Wrongfooted by Titles

Milk Dress, Nicole Cooley, (84pp, Alice James)
, Ruth Larbey (36pp, 5.00, Nine Arches)

Here's a book I'd have passed over in a bookshop. The title tells me it's not my sort of thing. I'm not keen on the cover image. And all the endorsements for Milk Dress are from women. Several poem titles made my heart sink too: 'Self-portrait with Morning Sickness', 'Caesarean', 'Weaning', 'Milk' - so the fact I'm commending the book speaks very highly for its writing.

'Write against narrative' is the book's opening phrase. So while Nicole Cooley's experiences as a mother of two daughters, as a teacher of creative writing and someone who lives in New York are all part of the materials of her writing, she writes neither the story nor the chronology of that experience. Rather, by writing 'against narrative', she's able to keep the complexity of any one moment in play.

Many poems layer different experiences of the moment into each other. She's studying a folder of prints by Mary Cassatt in 'Pregnant at the Archive',

     The child always underscored by absence of detail.
     Directions: study the careful incision of lines.

     Inside your body, the other is still safely separate.
     Most often Cassatt leaves the background blank.

     Directions: don't look down at yourself below the desk.
     A pencil study. Drypoint outline. Aquatint.

- the portfolio's details serving to distance the reader from the story of pregnancy, as the pregnancy does from the viewing of prints. Further distancing comes from further layering: between
(rather than within) some of the poems Nicole Cooley places texts referring to a 1950s study of need in infant monkeys, in which surrogate 'mothers' offer either comfort and warmth, or food. In these untitled sections she's using an altered language and standpoint:

     The cloth mother is heated by a lightbulb hidden

     deep inside. She'll offer comfort but no nourishment. She'll offer her body wrapped
     with a towel. And the baby monkey will cling. The baby will turn from the other
     mother made of mesh, the other mother who is all hard edges who is offering her

This particular extract is the first such, and the cruelty of that 1950s study serves to establish an apparent, almost 'scientific', objectivity which Nicole Cooley is able to draw on later in the book writing of other traumas - even shockingly when one of her daughters is being treated in hospital:

     The eight newborn monkeys have their own cages, with equal access to a cloth and
     a wire mother.

     If I wanted to stay with her, I was told to put on the lead dress.

     My daughter wore a blue-sprigged hospital gown. I was not allowed to hold her.

Childbirth, illness, attacks on the World Trade Centre and holding down a job, hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans where her parents lived, a poem called 'Grief As Is' in memory of her mother - the materials of Nicole Cooley's book are pretty grim. 'Disaster, an Instruction Manual' acknowledges this, opening with an 'instruction' for protecting children, 'Keep them from the news. Turn off the television.' The poem moves through objective devices to post-disaster, her father displaced from New Orleans:

     Disaster: from the Italian, disastro, meaning 'ill-starred' from dis- 'away
     without', and astro, 'star, planet' from the Latin.


     My father stands in the late fall dark of our backyard, with a book of
     matches. Look
, he says and lights up the MRE, military-issued food he and
     my mother were given by the National Guard.

     My daughters are watching from the backyard steps. I want to imagine
     the scene is somehow lovely, a shower of sparkles in the backyard grass.


After this asterisk, her husband rings to tell her about a plane crash at the World Trade Centre - no, this isn't in any way a chronological account of disasters, rather the link here is the desire to protect children: 'breastfeeding her before I leave, my first reaction is grip her so tightly she wakes up and begins to cry'. Another asterisk, another definition.

Earlier poems, like 'Pedagogy, 2011', have already pulled together moments from '9/ll':

     Half the poetry workshop went downtown to give blood, to volunteer as
     Mass transit on high alert. All tunnels closed.

and have exposed the continuing fearfulness that dominates everyday life:

     ...the ready suitcase

     waiting while I nurse my daughter, watch the news.
     In the After
, another day of jewel blue sky, I pack the suitcase,

     seal the windows, as told, against possible chemical attack
     but still we breathe in the burning, the ash, the soot.
               [from 'Suitcase']

The anxiety of that packed suitcase runs behind all of these poems, just one of the ways in which they all speak to each other. The idea of comfort/cloth is planted early on, referring to the study of monkeys, and this is reprised in various way in later poems. While this may be a book of traumas, both personal and public, it's also a carefully constructed book - and one of elegant restraint.

Ruth Larbey's title wrong-footed me too: I read Fun/glish rather than the Fung/lish of her title poem in which 'the spores of funglish / broadcast a persistent contagion, a black-market pestilence'. This is writing that bowls along with tremendous pace enjoying itself, and enjoying wherever the words will take it, which in 'Bedsit', is from the place where 'Across the hall, the trucker hides his best friend / - a Jack Russell - / from the landlord' to where

          ...under the light socket on the wall,
          I have written, in miniature, a list of names
          of things. It wriggles jaggedly down to an
          impression of frustration... /...
          almost now
          to the skirting board:
     Spoon &
     Taser &
     Spirit level
     Crude oil &
     Crime. Skimmed pages and phrases:

'Walthamstow Central' is far from having the problems of New York, though it has its own:

     Twelves and Thirteens in green bandanas skitter towards the Chinese
     at an urgent semaphore, as adults avert eyes from the upsidedown
     horror of people haunted by their own products: The Next Generation.

There's no undertow of anxiety in this collection; the voice in 'The Other Side' has a devil-may-care confidence and energy:

     High-heeled, mini-skirted optimism
     shouts This time it's for good!

                                             (bangs the front door on her way out).

This is Ruth Larbey's first pamphlet. A blurb which says she is 'writing with an edgy control reminiscent of Emily Dickinson' may not be doing her any favours, though Nine Arches Press has done her proud with coloured endpapers and plenty of white - or cream in this case - space.

      Jane Routh 2011