Review: Fothermather by Gail McConnell (Ink Sweat & Tears 2019)

I read a lot of poetry, at least one poem a day. I think it would be wonderful if more people read, and bought, poetry books. But when I read poetry reviews they often persuade me that the poems will be too difficult to enjoy – and I have a literature degree! What if a poetry review could be more like a fun theatre review? This is my challenge to myself.

TL;DR = I loved it! Here are some of the things I felt and thought while reading this pamphlet. Hopefully there will be other, more traditional critiques as well, (poets need and value both types), but this one is all about what the poetry did to me. Super-subjective, and a long read but in short sections. Buckle up!

McCONNELL_GAIL_FOTHERMATHER_INK_SWEAT_TEARS_PRESS_COVER

  1. The Title

The title is just a glorious word in the mouth. I spent a bit of happy alone time muttering ‘fothermather’ over and over, which funnily enough is something Gail does in the poem of the same name. There’s a lot of fun, experimental sound-babble baby-prattle wordplay in this pamphlet, and a lot of passages that are just fantastic read aloud. More on that later.

  1. The Intro

There is an introduction from the poet, which tells you exactly what the poems are about – non-biological queer parenthood, …what queerness does to parenthood, and parenthood to queerness, and how we might imagine parenting without gendering it so rigidly in name and form.”. It is written intelligently and thoughtfully, but not in an overly-academic or pretentious tone. This is BRILLIANT, it orientated me and gave me the confidence to read without fear that I wasn’t “getting it”. I knew what to look out for, like a traveller with a really good guidebook, so I could relax and enjoy the words.

  1. Words and names are splendid

When I read in the intro that Gail had started obsessing about the naming of things, that interested me. I believe in the power of naming. I believe that children may feel profound emotions at an age when they are pre-verbal or lacking vocabulary, and then only process those emotions much later in life when the feeling are finally named. I believe that new language around identity, ‘womxn’ and ‘Latinx’ for example, is an essential revolution as pioneers try to bring a lived reality into linguistic being. Words are reality – for a thing to truly exist to us, we must know what it is called. But I digress – or do I?

  1. Poetry contains the poet’s mind, and your own

Whatever you start randomly musing on while you read a poem is, for you, part of the poem. The first one in the pamphlet is a prose poem. Don’t panic. No-one really knows precisely what a prose poem is, but you can tell a good one like tapping a loaf of fresh-baked bread for that ‘done’ sound. This one has a very pleasing knock, and is full of many things, like oranges. A lot of juicy names for varieties of oranges. As I read, I was reminded that a) oranges are human-made hybrids developed in China from pomelos, and b) in shiatsu, the formation of meridians in the body is said to happen during the first cell divisions of the embryo when it is segmented like an orange. These bits of info aren’t in the poem, they are in my mind, but the poem awakened them. I feel I am in dialogue with the poet. I feel it might be possible for many readers to bring many conversations to bear. What would you bring? You won’t know until you read it.

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  • Concrete poetry doesn’t have to be naff

If you don’t know the term, concrete poetry is where, for example, you write a poem about a butterfly and then you arrange the words on the page so they make the shape of a butterfly. It is fun, but also sometimes clunky. In Fothermather there are poems in the shape of seahorses, in which seahorses are metaphors for gender non-conformity in parenthood, and also visual metaphors for the floating embryo. They must have been hell to keep the formatting, but they are absolutely worth it, because they literally gave me the same bodily pleasure as the sensation of picking up a beautiful teapot only to find it is also an excellent pourer. Do you know that feeling? Form and function in perfect alignment. Joy.

 

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  1. When you read, read the white space too

Apologies if I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here, but I think something that can hamper the (new) reader of contemporary poetry is – what the hell is with the weirdo triple-space-punctuation-seemingly-random-line-break-stuff? It may be helpful to think of it as closer to musical annotation than writing. If you let your mind and eye hastily skip across the page to join all the words up into a sentence as quickly as possible so you can ‘understand’ the poem, you will definitely not understand the poem. So – read out loud, and imagine the white spaces are silences, like rests in the bar of music. Remember John Cage’s 4’33, which is nothing but silence from the musicians – the ‘music’ comes from the ambient sounds you are forced to notice now that you’re sitting in a concert hall with a bunch of motionless violinists.

Try this passage, from Talk Through The Wall.

you say you   think you feel you   might be able just   to sense the                 baby bubbles   that’s the feeling   bubbles on the   walls like bubbles pressing up   against the sides   & popping at the   line the books                 say they’re too wee for kicks   or stretching pushes to be

For me, the strange stuttering spaces are the moments when the person has to stop talking mid-sentence in order to listen internally for the kick of the baby. What do you think?

OK, now read aloud this brief fragment from erasure poem Ashore, allowing for all the silence around the words.

she nears her limits                              repeating

wave by wave

a              thinning out                    –       also                                    immensity

When I read this, the form and the water imagery combined makes me feel like I’m sitting on the veranda of a beach house. The words are like a wind chime in the faint breeze – all separate notes, yet all together. In contrast, there are other erasure poems in this pamphlet that eviscerate Freud’s thoughts on the need for a father figure, and they have a very different quality to their silences. When I read them I think of old reel-to-reel tapes, chopped into tiny audio fragments and spliced together with harsh static.

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Last one! Not so much for the white space as for the internal rhyme and pace. Read this out loud, and tell me whether you also hear the squelchy white noises of an ultrasound, or the pulse of blood in your ears?

You understand that camouflage is custom, true and changeable in circumstance, and that a name obscures as much as it contains. O fish! O fish with spine and neck. Born of choice and chance, born of the male, a vertebrate upending expectation. You’re a question mark reversed & beautifully embellished.

  1. Sticking it to villanelles – I stan

Possibly my favourite poem in the whole pamphlet is Untitled/Villanelle, because I swear to you my heart normally SINKS at the thought of villanelles. All that rhyme, all that repetition! Workshops get us to write the bloody things, and they almost always come out as stodgy as plum duffs (at least, mine do). So what a joy to read this one, where the form is so exploded it’s practically airborne! Reading along with it is like humming along to a strange and sinuous thread of consciousness. The same could be said of the whole pamphlet – a fluid experience, filled with the variety and surprise of many playful poetic ‘shapes’ on the page.

That’s it. There’s undoubtedly more to say, but I’m going to leave it there for now. I think it’s lush.

If I’ve persuaded you to read this lovely pamphlet, you can buy it from Ink, Sweat & Tears. You’ll make them and the poet very happy, and you’ll own a thing of great value. In a couple of weeks I’ll be doing the same for Firing Pins by Jo Young, so be sure to follow me if you want more reviews like this. Thanks for reading!

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