All About Our Mothers

Poetry Review – ALL ABOUT OUR MOTHERS: Sue Wallace-Shaddad admires a powerful collaboration by Vasiliki Albedo, Mary Mulholland and Simon Maddrell

All About Our Mothers
Vasiliki Albedo, Mary Mulholland, Simon Maddrell
Nine Pens
ISBN 978-1-7398274-0-3 
54pp        £7.50

All About Our Mothers is the remarkable result of a collaboration between three poets in response to a call-out from Nine Pens. The theme of ‘mothers’, emerged from the poets’ discussion on how to approach the publisher’s challenge. Interestingly they did not write in response to each other; they mainly brought existing poems to the table and then collaborated on selecting, editing and ordering the poems. The result is a collection of highly distinctive voices which share a common bond – the impact of mothers on their children.

The relationship between mother and poet is at the heart of each selection of poems. None of the poets shrink from the intimacy of this. A sense of threat imbues Albedo’s poem ‘I watch a bear with her sick cub’. At the end, however, the child becomes the one who threatens: ‘My heart ripens like a nightshade’. In her poem ‘Hard-boiled’, the intransigent nature of the mother is exposed as she forces her child to eat a raw egg ‘Blended, broken yolk and see-through slime’. The poem ‘Therapy Cat’ recounts cruelty to a cat (given to the child by her therapist) which is in fact cruelty to the child. She creates her own survival strategy:

For years I dreamed therapy cat had morphed
into a winged lioness, her limbs whole and inviolate.
We’d meet in my room and ride into fictive sunburst.

‘Last Day’ has great poignancy. Albedo writes ‘Seven years of cancer and still we haven’t reconciled’. The difficulties of the mother/daughter relationship are evinced in the couplet:

Remember that Christmas when you gave me a shawl for the cold
and a letter from Santa where you listed the ways I had upset you?

The poem ends ‘I love you, I’m sorry echoing between us’.

Mulholland portrays a very different relationship with her mother, using a painterly and mystical style. In ‘Mother’s Child’

Mother is a sea-fish, goes deep without knowing
how deep, to her it is natural, it is home.
In her dark places Mother dreams in colour.

The prose poem ‘Comb’ picks up on some of these themes, ending with: ‘You were Pisces, liked dreaming. You would gaze at the moon as if she belonged to you’. I particularly enjoyed the poem ‘The art of daydreaming’ with Mulholland’s imaginative leaps and rich mix of imagery:

 […]                                    My mother
has sugar-cane blood, is made of mango,
she is pineapple, dresses in laughter,

The reader is told ‘Her breathing is the ocean’ and ‘My butterfly mother is sky’. There is an element of elusiveness and unreachability about these images and a sense of a child’s wonderment. In ‘The Canal du Midi where I find my mother’, Mulholland describes her mother as part of the landscape: ‘At first she’s a road / edged by plane trees’ and later in the poem ‘She yearns to be organic / like the river’. The villanelle, ‘Daisy Ring’ is a beautiful poem about inheriting a ring:

O, the tales she would magic to us of her colonial past,
her childhood where bad things never happened.
I took this ring, old yet new, held it to the light.

Simon Maddrell opens his selection of poems in a sparse blunt style in ‘There was a hole’, transmitting a child’s feeling of abandonment:

Mum walked out on Dad that January.
I thought it was our fault.

The detailed description of the child using flattened-out cricket ball leather to repair the sole of his shoe, grounds the poem. ‘Only a Mother can look with’ is a poignant list of the ways a child, now grown man, remembers his mother. The poet’s uses statements about eyes and seeing to create emotional complexity:

only a Mother can hear with
ears that see two hundred miles 

The mother’s difficult past is recounted in ‘She never came unannounced’. In the first few lines, the repetition at line-end of ‘did’ is very effective. creating the sense of her presence, as well as the sound of a knock on the door:

but that afternoon the door knock did 
mums don’t need to ask to sit, but she did
crouch on a dining chair in the lounge
mums don’t need to ask to speak, but she did

The second line is then repeated in the moving last section of the poem:

Mums don’t need to ask to sit, but she did
crumple on four wooden legs like
a blackbird broken […]

Repetition is also used in the striking poem about the death of the poet’s mother ‘Penny’. ‘The moon cracked open / with a crackled breath’ becomes ‘the moon promise cracked / with a rattled breath’ and ‘A cardiac rock grief-spilt’ becomes ‘her cardiac rock lung-split’. Harsh consonants and short lines express grief. ‘Elegy’ is a short poem which also packs a punch:

I’m still waiting for someone 
to ask, was she murdered then?

Maddrell’s final poem, ‘The church’s oak creaks into silence’, has ‘mother carried in a ship of griefs’ and ends with powerful imagery:

An orphan’s cup smells of bitter almonds 
brown-fringed lilies held on a broken swing.

The poets have all mined deep memories and feelings in writing these poems. It is a privilege for the reader to be allowed in to these powerful expressions of complex relationships.