Call and Response, Rachel Spence

The Emma Press, 2020    £5.00

Still on

This sequence of thirteen untitled sonnets tells a tale of continuity. Each poem is addressed to the poet’s mother, and the poems span decades — though the main drift occurs one spring / summer, when the mother becomes ill. This, from ‘March. My lover’s kiss’:

Not now, Mum. But your voice is different.
Old-lady fear fluttering like a baby bird’s.

One theme is the distinctive texture of that dialogue between mother and daughter: changeable while unchanging, often ragged, oddly passionate, and filled with words said and not said: ‘What haven’t you / told me? What have we never asked?’

The two have an ‘on / off’ relationship — although not really, but a recurring note is ‘And once again, we’re on’ (‘May. Still.’). Quite a bit of the ‘action’ takes place in phone calls:

October 2005, Venice. Six weeks after he left me
and you’re the one who’s grieving?
Excuse me while I slam the phone down.

This poem includes an eight-year old’s embedded memory: ‘Don’t come to me. Fight your own battles.’

Or, from ‘January 2013’:

                                      You didn’t come
for Christmas and now the neighbours think
we are estranged. I’m done, Mum, really, done.

Before, two short lines later: ‘Darling, how’s your boiler? / And once again, we’re on.’

In other words, it’s a conversation that keeps persevering, despite its hiccoughs. In the very first poem, ‘July 1976’, a never-forgotten, beautiful moment in a night garden, is framed, for me, by the words:

My winter’s bone is being old enough to know
I don’t know what you’re thinking.

And all these shifts and scuffles are held securely in a sequence of sonnets — rather like that daughter in her ‘pencil skirt’, from ‘July 1986, noonish’:

I don’t remember anything we ate
in that shady foxglove-speckled garden
but I recall the friction of my pencil skirt
as I trudged behind you on the verge

And yes, that poem closes with the lovely image, as she looks at the back of her mother, forging ahead: ‘The way your hips spelled smile.’

Charlotte Gann