Madness, anxiety and poetry

Joanne Limburg reviews two new collections of poetry


In All My Mad Mothers, Jacqueline Saphra’s new collection has its perfect title poem. The mother described in each of its seven self-contained, four-line stanzas is at once one mother and a multiplicity of mothers; she is both movingly real and exuberantly imagined. She is a joyously mad mother, pictured “trying to catch the sun”, and making “rainbow chokers” for her daughters out of dead fruit flies, but also a mother who “barely spoke between her bruises” and, by the last line, is discovered trying “to ease her way into this world. Or out of it.”

A series of prose poems make a corridor through the middle of the book, offering glimpses into an eventful upbringing colourfully populated with mothers and fathers, many of the step variety. The book as a whole is divided into four sections, allowing Saphra to focus in turn on different stages of life and the relationships we form and lose in them: as well as parents, we meet friends, lovers, partners and children; some of the book’s “mad mothers” are depicted in the first person.

To capture the richness of life in relationship, Saphra deploys a variety of poetic forms, sensual language and a satisfying breadth of imagery.

Anthony Rudolf’s poetry, collected in European Hours, is informed by a much starker aesthetic. His lines are typically short and spare; they are often printed with a wide left-hand margin, drawing attention to the white space around them. In one early poem, Invisible Ink, Rudolf might be alluding to this, when he suggests that “Silence is//the deepest structure of them all.”

This might sound like an expression of defeat, but it isn’t. The poem continues: “If you write me/a letter in/invisible ink//I shall know/how to read between the lines.” As a translator and art critic, Rudolf has spent a lifetime working in the space between languages, and between different kinds of expression. Throughout the collection, there are poems that speak back to writers working in other tongues.

And to artists: there are references to Cavafy, Kafka, Karl Kraus and Vasko Popa, alongside poems named for artists: Chagall, Balthus, Edward Hopper. In Breughel to Auden, he imagines the artist speaking back to the poet, observing that, while artists’ work is “touched on by the seasons/touched with.//You poets you/plough on/regardless.”

And Rudolf has ploughed on, despite the losses, doubts and anxieties which haunt his work — or perhaps because of them, as they have provided him with subject matter, and informed the hesitant shape of his poetry on the page.

Early poems: Obsession: A Structure, Checkpoint Charlie and Against Anxiety suggest a long struggle with anxiety and obsessive thinking.

In Notebook, one of the Proses that appear at the end of the book, Rudolf re-grets his abandoned projects, and asks “why do I make things more difficult for myself than they already are?”

He believes that this started early, with his “academic failure” at University but goes on to acknowledge that he has accomplished a fair bit since.

He also alludes to a recent freeing of his creativity, partly inspired by “the painter”, his partner Paula Rego, whose portrait of him is on the book’s cover.

A prologue, European Hours follows the pair round Europe as they look at art together and, in this piece, he has at last allowed himself a longer line.


All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra is published by Nine Arches Press (£9.99) 

European Hours by Anthony Rudolf is published by Carcanet (£12.99) 


Joanne Limburg’s latest book is ‘Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations’ (Atlantic)

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