Reviews

Maternal Impression, by Cheryl Moskowitz, pub. Against the Grain Press

Photo of Cheryl Moskowitz by Caroline Forbes

**Content warning: non-graphic mention of childhood trauma**


I want to tell you about Maternal Impression, one of Against the Grain Press’s most recently published pamphlets. The poet is Cheryl Moskowitz, who (the blurb on the back cover tells us) has a background in theatre (both acting and writing) as well as psychodynamic counselling and drama therapy, and has also taught on Sussex University’s Creative Writing and Personal Development MA. Unsurprisingly, her poems have been placed in well-known competitions, and Moskowitz has two other poetry collections as well as a novel under her very interesting belt.

Why do I want to tell you about it? This is where it gets a little complicated, so bear with me, but I want to talk about this pamphlet from a psychodynamic perspective. During my time as a registered mental health nurse, I worked for a while as a nurse therapist at a specialist unit called a “therapeutic community” for clients who were struggling to deal with unhelpful coping strategies they’d developed in response to overwhelming trauma as children. The word “psychodynamic” refers to the action of the subconscious part of us that reveals itself in our dreams, or in that tiny voice we hear speaking from the deep, distant part of the back of our minds; the part we try to ignore. These subconscious thoughts and desires motivate significant parts of our thoughts and behaviour. How often have we found ourselves repeatedly forgetting to do something, only to realise that, actually, we don’t want to do it at all? Or behaved angrily towards a colleague because we’re really angry with someone else, but haven’t sorted it out yet? Or disliked someone simply because they remind us of some else who bullied us at school?

The point of the therapeutic community is that the group, led by the therapists, works together, gently noticing little give-away behaviours that might help clients begin to understand themselves and find a way through their distress towards mental health. The trauma the clients were dealing with was necessarily subconscious; it was too much for them to bear to think about the things that were causing them so much pain. Every week in art therapy, one client used to make a little clay model of a little girl, and then make little bricks, and build walls to imprison the little clay girl inside. She made this same scene week after week before becoming strong enough to realise that the little girl was herself.

Sorry, I said it was complicated, but the point is that the reason I adore the pamphlet Maternal Impression is that here we have the subconscious laid bare in all its excruciating beauty.

In the title poem, a mother’s trauma is imprinted on the child. What’s real and what’s imagined; what happens and what feels as if it has happened bleed into each other:

“… whatever you dream of / will come true / leave its stamp / in the heart of you”

In Carrying, there is so much inferred by what is bundled away from view.

When I read the poem, Earlier Today, I was delighted with the way my mind was constantly forced to shift its perception ( just as in real psychodynamic life). Here, disliked dogs are liked, no one knows who’s chasing and who’s being chased, who’s following and who’s being followed, and, most startlingly and deliciously true: who’s being hurt and who’s doing the hurting.

(The next poem, Breathe, is particularly gratifying to read following the conviction for the murder of George Floyd.)

I can barely read, no; I cannot read A Son, Awake without revisiting the helplessness I felt at times bringing up my own son, and I’m sitting on my hands here trying to stop myself telling you the last line, because it would be a little like handing you the latest detective novel while telling you “whodunnit”. I will control myself. But it’s one of my favourite last lines ever.

Moving through the book, a relationship grapples, handless; a girl is lost in her own reflection; a child experiences a mother’s “gristle and love”; a mother figure is tortured; a gourd silently says so much. Themes of motherhood and family are always dealt with in startling and fascinating ways. A mother’s instructions to her children avoid sugariness and instead evoke a powerful tenderness. A child’s feelings for her grandfather tussle with those of her mother.

Towards the end of Maternal Impression, Moskowitz shows us bodies being washed in Tehran, then a body being prepared for the afterlife, then… no, I’m not telling you; you really must discover the next poem for yourself!

The pamphlet leaves us with roses, and ends with an unexpected gift given by grief.

In an appropriately lurching segway, I can’t finish without mentioning all the movement in Maternal Impression; it’s a kinaesthetic learner’s delight! (The first blog post on this website explains learning style theory.) But, of course, the very word “psychodynamic” has the idea of movement within it. This is the Moskowitz experience: movement within the words and ideas of the poems, and movement between your conscious and subconscious mind as you read them. A truly wholistic experience. Could a poetry pamphlet give you better value for money? I think not.

You know what to do. Here’s the link:

Shop – Against the Grain Poetry Press (wordpress.com)

***

Yield, by Claire Dyer, pub. Two Rivers Press

Last week I received a pre-publication copy of Claire Dyer’s latest poetry collection, Yield. If I enjoy a book, I often post a cover photo on social media, along with a few lines about it. But there was so much I wanted to tell you, reader, about Yield, that I found those few lines had turned into this review.

Claire Dyer has a BA in English & History, an MA in Victorian Literature & Culture, and an MA in Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing, and has four published novels. This is her third published collection of poetry. You know you can sit back and dive into her book without fear of that awful, “I would have cut that last line” experience.

However, as a parent of a trans teenager, I opened Yield with trepidation. The cover describes the book as, “…a journey which sees a son become a daughter…”. Was it all going to be too much?

I reached Page 23, ‘Some Guidance on Leaving’ before I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t start for fear of never stopping.

“Come, sadness tells me, put on the yellow dress / and pack a bag with useful things: / a pair of angel’s wings, a cup of rain…”

On page 25 I read,

“I wrote your names / with a knife on my heart…”

and I found myself holding the book up to my face. Maybe I was breathing it in; maybe I was hiding behind it.

On page 36, in the poem ‘Storage’, children are “stars in jars”:

“I follow / them to school, watch them line up for prayers, the preciousness of knees, / elbows, chatter, light // folding itself blue into their eyes. I watch / them grow to girlhood, boyhood, woman, / man; they are not you, are you and // I remember the heave and push, / you birthing, my breasts spilling empty / for the full of you, and the fear is mighty // you will leave this final deed undone, / never know the pull of this exquisite love, / this love. This.”

I realised the book was carrying my emotions for me.

I was wowed by the exciting form of the ‘Body Clock’ prose poems, and as I continued reading, I find the heartbreak and enthralling language balanced to perfection. We have “waterfall”, “cloud”, “comet”, “glitterball”, “rabbit”, “bluebird”, along with “Clinic”, “Clinic”, “Clinic”, “Yield”, “Yield”, “Yield”. I am seared, I am hugged by this painful, beautiful book.

The weight of the ‘Clinic’ and ‘Yield’ poems and their ordering within the book create a perfect narrative arc that carries you through and keeps you gripped and rewarded by the story.

There were times I related to this book so completely, I almost felt as if it had been me writing it; a precious feeling a reader can experience when a book gets right down to the hidden depths of human experience and reaches out to you from it.

In a video on Seren’s website, Amy Wack says,

 “I don’t think about tomorrow; I think a hundred years from now… will this be the representative voice of our time?”

My recent experience of the poetry world has been a push towards writing technically impressive poetry at the expense of having something valuable to say about human emotions; about our experience of living in the world. In a recent workshop, a poet’s draft which expressed an outpouring of love towards her daughter was branded “sentimental”. A line which had made some group members feel an upward swoop of delight was ordered to be cut. On reflection, I felt there could have been some element of toxic masculinity at play. So I believe at a time when the poetry world has an opportunity to be part of the discussion on trans issues, and at this time in poetry’s evolution, this interesting, clever, painful, beautiful book about a mother’s love and her daughter’s transition from male to female could not be more welcome.

Yield is available on pre order from Two Rivers Press here:

Yield – Publishing on 21st February 2021 – pre order your copy now – Two Rivers Press

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