Jan 29 2024
Poetry review – SAFETY MEASURES AGAINST THE SEA: Pat Edwards admires Katharine Goda’s skillful way of tackling a difficult subject
If we needed any confirmation after reading the poems, the back cover of this collection warns us that this is a collection about an abusive father and a too-silent mother, and the poet’s struggle to make sense of her experiences. For this reason, I too offer up a warning that the content can be hard to read and may even be triggering for some. I feel that to ‘review’ a book like this is almost too much; the poems are what they are, deeply personal. However, they also speak to the suffering of others, to the failures in our ‘systems’, and to the resilience we need to nurture in all children. I think the writing and the presentation of the poems is raw, emotionally intelligent, and make for an important body of work.
The collection opens with ‘A is for Anger’, which recalls a child’s fall. It reminds us that getting hurt will often “leave no scar to remind you how it felt”, but that staying angry can be important because “our anger is vital as sunshine”. The poet suggests that, as children, we are often expected to accept falling over as part of growing up; we are supposed to “be brave”, but not all bad episodes are so easily brushed aside. One such is when a father loses his temper and throws something his child has made. The poem ‘Worth Telling’ ends with the ambiguous “his hands his hands his hands”.
In ‘Child of’, the poet paints a picture of a well-to-do family that both literally and metaphorically plays “Happy Families, patience, snap”, the mother continually making excuses, “deep down he loves you – you know that”. She sees the father as a benign god but the poet forces us to see things through the eyes of the child. Seemingly normal childhood events – falling over, a trip to the seaside, going horse riding, bonfire night – take on more sinister foreboding. We enter a world of mind games, the constant attempt to read situations, to anticipate reactions. The poet muses on the multiple meanings and usages of the word ‘mind’, with “losing your mind” being one of the hardest to confront, and “never mind” meaning to never ever notice, to never really care, and to be told not to make a fuss.
As the child moves into adulthood, she questions “why did you not speak?” The child has become a well-educated grown up, she understands human behaviour, is a team player, someone who takes promises seriously, so asks why her mother never spoke up for her or tried to rescue her. The reader learns that the father was a keen wood-worker and designer. In ‘Draughtsman’ there is the suggestion he was disappointed to have three daughters, “wrong…not as designed”. The poet delves into childhood again, remembering the horror of Christmases, and the wish at age twelve that she’d “never been born”.
As a mother now herself, in ‘Preserving’, the poet is happily making jam with her young children when she suddenly becomes, acutely aware of her responsibility “to parent well, to preserve love”. Another poem talks of two miscarriages; what a sadness they must have been. Finding two apples in the garden, the poet wants to “keep them, let the tree bear these globes of hope/straight from fairy tales”.
Increasingly, the experience of motherhood causes the poet to question her own mother’s state of mind. The poem ‘The Spaces in My Workbook Were for Things I Hadn’t Learned’ is set out in five-line stanzas placed alternately on the right and left of the page, where the poet returns to school days and can’t quite understand “what’s happening with Mummy”. Other people are collecting her and her siblings from school, feeding them, tidying the house. Clearly a mental health crisis has occurred – “we don’t ask what happens next”. In a clever and compelling poem entitled ‘Yes’ the poet uses only the word ‘no’ laid out over and over on the page to depict a giant YES. It is striking how this questions how the two words, so opposite in meaning, can be misused, misinterpreted, misplaced. I admire the ambition of the poet to make poetry and meaning out of just two words, challenging the reader to see the possibility of words on the page.
The title poem of the book is arguably the hardest to read, creating moments of fear as it portrays a child trying to “be littler, littlest, just keep still”. Escape for both the child and the reader is impossible – “you’d leave if you could”. Just as the sea has the power to “crash through”, the memory of a child “with not enough hands to keep all of his away”, returns in hurtful waves. This theme continues in the next poem, suggesting that the near impossibility of forgetting might even pose a threat to the victim’s children in time:
this monstrous wave of danger will find your children and break them.
The collection considers the possibility of therapy and of well-meaning people who try to help, not always successfully. There is a hint that people don’t always “believe you” which can also happen in relation to eating disorders, and self-harm – not necessarily in relation to the poet, but perhaps for others who are victims of abuse. We also encounter reference to fairy tales in ‘Another Story’ and are confronted by the possibility that the dark unknown in many such stories is really an echo of our own families and experiences.
Several poems in this collection challenge conventions in terms of language especially around the reporting of abuse and our rather box-ticking culture when it comes to recording the responses of care professionals supporting and treating those involved. I’m pretty certain you can only have the moral authority to question such things if you have had direct experience. One poem illustrates this so well by redacting whole lines of victims’ words, leaving them lost, ignored, wiped from the record.
Bleak as this may sound, if there is one hopeful note in the collection, maybe it can be found in the fact that the poet has used her voice to shout for the many who cannot speak. Difficult as the themes may be, it is vital that they are aired and that, in so doing, awareness is raised and debate can occur. Poetry may not solve societal ills but, in the right hands, carefully-crafted words can provide comfort and even restore some measure of justice.