Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish

Literature | Review
Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish

If you are a mother, a mother to be, a father, a father to be or just simply a human, then reading McNish’s Nobody Told Me is not only a must but must be passed onto fellow mothers and fathers. Parenthood can be the most isolating, mind boggling, sleep deprived, trippy ride one can embark upon. You question yourself daily whether you are doing the right thing, you’re also questioned and criticised by strangers who insist you are doing everything wrong. CoSleeping, breastfeeding, opinions, and being unmarried with a child are just a few buzz words which raise many an eyebrow in our British society, all of which McNish discusses.

McNish is the silenced voice. Her thought and confession is knitted together through a powerful marriage between poetry and prose. No subject is untouched, it is unflinching, matter of fact and doesn't miss a beat. The imagery she conjures in her poetry is vivid and solid. She talks about guilt; the guilt of not being prepared to be a mother to the everyday guilt of being a parent and the human desire to be alone, to being an individual, to not be just a mother which is the hardest confession a mother can make. Even thinking it makes a mother question her own altruistic nature.

There are many comical moments punctuated by juxtaposition, for example just as she is about to tell her partner Dee that she is pregnant, he tells her that he is no longer in love with her to which her reaction is, “Lump in my throat. Ah shit I'm thinking about that maternity dress I just bought. I’d imagined wearing it at this moment in my life.” But he stays and falls deeply in love with their daughter and the subject is never brought up again. McNish raises the rarely touched subject of sex; about the body which nurtures a baby day and night which has to be miraculously transformed and take on the role of lover. In her poem “Breasts” she writes:

So I lay her to sleep
and wipe off the milk
and step into the next room
for some innocent filth
in the middle of which
her screams jolt me up
And I transform breast once more
between lover
and love.

On the subject of breastfeeding, she looks at how women’s breasts are forced to live a double life; where it’s acceptable to be on display on billboards or on the top shelf of a newsagent but as soon as they are used to serve their functional purpose, there is a look of disgust and the shattering of the male gaze as if they are a mere accessory designed for a mating ritual. One of her most powerful poems is “Embarrassed”. She writes about the shame she is forced to feel when having to breastfeed in public. Like many mums, she locks herself away in a dirty toilet cubicle in order to feed her daughter. She writes:

As another mother turns from nipples to powder
Ashamed or embarrassed by comments around her
As I hold her head up and pull my cardie across
And she Sips on the liquor made by everyone’s God
I think for God’s sake, Jesus drank it
So did Siddartha
and Moses
and both of their fathers
Ganesh and Shiva and Brighid and Buddha
And I’m sure they weren’t doing it sniffing o piss
As their mothers sat embarrassed on cold toilet lids

McNish leaves no stone unturned in this account of motherhood. She discusses the playgroup dynamic with other mothers and fathers who rarely have a support system. She writes about skin colour, how her daughter’s colour is usually compared to her own and one man even has the audacity to ask her if she had always planned on having a child with a black man. McNish also covers gender stereotypes and all the issues and problems her daughter has stacked against her. But most importantly she treats her daughter as a person, as an individual and not an extension of herself. She is patient and dismissive of demeaning slogans such as “terrible twos”, she sees her daughter as a person who has needs and struggles with big emotions, something many grown-ups never really grow out of.

Once you've read this, pass it onto a fellow parent. I know I will be.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Literature | Review
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of thirty- six life was just beginning for Paul Kalanithi, he was close to becoming a neurosurgeon and had hopes of starting a family with his wife Lucy. At the age of thirty-six, life was ending for Paul Kalanithi from terminal cancer. Torn between his love for English literature and a deep desire to be a writer with a longing to help others through neuroscience he managed to write his story in times. It is this story which will live long after him. Kalanithi is warm and full of wit, the kind of person you would feel safe being operated on by, a doctor with a strong sense of humanity an attribute that could have seen him exploring the other life he always wondered about, the part of him that had a strong desire to be a writer. By choosing neuroscience he writes about how the brain is what in fact makes the person who they are. All personality traits stem from the mind. He writes, “I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life-and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul- was obvious in its sacredness.”

When Kalanithi faces the news of his cancer, his approach is two-fold; that of a Dr which is a matter of fact manner and that of a man who has to face what he will be leaving behind, a wife and a nine month old baby girl. Writing this book took a lot of energy and to the reader’s shock the book ends rather abruptly as his health suddenly deteriorates. His writing is seamless, poetic, beautiful and transfixing. His bravery can is rather astonishing at times but as the reader, you don’t have time to slam your fists with rage or ask metaphysical questions, Kalanithi doesn't give you a chance to, somehow he robs you of it and how does he do it? Well the truth is, he is a wonderful storyteller and dizzily sweeps you along.

Kalanithi provides us with a great insight into the patient- doctor relationship as well as the transition from doctor to patient where he has to turn away from survival rates and statistics. It is early on in his career when he grasps the importance of knowing his patient, in which the written medical notes are not separate from the person and the tedious task of write ups are not tiresome but important in the story telling of that individual.  The storytelling he returns to in the end are those of his youth.
The book is bookended by others as Kalanithi‘s life as expected was cut short. The Forward is written by one Abraham Verghese who only met Kalanithi once but corresponded through email many times, he writes “…see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words”. His wife Lucy, writes the afterword, providing us with an outside picture of a sickly frail man, barely able to hold a baby but so strong willed to write that he has to wear silver lined gloves to type when chemotherapy cracks his fingertips. When his life as a neurosurgeon died, his life as a writer begun even if it was his one and only story.


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