Carolyn Jess-Cooke: Boom!
Published by Seren
Carolyn Jess-Cooke was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1978 and currently lives in north-east England. She is mother to four children. Her debut poetry collection Inroads (Seren, 2010) received a Northern Promise Award, an Eric Gregory Award, the Tyrone Guthrie Prize for Poetry, and was shortlisted for the New London Poetry Prize. Her debut novel The Guardian Angel’s Journal (Little, Brown/Piatkus, 2011) was published in 23 languages and her second novel, The Boy Who Could See Demons (Piatkus, 2012) was critically appraised by The New York Times, The Guardian, Booklist, and others. A number of her poetry commissions are featured in public art installations around England, including a poem set into a 700m ribbon of steel that runs throughout a mental health complex in Middlesbrough. She has performed her work at many festivals and venues around the world, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the Irish Writers Centre and at the Sage Gateshead.
The title poem of this collection, ‘Boom!’ describes the moment when the new baby arrives in the poet’s family like a hand grenade.
This baby who thought she was a hand-grenade explodes into their lives with such violence that she throws them from their orbit. The language and imagery of war continue throughout the poem. This explosive device of a baby emits endless alarm-sounds which are difficult to decode – it is a situation which will be immediately recognised by any parents. Then more such devices entered our lives and the parents face the prospect that each day may be our last in fact, they are blown to smithereens but they held on and
shrapnel soldered the parts of us
that hadn’t quite fit before
The poems then look back to the early weeks of the poet’s first pregnancy, and describe an early scan in the poem Anonymous before moving on to the final weeks leading up to Home Birth. The poet describes the birth, using domestic language and imagery appropriate to the domestic surroundings where the birth takes place.
They said she was stuck
As though she was a nine pound human fork
Pronged in the dishwasher
before moving into a contrasting description of the birth of her second baby, a son
my body remembered,
it took the first shunt of his head, yawned, then
toboganned him out in a rush of brine,
red as a crab
The poems capture the rapturous moments of parenthood, such as when the mother observes her baby in the poem The Waking. The details of the description are minute, full of emotion, and often tactile,
Those first few days every part of her wakened,
the seedling eyes stirred by sunlight, tight fists
clamped to her chest like a medieval knight
and slowly loosening as if the metal hands
were reminded of their likeness to petals
by the flowing hours. Her colours, too,
rose up like disturbed oils in a lake, pooling
through the birth-tinge into human shades,
her ink eyes lightening to an ancestral blue,
the scurf and residue of me on her scalp floated
easily as a pollen from the sweet grass of her hair.
She reminded me of a fern, each morning more
unfurled, the frond-limbs edging away from her
heart, the wide leaves of her face spread to catch
my gaze. Once, I saw the white down of her skin
cloud in my hands, the cream ridges of her nails
drift like crescent moons, the thick blue rope
she had used to descend me tossed like a stone,
as though she was finally free.
Seen through the eyes of her children, the world is a remarkably beautiful and wonderful place – marvels are discovered in the most unexpected places and in the simplest of things – and the poet also describes these experiences with an intense appreciation. At times, it seems as though the fresh eyes and new vision of her children are shaping or extending her abilities or powers as a poet flooding the world for her. There is
a kind of purpose
only she defines. Because of her, the simple is no more
my darling’s breath determines there
to be nothing but hope, and life, and plenty.
These changes are perhaps best summed up in the phrase all life re-quickened.
To counter-balance the moments of ecstasy or rapture, there are also tragi-comic sleepless nights, full of small elbows in the face and assailed by colds and colic. Neither does the poet shy away from the darker fears and depressions that can afflict the parents of babies and young children.
In the early weeks or months of her baby’s life, the poet seems to believe that the infant is some sort of changeling or foundling, not hers at all, and she is afraid that
the right ones will come and claim this
foreign jewel someone entrusted to you
In The Lotteries, she counts the many ways in which she and her baby have both been lucky to survive – they return home under the gold light of luck and benefit from a cornucopia of blessings – whereas, elsewhere in the world, others are not so lucky
somewhere out there some other child has not woken.
Later in the collection, she is afraid when she is unable to find her child on a crowded beach – an experience she describes in the poem What Matters.
The poet is affected by post-natal depression – an experience which she describes in the two poems, The Sadness and Parallelism. In both poems, she uses the form to represent how the experience manifests itself. In Sadness, the lines are irregular in length, and the whole poem is off-centre, veering away – line by line – from the left-hand margin of the page, each line beginning that little bit further in. It makes reading the poem an unsettling experience in itself, even before the language and imagery begin their work of evoking a sense of the pervading sadness which afflicts the poet and which cannot be shaken off. In Parallelism, the poet again uses the form of the poem to good effect. It is written in couplets, the first of which states
I hid from Depression
It found me
Once more, the layout has an unsettling effect which accumulates as, in each couplet, she describes how she tries to escape and how every time Depression finds her. The personification of depression, its capitalisation, and its repetition throughout the poem, all contribute to the sense of an all pervasive and inescapable state of mind. Even when the depression lifts at the end of the poem, the poet knows that she has not really escaped
When Depression left, a note read
I will be back
and the lack of a full-stop at the end of the line makes the threat all the more convincing. The conflicting sides of motherhood are later explored further in the poem Motherhood Diptych, where the poet once again uses the form of the poem on the page to enhance the presentation of the ideas explored.
The earlier poems in the collection explore the poet’s personal experience of motherhood – often dealing with experiences and emotions which will be familiar to the readers. However, as the collection builds, the poems begin to show that the experience of parenthood is not just personal – it is public and it is political. This can be seen in the poems The Only Dad at Playgroup, Working Mother, Staying at Home, or Poem Made from Bits of Newspaper Headlines.
Readers who are interested in exploring more of this poet’s work might also like to know about the Writing Motherhood project. Carolyn Jess-Cooke founded this project which has since resulted in the publication of her recent anthology of poems Writing Motherhood (Seren, 2017).