At the core of All My Mad Mothers lies a complex network of parent figures. For the poet, this has meant the challenge of growing up with a kaleidoscope of mothers, fathers and step-parents, especially the ‘mad mothers’ of the title poem. We see mothers: driving ‘round and round in shrinking circles’ or ‘in a bath of extra virgin olive oil’ or ‘dispensing strings of aphorisms on the subject of assertion’ or who ‘bagged up all my old words, took them to / the charity shop’. Yet, rather than fragility, there is a sense that the ‘I’ of the poems has achieved strength and resilience. She’s learned how to adapt to these shifting patterns of parenting, both as a daughter and later as a mother.
Many of the poems and prose poems in this collection are playful, inventive and surprising. In Crete, 1980 Jacquie Saphra gently sends up early attempts at sexual relationships: she is ‘girlish and abandoned,’ and ‘I howled into the drunken dark for / stupid reasons’. In Virginity she recalls her mother’s advice to lose her virginity before a continental holiday rather than ‘drag / the weight of it / along with my other baggage / all that way across the English Channel.’ Volunteers, 1978, a poem about working on a kibbutz, perfectly captures the frivolousness of privilege and the ignorance of youth, when military service and the possibility of being shot is ‘really, really funny.’ There are also poems about the surprise and pleasure of love in later life. In a beautifully achieved villanelle, Kiss/Kiss, she describes: a ‘deeper’ love that in a kiss has ‘all the years of reckoning pressed / between our lips.’
There is humour and warmth as well as pleasure in the poems that focus on friendships but, as in Soup there is often a sting in the tale – friends discussing ‘why death, that common leveller, always comes / as a shock’ find themselves imagining how it would be if a friend were to die on the day of another’s wedding. In the deeply sad and moving poem, The Sound of Music the poet realises that problems in later life are already encapsulated in innocent childhood games: when a sister takes an overdose – ‘you can squander a lifetime / trying to stay small and pretty’.
Poems that deal with the loss felt when children grow up and leave, coupled with pride in a daughter or son’s achievements are poignant. Many of the poems evidence a strong thread of feminism. In The Doors to my Daughter’s House the narrator has ‘lingered’ until her daughter is ‘one with the horizon’ – and ‘she’s made it plain that I must never lean against / those doors she’s carved,’ – a beautiful image of how children move away and start their own lives. In listing all the ways in which children mark out their own individuality – the ‘dogs and woks and all things green’ we feel ‘the helpless / love one creature must bear another.’
This is a delightful collection of moving, funny and clever poems with snippets, anecdotes and observations that always ring true. As a contemporary, many of these poems resonated with me. Ultimately Jacquie Saphra gives us a wry look at life that, in spite of everything, always returns to the strength of friendship and the love of family, to soup and safety. All My Mad Mothers is a collection to come back to and reread.
Jacquie Saphra’s new book, A Bargain with the Light: poems after Lee Miller from Hercules Editions will be published in September 2017.