The Mother Load: Consolation and Happiness in Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums and Lucy Williams’ internal weather
These two books from Walleah Press explore our intimate familial relationships in ways that prize domestic security while interrogating the many things that would threaten it, including death and bereavement, the separation of parents, and pedophilia. These collections are as beautiful and nourishing as they are searching and defiant.
Lucy Williams opens her book, internal weather, with the poem ‘born’. This poem has such long unpunctuated lines that its run-on of words seems to concertina in-and-out, provoking the reader to anticipate those unmarked clausal breaks and creating a sense of the glorious ill-discipline of a life overtaken by events and forever enriched in the process. Like most of the poems in this collection, this one revels in a type of powerful stripped-down lyricism that is both direct and full of questions. So ‘born’ reads:
time has caught you switching planets your eyes
blinking off my tented skin like dust the real bluestone
gaze searching for an honest love after so many months
we separate like lovers both of us missing familiarity your new
soul my old heart stunned after battle and warm with the
blood of your arrival I held the day like a grudge and couldn’t
let it go my body a suitcase tagged for returning careful as
a hypnotist to tap the root of any small memory did you
know me then my slack my slack stomach like gift-wrap all my old
clothes fitting your mother at twenty-nine feeling eighteen a
head jammed with promises things I’d always/never do too
shocked to move we knelt like statues in a park while the
world admired us like a late night summer carnival all cool air
colour and smell you are smooth as a river stone my sunken
navel set like a diamond this thin brown belly line deliberate
as a tattoo for the courage it took me to grow around you like
ivy is the courage I get to keep time has caught you switching
planets your hologram eyes blinking off my tented skin like
There is a remarkable subtlety here in the way Williams controls the rhythm of these plastic lines that celebrate the moment of childbirth with such naturalistic realism. And the allusion to Judith Wright, with the image of baby and mother being ‘separate[d] like lovers’, is a clever tribute to the way in which Wright pioneered the exploration of these subjects in poetry.
Williams continues to explore this bond between mother and baby, broken in childbirth, in ‘magnolia’ which begins:
the after-birth is a test a memory frozen five months the
day thawed it out like a hard frost its ghost moves inside
me again as though my heart has fallen and bled my body in
the mirror remembers you before we met your blind faith
knocking a closed fist under ribs we plant the tree before rain
your father turns the earth free I am both surgeon and spirit
the grey plait of your umbilical is a broken dream what can
it tell me about us? (3)
Partly, of course, it tells us that parents will do all, almost, anything to protect their children — especially when they already know loss. So ‘miscarriage’ concludes with:
I’m sorry you will never learn
about the human heart — unbuttoned
like a giant pocket
and all the things that spill
every time we trip
and all the things that stay (4)
The ‘human heart’ can ‘learn’ loss and it can also adapt to domestic uncertainties as ‘almost six’ concedes. This poem opens:
Almost six you have already learnt
that love can end and be replaced
and never without sadness
you divide yourself between your father’s house and mine
and when you are gone my heart
floats out above me, ungraspable.
It aches like some phantom limb I read about. (12)
This exploration continues in ‘house’ that begins:
When you moved it was out of exile
the house that held you in let go
and your expatriate thoughts found home
the same suburb but a softer breeze.
Your husband stayed on, stenographer of all your motives
Guilt like spoiled fruit between you.
In the new house a timely dust settled and was wiped off
every room contained a piece of your jigsaw heart.
Your daughter philosophised about her two lives
and screamed on the street
caught between her mother and father
like a lucky find that neither one could keep. (19)
While ‘house’ and ‘almost six’ are a little more prosaic than ‘born’ and ‘magnolia’, as though Williams does not quite know how to get the most out of these shorter punctuated lines, they do confront bravely the guilt felt by many parents who fear the damage they may do to their children. In the very moving poem, ‘to my parents on the death of their son’, these roles are reversed as the grown child now strives to protect their parents:
after his body had been removed from the house
in the zippered bag you did not look at
like a crime scene on the small screen
had somebody left the television on?
you felt like the watchers of a foreign grief
that poor mother and father
your luck like a charm warm
at the base of your throat
your six children scattered but tight
in all those years loss had swept through
and left everybody standing
and now this
after his body had been removed
too warm a night to leave it
the empty room stood as though
it had never held him (54)
This poem captures so intimately the empathy that draws parent and child together. And it concludes with such unsentimental, yet startling, simplicity:
after his body had been removed
you sat at the kitchen table
and closed your eyes
thought of the son you loved
how quickly he left the body on the bed
shook off the disease like sweat
and walked quietly with his dog
into the bush (55)
Williams reads these emotionally fraught interior states — this ‘internal weather’ — as stories of birth, childhood, love and death. To these fundamentals of existence Williams ‘throws open every door to our hearts and walks in’ (5).
Lorraine McGuigan’s Blood Plums shares the preoccupations, and many of the poetic techniques, of Williams. This collection opens with ‘Mothers – 1957’ and its celebration of breastfeeding, and the love of a grandmother. This poem, however, is a little predictable and prosaic and is not as memorable as the powerful, ‘Bones’, which follows. This poem juxtaposes childbirth and the fierceness of maternal love with imagery of the random destructiveness of war:
this comes back in dreams
face down in sour black earth
where are they a mother’s fingers
dig rumble of tanks the crack of
sniper’s gun echo in her ribcage
ear to ground she thinks about
continental drift feels the plates
trembling below shifting scarred
with age and repeated collision
she would move mountains
in the darkness a memory nursing
a newborn its sweet brain pulsing
flash of bayonet the walls too thin
too thin her fingers rake the soil
where are the bones (7)
This poem so cleverly uses the space between words to capture those uncertainties and fears of being a mother amidst a world at war. And if the world is a precarious place for a nursing mother and her newborn, it is also damaging in other ways, for a girl sent by Child Welfare to live with her aunty and uncle. ‘Games’ and ‘Night Fishing’ are frightening in the way they so directly broach the devastation caused by pedophilia. ‘Night Fishing’ reads:
It’s not my idea, going off with the men.
First time for everything my aunt insists,
pressing a torch in my hand and so I find
myself in uncle’s boat, the oars creaking
like tired bedsprings. My uncle is a born
hunter, his friends say, with a taste for
the kill. I know other things about him,
things he warned me not to mention.
When the moon pushes through cloud
uncle gets busy, as he calls it, bending,
feeding lines into the dark. If he went
overboard, his oil-skinned bulk snagged
by weed, who would try to save him?
His mate can’t swim and I could drown
myself. Uncle is excited. You beauty!
A long-finned eel! Its fleshy lips
remind me of someone. I shudder as
he aims a knife at the head, missing
the eye. Turning away I flick the torch
on and off on and off and on. (10)
There is so much bravery in the way McGuigan confronts these criminal episodes, rendering them with such visually dramatic language, and while clearly allocating blame, also establishing the qualities of great artistry. So much of the dread is created by what is left unsaid and that final image of the torchlight flickering like a distress beacon is so cruelly open-ended — it brilliantly encapsulates the powerlessness of the child trapped in this relationship.
Not all of the poetry in Blood Plums, however, is as powerful as ‘Bones’ and ‘Night Fishing’. McGuigan tackles many subjects and sometimes earnestness trumps technique. She writes about the homeless in Melbourne and about refugees, and there are poems that respond to works of fine art and to favourite writers such as Billy Collins and Pablo Neruda. Like Williams she also writes of the loss of an unborn baby through miscarriage in ‘Birthdays’ (14). Amidst the unevenness, though, there are many highlights. In ‘Scars’ (15-17) she writes a beautiful narrative poem celebrating the love between mother and daughter, again exploring a mother’s instinct to protect against the inevitability of hard knocks. And there are a series of poems that in a directly intimate way commemorate the life of her partner, Kevin. Poems such as ‘December Morning’, ‘The Viewing’, ‘Milk’, ‘Snapshot’ and ‘Nandina Cottage’ are unforgettable in the way they so simply evoke a poetics of grief. As McGuigan tells us in ‘The Viewing’, a poem that remembers a day shared at the beach with Kevin:
They walk into
shallows as warm as a rockpool,
tide tugging at their feet. Somewhere
a sandbar is about to collapse.
In ‘Blood Plums’ McGuigan writes:
Returning after the treatment
they talk of making jam, wonder
if they still have time.
The ancient tree is shedding
its burden; on the ground plums
shrinking, turning deeply into
themselves. Stepping over
the fallen they tug at limbs
discover fruit spared by birds.
He looks tired. Lips bleeding
juice she presses her mouth to his
stamps him with the inedible
taste of her. He offers a magenta smile.
Slow dissolve of light this humid
afternoon but all too soon
winter dark, nights touching zero.
And in their bed the giving
the receiving of warmth
old flesh picking up a memory,
scent of desire. While outside
stripped bare, the tree hangs on. (59)
I find the simplicity of this language and imagism, and the subtle way McGuigan allows line division to cut-across her grammar, thus corralling her grief, deeply moving.
In this writing, as in the poetry of Lucy Williams, there is something deeply satisfying and nourishing. Both poets celebrate the way our lives find meaning in parenthood and domesticity while at the same time keeping a saddened and defiant eye on life’s many frailties and losses. This is a poetics of suburbia that challenges us not to retreat but to accept that it is in this world, with all its brokenness, that we must find solace, or not at all.
Walleah Press, 2014
81 pages, $20.
Walleah Press, 2014
64 pages, $20.
Phillip Hall is a poet, reviewer and essayist working as an editor with Verity La’s Emerging Indigenous Writers Project and as a poetry reader at Overland. From 2011 to 2015 he lived in the Gulf of Carpentaria where he ran sport and camp programs designed to re-engage and foster emotional resilience, cooperative group learning and safe decision-making. In 2014 he published Sweetened in Coals. In 2015 he published Diwurruwurru, a book of his collaborations with the Borroloola Poetry Club. He is currently working on a collection of place-based poetry called Fume. This project celebrates First Australians in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria. Phillip now lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club.