CHRISTINE COATES reviews the new collection by Louella Sullivan.
A slight volume at just 35 pages, Salt is a delicately woven account of pregnancy and birth. Louella Sullivan’s poems are honed to their elemental value – each one a grain of salt. Giving birth is universal; we are all born, many women have given birth, and yet this journey is profoundly intimate. The image of salt is used throughout – salt of the sea, salt of tears, the saltiness of uterine waters, the embryonic sea.
Birth is regarded as both an inner and an outer journey; it is a journey to selfhood, a separation, when the child lives “beyond her fingertips”. The mother sees herself as a pilgrim on this journey. And ultimately, as the poet Cecil Day-Lewis noted, a letting go:
Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
Sullivan describes birth as transformational, a rite of passage, a threshold to cross, transmuting from one state to another. The poet embarks on the journey consciously, willing the conception –
After I lie still, my hips tilted upward in prayer
Willing you across the threshold
You are eager to be born
I am impatient to meet you.
Yet the path to motherhood leads a woman very close to death. Once pregnant the poet experiences herself being underwater, being unconscious, turning inwards, merging, there is a blurring of boundaries. This identification with the foetus and then child is carried through the poems;
I look away
Hold my breath in
So she can
Sullivan employs images of creation, of the earth and the universe; the foetus is floating in its own cosmos, in its own world of water. Birth is compared to the geological upheaval of earth at its birth, the fire and blood of creation. Yet pregnancy is also mythological; the pregnant mother is linked to the sacred goddess, to fertility deities. But having given birth, she experiences the goddess being thrown back to earth.
When she forges her way out
In blood and fire
I pass onto her
what remains of me
like a goddess flung to earth
Woven throughout are the feminine images of sewing, of threading, knitting and spinning. In Feeding time, the image of threads conveys becoming undone and being stitched together again:
Her kneading fingers
knit the threads
frayed from the day
and with her lips
she stitches them lushly
back to my heart.
The pregnant body and the baby within are described as continents that collide and separate, a body with a surface of ridges and furrows that will one day tell its own story:
One day when these scars
(and my hair) are silver soft
I will run my fingers across them
looking for the places where you are still part of me.
The body is both receptacle for the foetus and a surface for writing on, where stories are written and told. I love how the body also becomes a receptacle for language, how the body becomes the narrative and the narrative the body.
Instead I say: I grew you
in there y’know
– him too –
Her silent fingers
on my white scars
I know mommy and these are the stories we told you.