School Milk, Claudia CourtThe jacket is a plain postbox red, no images. Title and author are centred in white fonts. The title is very large lower case bold in the top third. The authors name is in the same font but significantly smaller about an inch below. No images.

Dempsey & Windle, 2022    £8.00

A Catholic education

School Milk is a collection of short poems reflecting on the author’s experiences attending Catholic schools run by nuns. It is in two parts, the first covering primary school and the second boarding school.

All the poems use the triadic couplet format, which consists of a six-line poem made up of three couplets. This form encourages a highly compressed approach but with enough ‘elbow room’ to allow for development within each piece, often with a strong twist in the tail, as in ‘Viewpoint’, where the girls are playing on the swings:

As we go higher, I can see over the wall
into the vegetable patch, where Sister Ann

is talking to Father Bob. They are leaning
against the greenhouse. And each other.

The work is full of acute observation and wit, revealing the school’s subculture which is replete with contradictory messages. For example, in ‘Sister Act’, a nun instructs the children: ‘May we treat each other kindly, / she intones, be gentle as lambs’. But when one of the children starts giggling, she uses a ruler to rap their knuckles, drawing blood.

Court’s short poems are like a series of thumb-nail sketches skilfully highlighting the puzzling experience of being educated at a convent school where the girls are required to curtsy before an image of the Virgin Mary and also the Reverend Mother: ‘there have been several twisted ankles. / Matron says nuns are not royalty’.

The publication as a whole is a mosaic, made of many delicate pieces, forming a compelling picture of childhood and school life, imbued with religious feeling. It’s by turns funny, poignant, reflective and impossible to put down. Having been both intrigued and appalled by the nuns, the final poem ‘Chapel’ shifts our perspective yet again:

There’s something about falling
to your knees in a place layered

with incense, whispered prayer
the fading notes of an organ:

you feel revived, uplifted, pure.
You almost see how nuns happen.

Colin Pink