Tuesday Poem: Singing My Mother's Song, Rebecca Tantony
I recently went to read at Foyle's in Bristol, as part of a group of poets, for the launch of the latest issue of Magma. Bristol has a thriving poetry scene and one of the poets who read really made me sit up and forget the travel-lag. Rebecca Tantony, a brilliant performance poet, read three poems from her new collection Singing My Mother's Song, published by Burning Eye Books and lavishly illustrated in full colour by Bristol illustrator Anna Higgie. I just had to buy the book! This is one of my favourite poems.
Rebecca's family came originally from South Africa, but her mother remembers very little having been brought up in an orphanage in East London. The family narrative was lost with the broken connection. The poems articulate a journey to retrace her mother's story. In the introduction Rebecca writes:
"I believe, through blood and bone, nurture and habit, we carry in our bodies those
who came before us. . . I have become a teenager again . . . a notebook in hand, trying
to piece together clues and evidence. I have hired genealogists, conducted
interviews, married memory and dreams to fill in the gaps. I started the journey
in Bristol. It took me to London, then over to south Africa . . . and then finally
back to Bristol. . . .
I am different as a result of this journey."
One of the stand-out poems is 'Between a Cough and a Cry' and it records Rebecca's birth, on a hospital trolley because the doctors would not believe her mother's insistence that the birth was imminent. But it is also about the birth of a poem, and the instigating event that begins a journey.
this is how it begins / somewhere in my body / there is a caught
song / at times I have felt it sticky on the roof of my mouth
/ tracing itself across my palms / folding my heart into a mess
/ i do not know how to sing it
|Image Copyright Anna Higgie|
This lively image accompanies a prose poem called The Ventriloquist's Voice. I hadn't known that in the temples of ancient Greece, Ventriloquists listened to the sounds of the stomach, thought to be the voices of the dead, and interpreted them. The poem is about Rebecca's great-grandfather.
The Genealogist has found my great-grandfather in the Stage
newspaper. When she tells me I laugh, sure she has written
the wrong man into our history . . .
But her mother recovers a memory of the house where dummies were hung up on the wall 'their shocked expressions,/their bodies the same size as our own'.
Great-grandfather's voice is only one of those who can now be heard in the poems and stories of this collection, which has endorsements from Tania Hershman and Hannah Lowe and deserves all the recommendations. The words sing in the lines, and the stories fascinate. This is one of the poems towards the end of the collection, 'Singing the Songs of Our Mothers':-
Our mother's song alone: smoking out a window, wearing red
lipstick for the moon. Our mother's song for lost lovers, lost keys,
for those teenagers wearing the faces of lost time. . .
. . . It was the song that struck a match: we, the children
who became people of the world. How she set us
all alight, a blaze of purpose, full of unstoppable power.
Some information about Rebecca Tantony can be found in an interview here: -
"Rebecca Tantony is one of the leading figures in the spoken word scene in Bristol and beyond. We caught up with her shortly after she submitted to the publisher the manuscript of her latest book, Singing My Mother’s Song – a collection of poetry examining a range of deeply personal yet universal concepts such as identity, motherhood, family lineage, diaspora and the feminine. An explorative and inquisitive spoken word artist, Rebecca talked to us about the immersive narrative structure she created in her latest poetry collection, and gave us some beautifully poetic answers to Bhanu Kapil’s questions from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers."
All text copyright Rebecca Tantony. Images copyright Anna Higgie. The collection can be bought from Burning Eye Books price £9.99.