Deirdre Cartmill’s third full-length collection is an exploration of longing and fulfilment. The first half of the collection take the reader through the fallout from a miscarriage, from the initial thrill and excitement of expectancy to the resultant grief and trauma. "Signs of Life" sums up the devastation in a neat image of the line of a pregnancy test developing like a polaroid picture:
and slowly filling with the possibility of life
But when we hand you to the doctor
and she scans you for the first time,
you disappear like a film exposed to light
Suddenly, given the shock of the news, motherhood and loss are seen everywhere. The flowers of a petal "fold into a womb"; the would-be parents' relationship gets compared to "pages joined by a perforated edge | and how little it takes to tear them apart." The fragility of life is exposed.
Deprived of motherhood, the poems take up the theme of observation. In "Fishmarket Pas de Deux," the speaker does not take part in the absurd dance reencountered in the poem; instead they "partake by watching." The mothering instinct is transposed onto the image of a child scavenging for food in "Daily Bread," the image seeming to haunt as a ghost, demanding to be seen, filling a void perhaps where a child should be. And yet, again, the speaker will only "watch and wait, and do nothing." In the opening poem, "Between Crossing and Passing," we are told that ghosts will do "anything to sate that unmet need | to be seen, heard." Cartmill places the unfilled mother between mourning the past and grasping at the future. We are shown a traffic light turning green, and told that "everything seems possible now," yet elsewhere we find "a trail of pawprints" that "lead nowhere," and we are left to wonder what possible direction the narrator is left free to take.
However, in the suitably-named haikai sequence, "Crossing Points," we find a key image encompassing both connection and separation:
Me superimposed on you.
joined without touching.
Cartmill excels in creating significance in seemingly minor images, using the material world as symbols for the turmoil felt whilst trying to make sense of what life has delivered – or failed to deliver. By the time we reach "Intercession," there is supplication, where Cartmill read to "let the reflection of Christ | washed over my upturned face." Now, with a different form of superimposition, the collection moves into a sequence taking up the majority of the book, told through the figure of Mary Magdalene. We see a blossoming faith, the ontogenesis of a personal and intimate relationship with Christ.
Magdalene starts off much as Cartmill, an observer, "reaching out, unable to touch." Yet soon, we see her move past observation and into participation, as she finds "my home in him" and eventually is invited to even preach alongside Jesus, the two becoming the one voice, and again, we find yet further superimposition.
Cartmill uses the Christ story to bring consolation and fulfilment; just as some nuns are encouraged to move any sexual desire they make have onto the Christ figure, the reader can’t help but draw comparisons and parallels between this faith helping to ease the pain of miscarriage. And indeed, Cartmill does not shy away from the intimacy that people speculate Christ and Magdalene may have held: "I watch each muscle flex," "his hand is on my waist," "his breath lifts each hair on my neck." One may stop to wonder why such emphasis on the physicality of the relationship, yet such human elements help us buy in to the intensity of feeling here.
Whatever one’s own personal views on faith and theology, the reader will still be caught up in the story, one that is emboldening, feminist, and inspiring. What we are left with is a resolution that offers a different form of motherhood, as Cartmill expertly squares the circle of the narrative to show us a surrogate relationship found through belief:
of how God gave birth to us
as we give birth to men
who shun us, break us, rape us
- yet we do not stop giving birth.
Once more, publisher Arlen House offers up an engaging and stimulating collection, and after ten years since Cartmill’s last volume, we find that she has only strengthen her resolve, compassion and storytelling craft.
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.