Reviews||

Her Birth by Rebecca Goss

15th Aug 2013

★★★★
Her Birth by Rebecca Goss
Her Birth spans the short life of Rebecca Goss’ first daughter and its echo in her second daughter’s infancy. Goss’ first child, Ella, was born with Severe Ebstein’s Anomaly and died of the incurable heart condition 16 months after her birth.

Goss’ subject and muse slips in and out of grasp. In ‘Skin-to-Skin’, a baby’s cheek is torn from her mother’s chest by a registrar; in ‘Clinic’, Goss pens her first chilling vision of mortality in other people’s children:

I picture him
dulled to a floppy
sleep, slit like a fish
for a surgeon
to cup his heart,
take its damaged
weight and begin.

Frequently, a medical presence disrupts a poem at its volta, and Goss’ telling is split into the before and after of surgical intervention until her verse bears the scars of bereavement.

The collection is all the more heartbreaking because Goss incorporates something of the clinical into her work: sentences are stark, clipped and assonant in order that grief be dissected beneath the harsh light of the operating table.

But the terminology of the hospital will often fall short or miss the mark, and Goss carefully probes the writer’s relationship with words. In ‘Palliative’, she seeks bolstering from a dictionary definition:

[…]I read ‘serving to palliate’,

(from Latin pallium, a cloak) and turned back
to find ‘palliate’ vb 1. to lessen the severity

of (pain, disease etc.) without curing
and I re-read without curing until curing

didn’t look like curing anymore,
it looked like curling and I clasped my hands

around my knees, pulled that book hard
against my gut. […]

[…] Now I bury its bulk

on the shelves, swathe myself in hope.

The collection is all the more heartbreaking because Goss incorporates something of the clinical into her work.The arguably palliative function of words – to soothe but not to save – does not bring the comfort the poet had hoped for, so she changes words and looks at curing til it curls to veil the symptom and bring about defiant hope.

Her Birth opens with an epigraph from Kate Clanchy’s ‘Infant’, which describes the newborn’s passage from estuary to sea and establishes Goss’ aquatic themes. Again and again, babies are figured as fish out of water. In ‘A Dream of Heart Babies’, Goss envisions the haul:

Gathered on deck,
we slip them from our hands

like they slipped from our legs,
a shoal of heart babies

[…]

The catch rises, drips
and bulges, spills glistening

infants, like oysters at our feet.

This poem is dedicated to the mothers and details those slippery lives that threaten spill from their hands, engulfed in mucus and milk and with a leaky heart.

One bereaved mother absorbs some of this damp peril in ‘Found’, when Goss describes the discovery of her daughter’s ashes (‘it surfaced like a dead fish’) then swabs and smears the grit into her armpit.

Above all, this poignant collection stresses that the urge to recovery is animal, and Goss imagines her second, suckling child as amphibian, worm, chick, piglet and mole because ‘It’s visceral, this love.’

Her Birth is shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection and the paperback is out now.