Alice Under the Knife, Aoife MannixThe jacket is filled with the head of a statue: a peaceful female in white marble, with cracks on her forehead looking to the right and down. The background behind her is black, and this allows the title, in white caps, to appear just under her chin, clear against the black setting. The writer's name is just above, squeezed into the black area in small right lower case, one word per line.

SurVision Books, 2021   £6.99

‘The dreams of children will survive’: sickness and renewal

Alice Under the Knife is a pamphlet preoccupied with illness and death. The title poem speaks of how ‘They removed my mother’s cancer / along with my breasts’ and in ‘What You Didn’t Say’, the speaker declares: ‘I eat my frozen pills, / agree to be anaesthetised.’ Meanwhile, in ‘Not an Invitation’, a doctor wants ‘As many biopsies as you can take’. The long sequence poem ‘Thursday Evening’ similarly depicts a woman who has died of cancer.

As well as poems dealing with personal illness, others are concerned with the Covid-19 experience. In ‘Pandemic’, the speaker wonders whether there will be ‘a world to return to’ as she stands ‘in a breeze sharper / than surgical knives’. ‘Come Home’ sees its speaker ‘learning this new language / of isolation, how to navigate distance’. In ‘Cleopatra in Wuhan’, the speaker tells us, ‘I wear my masks / in a city suspended, prison in small boxes.’

Yet at the same time, images of new life and recovery abound. ‘Scars’ are a motif appearing regularly, and while a scar is a symbol of suffering, it is also, I would suggest, a symbol of healing.

The poet’s interest in renewal is nowhere more apparent than in the regular references to children. It is true that these young people are sometimes the victims of a sick world — such as in ‘After Easter’ where ‘relentless missiles’ fall ‘on foaming children’. However, far more often they are presented as bringers of hope and rebirth.

In ‘After Square One’, for example, ‘we breathe in the miracle / of being reborn into a barren world’; ‘there are babies boiling over / into the arms of mothers.’

‘Scarecrow Running’ finishes on a note of hope, telling us that ‘children are singing in the church,’ while ‘What Will Remain’ suggests that even ‘After the zombie apocalypse [ … ] The dreams of children will survive’.

Alice Under the Knife may deal with illness, but it’s also deeply concerned with survival. In ‘Five Years’, the speaker commemorates the ‘anniversary of walking / out of the hospital’ by remembering ‘to be grateful for the warmth’.

Despite its sometimes-dark subject matter, this is a pamphlet which left me uplifted. Even in the most difficult times, these poems tell us, we persist.

Isabelle Thompson