Thursday 21 September 2023

Review by Katherine Gallagher of "Unmothered" by A. J. Akoto


This debut-collection from Black British poet A. J. Akoto is a book of deep feeling ‒ poetry that demands to be thought about, and read aloud. It is resonant, deep-voiced with pauses: poems that question, echo back; theatrically haunting and laced with reverberations that linger.

Akoto’s masterful and resolute poems about her unresolved arguments with her estranged mother bring to mind a line from Lavinia Greenlaw's "Prayer" "for those trapped in another’s gravity." Mother and daughter, the two are trapped, intertwined, without hope of escape. The poems, resilient, despair-biting, fiercely-knowing and uncompromising, speak with the demeaning ferocity of all the "unmothered" mother-daughter alienation that has gone before.

Images of myth, primarily Medea, tantalise and predominate, reminding the speaker of her fate. Kevin Threlfall's ominous cover design, Darkness Follows, sets the pattern, the paradox of this young woman "unmothered," "undaughtered" –  indeed, this is the way it goes:

          A return. Not of last year’s summer,
          but the sense of those simmering
          childhood hours spent reading 
          under the light of solitude.

          Cool relief of those hours free
          from the prickle
          of her shadow along the wall.
- "Return of Summer"

The protagonist imagines a wished-for escape but the "prickle / of her (mother’s) shadow along the wall" is mostly there, reinforced by a dread of "haunting" and "ghost-flames," to be reckoned with.

It is an approach-avoidance conflict writ large. In the poem, "Who is to be saved?" Akoto suggests "It’s a difficult decision, / but all the same, my mother / does what she does best: saves herself. / ... Years later, she comes back, / closing out light behind her. / A shadow crosses my heart / a spider-skitter-scattering / along the muscle of my being." One thinks of reconciliation but no, the poem continues, "She also needs my darkness. / ... When I landed in the dark, / I stayed there. Yet / she holds out her hand / and I’m hers again. Even when / she recoils at my mangling, / because some bones do not heal. / and some hurts set themselves wrong, / I’m still hers." So they hold each other "trapped."

This amazing book Unmothered continues along this pattern – with light and shade but mostly dark, an exhaustive white heat of reciprocal anger, love, recriminations and sadness. I can imagine it as a theatrical piece, perhaps as a monologue with musical backing, or a presentation of assorted moods and voices, again with music. Akoto has a powerful presence and has presented an extremely powerful range of poems where the reader is continually returning to the question: Who is to be saved?

About the reviewer
Katherine Gallagher is an Australian-born North London poet. Her sixth full collection, Acres of Light (Arc Publications, 2016) – 'a joyful rinsing of the senses,' Alison Brackenbury – follows her Carnival Edge: New & Selected Poems (also with Arc, 2010). Carol Rumens chose her 'The Year of the Tree' for The Guardian’s Poem of the Week. 

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