Helen Moore The Mother Country
Awen Publications, www.awenpublications.co.uk
ISBN 978-1-906900-58-8, 96pp
‘The Mother Country’ is concerned with dispossession, particularly in deportations from Britain to Scotland, Celts being forced out of Scotland during the Highland Clearances and more contemporary issues with inheritance and ecology. The poems are divided into sections, ‘The Disinherited’, ‘The Gates of Grief’, ‘The Skin of their Future’ and ‘Legacies’, each with at least one epigram. The title poem in the first section is set in England in 1787 and starts,
‘What sort of “mother”
cuts off her offspring,
casts them away
in ships to a land
belongs to no one?
out there – beyond the Indian Ocean –
“New South Wales”
has a few “natives”, is barely on the map.)’
The line breaks and indentations reflect the sense of being cut off, of dislocation from a mother country. It is a bit of a stretch though to blame the mother country when it was politicians making the decision to ship prisoners out to Australia. But the image of being rejected and shipped out so books can be balanced holds. The level of contempt towards indigenous Australians is accurate. One poem does look at the arrival of British prisoners through those, in ‘A British Marine Office Considers the Colonial Presence, Ventriloquising the “Natives”’ set in Port Jackson 1788 where a fleet of British ships arrive,
‘their warriors drove a tall spike into the earth. From it fly colours
of their place – red, white, blue. Putting captives to work
is what they do. From the boats’ vast bellies poured a sickly crowd
in heavy, clanking ropes, skin & hair riddled with insects.
Some of these unfortunates could only crawl on to the shore,
while others lay & groaned like speared fish.
The night they got here, the portent of a storm –‘
The prisoner officers raised the British flag, the act of a conqueror. The poem includes observations of some men ‘Mounted upon high-hoofed creatures with long, hairy tails,// they stroll about & flick reedy serpents onto the captives.’ It captures and outlines the sense of alienation and lack of attempts at integration by the British to the country they were invading. It also carries the idea that the indigenous Australians were more sympathetic to the prisoners than admiring of the prison guards.
The second section, ‘The Gates of Grief’, looks at the death of parents through the eyes of an adult child. The section’s opening poem, ‘The Changeling’, suggests the daughter ‘never felt quite her mother’s flesh & blood’ as a brother is favoured.
‘Alone with the Corpse’, shows mother and daughter visiting the husband/father’s body prepared for his funeral, just after the daughter has said she was aware that the marriage wasn’t always happy,
‘he must have hurt you many times,
as I take her in my arms,
&, barely believing this moment
to be real, say that I love her.’
The mother’s reaction later comes as a surprise,
a queen towards
a heresy, she retorts
(a portcullis crashing
down between us,
& I held captive)
We don’t speak ill
of the dead!’
The daughter is hurt as the mother has moved from a private moment to a reminder that private matters are not spoken about in public. The adult daughter’s misreading of the situation a sign of an unhappy past. The mother is cast as dictator and jailer, failing to understand or respond to her daughter’s attempt to connect and reconcile. The remainder of the section is a journey through the mother’s death from cancer.
There are some lighter moments, in ‘Tip #5: What Not to Say While Online Dating’, most of the English county of Somerset is below sea level so floods are a huge concern,
‘ he loved a good storm for clearing the air.
Yes, she messaged, but here on the Somerset border
I saw a giant python swallowing the street – just inches from my feet
its grey, liquid body tumbling rubbish & a stink of sewage.
Then, warming to the theme, she voiced her fear
of British rains changing, importing larger inundations.’
The whole collection has its own epigram, a quote from the poet’s mother’s will where the mother states that the poet has been deliberately excluded and will not receive anything from the mother’s estate. The final section ‘Legacies’ explores this. In ‘Legacy, Mother’s Day, 2016’, two years after the mother’s death (‘Blighty’ is slang for England),
‘I seek recourse beyond the law (in Blighty a parent
still has the right to disinherit a child);
and, upholding the Gallic spirit in my blood, find
justice in the poetic tradition…
Item, to my sibling I bequeath forgiveness, through a shabby bird
in snot-green, moth-attacked plumage.’
The bird is a non-indigenous parrot that escaped its cage. It doesn’t know how to take care of itself and would die if humans it begged from didn’t feed it. The implication here is the brother grew up as a golden child who struggles with independence. However, the brother had as little choice about this as the daughter did for being cast out. Neither the poem nor the book clarifies whether the brother was also written out of his mother’s will. It’s difficult to know how much to read into the bird image because readers don’t know whether the brother is successful or struggling.
I’m bothered by the reference to English law. There’s also a reference to this on the back cover, ‘Under English law a parent still has the right to disinherit their offspring. The book is a poet’s response to being written out of her mother’s will.’ The use of ‘still’, in the poem and blurb, implies a belief that the law is wrong and (adult) children should inherit. It doesn’t mention that, under English law, it is possible for wills to be challenged where no provision has been made for dependants, but this adult daughter who has moved from England to Australia is not a dependant. I’m struggling to follow the sense of entitlement.
Other legacies include environmental legacy and the sequence, ‘Frome-Selwood, An Odyssey’, considers how a formerly dense woodland has become a place,
over rust and stone carcasses
of former industry,
a wet dream of town-centre stores
clean as bones.’
Not only have the woods gone but the dream of a flourishing town has given way to neglect as failed industries have left people struggling.
Overall ‘The Mother Country’ explores dislocation, historical and contemporary, and the legacies created by this. Helen Moore understands how craft and white space around a poem reflect on the poem, whether using line breaks to cut lines or tightly controlled centred lines or sprawling, discursive lines. The poems set in Australia and the English countryside are particularly strong, showing acute observations and compassion for their subjects.