Nov 26 2023
Poetry review – (m)othersongs: Diana Cant reflects on a moving and personal collection by Sarah Doyle
It is only in the last decade that the tragedy and trauma of infertility has become a subject for open discussion. Here, in Sarah Doyle’s powerful collection, (m)othersongs, it becomes the subject of poetry.
These poems are an intense and compressed exploration of childlessness, caused, as we gradually learn, by endometriosis. The diagnosis, however, is not the focus; instead Doyle leads us towards an understanding of a state of body and mind that is both painful and ineffably sad.
Starting with “Corn Dolly”, (a fertility symbol), and moving through a series of poems with telling titles – “Near Misses”, “Seedlings”, “Earth Mother” – Doyle explores a variety of forms with considerable skill. There are pleasing and unusual words – ‘ruffling/ muffled soughing/mithered/ bruisy’; and evocative phrases – ‘a tickling of /night-busy / insects’, sycamore seeds as ‘the confetti thrill of / spiralled flight’.
“Seedlings” is a concrete poem in the shape of a tree (and how I love a concrete poem like this), and the line ‘At night she /sleeps with seeds between her toes’ becomes the first line of the next poem, which is itself a skilful villanelle, artfully constructed. This linkage between poems occurs frequently. Sometimes it will be a repeated word, like the word ‘electric’ in both “Mammatus”, a poem in which each line is bracketed to represent mammatus clouds; and the brilliant “Corvus”, where a giant mother crow brings her brood food:
beetles garnished with ladybirds and the elegance of butterflies. We overcame our pickiness, learned not to see the patterned bodies and sad strings of legs of our diners.
Sometimes the linkage is in the form of question and answer. “Blood cycle: iv Hysterica” (which echoes Elizabeth Bishops’ “One Art”), begins ‘Consider the womb a pocket you’re not using’, and ends with the question ‘So what are you losing?’. This question is answered in the following poem,”Hollowed”, which unflinchingly lists just what is lost;
I am the nest where no birds roost I am a hand holding no other I am the O that makes nothing I am a never-was mother
This is a collection divided by an ‘interlude’ poem immediately following the starkness of the medical diagnosis. This is poem as fairy story, a fairy story in the best tradition of the Brothers Grimm, in which husband and wife find themselves tearing love, hope and beauty apart in their unrequited longing for a child. And where the first half of the collection has worked its way more slowly towards the disappointment of not conceiving, the second half can be savage and unsparing. Some of these later poems are coruscating in their depiction of ‘barrenness’ and the power this term can hold in the assumptions of others, and in a woman’s view of herself;
Why do you have no children? I’m asked. You’d make a lovely mum, I’m told. But I know this is a myth: that I am empty, sterile, and cold. [“Creation Myth”]
Similarly, the poem “This has been the sunniest May since records began” is beguiling in its description of a hoped-for and sun-filled pregnancy, and devastating in the contrast with a storm-battered June, with ‘the sun’s /ruined yolk puddling around my feet’.
Frequently in this moving collection, the reader has a sharp intake of breath and is propelled into knowing something visceral about the staggering pain and regret of involuntary childlessness. There are no easy answers here. Instead, Doyle has offered us a compelling and, at times, heartbreaking voice that sings of the complexity of un-motherhood. The brief final poem, “Learning to accept autumn”, is poignantly illustrated on the cover, where a blood-red, heart-shaped leaf rests on a hard paving stone.