This anthology of poems which explore the emotional meaning of family ties was inspired in part, the editors write, by the question: what difference has our contemporary freedom of expression made to writing about intimate relationships? A fair bit, they conclude, as they argue that the emergence of the voices of children writing as adults about their parents is a twentieth-century phenomenon, as is the wider range of tone and emotion. The change in the gender balance of published poets is of course another significant factor.
The poems are ordered within particular family relationships and this structure provides a sense of the complexities of the life-long entanglement in the inner world of the imagination of parents and children. There are wonderful poems about birth, loss, ambivalence, the growing up of children and the growing old of parents, protectiveness, cruelty, the impact of parental quarrels and estrangements and the devastation of family wreaked by historical catastrophes, particularly the European holocaust. The relational framing enables surprising symmetries to emerge: Goronwy Owen’s ‘orphaned father’, E. Nesbit mourning the ‘eyes of my baby-queen’ bespeak the child-like feelings of abandonment stirred in parents faced with the loss of a child. The father without his child has lost his identity as a father; the mother with no baby to gaze at is similarly bereft.
Some of the poems are well known, but many were new to me and this mixture of familiar and unfamiliar was particularly enjoyable in the context of the editorial framework. Memorable for me are Donald Hall’s poem ‘My Son My Executioner’, where he writes of the birth of a child as the dawn of awareness of mortality, Cecil Day Lewis in ‘Walking Away’ on the pain of letting go, Anthony Thwaite in ‘Looking On’ writing of a daughter’s preoccupation with what goes on between mother and father. There seems a greater weight of ambivalence and pain in the poems between women. Hatred, refusal of closeness, shame, frustration and guilt are among the darker feelings summoned up. When women writers address both parents, there is a less claustrophobic atmosphere. Jean Earle’s poem ‘To Father and Mother’ memorably records her dream-recreation of parents as lovers. At the other end of the spectrum, failures of development, the intractable and the intolerable, can be written about with rage (Sylvia Plath) or, more rarely but refreshingly, humour (Stevie Smith).
A sprinkling of translations is included, among them poems from Brazil, Estonia, Israel, Wales, Arabia and China. This last provides a delightful example of father-love in the eighth century. It is called ‘Rising late and playing with A-ts’ui, aged two’. The final couplet goes:
‘To the three Joys of the book of Mercius
I have added the fourth of playing with my baby boy.’
So much for the supposed modern discovery of childhood!
Eliza Ogilvy’s stark greeting to her newborn child (1844) similarly punctures the myth that only modern writers put the mess of life on the page:
‘No locks thy tender cranium boasteth,
No lashes veil thy gummy eye
And, like some steak gridiron toasteth,
Thy skin is red and crisp and dry.’
Nonetheless, some distinctively modern voices are to be heard. Geoffrey Lehmann writes of the demanding and embarrassing physicality of young children, Carole Satyamurti of her disabled daughter (‘Moon broken’ says the child looking at a crescent moon, creating the poem’s title ‘Broken Moon’), Gwendolen Brooks of aborted children who remain in the mind, Jackie Kay of her struggle to gain a sense of a lost birth mother, Les Murray of an autistic son. Writers like these are recording, and creating, a public language for experiences which would have remained largely hidden or indeed unknowable in an earlier period.
The pleasure of the book lies in the echoes across the generations and the multiple vertices of observation and reflection it offers. A fine sourcebook for reading with adolescents, I thought.