Aug 4 2023
Poetry review – LOVE AND STONES: Emma Lee looks at the life-lessons behind Josephine Corcoran’s poems about family memories
Josephine Corcoran’s Love and Stones is a series of vignettes on familial relationships and what connects us to others through snapshots of memory. At times it queries the reliability of memory or why specific scenes get remembered. In “Poem for a 1960s Welfare State Childhood”,
The man on my doorstep with a blue rosette tells me I have it wrong. It's luck I've grown up strong, secure, even when my world unravelled. I'm misremembering how cared-for I felt. And consider the cost! I let him keep his leaflet and tell my children how my sister gave me her beautiful coat, two sizes too big. You'll grow, she said fastening me into love and my future.
The blue rosette wearer is a politician for the Conservative Party, renowned for their austerity policies. He has two tactics, firstly to tell the narrator she’s wrong and secondly to consider the cost of the welfare which enabled a happy, secure childhood. She is encouraged to think who is paying for this welfare rather than what access to welfare represents or how it impacts lives. Aware he doesn’t understand her lived experience, she rejects his ideas. Instead she talks to her own children about her sister’s coat, the protective wrap of familial love.
A visit to Stonehenge, a well-known and recognizable place, is recalled in “Stories Are What We Are”. Here one person tells of stopping to help a stranger and the listener imagines the two of them after having
said your goodbyes and retelling the story as you have to me, as people have been telling such stories for thousands of years. The kindness of strangers. Chance meetings. Sleeping families. Morning mists. Arguments in our heads. Love in our pockets. Standing stones. Running deer. Stories of death and stories of living.
This connection through stories is ancient as well as contemporary. The arguments are thoughts, suggestive of being lighter and less consequential than the heavier, pocketed love, that may be hidden but is still a presence.
“Parenting Book” watches children grow up, a night of worry as an older teenager is out for the night,
and I'd wake up to the smell of toast burning, a voice calling I've fixed it! Everything's fine! While Shepherds Watch is playing on the radio, a tea towel headdress lies in a drawer. The final page, you scribbled me a note. Some kind of map. Half a silver star.
The child is reassuring the parent, although the parent remembers a younger version of the toast- maker acting a part in the school nativity play. The ‘half a silver star’ could be a school merit sticker, worn with time, and here it feels as if the parent is giving herself a an award for being good enough.
The poems are not only about immediate family. The penultimate poem, “sunflowers exist, sunflowers exist” moves from looking at sunflowers in a garden to
shooting stars and shooting both exist & soldiers exist at scenes of a crime, scenes of a war crime, soldiers who kissed their lovers, last summer in fields of sunflowers; sunflowers, their sequence, their pattern, now ruptured in seasons, disrupted; springtime, disrupted, broken promises of birdsong, like kisses, now soldiers with guns; six million shares of a film on a smartphone, the old woman saying "put these seeds in your pockets so that sunflowers will grow; when you all lie down here, sunflowers will grow"; soldiers holding the thought of a sunflower.
Sunflowers became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian invasion and the meme of a Ukraine grandmother telling young Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets is one that went viral. It was also a reminder that nature will continue. For some soldiers the sunflowers represent defeat, to others potential victory.
Love and Stones is a humane and unsentimental look at connections, chiefly family ones, that are made between people. The poems are subtle and gentle in tone despite tackling the complexity of love and friendship which isn’t afraid to acknowledge imperfections along with the good times. These aren’t the glitz of polished gemstones, discarded as a new trend arrives, but organic, natural stones that have longevity.