Apr 17 2023
Poetry review – LOVE LEANS OVER THE TABLE: Alwyn Marriage examines a new collection by Rosie Jackson which takes the reader well beyond the obvious and temporal
Love Leans over the Table Rosie Jackson Two Rivers Press, 2023 ISBN 978-1-915048-07-3 88 pages £10.99.
As well as mental or academic intelligence, it is now well-accepted that there is such a thing as emotional intelligence. There is also, I believe, spiritual intelligence; and this wonderful collection of poems exhibits all three of these in ample measure.
There are three distinct sections in Love Leans over the Table: ‘Hearken, O Daughter’, ‘Better than Angels’ and ‘Among Mortals’. One of the many treasures left by Hildegard of Bingen is her Book of Medicine of 1161, so it is appropriate that the first section of Jackson’s collection begins with “Hildegard’s Remedy”. This section also includes several snippets of autobiography which, in their unflinching honesty, sometimes come close to being painful, but more often satisfy with their charm.
Mum left school at fourteen to work in a stocking factory where, she said, her mother, Emma, had lost three fingers in a machine. My father, by day a rat catcher and meat inspector, by night a poet, recited Shakespeare at supper (we called it tea) much to my mother's displeasure. ["The Ground We Stand On"]
That lovely little parenthesis about the nomenclature of meals evokes, particularly for anyone born and brought in the north, a wealth of memories and assumptions.
In this section we also read of an unwanted conception (“The Night I Grew Old”); of post-natal kleptomania (“After Reading Wendy Pratt’s When I Think of My Body as a Horse); of the poet’s longing for the sister she never had, (“Talking with My Imaginary Sister”); and of the loss of her child in a custody battle, after which contact with him shrank to long-distance conversations in public telephone boxes on street corners, described with aching pathos:
But when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. I lost him, far too young, in a custody battle. And though I know this isn't the same as death – he's a grown man now, with a child of his own – whenever I hear of a mother's loss, a riptide of grief maroons me once more in those nights when I'd walk to red boxes to talk with him before he went to bed. Someone was always laughing in the background. Strangers would tap at the glass. I never had enough coins. ["After Reading Wendy Pratt's When I Think of My Body as a Horse"]
There is also a beautiful commemoration of the medievalist scholar, Gay Clifford, who suffered a life-changing cerebral haemorrhage:
She's long gone. But I'll never forget all she taught me, her love of allegory, the pleasure and power of speaking other. Her favourite tale, for example, The Green Knight, who invites Gawain to strike at his giant's neck with an axe, then strolls away with his severed head under his arm – I often think that was her, wiping out her torment in one fell swoop. ["Stroke", page 23]
Also in this section we find Jackson learning about the nature of God from an understanding of her father’s personality:
And so I think of love like this, of God like this, infinitely kind, well-meaning, full of goodness but always on the back foot, not quite managing. ["His Heart Like Wax"]
This section ends with the astonishing poem, “Let’s Call it Light”, in which Jackson captures and describes what is normally considered to be indescribable. I was quite shaken by this poem, in which the experience of transcendence, or epiphany, which many might experience once in a lifetime but never be able to recount, perfectly captures that drawing aside of the veil. I shall not quote from this poem, because I feel it would be inappropriate to take it apart. It is on page 25 of the collection, and deserves to be read by anyone for whom the spiritual is real.
This leads on smoothly to the next section, ‘Better than Angels’, which explores the spiritual life, and includes the theme of the monastic call of anchorites:
Her cell clings like a barnacle to the church, where men in albs and chasubles shout of hell, while she does the real work, heeds the small voice of God in the darkness. ["One Little Roome, An Every Where"]
Spirituality, for Jackson, is not confined to the Christian mystics; so in the roll-call of noteworthy women, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist, we find Rabia, a Sufi mystic who was the first woman to become a Muslim saint. Jackson, well-aware of the limitations of all religions, has Rabia rejecting nostalgia, and instead praying
... for the whole earth to wake from pain, to forgo its journeys to the black box of the Kaaba, the crosses and synagogues, asanas of yoga, all that greed for the milk and honey of heaven. ["Rabia and the Thief"]
Also in this section is “The Boisterous Sobbings of Margery Kempe”, which includes the heart-stopping concept that God ‘is not a noun / but a verb’. This poem was commended in this last year’s National Poetry Competition – an honour well-deserved.
As well as mediaeval women mystics, Jackson enters into the complex personality of John Donne and also traces, in prose poetry, the months after George Fox’s release from Scarborough Prison which coincided with the Fire of London. Other women, too, are celebrated, including Simone Weil and Barbara Hepworth – the essence of the work of Hepworth captured in the lines:
I want to tell them it's as true now: there is no fixed point of light – everything still asks to be touched, walked through.
The third section of the book holds an increasing awareness of illness, the death of friends and the poet’s own mortality, without ever becoming morbid.
The shock of mortality changes things, makes them clearer, .... I can't help catching some exuberance, as if death is the same kind of excitement that comes each morning when darkness lifts. That simple happiness. ["Harvest"]
Perhaps in preparation for this state ‘we have to let ourselves be worn away, dissolve till we are / more river than rock’ (“#Better than Angels”).
In case some of the subjects covered are considered too esoteric, Jackson has provided several pages of helpful notes at the end of the book. It is, perhaps, courageous, in this secular age, to engage so fully with the numinous, but Jackson challenges us to look beyond the obvious and temporal and to celebrate all of life, the nitty gritty of human life combined with the rustling of angel wings.
My one quibble with the book is that the publisher has arranged it in such a way that all the two-page poems go over a page turn. It feels almost as though this is an intentional policy; but if it is, it is a great pity as it interrupts the flow of the poetry. It would be so much more satisfying to be able to enjoy the work on facing pages.
In conclusion, Love Leans over the Table is full of the music of spirituality flowing both from ordinary life and from varying religious traditions. If some readers find that indigestible, they will still find plenty to delight in the rich music of the poetry.