Annie Fisher reviews Relativism by Mary Ford Neal (Taproot Press, 2022)
There’s a subtle lyricism and a spiritual quality to Mary Ford Neal’s poems. She makes melodies from personal griefs, joys, loves and losses. Even in poems I couldn’t fully understand, I recognised a mood or feeling, as one can with music.
Some poems make explicitly musical references, as in, for example, ‘Family portrait in F-sharp minor’ (a melancholy key by most accounts). The poem tunes into the self-protective, self-comforting claustrophobia characteristic of many families’ conversations:
We don’t fantasise about exotic places
or dream vacations, because we don’t dream
of being anywhere but here. We talk about
how much we must have have saved over the years
by staying where we are.
We don’t discuss peace, but we talk a lot
about justice, and when we say justice
we mean our version. And when we talk
about love, which is all the time, it’s understood
that love doesn’t happen outside these walls.
Most of the poems are free verse, but Ford Neal is also skilled with rhythm, rhyme and form. The collection includes a sestina and a pantoum, both well-executed. Some of the poems are prose poems. These, too, have a lyric quality. In ‘A Sorrowful Mystery’, Ford Neal remembers a character from her Catholic childhood:
She dressed in the deaths of
the men she had loved, wound in veils and heavy coats even
on warm days. Her memories walked before her when she left
the house, a desolate procession that caused heads and voices
[ … ]
And when she
crumpled during the Sorrowful Mysteries one morning after
weekday Mass, no-one knew the youth who cradled her head
in his lap and prayed over her in the rhythms of her girlhood as
the veils fell away.
Wit and playfulness often bubble under the surface of Ford Neal’s poetry but the overall mood of this collection feels, to me at least, pensive and elegiac, a view which many of the poem titles seems to support: ‘In expectation of disappointment’; ‘On perceiving a new threat in the sky’; ‘Husband, this will be hard to bear’; ‘When you hear the word ‘home’’; ‘Diminuendo’.
Wit and playfulness often bubble under the surface of Ford Neal’s poetry but the overall mood of this collection feels, to me at least, pensive and elegiac
The collection is dedicated to Mary Ford Neal’s mother, and the poems I was most drawn to were, one way or another, ‘mother’ poems. In the poem ‘Apparition’ the poet speaks to an imagined vision of the late poet Mary Oliver, who appears in white, and seems to be part angel, part muse, part mother, part Madonna. In the poem ‘The mother line’ Ford Neal celebrates motherhood through generations of her family.
But my favourite poem in the whole collection is ‘My mother’s pronoun is not ‘it’’ , in which a jellyfish praises the boundless love of its mother, who “loved 40,000 of us equally”:
She’d take us swimming in the Aegean —
has your mother ever done that?
And she’d sing us to sleep with a great tenderness
completely inaudible to human scientists.
Then, because she loved us oh-so-much
she let us go.
[ … ]
I wish you all a mother capable
of giving so much life, and in return
asking only to swim, and swim.
This is an attractive-looking collection from recently formed Edinburgh publishing house Taproot Press. I think it’s well worth reading.
Annie Fisher lives in Somerset and is a member of The Fire River Poets. She has had two pamphlets published by HappenStance Press: Infinite In All Perfections (2016) and The Deal (2020).