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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth, a review by Jane Simmons

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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.

 

 

 

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth

Carcanet Press

ISBN 978 1 84777 238 1

Rebecca Goss was one of the two judges for the 2017 Flambards Poetry Competition run by the University of Newcastle, Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts – and this is how I first encountered her work.

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Rebecca Goss grew up in Suffolk and returned to live in the county in 2013. She lived in Liverpool from 1992 – 2013, where she studied English at Liverpool John Moores University. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, then taught Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University for some years.  Her pamphlet ‘Keeping Houston Time’, came out in 1997 with Slow Dancer Press.  Her first full-length collection The Anatomy of Structures was published by Flambard Press in 2010.  Her poems have appeared in many literary journals, anthologies and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Arts online.

Her second collection, Her Birth was published in 2013 by Carcanet/Northern House. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection, won the Poetry category in The East Anglian Book Awards 2013, and in 2015 was shortlisted for The Warwick Prize for Writing and The Portico Prize for Literature. In 2014, Rebecca was selected for The Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets.

 

 

 

 

In 2007, Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with Severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition. She lived for sixteen months. Her Birth is a book-length sequence of poems beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child. Goss navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss in poems that are spare, tender and haunting: Going home, back down / the river road, will be a foreign route without her.

The poems, then, tell a powerfully moving story – a story of love, loss and grief for a baby daughter – but they do so with what the late Helen Dunmore described as pared down precision and scorching intensity. These characteristics are seen immediately in Fetal Heart, the first poem in the collection, where Goss presents the devastating diagnosis of her daughter’s condition in six lines only:

It uncurled, unfolded

into four but was clover

with an unlucky lobe,

the rarest of anomalies

that would flourish

to defeat her

where uncurled and unfolded invite us to admire the beauty of creation even in its imperfection. The analogy of the clover leaf, and the quest to find a lucky four leaf clover, present the anomaly in terms which are simultaneously familiar and shocking. The juxtaposition of flourish and defeat is equally powerful. This economy in the use of language is seen again and again throughout the collection. Elsewhere, Goss speaks directly about language in relation to the family experience:

our daughter warrants a new vocabulary

and we are struggling to learn

This is a reversal of the typical experience – the child learning language from her parents – and brings it home to the reader that what is happening to this family is so far from what is usual and what the new parents would have expected.

Goss prefaces the collection with the final stanza from Infant in Kate Clanchy’s collection Newborn:

Soon, you will make your way out

of this estuary country, leave

the low farms and fog banks, tack through

the brackish channels and long

reed-clogged rivulets, reach

the last turn, the salt air and river mouth,

the wide grey sea beyond it.

Water in its many forms is referred to throughout Her Birth, and also recurs in the imagery, unifying the individual poems in an organic whole. The baby’s father takes his glasses off to cry; heart babies slip from our hands into the ocean; both parents navigated waves and flounder before they grant the undocking and let her come adrift.  After their baby’s death, the bereaved parents drift/ to the waterfront we know well where stilled by rain / we find a bench, sit down where her death / has docked us. The first of the three sections in the collection ends with Her Birth where, in the characteristically spare language of the final stanza, Goss tells us how she and her husband scattered their baby’s ashes into the sea:

We drive two hundred

and eighty-one miles

for that cold, unstoppable

wave to suck the sachet clean

and I ask you, She is all right now,

isn’t she? She is all right?

In the second section of the collection, Goss writes powerfully moving poems about her grief – poems which are spare in their language but unsparing in their analysis of emotion.

She envies the fear felt by a woman whose son is missing:

I want fear to breed like that in my sweat,

want my daughter, two weeks dead,

back here to grow, run, alarm me.

She wishes she had stretch marks:

I have wished for them,

a record of her tracks, all snowed over, gone.

Poems can be prompted by the awareness of other bereaved mothers but also by the simplest of gestures, the most quotidian of acts: a jar of honey left on her doorstep by a stranger; the sight of a high-chair; putting out milk bottles on an October morning; the weight of a bag of muscovado sugar; a tree in a neighbour’s garden; school-children crossing a road; running; Peeing at the Odeon; and, most poignantly, the sight of her daughter’s prints my fossil/backlit on the glass or her clothes relics … hand-knitted proof.

In the third and final section of the collection, Goss writes about her decision to have another child, her experience of this pregnancy, the birth of her second daughter and their bonding. Echoes of earlier poems reverberate through this section: tests and scans; baby clothes; clothes on a washing-line; flooded canals and Mersey gulls; the low-tide of your day; taking this child to the coast, the same cold pull of the sea where the parents scattered the ashes of their first child. The collection ends when the poet is ready to face the future with her daughter:

Let’s head for your undiscovered life,

your mother’s ready now, let’s run.

It is difficult to single out just one of these poems to offer as a complete poem, but it was this one which appeared as The Saturday Poem in The Guardian

Her Birth

On the wall, petunias,
painted in Walberswick.
I call to you, say
That’s a good omen,
that’s a good sign,
before buckling,
gripping the hospital bed.

Walberswick is where
I holidayed, every childhood
summer. It’s where we announced
the news. Sixteen months
after the effort of her birth,
we collect a faux-walnut
box from Jenkins & Sons.
Inside, a clear sachet,
weightless as dried herbs.

We drive two hundred
and eighty-one miles
for that cold, unstoppable
wave to suck the sachet clean
and I ask you, She is all right now,
isn’t she? She is all right?

 

 

 

 

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