’s tricks will pass to daughter


This year   next year    sometime  never



In response to poet Clare Pollard’s description of the poems as a feminist book, Saphra writes:

I came of age in a confusing time, morally and culturally speaking. At the same time as women were being ‘liberated’, they were simultaneously being held prisoner by a kind of misplaced liberalism; that was a source of another type of madness (and a longer discussion than this). But one thing I did learn from the early philosophy of the Women’s Movement is that old feminist adage: The personal is political. In fact the whole collection is underpinned by that idea. And I like to think that the title poem embodies it, embracing the individual stories of many women, and acknowledging them to be collective ones.


In The Sound of Music, the narrator’s sister gets a small part in a production of the musical, before taking an overdose:


Maybe I should have told her

               I didn’t understand then


               that you can squander a lifetime

               trying to stay small and pretty


             believing you have the voice

             of an angel if only someone


             would hear it and carry you

             up the grand staircase to bed.


This poem provides an example of the personal and the political. In the character of the sister, Saphra presents a girl who has been exposed to ideas of what it means to be a woman – ideas and false ideals held up by narratives and the presentation of these narratives in the glossy world of entertainment. The narrator shows how exposure to these views creates a pressure which is seriously damaging, and destructive. She herself has been affected – but she has managed to free herself. We are made to feel that it is a lucky escape; not all are so lucky.


The first section ends with All My Mad Mothers, the book’s title poem. Each stanza begins My mother, and it is not immediately clear whether this poem is seven portraits of one woman, seven real women or seven representative women. Saphra has explained that her own mother, and all her father’s other partners, appear in the poems as do the mothers of some of her friends. The title poem, like the collection itself, gathers images, memories and imagined scenarios and puts them together. The last mother:



was so hard to grasp: once we found her

           in a bath of extra virgin olive oil, her skin well slicked.

           She’s stocked the fridge with lard and suet, butter – salted

           and unsalted – to ease her way into the world. Or out of it.


In section 2, childhood is left behind and the narrator has become a young woman, exploring her sexuality:

            I was girlish and abandoned, taking my bed

            of sand, those oh-so-green and casual boys


            for granted, dreamed in beaches

            naked, mouth grazed with the taste


            of smoke and strangers’ kisses,

            and I howled into the drunken dark for


            stupid reasons and I thought

            this was an education.


The narrator continues to explore her sexuality in Virginity, The Day My Cousin Took Me to the Musée Rodin, Volunteers, 1978, and Hampstead, 1979. This time:


            He says he’s a Gemini too,

           always wears white linen

           to parties and is a recreational


           heroine user in an open



The reader can see how the young woman is exploited in her various encounters.

In section 3, the now adult narrator has children of her own. These poems are quite different from the poems in the two previous sections . In Mother. Son. Sack of Salt, two people carry a sack of salt home. This becomes an extended metaphor for the changing relationship between mother and son:

It’s heavier than it looks,

              but she’s strong, it’s nothing


             and he can help. She takes

             one end, he takes the other.


The poem finishes:

She turns back; follows the trail

           of white. She tries to gather up


           everything they’ve left behind,

           to fill her arms with salt.


In Leavings, another poem which explores the parent child relationship:

 The devils and the lunatics are loose;

            bear your children, keep them close


           for now


The poem ends:

throw up your wrinkled hands, unveil the wreck

you’ve left them: the fires, the slow black,


the cleft and spill. Confess: this bruised world, blue

and plundered; now it belongs to you.


What Time is it in Nova Scotia is addressed to an adult daughter who has left home, more ambitious, less domestic – a letting go poem to a daughter, the inverse of the earlier rite of passage poems. This section ends with The Doors to My Daughter’s House, where the daughter is independent:

I’ve seen her stride away …

she stands honed and ready


as the newest weathers of the world rush in and all

              her tomorrows poise to make their entrances.


In section 4, we appear to be in the present; in Kiss/Kiss the narrator is a mature woman:

.            Love comes around again, hot pulse in the chest,

             so unexpected, so familiar. You pull up a chair,

             and when we kiss the way we always kiss,


It’s clear that mature beats young love every time, leaving the reader with:

Let’s kiss, my love, the way we always kissed.

These poems have taken us on a journey through a woman’s life, from childhood through to maturity. The final poem, Charm for Late Love finishes:

Let’s hunt the heart we’ll never keep.

 Candle   Gutter   Snuff and Sleep


and the structure of this final line echoes the final line of My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury – inviting the modern woman to read into that what she will.












You might also like

2 poems by Cathy Donelan

Cathy Donelan is a writer from the West of Ireland. Her fiction has appeared in ROPES, The Honest Ulsterman, Dodging The Rain, The Nottingham Review, Spontaneity and Blue Smoky Literary And Arts

Read More »

6 poems from Tom Paine

TOM PAINE’s poetry is upcoming or published in The Nation, Glasgow Review of Books, The Moth Magazine, Blackbox Manifold, Volt, Fence, Forklift, Ohio, Epiphany, The

Read More »

Share this post with your friends

You may also enjoy
Fiona Stevens is a poet and fiction writer of Irish…