MUMB: Cathy Crabb, Flapjack Press
One of civilisation’s best-kept secrets is that the Perfect Parent does not exist, although countless manuals, self-help guides, and people who enjoy occupying moral high grounds would have you believe otherwise. Truth is, we all just make it up as we go along. We try to right the wrongs of previous generations, and sometimes we get it right, but more often than we’d like to admit, we get it quite wrong, and it takes the bigger person to admit that. It takes a poet to tell the whole world.
As a poet myself, I was once asked if I had a fear of disclosure. I replied with a firm, if slightly confused, No. If you’re scared of disclosure, if you don’t willingly expose your deepest vulnerabilities, you shouldn’t be writing poetry, in my opinion. It’s only through the dirty, dark and ugly truth that we can connect with others. Poets articulate what others either don’t, won’t, or can’t. Cathy Crabb is a parent, and a poet with a whole airing cupboard full of uncomfortable truths and achingly poignant confessions; she’s also refreshingly free of cloying 2.4ness.
MUMB (capitalized for your analytical delight and joyously laden with association) is the latest offering from one of the hardest-working small publishers around, Flapjack Press. It is described as a “personal exploration of the dark side of motherhood and what it means to be a woman”. I was instantly reminded of another poet intent on smashing myths, most especially the myth of the matriarch – Maya Angelou. As I read on, that idea was reinforced by the kind of honesty and self-awareness that imbued each page of Angelou’s five-part autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
The opening poem is so northern and working-class in its sentiments that it threw me right back to plastic tablecloths and crocheted toilet roll covers. ‘Don’t Tell Anyone Anything About Us’ is chockfull of warnings with a warm edge and a dignified veneer; the outside world does not need to know our ins and outs, and we will always look after our own. Bonus points for including one of my favourite verbs ever – mithering.
I wasn’t expecting the haiku, but they became some of my favourite pieces thanks to the subtle and intelligent humour, poking fun at middle-class values and first-world problems:
Each day, fresh treasure:
organic, homegrown, straight from
the cat litter tray
(‘Kitchen Sink Haikus’)
are a sign of how we care;
don’t moan about them.
(‘Car Park Philosophy’)
‘No amount of wine
can stop your heart from hurting.’
We’ll see about that.
(‘Haikus Deserving of Wine’)
We hurtle from the condensed poetry of haiku to the other extreme in the breathless headlong splurge of ‘A Morning in the Life of a Manic Multi-tasker with Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Suspected Inflammatory Bowel Disease Making Cinnamon Rolls, Pruning the Roses, Re-potting Basil, Planning a New Play and Starting a Business’. Now that’s what I call a title!
A spot of science within a poem tickles my geek bone every time (and I am a lifelong reader of medical information leaflets), so the opening line of ‘NOW a warning?’ about the addictive qualities of a certain painkiller definitely hit the spot:
Oh for a muse of pregelatinized starch,
microcrystalline cellulose (E460),
magnesium stearate, tramadol hydrochloride
that will brandish a sword at psychosomatica
Back to the smashing of that matriarchal myth then. In ‘Taking the Bullet’, we are shown past mistakes and maternal epiphanies, turn by aching turn:
Once I said to him, ‘When you are thirty
and feel bad for all the things you’ve said,
remember this: I don’t forgive you.’
I thought to myself that will hurt forever.
I thought to myself I’ve won now.
I wonder if he will ever forgive me.
I’m taken back to turbulent teenage landscapes in ‘But Not So Little’, recognising and remembering the grief of knowing that “this is where childhood comes to die” and the shock of being totally unprepared for the force of when “a child’s magic becomes a witch’s spell”.
Fierce love, the sense of belonging, of family all run generously throughout the pages, flicking from the velvety poetic to the crisp, and filled in along the way with some heart-warming home-made stories and wry observations.
I made a point earlier about this book feeling northern and working-class, and it does that wonderfully through use of vernacular, sentiment and lexicon. The icing on the cake, however, is her subversion of received notions of what it is to be working-class - her use of intricate language and structure, a thousand hidden meanings, and the intelligent upsetting of certain forms of poetry, for instance in ‘Sanction Limericks’
There once was a father of two
whose children were off with the flu,
he was sanctioned for absence
and this really makes no sense
cos he phoned them and made sure they knew
and the flavour of Greek mythology in ‘Bobby’s Wings’, a poem about her first-born
Bobby’s wings are five times his size,
you can feel the swiff of them
as they gather nocturnal fireflies
Cathy Crabb is no ragged trousered philanthropist, and Robert Tressell would be proud.
The final two poems in the collection, ‘Mum’s Stories’ and ‘Family Tree’, could not have been better placed to round it off. We hear of a maternal history that you won’t find in any textbook, re-told with pride and humour, and how you will be able to find the writer in “love’s forestry of poetry – that is where I hide”.
These poems stand with their hands on their hips, staring you full in the face - defiant, proud. They sit curled up in the kitchen bawling their eyes out in despair, and they show the deep seams of family life in all its dysfunctional, uncomfortable but close-knit glory. A deeply moving and incisive collection, embroidered with humour and sincerity.