do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom by Rachael Matthews

-Reviewed by Jessica Traynor-

Published by The Emma Press, this attractive pamphlet was partly written during lockdown, yet the poems within read like the culmination of a long process of intense and careful crafting. Rachael Matthews voice is assured, lively and – in spite of the rigour of the poems – always spontaneous. These poems deal with Matthews’ formative years, family, sexuality; big subjects she approaches with an insight informed by her work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

These poems manage to convey the complexity of their subject matter while remaining tonally clear and engaging. A fantastic example is ‘Birthmark’, a single-sentence prose poem which in less confident hands could become confusing. In Matthews’ hands, the poem conveys the labyrinthine difficulties of unpicking parent-child relationships without ever losing sight of the poem’s founding conceit of ‘spotlessness’:

…not unlike the page upon blank page of a writing
book fronted by a spotless rose that one parent gave me to fill
with lines she dare not dream of and the other could never
conceive of and which remains blank to this day because there
are no words that belong in between the sheets of such a quest
for perfection by proxy

The middle parts of the pamphlet deal with the writer’s own journey towards parenthood, and the difficult act of unpicking the damage they have brought with them from their own childhood. Uneasy images create an atmosphere of anxiety – in ‘Daffodil’, the beauty of a daffodil splitting ‘its onionskin dress’ becomes both a harbinger of fertility and a marker of the risk inherent in bringing a child into the world. In ‘chicken’, the leap of faith involved in childbirth brings to mind the recklessness of a father who ‘would often drive us towards oncoming traffic.’ There are also poems here of tenderness and sensuality, which demonstrate the way love reveals its many facets and complexities within a sound relationship. ‘Confinement’ is a tribute to the physical and emotional expansion new life brings, with wife lending wife a comfortable shirt in the later stages of pregnancy; an everyday action lent tactile immediacy by the poet’s deft description:

The lending of your soft shirt
when our baby pushes me out of my seams
and into the cotton of yours.

The ‘ordinary/ and out of the ordinary inside love’ of this poem is explored in even more depth in the poem which follows. ‘recovery’ celebrates vulnerability, and the perfect imperfection of love, with a partner in recovery gently pleading: ‘…if I’m going to write about you// if you do, make me perfect/ make me perfect please’

The poet’s deep intelligence is also on display in the more formal poems, with ‘Ghazal: the sea’ a particularly fine example. Often with debuts, there is a sense of a poet finding their way into certain forms, an experimentation that can convince, or go slightly awry. Here, it feels as if the poem demands its form, and a neat piece of linguistic trickery in the final lines spins us round, compelling us to read the poem afresh: ‘Start again. Go all the way back. Re-name. Say/ having a child every time you hear: the sea.’

do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossoms is a rich, multi-faceted collection of poems that introduces a vital and confident voice. These are poems that carry their emotional heft lightly, reeling the reader in with their engaging and conversational tone before blindsiding us with keen and lasting insights. I’ll eagerly await Rachael Matthew’s full-length debut.