Gillian Clarke’s remarks on the pamphlet flap for Jessica Mookherjee’s Telltale Press pamphlet The Swell are spot on. Among them she says Jess’s poems are ‘Bold, fiery, truthful, they tell an original story with power’.
Other than reading The Swell at a fairly late stage before publication, I had little to do with Jess’s pamphlet. Sarah Barnsley, who along with Robin Houghton, helped Jess edit The Swell said that, in the process of finalising the selection, Jess had a whole sheaf of possible replacements for each poem. Amazingly prolific at the moment, Jess is already well on her way to forming a first full collection, and her work is frequently cropping up in many magazines. The reason is that they are fabulous.
The first poem of the The Swell pamphlet, ‘Snapshot’ depicts the loss of a mother’s attention away from the little girl ‘I’ of the poem. ‘I passed on my birthright to all those unborn/ boys,’ the mother tragedy spills into the poem, she becomes a person who needs her ‘worried forehead’ soothed, needs to be watched over:
Stood behind my mother as she prayed
at the front door, led her to the kitchen,
made sure she looked at the babies.
but finally we are left with an image of childhood abandonment, how the absence of attention leaves its mark with an image of neglect:
There is no photograph of me climbing the stairs
two at a time, no evidence that I tried
not to slip and break my neck.
One thing I love about Jess’s work is the balance between such nuance, and unabashed boldness. In the poem ‘Red’:
The red curtains in my mother’s house
looked like someone had shot her.
A colour is shown as a symbol for domestic disagreement, and disappointment:
I tell you not to wear that that red shirt,
it doesn’t flatter.
There’s blood in the bathroom again,
The pamphlet is fraught with thwarted hopes and expectations, and its arena is the female body. We glimpse the weight of expectation on women to have sons, to create families, to select the right partner. I find the poem ‘Mother’s Day’ to be eloquent about assigned roles. The poem opens, with typical boldness, describing a delivery of flowers:
Delivered like unwanted children,
I didn’t put them into water.
I find a passion and rebellion in The Swell. I can’t recommend it enough. And if you’d like to hear Jess’s next reading, at the Telltale Press & Friends reading in Lewes with a fine array of poets. These include Judy Brown, whose book Crowd Sensations is becoming one of my favourites of recent times, and will write about it on here soon. It’s a great opportunity to hear Telltale’s Siegfried Baber up from Bath, and Brighton’s own Michaela Ridgway showcase their work too.