Cell, Clare Best
Frogmore Press, 2015 £10.00
[Art Michaela Ridgway; Design Katy Mawhood]

The Nightmare of Motherhood

Described by the author as a ‘not-quite-pamphlet’, this is a folding artefact, a poem in twelve sections with monochrome illustrations by Michaela Ridgway. The folds can be read as a booklet, with a ‘secret’ section in the middle, the cell. You have to manipulate the pages to read final poems in the story. There is a story. In 1329, Christine Carpenter, 14 years old, was enclosed in a cell in a St James’ Church, Shere, after taking vows of ‘solitary devotion’. She lasted nearly three years before petitioning for release, which she was granted. But not for long.

The not-quite-pamphlet gave me nightmares. Literally. The brooding, shadowy illustrations speak of the female body, isolation and pain. The narrative voice is Christine’s own – but I identified with her mother, and this was my point of interest, and pain.

Mother has a capital ‘M’ in the pamphlet; she’s important to her daughter. But she has no power. First the daughter, a typical teenager, tells her what her role will be: ‘I’ll wait by the grating; / you’ll pass me bread, water, eggs.’

What do you do when your daughter dedicates herself to madness? You survive. You pray that your daughter will also survive. You do what she asks.

But there’s nothing holy happening here. This girl has bought into a horrible travesty of purification. People, as we all know, do extraordinary things in the name of faith, and sometimes they are very young when they destroy themselves. Christine wastes away. Her teeth come out and she lines them up on the windowsill. The Lord ‘will see my offering'.

Then she begs her mother to get her out. ‘You are strong,’ she says.

Christine is temporarily freed. ‘Sit by me,’ she says to her mother. ‘Rock me in your arms’. And then finally: ‘lay me on the briny slabs’.

Cell filled me with pain and rage. A potent tale for our times.

Helena Nelson