Mother, Nature, by Aoife Lyall, Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780375182
Aoife Lyall’s collection Mother, Nature arrives with a magisterial maturity that belies its status as a first book-length offering.
Dublin-born, now living in Inverness, Lyall has arrived at this point in her writing life with a talent distilled along the academic highway from TCD’s English department to St John’s Cambridge’s medieval literature MPhil to a teaching degree at Aberdeen.
She has also featured regularly in the shortlists for some key prizes, including the Hennessys in 2016 and 2018. She has guest-curated for the Scottish Poetry Library and guest-edited in the magazine sphere, and has recently won an Emerging Scottish Writer residency.
But if that path encourages us to consider her well-qualified and well-trained to produce good poetry ‑ and she is ‑ it is an entirely different path that has put the seal of authenticity to her book and the poetic narrative it carries: her journey through motherhood.
The collection begins as it continues right to the end: forthright almost to occasional bluntness in dealing first with the sudden, unheralded sorrow of miscarriage, then moving on to the blind joy of a new birth.
In “Sounds of the day” she sets an initial tone of stunned sadness:
When the silence came,
it was your heart not beating.
Signs and reminders are everywhere, as is the silence, sometimes embarrassed and sometimes not, of all the people she encountered then, even the workers preparing a grave for the lifeless infant, detailed in “The grave diggers”:
normally a chatty bunch, they give
the smallest graves their silence …
Also misdirected gestures, as in “No flowers by request”:
And still they come. The lilies burst
like corpses, waft their death scent
through the open house. A wake
for weeks I am the grave they send
the lilies to …
Then, after the Month’s Mind, in the poem of that name, we find ourselves eavesdropping on the grieving mother’s poignant inner conversation with her lost child, who we are meeting for the first time in the seventh poem of the book, though not by name. There are no names in the poems, nothing to deflect us towards an unwanted reification drawn from our own associations with names.
Once home, we bury our good shoes
at the bottom of the wardrobe. We pour tea
and unwrap plates of sandwiches and cake.
In low voices we talk a little about the life
you never lived, and the house you never lived in
is overwhelmed by all the people who didn’t know to come.
No grandiloquent mourning language, just plain words conveying the awful familiarity of the funereal moment.
Then, as abruptly as we entered the collection, we are at the arrival of the new baby, the one that has followed the miscarried one (in “Epithalamion”):
An expectant hush turns all heads towards
the cotton veil, and there you are. Dressed
in your finest vernix, you only have eyes for me.
In “Labour” the birth is portrayed calligramatically, with a human body shape, and the midwifely exhortation
Push push push
where the womb would be.
The delivery room’s hubbub erupts in “After birth”, and it is here we have our first encounter with the father:
he kisses you for the first time all at once, his eyes
fill with the knowledge of the whole world in his hands.
Detailed snapshot memories which the delivery experience is imprinting are conveyed: of the surgeons and paediatricians thronging the room,
They cut and stitch like fishermen,
gut and clean like fishermen’s wives.
Sparkling images in metaphor or simile form pop up in the poems with exhilarating ubiquity. In “Syzygy” (a great title for a poem and always a likely match-winner in the Scrabble world) laid out in a zig-zaggy format that might be described as an essay in visual onomatopoeia, we find the following invocation of the breastfeeding experience:
of your mouth pulling
the tide of my milk,
the sound of the ocean
in every breath.
In what was this writer’s first encounter with the world of coffee-capsule culture in poetry, we are told (in “Minute and far away”) how the commotion of making a cup of coffee has been added to the list of untoward noise events that must be skirted so as not to wake the baby:
I live in the potential of that first sip
for hours while you sleep on me, stopped only
by the knowledge that the push and puncture
will wake the house and leave us all diminished.
This after lying sleepless, slumbering baby on chest, steadily daydreaming towards that first jolt of caffeine trimmed with cinnamon.
If this account of Mother, Nature appears episodic, it’s because the book itself is very narrative-driven, though at a certain point the timeline fractures and the poems begin to waft back and forth across the threshold of the poet’s present tense filled with feeding, sleeping and not sleeping, as memories of the earlier baby mingle with those of the new arrival, each poem contributing its glint to the book’s overall mosaic of motherhood, as in “Saturn”:
Your tears fall
like diamonds, my milk flows like rain.
Then there are the pivotal sentimental baby landmarks, such as the first cot after months in the moses basket, the move from breast to the ‘thin grey formula from a lukewarm plastic bottle’, feeding crumbs to park ducks together.
Opportunity arises to let the poet closely observe the father’s hitherto undemanded skills and the sensitivity of gestures that appear from nowhere known, as in “Soft spot”:
he peels potatoes at the kitchen sink, guiding
the knife under the soil-soaked potato
skin as gentle as the first time
he held you sleeping, thumbing the smell
from your newborn head, easing around
the knots, the soft spot, humming.
Then more landmarks pass en route to the world of childminders and the end of maternity leave, as in “Cuckoo”:
I am free to spend the day
being who I thought I was before.
Gentle motifs that resonate from the natural world to the new worlds of motherhood and babyhood guide the book to its end. Some tie in with descriptions of earlier moments, some are new and startling epiphanies to the poet. They are all enthralling: waves that “break like contractions” and ducks that “waddle towards us like expectant mothers”. It is indeed a world remade.
A remarkable debut from a strong talent.
Éamon Mag Uidhir currently edits the quarterly poetry narrowsheet FLARE and curates the literary live event noticeboard The Perp Walk on Facebook, along with its art event companion Art Me.