Sunday’s Child, Rebecca Bilkau

Wayleave Press 2020   £5.00

The power of images

The art work on the cover of this pamphlet signals the strong use of imagery which permeates this powerful set of poems. Rebecca Bilkau takes us into a different world, a world of illegitimacy, as described in poem ‘II’, where:

we un-fathered babies were stored,
unseen and unheard, in an attic,
like trunks not wanted in this voyage.

It’s a world where mothers and babies are cared for by nuns — but the scene is not one of quiet harmony. Bilkau writes of ‘the dust of babies birth-suited in sin’ in poem ‘V’. We hear of ‘Women so sliced by barrenness’ in poem ‘XVI’ and

              each small corpse nuns stuffed
into convent cisterns

The pamphlet title alludes to a well-known nursery rhyme: in poem ‘VII’, Sunday’s Child is ‘Bonny and blithe’. The adjective ‘Bonny’ also features strongly in poem ‘IX’, but it’s then contrasted with the image that follows:

and babies’ nappies had death boiled
out of them, rashes boiled in.

I found poem ‘XXI’ very moving: it describes the ‘glimmer-skinned corpse’ of a dead child and

his veins like time-lapse photos
of the paths of stars,

In Poem ‘XIII’, Bilkau writes in prose about listening to an old soldier standing up for single mothers. His words touch the narrator who is cutting onions as she listens. The piece ends with ‘There’s blood in the vegetarian stew.’ which conjures up all sorts of dire associations.

These examples might suggest that the pamphlet is unremittingly grim; but in fact, there is great sympathy for ‘Ma’, for instance, in Poem ‘I’, with her ‘flaming petticoats’ and ‘ember-red hair’:

Lippy, seventeen, she’d have shown
Lucifer himself his paces.

In Poem ‘VIII’ Bilkau describes

Ma’s scolding the autumn air red
under her breath. She’s always angry

when she’s scared.

The pamphlet startled me with its imagery, its honesty and raw emotions. I felt for both the single mothers, and for the child who imagines her dad as ‘a spectacular spy, a tsar on the run’.

Sue Wallace-Shaddad