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The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press)

The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee (Telltale Press)

The title of the opening poem in Jessica Mookherjee’s short collection is ‘Snapshot’ and the poem opens with an assertion:

“There is photographic evidence
of when she shifted her gaze,
the exact time that her eyes went out of focus.”

A much-quoted cliché informs us that the camera never lies and yet it does not of course also always tell the truth.

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The opening paragraph of Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting refers to a famous photograph that was indeed taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. Mookherjee’s poem allows us the see how

“The pictures show me growing bigger,
in pigtails, often alone.”

What the photographs, those records of a domestic past, cannot show is the world that remains beyond the surface:

“There is no photograph of me climbing stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.”

The Swell is a thoughtful slim volume of poems from Telltale Press, a publishing collective founded in 2014 which focuses on getting out short, first collections from emerging poets. It has a voice which I can hear. There is both an immediacy and a quality of meditation about these poems: they are both fiercely in the here-and-now and yet they offer a shrewd aftertaste. ‘Trying at Stratford East’ opens “When I hurled myself slap bang / into him near the Westfield at Stratford East, I was / trying to catch the Tube”. It concludes

“We stood near the ring road
and lamented They’ve chopped down the willow trees
I said to him,
Well it’s only natural they would do that;
nothing lasts.
Well I must fly
I said to him.
When I got onto the Tube, my faced bruised like a bin,
I think I was crying.”

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat Oliver Sachs suggested

“We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense is our lives. To be ourselves, we must have ourselves—possess, if need be repossess our life –stories.”

We all need narratives, continuous inner narratives to maintain our identities, our selves. We shall hear more of Jessica Mookherjee. And of Telltale Press:

The Hive, 66 High Street, Lewes BN7 1XG

Ian Brinton 15th January 2017

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