Jacqueline Saphra’s debut collection, All my Mad Mothers, is one of observation and experience, resistance and discovery, inhibition and abandon. The poems within are vivacious explorations of daughterhood, adulthood, and motherhood, a spinning wheel of rebellion, conformity, protest and revelation.
Analogous to reading the old family encyclopaedias, these poems contain the secret thrill of self-discovery, an exhilarating exegesis of the female body as it responds to age and expectation.
The collection begins with ‘In the winter of 1962 my mother’, a poem that navigates the silence and isolation of a woman who fails to subscribe to contemporary social norms:
travelling round and round in shrinking circles
not sure how to execute the move outwards
into another lane never having been
properly taught how to make an exit
Given the deluge of fairy tales ready to instruct generations of young girls on how to acquire a husband (a passive mixture of charm and frailty), and the plethora of instruction manuals and magazine articles designed to create the perfect wife and mother, there were scant, if any, resources a woman could turn to in times of marital problems and breakdowns in 1962. It was the woman’s role to keep the family together, whatever the cost, physically or emotionally. This collection then, is about precisely this: the roundabouts and wrong turns, red lights and give-ways we go through as we figure out where we want to go, how to get there, and who we want to be when we arrive.
The rest of this section explores the significant and potentially lethal difference between the examination of biological sexuality and the expectation of political sexuality. ‘Sicily’ presents childhood curiosity, “The boys show me their penises… so in return, I present my vagina…” The aftermath involves going to the balcony “to practice spitting, wave at Vespas,/ local kids and tourists before we amble/ down to lunch”. ‘The Sound of Music’, however, reveals the devastation of clinging to received ideas, realising too late “that you can squander a lifetime/ trying to stay small and pretty.”
Cataloguing the implements of her mother’s beauty routine in ‘My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury’, Saphra acknowledges and rejects the double-edged sword of prescribed beauty. The structure and rhythm of the poem echoes the cadence of the three witches in Macbeth, determined to ensnare and manipulate him:
Cutting edge of lady-razor
Glint of sin and lure of danger
Woman’s flesh a fading treasure
Braced for pain but honed for pleasure
The historical suspicion surrounding make-up is well-documented as the last recourse of the lustful and wicked, suggesting that make-up denotes a magic, a power of sorts, something to be feared and avoided. In this vein, it becomes the armour in the title: war-paint that is empowering and invigorating. But armour is donned to protect areas of the body that are weak, prone to attack. As such, the:
Smudged remains of caked mascara
Iron clamp of eyelash curler
Usual instruments of torture
are invoked to protect the wearer from unwelcome and critical eyes, and, as such, become a form of submission: in succumbing to the physical pain involved, the woman is protected from the social stigma of being ‘unwomanly’.
The section finishes with ‘All my Mad Mothers’, a well-marinated, sun-chaser, puddle-swimmer, arsonist and confectioner of a mother. Saphra presents seven images of her mother across seven stanzas, a rainbow of identities that the inverted prism of ‘mother’ is expected to turn to white, wholesome, light.
The second section develops this idea of multiplicity through the ring-fencing of burgeoning sexual awareness. The female body is man-handled through the free-for-all indulgence of supposed bodily pleasures in ‘Crete, 1980’, “naked, mouth grazed with the taste/ of smoke and strangers’ kisses” and the political landmine of ‘Getting into Trouble’, where “Mr Giles…made me take the pro-abortion poster down”. This poem also touches on the social construct of female virginity, exonerated by “My boyfriend, who was stupid but useful”, and dismissed by her mother as “burdensome”, something to be “sorted in that lull/ between O Levels and results”.
‘The Day My Cousin Took me to the Museé Rodin’ embodies the stark and opportunistic threats women face when they engage with sexual words, ideas, and behaviours. The poem opens with a list of excuses that justify the presumptuous and aggressive behaviour of her cousin: the weather, the erotic artwork, and then, inevitably, herself:
Perhaps it was … my blatant boasts
of l’armour libre of which I knew, in fact, rien
that galvanised my cousin to try his luck with me.
It as a universal assumption that a woman in possession of a body must be in want of sexual attention. The use of French reflects both the speaker’s inability to articulate the nuances of these unwanted sexual advances, but also the shame and silence expected of, and experienced by, its victims.
In ‘Hampstead, 1979’, Saphra shows us the values that women are meant to appreciate in a man, regardless of their own feelings and desires, while the exciting wildness of men who disregard these rules in ‘My Friend Juliet’s Icelandic Lover’ is muted by the pathetic nature of those who can’t follow them:
that dull Sunday in your hard-to-let flat
in Mile End while Martha was feeding
the baby in the other room and you
murmured sorry sorry sorry, one hand
on my cheek, one hand on my hand.
The penultimate section moves on to focus on motherhood through a mixture of introspection, expectation and caution.
In ‘Chicken,’ we witness the youthful intensity of a daughter who lives by high-cast principles (“If you choose to eat an animal,/ you must first learn to kill it”), balanced by the pragmatic wisdom of a mother who “snipped the plastic film,/ plucked some stray feathers/ and rubbed salt into the skin.” This maternal self-restraint is seen again in ‘What time is it in Nova Scotia?’ a poem full of questions that wait to be asked, advice that aches to be given:
I won’t ask about your cough, whether you’re eating
oranges and learning French or if you like the vest I
sent. I wish I could brush your hair. Remind me to send
Its depiction of “sailors who’d trap a calf/ and torture it” to capture an adult walrus addresses the knowledge, and guilt, of a parent that cannot protect its child from everything. The poem acknowledges the importance of this enforced silence, recognising that you cannot protect someone by attacking them, or heal them by exposing their weaknesses. You can only wait, respect this new-found need for space, and be ready to provide love and support at a moment’s notice, an understanding beautifully articulated in ‘The Doors to my Daughter’s House’.
she’s made it plain that I must never lean against
those doors she’s carved, the ones that swing
open and shut on oiled hinges at intervals
I can’t predict…
Fittingly, the collection’s final section opens with the line ‘If I could do it over, I think’. The poems that follow speak of heirlooms, old habits, old friends and old fashions in a voice that recognises love as beautiful, complex, painful and, more often than we would like to admit, anticlimactic. The closing poems are more affirmation than resignation, spoken with the wisdom and self-confidence so lacking on that opening roundabout.
Saphra does not seek to create art separate from its artist; timeless, weightless, open to vague assumptions and misappropriations. She is writing as daughter, woman, mother, a female poet with a female body, here and now.
Shortlisted for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize, All my Mad Mothers is a sensual, intimate, honest, virile, expansive, and explosive debut.
All my Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra
Nine Arches Press. 72pp; £9.99. ISBN: 9781911027201
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