Rosie Johnston admires the strongly narrative poetry of Jennifer A McGowan
Having been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome at the age of sixteen, Jennifer A. McGowan went on to become a mime artist, university teacher, calligrapher and recorded singer/songwriter as well as poet. In 2014 Arachne Press noticed and anthologised her work in The Other Side of Sleep [https://arachnepress.com/books/poetry/978909208186-the-other-side-of-sleep/] and has published her collection With Paper for Feet this year.
McGowan’s varied talents play throughout this collection – her love of story, music and rhythm, visual precision and a slant way of hiding pain so that it roars to the front of our attention. The first poem ‘White Woman Walks Across China with Paper for Feet’, first published in The Rialto, is an autobiographical piece about searching for her mother’s ‘birthscape’:
Each night, setting up a bivvy against the wind, lighting a small light, writing in my journal stories, memories, forgotten names.
From this the poet derives the title image, noting that ‘Paper was the only thing to get heavier, not lighter, with use.’
The rest of the collection consists of stories told mainly by women in dramatic monologues. Five sections range from folk tales and past lives through The Iliad, Shakespeare’s women characters and real individuals from Tudor times to voices derived from the Bible. As the cover text tells us, McGowan ‘explores, mostly from a female perspective, the guts it takes to live or – often – die, unheroically’. The dreadfully ordinary turns in her care into something noticed, and shone:
No mother keeps her child forever, I know, but I thought the lasting would be longer, The parting more than a sharpened demand. . (‘Mara Speaks’)
These are tales about:
Men of blood and men of binding, witch-women and women of steel for whom the body is no more than gobbets of flesh, a god a sacrifice -
‘Something About Love’ is told by one of Snow White’s devoted dwarves: ‘She had the sweetest breath, / so we didn’t know about the apple / till the prince persuaded us / he knew more about love, / and we let her go.’ Its tenderness culminates in the final stanza:
Because of what we learned there is no bitterness. Because of what we saw there is no sorrow. We are simple men, but we do know something about love.
The collection’s second section leads off with an ‘Iliad’ pastiche (‘after E. F. Taylor’) beginning, ‘I sing in the arms of a man.’ Here is a powerful, youthful strength though it is a pity to see ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ there, a translation’s cliché. The poem finishes beautifully though:
Are the heavens so hemmed about in high resentment? Let me kneel, here, where out bed is still warm, pray we endure and will at long last lie unhaunted on the shores of our desire.
Helen of Troy gives us her side of things in a slangy voice that rankled to begin with but makes this one of the more memorable poems:
‘Here lies Helen, beloved of Troy, who never gave a damn about Sparta, and vice versa.’ The war was just and only his pride. Got that? Listen and learn. Go make movies. Tell jokes if you must. Just don’t tell more lies. And stay away from the bloody swans.
An unusual perspective makes ‘Lady Macbeth in Palliative Care’ hover long after the book has closed. This time we are in the company of a geriatric nurse:
Not sure how she spent her life, but she’s a favourite here, with her inborn manners and once, they say, a great wit. I came late; I wouldn’t know.
In ‘After the Battle’ in the fourth section, we are with a man who gathers the post-battle corpses for burial, hearing how he justifies his work to himself while he helps himself to rings from dead fingers for his wife: ‘Not them big flashy ones – / those are missed, and anyways / the sort as wear them / usually get claimed. It’s the poor sods / left behind I deal with, them /as believed fancy words / and died for ‘em.’
This is well-imagined storytelling, intriguing and well-paced, always with a distinctively generous poetic voice. A challenging and rewarding read.