Here's a book I'd have
passed over in a bookshop. The title tells me it's not my sort of thing. I'm
not keen on the cover image. And all the endorsements for Milk Dress are from women. Several poem titles made my heart
sink too: 'Self-portrait with Morning Sickness', 'Caesarean', 'Weaning',
'Milk' - so the fact I'm commending the book speaks very highly for its
'Write against narrative' is the book's opening phrase. So while Nicole
Cooley's experiences as a mother of two daughters, as a teacher of creative
writing and someone who lives in New York are all part of the materials of
her writing, she writes neither the story nor the chronology of that
experience. Rather, by writing 'against narrative', she's able to keep the
complexity of any one moment in play.
Many poems layer different experiences of the moment into each other. She's
studying a folder of prints by Mary Cassatt in 'Pregnant at the Archive',
always underscored by absence of detail.
study the careful incision of lines.
body, the other is still safely separate.
Cassatt leaves the background blank.
don't look down at yourself below the desk.
study. Drypoint outline. Aquatint.
- the portfolio's details serving to distance the reader from the story of
pregnancy, as the pregnancy does from the viewing of prints. Further
distancing comes from further layering: between (rather than within) some of the poems Nicole
Cooley places texts referring to a 1950s study of need in infant monkeys, in
which surrogate 'mothers' offer either comfort and warmth, or food. In these
untitled sections she's using an altered language and standpoint:
mother is heated by a lightbulb hidden
She'll offer comfort but no nourishment. She'll offer her body wrapped
with a towel.
And the baby monkey will cling. The baby will turn from the other
of mesh, the other mother who is all hard edges who is offering her
This particular extract is the first such, and the cruelty of that 1950s
study serves to establish an apparent, almost 'scientific', objectivity which
Nicole Cooley is able to draw on later in the book writing of other traumas -
even shockingly when one of her daughters is being treated in hospital:
newborn monkeys have their own cages, with equal access to a cloth and
If I wanted
to stay with her, I was told to put on the lead dress.
wore a blue-sprigged hospital gown. I was not allowed to hold her.
Childbirth, illness, attacks on the World Trade Centre and holding down a
job, hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans where her parents lived, a poem
called 'Grief As Is' in memory of her mother - the materials of Nicole
Cooley's book are pretty grim. 'Disaster, an Instruction Manual' acknowledges
this, opening with an 'instruction' for protecting children, 'Keep them from
the news. Turn off the television.' The poem moves through objective devices
to post-disaster, her father displaced from New Orleans:
the Italian, disastro, meaning 'ill-starred' from dis- 'away
astro, 'star, planet' from the Latin.
stands in the late fall dark of our backyard, with a book of
matches. Look, he says and lights up the MRE, military-issued
food he and
were given by the National Guard.
are watching from the backyard steps. I want to imagine
the scene is
somehow lovely, a shower of sparkles in the backyard grass.
After this asterisk, her husband rings to tell her about a plane crash at the
World Trade Centre - no, this isn't in any way a chronological account of
disasters, rather the link here is the desire to protect children:
'breastfeeding her before I leave, my first reaction is grip her so tightly
she wakes up and begins to cry'. Another asterisk, another definition.
Earlier poems, like 'Pedagogy, 2011', have already pulled together moments
poetry workshop went downtown to give blood, to volunteer as
on high alert. All tunnels closed.
and have exposed the continuing fearfulness that dominates everyday life:
I nurse my daughter, watch the news.
In the After, another day of jewel blue sky, I pack the suitcase,
windows, as told, against possible chemical attack,
but still we
breathe in the burning, the ash, the soot.
The anxiety of that packed suitcase runs behind all of these poems, just one
of the ways in which they all speak to each other. The idea of comfort/cloth
is planted early on, referring to the study of monkeys, and this is reprised
in various way in later poems. While this may be a book of traumas, both
personal and public, it's also a carefully constructed book - and one of
Ruth Larbey's title
wrong-footed me too: I read Fun/glish rather than the Fung/lish of her title
poem in which 'the spores of funglish / broadcast a persistent contagion, a
black-market pestilence'. This is writing that bowls along with tremendous
pace enjoying itself, and enjoying wherever the words will take it, which in
'Bedsit', is from the place where 'Across the hall, the trucker hides his
best friend / - a Jack Russell - / from the landlord' to where
light socket on the wall,
written, in miniature, a list of names
It wriggles jaggedly down to an
of frustration... /...
Skimmed pages and phrases:
'Walthamstow Central' is far from having the problems of New York, though it
has its own:
Thirteens in green bandanas skitter towards the Chinese
at an urgent
semaphore, as adults avert eyes from the upsidedown
people haunted by their own products: The Next Generation.
There's no undertow of anxiety in this collection; the voice in 'The Other
Side' has a devil-may-care confidence and energy:
time it's for good!
(bangs the front door on her way out).
This is Ruth Larbey's first pamphlet. A blurb which says she is 'writing with
an edgy control reminiscent of Emily Dickinson' may not be doing her any
favours, though Nine Arches Press has done her proud with coloured endpapers
and plenty of white - or cream in this case - space.