Isabelle Thompson reviews Tabula Rasa: Poetry by Women (Linen Press, 2023)
Tabula Rasa is an anthology of contemporary poems written by women. Described on the Linen Press website as “the poetry of new beginnings and wide vistas”, speaking “to women across boundaries”, this collection is intriguingly titled.
“Tabula Rasa”, the Latin for “clean slate”, can refer to the notion that human minds are born blank then formed through experience and perception over time. It may be that it refers to a clean sheet of paper. Why the editors have chosen this title for their anthology is not explicit. Perhaps it is to reflect the idea that this collection began as a blank canvas and was formed by gathering together female experiences. As the website also states, “women’s lives – past, present and future – are echoed in these pages.” Or, perhaps it is a nod towards the ways that women’s voices have traditionally been silenced. This collection itself is a blank page, in that it is an opportunity for women writers to make their mark in ways in which they have historically not been permitted.
Whatever the rationale behind the title, Tabula Rasa is a varied collection that makes room for exploration of a range of lives and experiences. The female body is explored in poems such as ‘The Talking Dress’ by Jess Richards and ‘The Waiting Room’ by Mary-Jane Holmes. The former looks at poor body image, as a dress hanging “on a wardrobe door” speaks to its owner – “hide the belly you believe is too wide / without me.” The latter poem is preoccupied with women’s physical health, describing how women in a hospital waiting room “forever button, unbutton our clothes / until we are just” the “sum of our disposable parts”.
Tabula Rasa is a varied collection that makes room for exploration of a range of lives and experiences
Motherhood is another common preoccupation, with poems touching on the joy and pains involved. ‘Daughter’ by Khadija Rouf describes the birth of a child. It begins with a momentous two-word sentence: “She emerged.” The poem goes on to describe transformations brought about by this birth, first of all to the baby herself who becomes a “tiny prophet”, an “aquanaut”, and “a dazed starfish”. The most powerful transformation comes in the final stanza, however, where the mother becomes a “newborn and naked” baby herself thanks to the power of her infant’s gaze.
Elsewhere, poems like ‘Foundling’ by Elizabeth Barrett and ‘My Mother With Sweet Peas’ by Clare Best, examine more difficult experiences of motherhood. ‘My Mother With Sweet Peas’ recounts the speaker’s mother’s memory of the death of her son: “She heaped loose sweet peas / on his small white box.” ‘Foundling’ tells the story of how mothers forced to give their babies away would leave one half of a piece of fabric, retaining the other half, so that they could claim their child back at a later date. The whole poem is split down the middle by a caesura, representing the wrenching apart of the fabric tokens, and of a mother from her baby.
A foundling mother I rummage
through off-cuts in my sewing box.
Here is her name embroidered
in green on cream cotton tape,
a silver butterfly snipped from a purse,
her first stitches in red aida.
The anthology also concerns itself with other kinds of relationships. Romantic relationships and relationships with male partners are touched upon in ‘You Are Here’ by Sheena Joughin, which describes the speaker’s walk with a man who is presumably her partner. It is a touching poem, dedicated “for Simon”, about how two people can experience the same things very differently and yet still experience them together:
We share some squares of chocolate
as I wonder if it matters
that what we see together
is hardly ever the same.
Meanwhile, ‘Text’ by Deborah Morgan depicts a much more negative and troubled relationship:
Your last text, how I make you cringe,
how the thought of being with me
makes you want to be elsewhere, made me cry.
Clearly abusive relationships, and other forms of violence against women, are also included in Tabula Rasa. ‘Milestones’ by Crystal Z. Lee gives voice to a woman who tells us that at 18 she “married a man twice my age”, and goes on to experience a life of beating and blame. ‘Unbound Feet’ by Mona Dash describes the many ways in which women have been hobbled, from the literal, physical act of binding feet through to the subtler ways in which women are held back: “then they learnt not to bind our feet / but when we ran, they laughed.”
Tabula Rasa does offer an alternative to these damaging relationships in the form of friendship. ‘Winchester’ by S.J. Litherland describes a trip to the city with a friend who is willing “to share a small joy”; afterwards “the day / in Winchester / stays encased in our friendship.” ‘Our Children’s Childhood’ by Charlotte Gann, meanwhile, details a walk with a friend and the conversation they had together – both what was said and left unsaid. The poem ends by admitting that the speaker “turned the talk / to Netflix” and “Did not say, how can we stay // with our discomfort, which is what I really / wanted to ask you, friend, but couldn’t.” The friendships portrayed in this collection, many of which are presumably between women, are shown to be every bit as nuanced and complex as any romantic attachment.
The friendships portrayed in this collection, many of which are presumably between women, are shown to be every bit as nuanced and complex as any romantic attachment
Another way in which Tabula Rasa offers solace to its readers and to the female voices that populate its pages is through its interest in nature. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in ‘Beyond the Gate’, by Clare Best. Dedicated “in memory of Sarah Everard and all the others”, this poem does not make any direct reference to male violence but instead describes a walk among “ranks of cypress”, “wild plum and wild pear”. “We are”, the speaker says “still with fruit”. The natural world offers its beauty in defiance. ‘Sunflowers’ by Gillie Griffin deals directly with the war in Ukraine, but does so through nature, perhaps offering a gentler, more traditionally feminine response to violence.
I’m planting sunflowers for Ukraine,
so every time I look outside I’ll see a line
of yellow hope, bravely walking, heads held high.
These poems, despite being penned by multiple women, nevertheless combine to make a coherent whole. This anthology offers a blank slate upon which its female poets have left varied, vibrant and moving marks.
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.