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Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Rebecca Goss’ back cover quote describes this book as a ‘profound study of the maternal journey’, but Dunning’s weighty ‘Foreword’ makes it clear that this is not just a personal story of pregnancy, giving birth and motherhood, but a thematic collection hung on that story to consider lockdown, abortion rights, historical associations and issues ‘of medical bias, gendered violence, misogyny, control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, the praising of chastity and virginity, and the notion of female bodies as vessels alone’. Quite a list, and one Dunning seems nervous about tackling ‘through poetry alone’, suggesting that Pearl & Bone is just her starting point.

The book opens gently, with the narrator sharing the news of her pregnancy with her partner as they walk a mountain trail, although the poem is addressed to the already born child, a story in the past tense. ‘You were a fish’ relates movement in the womb to the ocean, whilst the following two brief poems discuss how the body changes during gestation. 

Then we are transported back to 1963 and the voice of Christine Keeler as she poses in an Arne Jacobson chair, ‘stripped and bare as a newborn foal’. She comments on the journalists publishing a list of her lovers, and throws the question asked of her, ‘are there any of them you actually loved?‘, back in their (and the reader’s) faces. Keeler is a character who reappears throughout this collection, but there are many others too: Prospero (perhaps, or maybe another wizard or magician) in ‘Ace of Wands’, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Eve, Sarah Everard, and Bertha Mason (from Jane Eyre); all victims of power in one way or another, be that a rapist and murderer, a character’s husband, the author, God, politicians, history or opinion.

In between these powerfully voiced poems are more straightforward texts, where the personal and domestic are foregrounded. A spider hangs under the sink the narrator is cleaning, the baby arrives with ‘a cacophony of cries, the thundering beauty of lungs’ (‘July 2nd, 15:08’), and ‘A Sudden Mother’ is forced to stay on the postnatal ward during Covid-19, as one of the ‘pale and bloodless ghosts’, whilst the baby’s father is

   […] pitched miles away, butting at doors that scream:
                                                   Stop.
                                                          No entry.

Elsewhere, other poems document the discoveries of parenthood: persuading children to sleep by driving them around, sharing Spring’s first daffodils, walks in the rain, self-doubt and wonder, and the way ‘the house changed too’, as ‘there are traces / of you / in every room’. And there is a changed and re-shaped body (both physically and mentally) to deal with, and the worries and implications of Roe vs. Wade, rebuffed in ‘Blessing for the Women’. The following poem, ‘Altar’, draws on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its epigraph and imagery, where the poem’s addressee worships ‘at the tired altar of [her] own shame’.

Towards the end of the book, Dunning returns to Wales, but a Wales tinged with the mystical and magical, wild nature, holy wells, and unholy water where curses are known to take root. The priestess, ‘whittling magic’ is no longer present at the end of the page, instead there is a sibling for ‘Jac’ to contend with, and a final declamation where ‘The Womb Speaks’:

   Believe me –
   I will wear these scars like jewels, mined hot from the earth.
   I will bleed and leak. You shackle what you fear: the minotaur
   pacing its maze. The circus bear sweating rags behind bars.
                             This vacant womb. Its deafening power.

This is a brave, complex, powerful, angry, and loving book, full of poems that argue, discuss, share, and reject the abuse of power that women and children are constant victims of. Rooted in the physical body, it places individual experience within a web of other voices and events, asserting and demanding without ever heckling or abusing its readers. It is a model example of issues-based poetry, where argument is not reduced to sloganeering, preaching or demands, a concerned and original voice in the current debate about sexuality and gender.

Rupert Loydell 11th August 2022

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

Weighing of the Heart by Degna Stone (Blueprint Poetry Press)

This pamphlet on Stone’s husband’s battle with Subacute Bacterial Endocarditis (SBE) – ‘a bacterial infection that produces growths on the endocardium (the cells lining the inside of the heart) […] and, if untreated, can become fatal within six weeks to a year’ – is a stark, honest account of marriage when a spouse has a life-threatening illness. 

These poems are written with a sparing style. Stone allows the narrative arc to unspool through the domestic, with the speaker in the bathtub in ‘Unwinding’ or watching her husband’s illness take hold in ‘Pallor’. As Mr Stone’s serious illness becomes more apparent, the language of detachment seems to take over. This is evidence in the titles of several of the poems: ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, ‘Mrs Stone Waits for News’. There is often a sense of dissociation in these poems, as if the speaker is existing in ‘survival mode’, however, finer, specific details bloom through like dandelions in the crack of a pavement: ‘tissues scented / with lavender’, ‘the gold pinstripe of her white dress’, ‘liquid, which should be clear, / darkens to rust / with too much blood’. This may sound like an impossible dichotomy, but in my experience, trauma is both vague and vivid, sharp and blunt, often simultaneously, and this pamphlet deftly demonstrates that phenomenon. 

Like in Rebecca Goss’s collection Her Birth, as well as in the work of Hannah Hodgson and Helen Dunmore, this pamphlet takes us into hospital, and we see the full, unsterilised truth of it. In In ‘Mrs Stone Drives Home from the Freeman Hospital’, the worlds of inside and outside the hospital merge, the rest of society seemingly continuing with ‘the blossom and barbecue smells of late May’ despite the Stones’ reality, yet the psychologically inescapable fact of her husband’s hospital room haunts Mrs Stone: ‘Even in my car waiting to head home, / I am in that room with you’. In ‘Bear Hug’, Mrs Stone connects with a woman, remarking, ‘we share the same complicated / relationships with our mothers’. In the pamphlet’s title poem, there is a piercing moment of powerlessness and inability to protect a loved one felt by many relations of the unwell, shown simply through the words, ‘I had not done enough / to bring you back’. Foreshadowing is also woven into the narrative arc, particularly during the poem ‘Mrs Stone Tries to Stop the Rain’, in which Mr Stone wonders, ‘Is this where the infection began? Pressing a sponge to soak to pooling water, / bacteria creeping into barely visible cuts on his hands?’ By this, I was reminded of Jenny Downham’s YA novel Before I Die, in which Tessa, the protagonist, who has cancer, reflects on her pre-diagnosis days by exploring her childhood, through hindsight, using startling imagery of potential signs of what was to come: ‘the butterflies crisped up in jam jars’ ‘my Uncle Bill got a brain tumour. At his funeral…the grave earth wouldn’t come off my shoes’. This seems to be a human eccentricity, how we look back into our pasts for warnings that we did not heed or see, yet the fact is that sometimes we just cannot ‘see things coming’. 

The scenes of this pamphlet are perhaps more familiar to us as a consequence of our experiences over the past year and a half than they would have been pre-pandemic. Arguably, the scenes in ‘Mrs Stone Visits Her Husband’ – ‘the cold gel’ which ‘seeps / into the broken skin of her palms’ – would not have been so instantly recognisable to us all if we had not had to wash our hands so frequently or confront serious illness and death on a daily basis, collectively rather than individually. The almost-godlike quality with which Mrs Stone depicts medical professionals caring for her husband corresponds with our pandemic-formed view of NHS staff; in ‘Mr Stone is in a Loop’, ‘nurses glide’ around Mr Stone’s bed (this ‘gliding’ instantly prompted me to think of angels). In ‘Mrs Stone Calculates the Odds’, she declares, ‘I don’t need faith. The gods are here.’ This need to put our trust in medical personnel surely rings truer now than it ever has done.

Something else that feels familiar as a consequence of Covid-19 is the craving to regain life exactly as it was prior to an episode of uncertainty and loss. In ‘Mr Stone’s Bionic Heart’, the speaker reports how she ‘took Valium so [she] could sleep / with [her] head on [Mr Stone’s] chest’. Later, in the pamphlet’s closing poem, ‘Mrs Stone Lies Awake’, Mrs Stone states, ‘I’m trying to get back to where we were. / Praying it’s as simple as putting my head / on your chest and falling asleep’. Perhaps it will be this ‘simple’; perhaps it will not. As we emerge from lockdown, we are yearning for ‘normality’; perhaps this is conceivable, perhaps it is implausible. All we can do is try.

Olivia Tuck 17th August 2021

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