Isabelle Thompson reviews Cargo by Charlotte Gann (Mariscat Press, 2023)
Cargo opens with a quotation from Richard Wilbur: “Young as she is, the stuff / Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy”. These are poems about the things we carry and, perhaps, how we can begin to think of putting them down.
‘Why am I’, the first poem in the series, sets the scene. It gives voice to some kind of receptacle full of water. A concrete poem, the text is arranged to look oval, like a droplet or a round vase. “Why am I // so near the edge / of this table?” asks the vessel. “I’m overfull. Curved not stable.” The poem ends, “I am
too heavy to lift. Nobody has helped themselves
from me. It’s a tight squeeze, holding
all I have to hold
See how the whole weight of the poem rests on that tiny ‘in’? This is poetry about burdens and baggage, responsibilities and memory.
Key to these themes is an exploration of the ways personal relationships can be difficult and disjointed, leaving us with wounds to bear. ‘Two Lamps’ is an exquisitely balanced poem, using two stanzas of equal length to describe two individuals staying late in the office. The relationship between the characters seems to hold an unstated significance: “I can’t go. I stay just to be near.” The poem ends with the speaker wondering, “Will you come across and say goodnight / this evening? Why don’t I leave?” That final question is unsettlingly ambiguous in its implications – does it refer to going home, or quitting work, or perhaps extricating oneself from a painful relationship?
Poems such as ‘Tiny Rooms’ and ‘Flush’ depict the difficulty of forming relationships, and the pain their failure can bring. The first of these poems describes an encounter at university with a man who says “Tell me everything […] / I want to know about your life.” However, when the speaker does open up, he goes on to ignore her, explaining: “I wanted you to remain a mystery.” ‘Flush’ similarly sees its speaker attempt to connect with a man, and fail. At the end, she sends him “two cards / in quick succession” – “One says thank you. The other says / sorry. Of course he ignores them both.”
As well as exploring the ways in which complex relationships cause us to carry scars, Gann’s poetry looks at the burdens we carry from childhood into our adult lives
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking poems in Cargo is ‘Telephone’. Here, the family landline becomes a conduit through which the pain of personal relationships is brought into focus. For example: “My boyfriend called. He told me he had / bone cancer.” On another occasion, her mother
[…] put the phone down
in tears. Unheard of. She’d told the hospital
to switch my father’s ventilator off.
Such a difficult man, but such a good man
she sobbed as she walked away.
The phone becomes a character in its own right: “The telephone in the hallway – / waiting. On the edge of its doily.”
‘At Last’ paints a picture of another fractured relationship. After describing a difficult day at work, it ends with a chance meeting between two people:
When all of a sudden – weeks
since we sensibly parted – out of the crowd
heading towards me, one solitary figure pauses.
As well as exploring the ways in which complex relationships leave scars we must carry, Gann’s poetry looks at the burdens we carry from childhood into our adult lives. The title poem, ‘Cargo’, asks how far back generational trauma might go: “What if it started with my young, Danish / great grandmother[?]”
[W]hat if my mother passed to me her broken heart?
Under cover. Keep this deathly dark, she
didn’t tell me. Keep it sealed. Learn from me.
It needs to be carried. It’s the greatest shame[.]
‘One Brother’ describes a photograph of the speaker’s brother; she tells us that a scar from his childhood “looks starker”, adding “[m]y scars show more too, these days.”
We’re like slow developing film,
the scars from our childhoods gradually
growing sharper, as if to map the hidden
history lurking, shakily, just below the surface.
Cargo also considers difficult responsibilities that must be shouldered, particularly parenthood. ‘Our Children’s Childhoods’ tells the story of a walk with a friend where the two women talk about their “whole children’s histories”:
I cried then, when I said how completely
my son seemed to have left me.
Meanwhile, the speaker in ‘Pavements’ tells us how she has inherited her father’s habit of always ensuring a child walking along the pavement is on the adult’s inside, away from the road. “Is this passing on fear, or passing on love?” she asks.
However, it is, perhaps, the burden of one’s relationship with oneself which is most central to this pamphlet
However, it is, perhaps, the burden of one’s relationship with oneself which is most central to this pamphlet. ‘This Life’ sees the speaker “slumped in bed with round two / of Covid”,
[…] thinking back on my London
years and the bruised loneliness
of my twenties. It’s like looking
through the wrong end of a telescope,
seeing myself then, now.
If I could send muffled word.
Let her know I am here.
The final piece in Cargo, ‘Rooks’, sees the speaker take a tender look at herself. She is on a railway platform, looking at rooks’ nests built in the high branches. “I was wrong yesterday / to describe myself as stuck” she says. The poem ends,
I may not be the train about to
hurtle into this station
but I stand as ample as those
nests. We are at eye level.
This cargo we bear, suggests Gann, is not all bad. Sometimes it is the price of love. And sometimes we can put it down and rest a while in wholeness.
Isabelle Thompson holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She has been published or has work forthcoming in a range of magazines including The Interpreter’s House, Stand and The New Welsh Review. She was the winner of the 2022 Poets and Players Competition and a runner up in the 2021 Mslexia Poetry Competition. She tweets @IzzyWithTheCats.