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The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee – reviewed by Karen Dennison

dustjacket-theswellThe Swell, a pamphlet of fifteen poems, by Jessica Mookherjee is published by Telltale Press and beautifully produced with a stunning cover illustration by Hannah Clare. Bengali by heritage, Jessica was brought up in South Wales and many of the poems reflect on a life between two cultures.

This collection begins with Snapshot where the speaker grapples with a childhood in which her parents are disappointed at not having had a boy. Whilst trying to console them in ways only a child can she also hides her own conflicting emotions – ‘no evidence that I tried not to slip and break my neck’.

Red explores the speaker growing up, questioning convention, cleverly weaving the colour red through the poem, including the red tikka on her mother’s forehead that ‘looked like someone had shot her’ and evoking images of blood. By the end of the poem she’s in a failing relationship and ‘There’s blood in the bathroom again, this month’.

In Glass Sisters the figurines her mother occasionally takes out from the cabinet and sits on the sofa while she ‘played with a typewriter’ are used to represent locked away potential, the mother’s desire to ‘get a job, learn to drive, drink wine’. There is also a sense in which the glass sisters morph into the mother’s daughters, how they too were locked away – ‘we were all cabinet curios’.

In the eponymous poem, The Swell, with the birth of another daughter, her mother’s waters breaking are likened to flood waters and we feel a compelling mixture of power and powerlessness. Other poems concern being accused of lying at school and being wooed by an older man, at an age when she is unaware of the beauty of her youth. In The Neglect the neglect of a relationship is deftly depicted through the abandonment of a garden.

Mother’s Day is a particularly poignant poem where the speaker receives someone else’s flowers by mistake and they become a symbol for her own lack of children. ‘Their scent leaked into my everyday, alive like new baby smell’. Kept in their packaging for a week once the real owner is found she leaves ‘clutching my wilted flowers to her chest’.

The last few poems concern the break up of the speaker’s relationship. In Mate Choice ‘we would have birthed a master race, produced strong and hairy kids, they would have saved the Earth from drowning’. The touch of humour against the speaker’s repeated lament of how she would have liked to save the Earth from drowning (a very effective use of repetition) together make the poem even more moving. In Trying at Stratford East she bumps into her now ex and they have a friendly and light-hearted conversation, before parting ways. The poem ends with the particularly striking and visually arresting line ‘When I got onto the Tube, my face bruised like a bin, I think I was crying’.

The final poem addresses the Bedroom Door, shut when he moved to the spare room. Now he has moved out, it ends on a positively celebratory note ‘You swing, gape, grin,/ you are always open’. We are left at an ending which is also a beginning, stepping off the page into a future of possibility.

This first collection from Jessica covers a lot of ground and important themes in a small amount of space. Each poem carries its weight in this collection which is highly recommended.

 

Karen Dennison won the Indigo Dreams Collection Competition in 2011 resulting in the publication of her first collection Counting Rain. She is editor and publisher of the pamphlets Book of Sand and Blueshift (longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2016) and is currently working on her second collection.

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