The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry

A review of the poetry collection The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry.

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The poem ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, after which the pamphlet from Liz Berry is named, won the Forward Prize for the best single poem in 2018. Accolades are no stranger to Berry, whose collection Black Country won a Somerset Maughan Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Berry has captured much in this concise, compact pamphlet of fifteen poems. It is a journey through motherhood, and so many mothers will be able to relate instantly to this work. There needs to be more creative works available for mothers, especially when they can often feel shut out of the adult world, as this pamphlet covers. Berry’s pamphlet meets this need.

Berry’s writing is visceral and can be seen in ‘Transition’, a poem which captures the process of giving birth:

When the fires swept lit my body ablaze
I wanted to crawl into that lake at Kejimakujik
silent star-mirroring lake so deep
it knows no grave no soul

The trauma of birth is not actually as widely discussed a subject as one would think and so it is important that Berry draws attention to it. Another subject that Berry covers and which is a theme of The Republic, is post-natal depression. Her poem ‘Yellow Curtains’ is a nod to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a story of a woman suffering depression and anxiety which is exasperated through gaslighting and mistreatment in a patriarchal environment. Berry tells us that ‘love can take this shape’, showing that love can be powerful and intense but also negative, difficult and overwhelming.

However, despite this representation of motherhood, we are also shown what a child can give a mother and therefore the opposing experience, seen in the poem ‘Bobowler’ in which Berry writes, ‘The love that lit the darkness between us/has not been lost’. To build on the positivity also present within this pamphlet, there is a sense of fate and destiny within it and one can see the bravery of the protagonist despite their physical and psychological battle. This positivity is reinforced by the imagery of nature within the poems; of birds which are traditionally a symbol of hope, and of starry skies.

Berry is not afraid to phrase her poems simply in some places, to say ‘I’ and ‘me’ – her poems are strong enough for her not to have to perform linguistic acrobatics to erase herself from them. Occasionally deliberately childish language creeps through her pages, seen most in the poem ‘Lullaby’, and this increases the desperately hopeful, anxious, prayer-like intensity of her poems.

The last poem leaves readers wondering whether it is an ending or a beginning. Is it the speaker of the poem going into labour or her child learning to walk? This poem shows us how a beginning can work as an ending and how one may not be so different from another. It shows us that a mother’s love has no finishing point.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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