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Review: ‘Girl’ by Rebecca Goss

Rebecca Goss’s Girl (Carcanet) is concerned with the magic of girlhood and womanhood. The poems consider womanhood’s slow, hushed power, especially how it is inherited, bestowed, understood, and refigured throughout life.

In ‘Lightning’, this power is manifested as a natural force that ‘split[s] a tree’, and then trips ‘across a barbed wire fence’ to the speaker’s mother, who watches, ‘thrilled’. In this, the Gothic sublimity of nature is apparent. The lightning, which ‘stopped her heart, burnt nerves, / fused her jaw and exited through her mouth’, also raises key ideas that Goss visits throughout the collection: openings and closings, sound and silence.

Later in the poem, the speaker strains to peer inside her mother’s mouth and finds a ‘trembling, silver pool’, yet recollects how her mother’s ‘bedtime whispers feel fiery’. Goss’s poems often tread this fine line between reality and dreamlike magic, attempting to comprehend and explore ties between mothers and their daughters.

‘Reverse Charge Call’ returns to this sense of electricity and connection:

What we girls knew of emergency was slight but peril was waiting. Brown Owl led us
to a strip of telephone boxes to demonstrate her wiseness, and the art of a reverse
charge call. Redirected to our mothers in that practice run, we offered up the digits
learnt for the task – operator confirming connection – our rescue by vibration and wire.

As the lightning trips across the barbed wire in the opening poem, it seems to travel here to the telephone box, and becomes a form of passing on wisdom. The folkloric quality of the poem is enhanced by the presence of ‘Brown Owl’ and the ceremony of understanding how women can be connected and provide lessons to one another. The sense of magic this delivers allows the speaker to travel through time and imagination, to think:

                                                                                                  … But What If that call had been
redirected to my grown-up self? The operator asking me to accept the sound of me,
standing on a pavement in Essex in the 1980s, striving for a badge for my mother to sew
to my sleeve. I’d be holding the receiver, decades ahead, proficient in hurt and living,
hanging on to my girl-voice, unsure whether to take this one chance and hurl warning.

A languid, cumulative burning permeates the poems. In ‘Repossession’, apples lie ‘rotting in the sun’, a husband forgets ‘how hot it was’, and the speaker notes the ‘wasp’s boozy crawl’. There is something romantic about this heat: it’s the kind where just being outside feels like a form of productivity, but it’s also the kind that makes you wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, a ‘summer of anxiety […] rushing at you in waves’ (‘To fall’).

In ‘With Sarah’, the speaker recalls a summer with a friend, how they


                          lay on the grass, looked back
at the south façade, that wide bank of lawn,
children running its irresistible slope.

The seemingly idyllic setting becomes an opening to talk ‘about sad things’, for the speaker to recognise that ‘a web is breaking / between your lips just before you speak’. This heat provides openings – short spaces of time for boundaries to be crossed – for important words to be spoken, and gestures made.

Several poems are inspired by the artist Alison Watt’s oil paintings, and her piece ‘Iris’ features as the collection’s front cover. Watt’s works are photo-realistic, capturing close-ups of folds of silky white fabric draped to create extremes of light and shadow. ‘Black Star’ (2012), which is used as inspiration for Goss’s poem ‘Fabric’, features a cavern-like fold, inviting the viewer to delve into the unknown dark space. In Goss’s poem in response, languorous heat returns erotically:

        I thought the heat of us
might be clouding
in that yawn of fabric,
my fingers pushing into its slate dark –
back into our universe of night
when you gathered the whole of me
and I pulled you under

As Watt’s painting plays with depth and layers, Goss’s poem too explores how openings and closings can complicate forms, can ‘explode everything cold’, and come ‘out as flares’, so that white no longer holds on to its connotations of purity and innocence. These ‘amatory twists’ are refigured in ‘The Water’s Fine’, where a ‘submerged, curving’ woman, ‘pearly and exposed’, silences a man by swimming under water – moving away, then closer.

Much of the collection is concerned with upturning expectations, women acting in surprising or off-kilter ways. ‘Betty Draper Shoots at Her Neighbour’s Pigeons’ recalls the iconic scene from Mad Men, Betty in her ‘ivory nightgown’, ‘one Lucky Strike jutting / from her mouth’. In ‘Rachel’, the speaker decides to spend a day ‘being Rachel’:

                                                          I introduced myself as Rachel
to a stranger at the library, when we reached for the same copy
of The New Encyclopedia of Birds. I apologised in a way Rachel
would have apologised: prone to genuflection.

As the speaker embraces Rachel’s gaucherie, becomes less inhibited, the world too takes on a zany quality, the rain falling ‘as if it was undecided // about its volume’. This poem’s unique tone and use of gaucheness highlights the importance of sound. Almost everything in Girl is hushed or whispered; even the many babies mentioned rarely cry.

When women do make noise – via gunshot, talking on the phone, explosions – Goss suggests that these ‘scant bursts’ (‘Rachel’) are just a small dose of what is being shut away.

You can buy Girl from Carcanet.

If you’d like to review for the Poetry School, or submit a publication for review, please contact Will Barrett on [email protected] or Ali Lewis on [email protected]

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Image Credits:

Lightning by C.P. Storm. Image has been cropped and filtered. Licence