Rebecca Goss was born in 1974 and grew up in Suffolk. She studied English at Liverpool John Moores University and has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University. Her first full-length collection, The Anatomy of Structures, was published in 2010 by Flambard Press. Her Birth, her second collection, is published by Carcanet/Northern House and has been shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection. She has recently moved back to Suffolk after twenty years in Liverpool, where she taught creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. She is married, has raised her two stepchildren, and now combines writing full time with caring for her young daughter.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection
“In 2007 Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with Severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition. She lived for sixteen months. Her Birth is a book-length sequence of poems beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child. Goss navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss in poems that are spare, tender and haunting: “Going home, back down/ the river road, will be a foreign route without her”.”
“The poems in Her Birth unfold their story of love, loss and grief for a baby daughter with pared-down precision and scorching intensity. The language, like sea-glass, has been ground by a tide that might have crushed words completely. Instead, it has shaped these translucent poems.”
– Helen Dunmore
“It is rare to read a book of poems which has the narrative compulsion of Her Birth. But even such a powerful and moving narrative as this one would not be effective without the beautifully crafted language in which the poems are expressed: clear, graceful, word-perfect. This is a wonderful book.”
– Bernard O’Donoghue
The Old and the Young
Since the death of my baby daughter in 2008, I look at old people differently. By old, I mean men and women well into their pensionable years. I have always loved the company of older people but there is an added poignancy to it now.
Twenty years of my life were spent in Liverpool. It’s rare to go anywhere in the city and not engage with a stranger within hours. Perhaps I am generalising, but I think women too, are particularly quick to confess and confide in each other. We have an ability to share and reveal information about ourselves, to females we barely know, in a matter of minutes. In the past five years I have met several elderly women who have lost children. Their stories were told to me in various locations: the gardens of a café, a bus, my own street. I didn’t know any of the women, we had not met before, but just the gentle crossing of paths prompted conversation. Their stories of sadness came quickly. I didn’t tell them about my own daughter’s death and what floored me about their stories was how quickly their ‘loss’ came to the surface. In each case, the death of their child had happened decades earlier but it was almost the first thing they told me. It defined them, all those years later.
Inside Liverpool’s imposing Catholic cathedral there is a Children’s Chapel. It houses a stone-finished sculpture depicting Christ surrounded by children. The windows have been likened to the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ nursery song. The woven hanging depicts the Sea of Galilee. At one end of the seat circling the chapel’s edge is a folder. It is overflowing, bursting with letters, cards and handwritten notes. I am not religious. I do not believe in God. I went to the cathedral on this particular day with my stepdaughter, as she was sketching part of the building for her school art project. I had no idea the chapel was inside. While Rosie sketched, I wandered into the chapel and gradually realised where I was and what this place meant to people.
I opened the folder and began to read. It was harrowing. There is no other word for it. Parents had come to leave letters for their dead children. But it was the dates that haunted me. My own daughter had been dead for less than a year. Some of the letters in the chapel were from women whose children had been dead for over fifty years. They had come to mark birthdays, or anniversaries and each card was written with the rawness of a recent loss.
I’m not frightened of getting old. I am frightened of forgetting my daughter, of sitting in a chair, stricken with dementia and being unable to recall her name or face. But I am also terrified of remembering her. That a part of me is going to be very sad, for the rest of my life. How selfish that sounds. How selfish too, to fear the day I will be old, an unremarkable presence on a bus and no one will give a damn that my daughter died. No one will know that I lived through that terrible thing. Now, when I see an elderly woman alone, I want to sit beside her and say Tell me everything. Tell me everything about your life.
I’ve been told of women in their eighties
who dial on birthdays, their story drawn
from the receiver in small damp breaths:
‘He would have been sixty’
and a voice wraps them in a blanket of vowels.
Somehow, a child has slipped from them.
They were unable to stop it, like sand collapsing
back down the hole, dug on that dry part of beach.
The final section of Her Birth covers the birth of my second child. I wanted the book to end with feelings of hope. Hope is there, but the poems are permeated with fears of something awful happening again. When your world has been that of hospitals, palliative care, bad news, it is hard to believe that children live to grow old.
I discovered Sharon Olds’ collection The Sign of Saturn (Secker and Warburg, 1991) in my very early twenties. I was single, had no children of my own but was drawn in completely by her portrayal of women, motherhood and children. She also wrote a lot about sex. Sexual relationships and the family were two key things I wanted to write about and I’ve always felt that book gave me a kind of ‘green light’ to go ahead. Olds observes not just the beauty of children, but their fragility and vulnerability too. In a poem about her daughter’s worn and abandoned pyjamas she describes how they “lie on the floor/ inside out, thin and wrinkled as/ peeled skins of peaches when you ease the/ whole skin off at once./ You can see where her waist emerged, and her legs,/ gathered in rumples like skin the caterpillar/ ramped out of and left to shrivel” (from ‘Pajamas’).
Her daughter ‘ramps’ through life, but what she leaves behind is as fragile and ephemeral as peach skin. The daughter matures at a pace and there is the mother, behind her, following the trail, collecting the discarded items of proof that her child existed. Of course, this is what we want. We want to see our children growing, maturing, achieving each metamorphic stage. Despite Olds’ poems about her own children being quite wondrous, she does not take anything for granted. The book is punctuated with stories of children who do not make it. A young girl is raped and murdered, a child goes missing – the tape of his information poster “beginning to/ melt at the centre and curl at the edges as it/ ages”.
In The Sign of Saturn Olds describes someone who “knows what all of us never want to know”. If you experience the death of a child, you then carry that awful knowledge. The final poem in Her Birth returns to the wondrous state of watching a child bloom, of allowing myself to enjoy her young life. But I admit, I wanted to share some of the awful knowledge too. I wanted to explain it, explore it, try and make sense of it in some way.
I let socks dot the washing, coats grace
a chair’s arm. Her hospital bag, too hard
to unpack, stayed slumped and ignored
but eventually there was a gathering,
the limp outline of her size carried upstairs.
It accumulated in the cot, a cold pit
of pyjamas, dresses, jeans. My heap of her,
visible through bars. Insides of sleeves
brushed with her cells, last flecks compacting
in pastel matter, until her father found me
fretting at its edge, suggested it was time
for the careful mining of her things.
Our intention to sort, fold and label soon became
a quick, unhappy shoving into grey plastic bags,
the silent hoisting to an attic’s dark. Her cot
collapsed, I sobbed in that desolated space,
while my desk was carried in, books and pens
planted on its surface, her father’s wise reclamation
of the site. I kept a row of lilac-buttoned relics
in my wardrobe. Hand-knitted proof, something
to haul my sorry lump of heart and make it blaze.
Pausing in traffic, I’m miles away
when a file of children forces me
to focus. School now behind them,
they cross in a bustle of coats and bags –
their ages vague to me, but their limbs
bold and flailing, affirming themselves
with shoves and pushes. I marvel
this mass of certainty. Even the loners
get to the other side, lights turning green
as they dawdle. I’m beginning to realise
most children make it. It’s rare to see
your child being fought for in intensive care;
to stay with her afterwards, saying her name.
It’s unusual, at the undertakers, to finalise
arrangements then fumble for a photograph,
so they could know her when she was warm.
© Her Birth (Carcanet/Northern House, 2013).
Order Her Birth here.
Visit Rebecca’s blog.
Rebecca will be talking about Her Birth on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, on Thursday, 15 August from 10h00.
Read Rebecca’s interview in The Observer about Ella, the book and the Forward Prize.
Rebecca writes about ‘Motherhood, poetry and loss’.
Read Rebecca’s title poem, ‘Her Birth’.
Visit Child Bereavement UK.