Thursday 18 January 2024

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Love Leans over the Table" by Rosie Jackson

True to its title, this collection of poems is about love. But not the Hallmark card kind, this is the love of mothers separated from their children, the pain of loss, the anguish of an anchorite: "Love is not the right word. Love is too cushiony / for a woman who sleeps on stone, kneels on stone, / prays with the steadfastness of granite." But there is tenderness, transcendence, "let’s call it light."

Rosie Jackson is kind to her young self, reading Nietzsche, "striding over black oak sleepers thinking of trains that carried kids from our pit village." "Be good sweet maid and let who will be clever," her father "urged" her in his copperplate writing. The same words, written by Charles Kingsley for his daughter, were inscribed in my own autograph book by a primary school teacher. They were very different times, and self-reflection is a theme which runs deep through this collection, the shot-gun wedding where her father "sobbed like a widow," a woman who "looked / like Jean Shrimpton." "In another generation, we’d be together." She has compassion for herself; despite everything, "It astonishes you so much of your life has worked."

In "The Night I Grew Old," she recalls how she knew, somehow, "a new life had arrived inside me, / its invisible heft so huge…" "By the time / dawn bleached that shabby room, the child I was / had already started to turn into that woman on the wall – The Lady of Shalott – her pre-Raphaelite hair trailing / into a boat which would carry her downstream, / her luscious mouth a terror of uprootedness."

The ekphrastic nature of many of these poems offers new perspectives on personal experience. In "Don’t Think these Doors will ever close, after Maternity by Dorothea Tanning" she writes "Loss of sleep has slipped you onto sand," but "You’re shocked by your heart / and its unspeakable love, love that stretches a heart beyond its limits." And then there is the visceral rawness of separation, the unanswerable question, "if / it would have been better not to give him life / so scratched and badly started. Better to have / sent him back before his cells rooted too deeply, / back to that pre-formed unsuffering place of stars."

Acutely sensitive to other stories of loss, in "Blue" Rosie Jackson describes her shock of recognition when she learns that "Little Green" is about Joni Mitchell’s child given up for adoption, "Now my loss sits in the next chair." She writes of Frigga, the Norse goddess mourning Balder, "what mother would not grieve for her lost child?" And she writes of mothers who lost daughters who became anchorites, dead to the world.

Her empathy reaches across time. She understands the ravages fourteen births must have taken on Margery Kempe’s mind and body, "And if she sobs before / Julian of Norwich it’s because she feels herself believed." She writes of violence - historical, "Is not the Bible full of women’s bruises?" - and contemporary, Nasrin Sotoudeh flogged for "A Piece of Cloth," "the Quran wedged beneath his armpit." 

There are poems of darkness, enclosure, "One Little Room, An Every Where," and the longing for light, for colour. Rosie Jackson writes of a physical and emotional response to the power of art, "The Hunger of Colour," where "paint spills beyond the frame / in sheer exuberance / so I want my life / to eat my death / like Harmony in Red by Matisse."   

She charts life changes through paintings; of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights she writes "I lived here once," "And here’s my mother, half horse, half hollow / egg," "But now I go in search of El Greco’s lengthened bodies straining - / like Christ in that other garden – between this world and the next." Her poems are peopled with poets, artists, spiritual leaders, anchorites, Muslim saints and Sufi mystics. Their voices are heard in blank verse, couplets and tercets, the fragmented expression of trauma and the solid block of "Imaginary Prisons." There is metamorphosis and the metaphysical, medieval texts and "unfathomable language."  

Many poems occupy liminal space, like St Bede, "half here half not, caught / in this blue land between dust and light." There is "The pleasure and power of speaking other" of "Trying to write beyond words." And there is "The shock of mortality [which] changes things." "So now, this first spring without you, the earth struck by war again, / I’m learning to hear the beauty of stitchwort, / kindness, birdsong." 

Rosie Jackson writes of a beloved tutor and friend, cruelly lost to a stroke, "She described this world as a palimpsest, layer upon layer / of meaning waiting to be peeled away." The same can  be said of this wonderful collection of poems.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell has an MA in Creative Writing from Loughborough University and lectured in Creative writing there. Now retired from teaching and facilitating workshops, her work has been published in a range of English and Welsh print anthologies, and online, including in several editions of Agenda, Ekphrastic Review, Whirlagust, Bloody Amazing, The Dawntreader and Prole. In summer 2023 she won the Archaeology Festival Haiku competition – they were the most lucrative 17 syllables of her writing career!

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