All the Time in the World, Rebecca Gethin

Cinnamon Press, 2017  £4.99

Poetry about something

When a collection is billed as about a particular human experience, it can feel like a gift. As a reader, I open myself to that communication, as well as to its artistry. In the case of this pamphlet, the project is exceptional. The poet’s mother, we’re told, died when the poet was two. ‘Half a century later,’ reads the back cover, ‘a handful of brief letters unexpectedly emerged, written by the dying woman’.

Rebecca Gethin takes these letters, and weighs her mother’s long-lost words. Through them, among other reflections, she paints a delicate portrait of the young woman alone in a hospital bed facing death. The poet shows great restraint. As did her mother.

The poems themselves – like the glimpses we get into the folded letters – are snapshots. Meanwhile, the poet – a much older woman than her mother would ever live to be – builds this careful bridge across decades. I love the way she revisits her mother’s words in different poems, tracing and retracing these oh-so-few recovered phrases. It’s heartbreaking, and a privilege to be present.

But present where? Largely, vividly, for me, inside that hospital room, in the gaps between visits. Rachel, the mother, seems very much a woman of her generation: dignified, restrained, courageous. And so young too, still to some degree in thrall to her own mother.

It’s a picture of forbearance. Poignantly, at one point, the dying woman apologises (perhaps for a time she lost her composure) – ‘I don’t know what came over me’ (‘Sorry’). And then: ‘I won’t do it again’ (‘Agitation’); ‘I can’t help wanting things to be otherwise’ (we know from the poet that the word ‘want’ was ‘forbidden’ by her grandmother);

I don’t think any of it has been fair, really.
Or perhaps it was. I suppose I shall never know
    (‘Her sister’s letter’)

Here’s the poem (‘Just like her’) that introduces the pamphlet title:

She could read a book
do crosswords
or paint her nails
but she prefers to work.
So, on the subject of mending socks,
she writes I’ve all the time in the world.

Charlotte Gann