Mothers and Daughters: A review of Family History

Airini Beautrais reviews Johanna Emeney's new collection and finds a satisfying sequence of poems that investigate the mother and daughter relationship through terminal illness.

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Airini Beautrais reviews Johanna Emeney's new collection and finds a satisfying sequence of poems that investigate the mother and daughter relationship during terminal illness.

The poetic sequence on, or featuring, family history, is a growing phenomenon. Recent examples in New Zealand poetry include Lynn Jenner’s Dear Sweet Harry, Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat, and Fleur Adcock’s The Land Ballot. Johanna Emeney’s second collection of poetry, Family History, plays into this trend, albeit with a more personal, autobiographical approach. The title is perhaps misleading: this is not so much a history as it is an investigation of the relationship between a mother and daughter in the face of the mother’s terminal illness. Given this focus, it bears closer comparison to other autobiographical sequences, such as Anne Kennedy’s Sing-song, or Jessica Le Bas’s Walking to Africa.

The short lyric poem has been the dominant poetic mode since at least the end of the nineteenth century, and the appeal of a sequence lies in its ability to extend this mode, building a larger whole from fragments. On the other hand, fragmentation, and the need for each poem to be a stand-alone entity in its own right, can stand in conflict with continuity or coherence. The results of this interaction have been many sequences that are, in a narrative sense, incomplete or even frustrating.

Emeney’s approach in Family History is to tell the story, and to tell it in a fairly straightforward, chronological manner. A reader isn’t left wondering what happened to the mother, or which character is which, or what the relationships between different characters are. This sequence contains a plot, and the plot achieves that end so desired by all who encounter grief: closure. I admired this book for its willingness to address the difficult material at hand, and its avoidance of the temptation to summarise, gloss or leave out essential information.

This sequence contains a plot, and the plot achieves that end so desired by all who encounter grief: closure. 

On a poem-by-poem level, there are a variety of factors at play. Although the collection isn’t strongly political in itself, there are feminist moments, such as ‘How you guess she doesn’t have the best breast surgeon,’ and ‘The surgeon’s secretary is also his wife.’ These poems also venture into the comic: a nurse mimes stabbing motions at the surgeon’s turned back, and the narrator, after talking to the secretary, comments:

                  As we speak
                  he’s probably up to his arms
                  in another woman.

Such instances provide productive intersections between politics, humour and difficult emotional material. Breast cancer, after all, is a poignant feminist concern.

In between the episodes of the main narrative are lyrical meditations, often involving the use of animals as a lens through which to view mortality. The addressees of the poems also vary: ‘One criticism of your novels’ is addressed to Charles Dickens; the book’s acknowledgements inform us that several of the poems were written for Dame Christine Cole Catley. These, along with a poem addressed to wigs, and another to ornamental figurines, complicate the narration and allow interplay with the lyric mode.

As well as the mingling of discursive modes, another advantage of the poem as a narrative building block is the import of poetic form. Family History uses a range of free verse forms, varying line- and stanza- length. ‘Undertaking’ makes productive use of the pantoum, a repetitious form that underscores the circular or obsessive nature of grieving. This poem calls to mind Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’; also Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Villanelle’ on a similar subject.

In any poetic sequence there will be poems that earn their keep more than others. The less convincing moments in Family History have a tendency to resort to telling statements, which come across as attempts to explain the meaning of the poem. ‘Heartache all around,’ another animal poem, pushes the commonalities of experiences of loss a little too far. A small child’s missing cat sparks a meditation on the departure of a loved one:

                  This is how it is –
                  spectacle of attachment and loss
                  all of us looking and calling
                  for nothing

Such statements strike me as overly exhaustive. Do we need to be told ‘This is how it is’? Or is that the job of every poem, but not in so many words? I am more interested in the non-universals in these poems: the stabbing nurse, a giant soft-toy gorilla, hypothetical genetically modified mice. It’s these things that bring the real, lived qualities of the narrator’s experience into the poems. Bits of overheard dialogue are also useful in this regard, such as ‘Lines overheard at the teaching hospital’:

                  Today I learned that heartstrings
                  are called chordae tendineae.
                  I touched them.
                  In fact, I got to cut them
                  in half.

While the mere act of lineation does not make overheard speech into a poem, here the line-breaks appear perfect.

With its emotional heft, coherent storyline, and accessible approach to language, Family History is likely to have broad appeal. Although its publisher terms it ‘Medical’ (categorical terms being a strategy of the Mākaro HOOPLA series), it approaches wider concerns in a well-executed and ultimately satisfying form.

The HOOPLA Poetry Series is published by Mākaro Press.