Thank you to IceFloe Press for selecting my work for the exciting and inspiring mother tongue project which I discovered through Jenny Mitchell. The prompt was inviting: ‘What does a lost voice sound like when it’s called back? Who are our mothers, our foremothers, our birth-mothers, our sacred/spiritual mothers? What sound/energy/emotion/history does ‘the mother’s voice’ (s) contain? How can unanswerable questions about mothers be approached?
– Is she jelly-hearted… almost hating her daughter (Gwendolyn Brooks)
– Can she grow two inches with righteous (Patricia Smith)
– Is her smile like a dropped/perfume bottle (Pascale Petit)
– Or is she drinking to forget a man (Lyn Emanual)’
My response is a collection of deeply personal poems on the subject of my mother’s tongue, my obsession since I discovered a 1916 school photograph showing my grandmother at Hollywood Park school in Daw Bank, Stockport’s Jewish community at the time. Nobody told me about a Jewish community in my home town never mind my link to it. I’d been labouring under an illusion about who I was and why my mother’s tongue was so different. In 2016, my world expanded further when I discovered an astonishing account in the Manchester Courier from 1888 of my great-great grandfather’s suicide. It’s described without even a mention of his wife, my great-great grandmother, and their four children aged 3, 7, 9 and 12— ‘the body of a man was found on the London railway line with his head severed from his body’. The report focussed on his unemployment and his mental illness ‘being very strange in his manner’ and described where his head ended up ‘his head being on one side of one of the lines of rails and his body on the other’. The family must have suffered. No one ever mentioned it while I was growing up in Stockport. These are the lost voices which form the body of my recent work. When I call them back, they come to me sounding harsh, confused, frightened and very much out-of-time. My work tries to make sense of those voices through poetry. There’s a lesson for us all in WH Auden’s poem September 1st, 1939, about honesty in poetry. What if you call up your mother’s tongue, and it’s speaking from the very worst moment in your family history, a hard unforgiving voice that’s warning you, and it’s full of anxiety? It would be dishonest to ignore it.
And because poems cannot speak for themselves: My Mother’s Tongue is about finding your voice but having it shut out for its un-RP Englishness. The White Noise imagines my mother’s voice determinedly going with the flow, swept up in aggressive Western expansion. The Dream of the Giudecca Gate is about visiting Sicily and feeling a connection to something, my mother’s tongue, my voice(?). Doggerland fancifully recreates the stretch of land that once connected Britain to mainland Europe as a shopping mall with my mother and father submerged.
FIRST LINE, SECOND STANZA At that point I stopped. There was no name for each and every one of those dirty looks I was getting— the shrug, the raised eyebrow. My mother’s tongue had interrupted the flow, and the universe wasn’t holding its breath. Even so, on the first line, second stanza, I was suddenly […]My Mother’s Tongue – A Four Poem Suite by CY Forrest — IceFloe Press