This new collection is a beautifully wrought evocation of place and family.
Although this fourth collection from Rebecca Goss, revolves around return, lifting the latch on a new life that is an extension of an old life, a moment of change; the poems also consider her relationship to the landscape of her youth in Suffolk, the effect of nostalgia on memory (“every journey backwards is reflected by a step forwards”) – and themes of identity.
Goss first came to our attention for Her Birth, intense poems about her new-born daughter Ella being diagnosed with a rare heart condition that took her life. It told Ella’s story and the accompanying grief and loss (“we watched for sixteen anxious / months, brambles thickening at her heart/with no way through to save her”) with pared-down eloquence, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection.
Goss grew up in the Suffolk countryside, and this is a poetic evaluation of her return to her roots with husband and new daughter in tow after years in the city. Childhood memories compete against newness, and evolving family life and generational difference.
She admits to being weaned on American short story writers such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and this influence seems inherent in her narrative style and economy in her writing about the everyday. This idea of storytelling in verse is akin to that of the great Cesare Pavese, but where he focused on a loner protagonist Goss inhabits her poems with personal insight and the emotional complexity of family life.
Goss has said she was tentative about beingsoautobiographical again, but you get the feeling this may be the mode in which she most successfully expresses herself through poetry.
However, the gestation of this collection was troublesome, as initially it was going to about physical labour invested in the East Anglian landscape, and she carried out interviews with local characters such as the blacksmith (“I met a man fluent / in the lexicon of spark”) and farmers (“his wife crosses / stubble to bring pasta”), but it wasn’t sufficient to galvanise her.
She turned to a very different type of poet, Caroline Bird, who highlighted the lack of emotional attachment in her new work. This mentoring gave her permission to write about grief and family again, and to realise physicality could also apply to these subjects as well – helping her unlock the rest of the poems, which then came in a rush.
In ‘The Farm’, Goss waxes nostalgic but razor-sharp about her childhood move there: “Our mother ready, belly swollen with number four, beds made / no curtains, thickest dark outside”. The poems feel organic, particularly on appreciating the fleeting moment, a recurring theme. As John Clegg wrote “We haven’t verbs / for how we live through things1”, but Goss here fully excavates feelings and memories, works on them, strips them back, re-works them until they shine.
The motherhood aspect of her new life was always going to be present, maybe to achieve perspective. In ‘What Will It Be Like To Be Here?’, Goss writes about her daughter being in the same environment where she grew up, exploring the changing relationship we have with our children as they get older: “This will be / all you have known / and I fear it will be / too small for you”.
Goss is concerned about her daughter’s formative years. In ‘The Weir’, she directly confronts this fear, knowing there is only so much she can protect her from. Boys are already a worry – “she’s letting them look at her, knowing / the power she has, and we have only just / moved to this town”.
As a counter, in ‘When it Feels Hot’, she explores the pursuits and camaraderie of her own teenage years: “The [post-pub] collapse into a bedroom, joint / a shared firefly at our lips, clothes strewn / soon sleeping like children”. She understands the traversing of this late-teen land, how the peer group will be her lifeline, her education. This half-drunken wandering of lanes she calls “a Suffolk rite of passage”, and it is wonderfully evoked, sufficiently so for the poem to win the Sylvia Plath Prize in 2022.
There remains grief and sadness. In ‘Nest’, what begins as a nature poem about swans then confounds us with observations on the tribulations of motherhood caught short, but that she must “continue with the swim”. This poignant and balanced collection feels intimately like we are present in this prolongation.
Although the act of return provides a structure for the collection, this is poetry that is itself experience and not just a record of the experience. This is underscored by the process of discovery present in so many of the pieces, which brings the illusion of doubling back – that in writing about the remembered past she is also returning to where the experience happened, at the same time as experiencing the present.
As Miles Burrows once wrote, “there are some poets will never catch fire / Not even in the crematorium2”. Goss, with her beautifully constructed epitaphs to the transitory but rewarding nature of family life, is certainly not one of them.
About our contributor
Laurie Donaldson is a writer and editor based in Greenock. He is a member of the Greenock Writers’ Club, the Federation of Writers (Scotland) and the Association of British Science Writers, and regularly reads at open mic events. He has had poems published in a couple of local anthologies and zines, had pieces used as inspiration by dance and art groups for a local creative minds festival, and has three poems forthcomingin Dreich magazine (December, 2023).
- From ‘Chili Bean Soup’, published in Aliquot (Carcanet, 2022) ↩︎
- From ‘The Problem with Maureen’, published in Take Us the Little Foxes: Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2021) ↩︎