Newborn, by Kate Clanchy

The problematic poetry of parenthood
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The Independent Culture

Kate Clanchy is notable for her tightly-written lyrics that explore thirtysomething life in the post-feminist era. Newborn, her third collection of poems, depends largely on a sense of recognition.

Kate Clanchy is notable for her tightly-written lyrics that explore thirtysomething life in the post-feminist era. Newborn, her third collection of poems, depends largely on a sense of recognition. It attempts to draw on common experiences of women, and the unfamiliar world they enter once they have boarded the pregnancy train and realise, to use Sylvia Plath's metaphor, that "there's no getting off".

Diary-like, Newborn charts the drive to the hospital, the birth and first encounter with the baby, her son's learning to walk, and to speak; and, later, an experience of miscarriage which is transformed into a winter scene in which the poet is trying "to mould just/ the head of the world's smallest/ snowman, but it's too cold and/ it powders like ash in my hand".

Clanchy's writing frequently attempts to break open direct experience in her use of metaphor, as well as acknowledging that words seem inadequate. In "What Can I Say", her amazement at birth transforms into a list of similes which range from "the Japanese tricks/ you could buy for twopence/ those tight lacquer seeds/ which uncurled in water" to "catkins, fishing nets/ mainsails sheets, like/ the reel's hectic spooling/ when the salmon is hooked".

Clanchy is good at capturing the bewilderment, and scratchy impatience, of being a parent. Her supple, textured writing is technically agile and often lovely. Sometimes, though, it's hard to know where her allusions are taking us.

In "Commonplace", she writes of her relationship with her child as being "borderless, glorious", as "we walk/ on fields as green as any field, babbling like Falstaff when he died". The reference to Falstaff at first seems an ingenious way of moving us from intimacy to something surprising that will bring us a new way of seeing.

Probe harder, and the simile becomes more problematic. Does the language of this mother and child figure them as dying, mad, criminal, amoral? And while a broken-hearted Falstaff "babbled of green fields" in Henry V, he also in his "madness" proclaims that women are "devils incarnate" - an unfortunate undercurrent.

The book becomes more obviously iffy in "The Mendings", when a woman who has "lost her man" becomes a pitiable figure: "her teeth were old,/ had that yellow sheen like Bakelite/ or piano keys, and I thought/ of her last eggs,/ the womb staying empty, folded/ like an evening purse". The choice the book seems to offer, between the jilted yellow-toothed woman and the kitten-heeled singleton - the "other woman" or alter ego whom the poet meets for a drink near the end - seems reactionary, however beautifully done.

Certainly, the vision of motherhood presented in Newborn is a seductive one. But its elevation of maternal experience, and its canonisation of the child, ultimately seems to offer the childless woman a second-rate version of femininity: a choice that is no real choice at all.

Deryn Rees-Jones

The reviewer's 'Quiver' is published by Seren

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