May 10 2023
Poetry review – MY LIFE, YOU SEE: Rosie Johnston is moved by this posthumously assembled collection of Martina Thomson’s poetry
Martina Thomson’s poem ‘November Meeting with my Father’ gives us the title of this collection, a line as light and complex as a pressed flower:
I’d something to tell you, my life, you see. My life just beginning.
Thomson was published during her life by Hearing Eye (Ferryboats, 2008; Panther and Gazelle, 2012) and Virago (On Art and Therapy, 1989). She came to poetry relatively late and was a keen member of Jane Duran’s workshop (initially at the Poetry Society) and of Mimi Khalvati’s groups and seminars. This Selected Poems is a powerful act of posthumous friendship by Jane Duran and Sue MacIntyre.
Nearly seventy poems track the poet’s life from childhood in Berlin before the Second World War to safety in the Cotswolds and happy years in London working as a potter, married to writer, BBC producer and folklorist David Thomson. Her voice is brisk, matter of fact, surprising. ‘The River Nairn’ describes that grimmest of tasks, scattering her late husband’s ashes:
With the wretched thing under my arm I left the house early, walked the high path along the Nairn … for the business of letting your ashes go.
Are we due a self-conscious ceremony, tears, a poem maybe? That’s not how Thomson was:
God – I wanted to swallow a mouthful, strewed a handful in my hair, gravelly stuff, not the mild ash that might absolve a sinner. The rest was carried away in the rush of small galloping waves that the wind had whipped up.
‘Tristanstrasse’ takes us in just six stanzas from early memories of a pony-drawn milk cart (‘rides can be cadged, the pony stroked’) to milk vans with rubber tyres and ‘blunt bottles’, to the abrupt change that will haunt her life:
But listen, black boots now click in the street, a staccato flagsong disrupts the day. The dog is poisoned, lies yelping and dies
Old ways are gone:
Suddenly packers are in their house: she runs to the garden to bury her dolls
Thomson (then Schulhof) and her family escape to England where:
her tongue dances a new language in her mouth and she makes a secret of her childhood words.
Thomson speaks for so many children whose world is suddenly upturned, with something gone that may never be found again, no matter how happy their families are. The memory emerges again (in the first person) to open the collection in ‘Lilac’:
The lilac I planted bloomed this year, clusters of white, a scent I remember. There were so many at the back of the house in the alcove where I buried my dolls, the two together in a shoebox. Bakelite dolls, I could not love them but gave them ceremony.
As if by the hand, the child leads us through the ‘echoey station / where the engine shuddered’ to where ‘They gave us a yellow star.’ This plain language is Thomson’s forte and the key to her emotional punch.
It’s not until the end of the collection that we learn why the dolls were buried. ‘Lilac Corner’ shows the poet in old age planting lilacs in her garden, trying every year to recreate that urgent childhood ceremony:
The corner where forever I am burying my dolls. You had to make a choice. They were the ones to leave behind. I don’t think I was sad. The looseness and full whiteness of the blossoms seemed to me a paradise.
Her grief poems are among the most beautiful, often about the loss of her husband, ‘the tall free-striding one’, ‘a streak of pump-water – / so thin, would he last the winter?’ ‘Holkham Bay’ describes how the more we try to escape grief, the more it squeezes into everything, no matter how slight the connection:
And there, oh yes, I felt close to you – the unstoppable tide and that wide, boundless beach on which we’d once walked together.
With magnificent imagery, Thomson describes her grandmother in ‘Night Watch’ as ‘a snow mountain, on my mother’s bed’ and (with her child’s eye) the old woman’s legs:
They were boneless legs all softness and goodness, seal-pups pitted like porridge
In the closing section about ageing and her bone cancer, that talent comes into its own. In ‘Right to the Marrow’, the poet is in hospital, looking reality in the eye, as ever:
I am the object of the notes, notes carnalised – what I consist of has been measured… They cannot set it right, my marrow is my fate, it is the soul I walk about with
Her body is now ‘alien’. In ‘To my sisters’, she has ‘mislaid the one I knew’:
This other hangs on me, a cut out from the camps –
She takes her leave of us with a reprise of that extraordinary image of the depth and length of trauma, the poet still burying her dolls, still searching for clouds of white lilac and ‘paradise’.
This is a collection I shall revisit often for its zest for life, unflinching precision and beauty. How much of its exquisite shape and economy is down to its editors, I can’t say but everyone involved should be congratulated. We should all have such friends.
Rosie Johnston’s four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019. Her fourth, Off the Map, is expected in 2023. Her poems have appeared The Phare, Snakeskin, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, Words for the Wild and Fevers of the Mind. Her poetry is anthologised by Live Canon, Arlen House, OneWorld’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She reads her poetry widely, most recently at In-Words in Greenwich and the Faversham Literary Festival. www.rosiejohnstonwrites.com