‘Tigress’ Jessica Mookherjee
Nine Arches Press
Jessica Mookherjee’s collection explores family life between Bengal, Wales and London, the displacement that accompanies migration, transformation and growing up in a culture between two countries. ‘The Welcome’ is about her father,
‘he unpacks – smells of his mother,
spice, news of war.
He listens to the Rolling Stones, wants for something
more than Tagore, more than rituals of flowers and ash,
more than strikes and men with guns.
It takes three nights on the toilet. His guts
reject gorges of fly-overs, mountains
of concrete, Wimpy burgers and
Golden Eggs. England smeared with grime’
It’s a mix of longing to get away with the sadness of leaving and the progess of adjusting to a new country, not just the language but also the culture and food. It’s also the experience of class; the burger brand and fly-overs signify this man is still working class and has to start life over at the bottom of the hierachy. He settles and his teenaged daughter goes through the rite of passage of the ‘Mumbles Pub Crawl’,
‘It was before she was a woman,
before she was kissed, living
like a sharp smack of fist
pretending to be girl, pretending to be boy.
The lights jazz-handing them
from the chemical plant across the bay.
A black-blue moon sat on the swings, mad
with the air and he told her things,
beautiful as a soap bubble.
Something dressed as fiction slunk home
in a sea-drift of lime and vodka.
The swing, untangled, kept waving, smiling.”
It’s a girl trying out roles, exploring who she is and who she might be in a town where the chemical plant is probably the main employer. The boy’s plans and ideas are as stable as a soap bubble; grand ideas about to burst. Neither of them can be certain about what their futures hold. The title poem, ‘Tigress’ is about the mother, ‘Eyes set in stone-flesh/ dimmed with amitriptyline./ Her hands are calloused from forty-five years/ of washing up’. Amitriptyline is prescribed as a muscle relaxant and also for depression. The tigress is
‘Caged deep inside her chest,
she sedates it every morning and every night
before bed. Around tea-time
her eyes flick open
and her heart-beat quickens.
Faded carpets come into focus. She listens
for the voices of her children
in a deserted garden.
She is fierce for an hour,
stalking nilgal and gaur,
scent marking the garden, sniffing out
Behind her husband’s back,
she plans an attack.
Until it starts to get dark. Until it’s time
to take her pills.’
The thankless tasks of chores and children while a husband went to work are frustrating her. Her adult children have made her redundant yet she still searches for them. Faded carpets and an empty garden are not markers of a celebrated life of achievement. The final poem, ‘The Work’,
‘Now let’s dance to raises the heat, bake it in hot temperature,
sweat can pour from us to evaporate and harden all our
work. Our lives, we clap into existence, husbands, lovers,
books, dances, flights to far continents, this gold syrup of
us is inside honey. All this work, that work, for this.’
In contrast to the life of the tigress, this is a celebratory life of work rewarded. The ‘heat’, ‘bake’ and ‘sweat’ is fierce, hard work and undermines the apparent easiness of ‘clap into existence’ things worked for and longed for. This is a life of determination and goals, taking the mother’s tigress and channelling it into success or at least what a successful life should look like.
Jessica Mookherjee’s success is worked at, created from friction between two cultures, an exploration of the positives of both and the drive of ambition, both its negatives and positives. Issues around migration are raised but in the sense of the richness and opening of cultures that migrations bring rather than political analysis of statistics and welfare. Her poems are inventive and distinctive. They use familiar vocabulary to explore complex ideas in a search for a divided self.