The Swell, Jessica Mookherjee
Telltale Press, 2016 £6.00
Imagery of storm and flood
I read this pamphlet travelling by train through Storm Doris, so the line ‘Storms with girls’ names are the deadliest’ seemed particularly apposite – and interesting. In fact, the word ‘she’ is crucial in this pamphlet, where tension between male and female forces underpins much.
‘The Swell’ of the title poem is a pregnant belly, but it is also a threat, like a high tide. When the waters break, they flood the house and the children are ‘up to [their] necks in silt’. Finally the newly delivered mother puts in an appearance:
[ ... ] she emerged, fresh with her slake
of new flesh, as the whole town lugged sandbags,
trying to stop her.
The word ‘slake’ is fascinating here. One normally slakes a thirst, but here thirst is answered with ‘new flesh’ – despite the fact that the town is arming itself for whatever is overflowing. Is she producing a flood of babies? Perhaps. And maybe (if ‘she’ is the same mother as in the opening poem ‘Snapshot’) they are all girl babies.
In ‘Wolf Whistle’ there’s a ‘rip tide’ too, but this time the aggressive force seems to be a ‘he’ (‘He bounds, / gust-panting, full pelt’) and the first person narrator, with her ‘girl-lips’ is clearly at risk.
The upper hand is female again in ‘The Neglect’, where a man neglected by his female partner in turn neglects the garden until ‘the windows blasted open’ and she stands outside the house ‘accusing him’, while the TV weather forecaster inside predicts ‘floods and tidal waves’.
In ‘Mate Choice,’ however, the speaker ‘would have liked to save the Earth from drowning’, and she feels reproduction (producing a ‘master race’) could have been the answer, although in ‘The Changing’, there is no question of drowning. Here ‘she’ gradually ‘reconstitutes in ripples’, she becomes a fluid medium, and soon she is ‘night swimming’ in an entirely different swell – ‘the swell of stars, / arms stretched in a / yearning dance of encore.’
The storm/flood imagery seems to evoke the idea of something constrained that needs to get out – something that threatens (perhaps) mainly male sources of power but transforms and saves the female.