Review: Sideways on to everything we knew

Andrew Motion, Essex Clay, Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571339969
Ruth Padel, Emerald, Chatto, £10.99, ISBN 9781784741075
Alice Hiller on two works of parental elegy

. . .

The present-absence of maternal loss is the heartland of two new collections by Ruth Padel and Andrew Motion. Emerald, published a year after Padel’s mother died, aged ninety-seven, in 2017, questions how life remakes itself after bereavement, when a parent is no longer “around / to hold you in her unburnt mind” (‘Burning the Chaff’). Motion, whose mother Gillian died in 1978 following a riding accident which left her in a coma and then paralysed with brain injuries for many years, investigates the impact of this trauma, including its long afterburn of

colossal buffetings in nature
but all mute all
even the infinitely tall gas flame of his mother’s scream
more silent
than dust settling on moss

Essex Clay Andrew MotionFraming his mother’s scream as an “infinitely tall gas flame” reaching towards the sky, Motion seems to recall the opening of Elizabeth Bishop’s short story, ‘In the Village’, about the childhood summer when she was parted from her mother. Bishop’s 1953 piece begins with, and also locates itself relative to, the silent maternal “scream” which memorably “hangs there forever, a slight stain in those pure blue skies” – as Motion implies his mother does in his life.

Faber bill Essex Clay as a “biographical sequel” to Motion’s prose memoir of his childhood and adolescence, In the Blood (2006). While it continues his life story, this new long poem, divided chronologically into three segments, only reveals selected strands within Motion’s life following his mother’s accident. Essex Clay’s cinematic unspooling of free verse, told in the present tense through a glacially distanced third person, moreover strikes a completely different note to the earlier memoir.

Careful and tightly restricted to what Motion’s young self knew, the past tense “I” of In the Blood created safety and intimacy for the reader, even as difficult material emerged. To read Essex Clay, however, is to be dropped down a terrifying, twisting ice tunnel. Its fragmentary form is constructed to interrogate and replay the processes of trauma, from the first moment that the poet is told the news while visiting a possible new girlfriend and experiences “a feeling of drowning / of sinking below the frozen surface of the world / but also of rising / of becoming a ghost of himself”.

Images of coldness and distance recur throughout Essex Clay, as if refracting outwards from this initial moment of catastrophe and self-separation. In this second telling, Motion seems to be laying bare his own history in order to speak also for other individuals and their families, similar to his articulation of the difficult combat experiences of British soldiers in Laurels and Donkeys (2015).

On the evening the teenage Motion learns of the accident, the moon is cast as an actor in the process of dramatising the emotional numbing, characteristic of deep shock, as she

                     in sympathy
               rests her entire weight
         on the shell of his chest.

He embraces her and
               she absorbs him.

                     He feels nothing at all.

These dislocated phrases reinforce the disassociation they articulate, almost as if they were leaves being torn from a larger narrative tree, for the reader to catch at, and call to mind the way Bishop conveys the images of her mother’s breakdown in oblique flashes within ‘In the Village’. Motion also removes several plot elements which softened the earlier prose memoir, including the presence of his brother as a companion in suffering, and documents the years his mother spent unconscious, and then paralysed after she woke, with a forensic accuracy.

In Essex Clay, when the poet is finally allowed to visit the glamorous, warm, vulnerable mother who drove him to the bus in “fluffy sheepskin slippers” on the morning of her accident, his terrified teenage self finds her unconscious with a “chin-sag shark face / gaga mouth hinged with saliva” and a “shit stink”. Over time, epilepsy develops, and he watches her former

                                    […] beautiful thinness
                                    bloating into a big belly
                  a flagon
pumped with drugs

These are details many would hesitate to put in the public domain as part of the permanent record of someone they loved. Motion’s decision to normalise them within the narrative of “a body already dead / before the mind has left it”, would again seem to be as much political as personal – and speaking to a mandate of openness. Although Gillian recovers a measure of consciousness after three years, Motion describes how he creeps back after a visit, unnoticed, and finds her blue eyes “blank” as she wills herself “to drop through / the detestably tough skin of the world”.

Released eventually by pneumonia, Gillian leaves her widower, Richard, to live as a recluse for another twenty-eight years, which are summarised in the second, shorter section of Essex Clay, culminating in the poet’s father’s death. The sequence concludes with a third brief segment, set forty years after the accident, which points back to the poet’s bittersweet project of bearing witness to “save the tongue, and make it good as new”.

Emerald PadelDedicated to the memory of Padel’s mother Hilda, the time scheme of Emerald forms a triple plait which interleaves poems written running up to her death with those from the immediate aftermath, and a third strand which approaches a form of resolution. The effect is to mimic the haphazard, looping processes of grief, and the ways in which, when “we are sideways on / to everything we knew” (‘Free to Go’), identity can dissolve.

Everything still          like a hung valley after a gunshot
or my mind          numb          for months after her death.

The first poem, ‘The Emerald Tablet’, opens bluntly “This is to do with being lost”. There is a notebook quality to the lines which follow. With their recourse to stock phrases, including “this is your journey” and “moment of truth”, they suggest the poet’s ability to marshal language has temporarily deserted her. Padel’s decision to publish Emerald with some of the poems still retaining this provisional quality seems as political, however, as Motion’s – because it embeds the disabling effects of major bereavements, which are more often hidden from view.

Conversely, Emerald’s intermittent ‘sketchbook’ approach also enables Padel to capture small details with a lightness and freshness which has genuine staying power. In ‘Nursing Wing’, Hilda takes her last breaths

resolute                     as always
glasses off             but unafraid.

The normal, spoken register of words Padel’s mother could herself have used – in conjunction with the spaces, which anticipate the death to come – gives the phrases traction.
Padel’s skill at selecting the telling visual moment forms the focus for ‘Clast’, when she remembers her naturalist mother lifting her up to see an owl who nested within a revolving chimney flue outside their top-floor flat. The bird was revealed when the wind blew

and two dark eyes appeared
looking back at us
from a nimbus of pale feathers.
   Face of a secret moon.

The image implies, rather than stating, how a good parent may extend and deepen their child’s understanding of the world. It also enacts its own process of hidden things becoming visible, which is part of the labour of emerald mining and cutting that Padel explores to illustrate her passage into healing.

Visiting South America, Padel presents women sifting for missed gem fragments as mythically enacting how grief colours and changes the mourners – who likewise search for what is elusive.

                  A flock
of teenage girls
carbon faces   carbon all

over their once-bright dresses
carbon hands and carbon arms
they trawl abandoned shafts.
      (‘Above is the Same as Below’)

Through such parallelings, and the gradual progress of psychological repair which they represent, the final poems in Emerald come to make their accommodation with maternal absence, and the larger theme of mortality. In ‘Free to Go’ Hilda Padel’s after-image is a warm “oval of soft grass / where a hare was sleeping a moment ago”. The last poem visits prehistoric cave paintings in France a year after Padel’s mother’s death, and links the “scribble-shaggy” horses with the ones Hilda drew for her daughter. Padel is then able to return above ground, and find the mountains beyond the cave mouth becoming an emblem of life, refracting itself through art – “herds of green bison          drifting away into the sky” (‘Salon Noir’).

The Poetry Review 1083 with shadowAlice Hiller holds a Jerwood/Arvon mentorship and is working on her first collection. This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:3, Autumn 2018. © The Poetry Review and the author.