Jun 16 2023
Poetry Reviews: Kelly Davis reviews two Maytree Press pamphlets by Kathleen Jones and Elizabeth Stott
Hunger Kathleen Jones, Maytree Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-913508-23-4, £7 The Undoing Elizabeth Stott Maytree Press, 2023, ISBN 978-1-913508-33-6, £8
These pamphlets are by two Cumbrian poets who have spent years honing their craft; and their work deserves to be read attentively.
Kathleen Jones, a poet, biographer and novelist, grew up on a remote hill farm and spent more than ten years living in Africa and the Middle East. She draws on these varied experiences, and her deep concern about climate change, in Hunger.
Jones knows about the harshness of rural life: crouching in her allotment, replicating Viking wives ‘coaxing supper out of stony ground’, remembering how she used to go to bed smelling of ‘blood / and scorched hair’ after a pig was slaughtered. She understands the hidden longings of women like her grandmother, ‘who had known love / and desire, and what it did to a woman’, or her aunts who worked at the biscuit factory in Carlisle and brought home bags of broken custard creams and digestives but only consumed ‘the crumbs, never the whole thing’.
Yet this is much more than an autobiographical collection. The poet’s focus widens to the planet’s hunger, as deserts spread and species disappear. In a brilliant and terrifying poem, Jones shows us hunger in the form of a queen resembling Marie Antoinette, wearing lace ‘so fine, a generation / of women went blind in the making of it’, breaking her teeth on ‘a salad of rubies and emeralds’.
Kathleen Jones looks unflinchingly at death, hunger and extinction but she also tells us about life, growth and hope. The pamphlet opens with a poem about microscopic life forms under frozen ground ‘primed like a lit fuse, ready to feed the roots of everything’ and closes with an affirmation of human agency – ‘The choices that we make will haunt us’ but ‘We must make them’. This remarkable collection is both a cry from the heart and a call to arms.
Elizabeth Stott studied physics and worked in industry, before raising a family and starting to write fiction and poetry. In The Undoing, she is clear-eyed about the way life tests us – and her poems derive much of their strength from what she leaves unsaid.
She explores the way women dress and undress themselves, both physically and metaphorically. A friend with cancer wishes ‘to re-make herself from sackcloth and ashes’ but eventually wears ‘the breastplate of a queen’s battledress’. In a poem called “Knowing”, Stott tells us uncomfortable truths about men, women, love and time, showing us an older woman’s ravaged body through the eyes of a young doctor. Likewise, the title poem fuses past, present and future. A young girl in a red dress has lines carved in her palm that tell her fate – the beautiful dress is also a cage: ‘One tug and it will spring apart.’
There is dry wit in a poem like “Save Me”, which interrogates the nature of digital identity, and ‘Your Zoom Mother’ who dresses smartly because she needs you ‘to think / that your real mum is keeping her shit together’. Aging is challenging but can also be joyful – in the shape of ‘that trashy kaftan your gran wears in Tesco’ or the woman who grows her hair until ‘it is a wide curl / of light from a supernova’.
The Undoing is a richly varied collection by a poet who asks important questions about the way we see ourselves and relate to each other in a changing world.
Maytree Press should be applauded for publishing poetry of this quality. Both collections are available via https://maytreepress.co.uk