Poetry review – WHEN I THINK OF MY BODY AS A HORSE: Pat Edwards is moved by the tenderness and honesty of Wendy Pratt’s poetry.
The opening poem of this collection feels like an horrific near-death experience where someone either contemplates or gets very near to throwing themselves under a train,
and a train hurtles by so close the lights halo your hair.
The utter horror of this moment is made so real that the reader can’t imagine anyone being able to write it unless they had lived through such an event. It almost hurts; takes your breath away. This sets the scene for a whole series of equally astounding poems that put the reader through a range of physical experiences, including rites of passage lived through by many girls and women, that are predominantly of the body but also inevitably of the emotions. However, this is the journey of a woman who loses a child and mourns for nine years and counting.
In ‘What I Learned from the Animals of My Childhood’, Pratt lists lessons it might be possible to learn from common animals, “From the nesting house martins/I leaned that spit and mud are good enough/to hold a home together.” The poem continues:
From the roosting bats I learned that even in a pitch-black attic of suitcase-safe memories, a whole dark-hearted life might erupt pulsing from the smallest cracks.
Pratt roots herself and us to our animalistic natures and, in so doing, reminds us we cannot escape our instincts and feral tendencies. There is a brief moment of beauty when the poet finds love and companionship, “the gentlest person” she has ever met, who makes her “wonder/what it would be like to believe you/ when you said you loved me.”
The poems remember a time before pregnancy, when a couple have talked about having a family, when they “went from being two/to the imaginary three.” The awful reality is that this couple is destined to face utter heartbreak; she will have “cystic ovaries”, he “slack sperm floundering/on the rim” of her cervix. She in particular will endure endless examinations and intimate procedures, all laced with disappointment and endless longing for a good outcome. In ‘Two Week Wait’ for this couple,
Love was needles and charts and scans, love was clinic visits and operations, love riddled us with drugs, love shook us with hope, love gave us you, love lost us both, love lost us all.
The precious memory of actually carrying a child is captured in ‘My Favourite Memory’, but even in this poem there is an undercurrent of fear that things will go wrong:
Now we lie on the bed, resting as instructed. I lie on my side as instructed. I have followed the instructions to the letter. I have done everything right.
The poetry of loss follows, in all its messy, painful, bloody and inevitably biological reality. Soon there is a funeral to plan and music to choose, questions to ask, “Houdini Girl, how did you disappear?” And now this no-longer-a-mother woman doesn’t seem to fit in amongst ‘The Circle of Sisterhood’, “they were facing inwards/and their prams were locked/like spokes on a turning wheel.” The ‘Schrodinger’s Baby’ mother misses all the things she can imagine about motherhood and “there is never an answer to anything.” It’s a dark time with depression for company, constant reminders of what might have been, the relentless insomnia.
The reader learns that this kind of loss doesn’t just go away. In ‘What I Know’ the poet imagines the mummified body of her dead child, “wizened; a dead, dried fruit/of a child”, and on what would have been her ‘Sixth Birthday’, “a kindling/of hot, slim limbs, your shape/not quite removed from babyhood.” In ‘Seven’ the mother visits the grave and wants to reach her hand down through the soil “feathering a fingertip touch to the corner/of your coffin, feeling for the smooth round/of the edge.”
Still the couple are collecting eggs and trying to conceive, until they finally have to accept:
This is not a Disney fairytale. This is 100% Grimm: a woodcut forest and a gingerbread house and I am the witch, or I am the oven, stoked with hot coals, burning children. I am done.
Birthdays come and go, ‘Eight’, ‘Nine’, and some sort of acceptance “like living in a foreign country.” The poet acknowledges that she has “been sick with grief/heavy with it/entombed by it.” The disappointment that her body could not give her or hold onto the precious baby she longed for is replaced by a respect for how resilient a body can be,
Now my body is a horse, I see it is loyal, it is incredible… I do not blame it for lost babies, it did its best. I do not blame myself for lost babies. I did my best.
I am grateful that these poems took me on this journey. At times I wept, carried away by the emotional trauma and wanting to cradle this woman in my arms and make things right, knowing I could not. These difficult themes have been tackled by other poets, of course, because this is a story that has been lived by many women and their partners. What I found so engaging and even enlightening in the telling of this particular story is that the poems are both raw and tender, honest and unflinching. This book has to be some sort of gift to all women who have tried to be mothers, longed to be mothers, nearly made it to being mothers, or were mothers for too short a time.