In the early days, when I was on the lookout for small presses and indie publishers to submit to, Mother’s Milk Books stood out time and time again as a press with promise. It intrigued me, pulling at my respect for businesses and ventures with a real philosophy that’s held true to their heart.
Over on the Mother’s Milk Books website, the press describes itself as:
‘… A small, family-run press that publishes high-quality, beautiful books for adults and children that normalize breastfeeding and celebrate femininity and empathy. There are very few books on the market that illustrate the natural beauty of the breastfeeding mother-child dyad, and we at Mother’s Milk Books would like to change that!’
And the books published by the press really expand on this theme, exploring motherhood, female relationships, and compassion through the ages via poetry and prose. From ‘Oy Yew’, a fantastical children’s book exploring the adventures of Oy, to the ‘Forgotten and the Fantastical’ series of short story collections – Mother’s Milk Books brings to light words which stitch together fairy tales for the modern age. So it is any wonder that these books are right up my street?
I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to read several of Mother’s Milk poetry pamphlets recently, and the least they deserve is a little round up of how different they are to so many other pamphlets out there, and what they mean. Because each one means something quite special, I think.
(If you’re currently wondering ‘What is a Poetry Pamphlet?’, look no further than my blog post exploring that too!)
But for now, on to the poetry pamphlets…
‘Spools of Thread’ by Angi Holden
It’s odd way to start a review, but this poetry pamphlet felt good in my hands. It’s small, printed on sturdy quality paper, compact – and perfectly suits the tone of the book. A pocket-sized tome full of little moments of significance.
‘Spools of Thread’ explores familial ties, in all their colours and tensions. The title comes from the first poem in the collection, ‘I Measure My Mother’s Love’, which describes in vivid detail the contents of her mother’s sewing box, and the care bestowed on each item. The poem works as an introduction to this little book of diary pieces. If I’m being philosophical, each poem contains the sharp and ‘rustless needles’, the soft ‘bolts of cloth tied with string’, and the constant ‘electric hum of the gold and black and gold Singer’.
Visually, the poems string to one another throughout the collection rather like the lines of a family tree or an intricate spider’s web. A balance of power and vulnerability shifts like the sea as we move through time, painting an evocative living portrait of how our relationships never stay still. They evolve, migrate, and settle for a while before transforming. Impactful moments with Holden’s parents, lovers, and children are explored in rich and vibrant depth, brought to life with poignant domestic detail. It’s these little details that make Holden’s poems so incredibly personal yet utterly relatable.
Some poems had a particular impact on me. ‘Last Letter’ – a mother’s last thoughts of her son at war, before the postman delivers that much-dreaded letter – stayed with me. A few weeks ago, I dreamt I was in this exact position, but the man in the letter was my brother. It’s the weight of knowing what this letter means, and it’s making its way to her while she faces the domestic heart of her home, away from the outside world. The poem leaves us on the very brink of realisation, and it’s almost heart-stopping to be thrust back into the everyday.
Holden’s style is clear and bright, and her familial voice is easy to sink into whether you’re a regular poetry reader or not. Give it a read, and it might make you think a little more about your own spools of thread…
Echolocation, by Becky Cherriman
A beautifully minimalist little poetry pamphlet, ‘Echolocation’ feels serene next to other tomes. The title suits the cover design – a scene of the sea, punctuated by jutting posts, worn by time and the waves. Cherriman’s collection explores the tethers between mother and child through time – and emerges from her poetry via varying worlds, situations, and characters. Definitely a pamphlet which fits perfectly with Mother’s Milk Publishing’s ethos!
The title poem, ‘Eucharist’, is a personal depiction of Cherriman’s relationship with her own mother. Starkly, quirky childhood detail (‘zapping zombies’, ‘texting Alex back’) is juxtaposed with the ghostly image of her mother, ‘with her face pale as brume, / her hair shedding like maths sheets […] she’d rise and serve me porridge – / a Eucharist of grain and fruit.’ I particularly liked the ‘maths sheets’ metaphor, bringing together a young Cherriman using taught knowledge to try to understand illness, and our mature poet, reflecting on the impossibilities of life that logic cannot solve.
Personal reflections are bright throughout. In ‘Building Castles’ we hear the hollow promises made before a relationship fails. When we hear the powerful words, ‘You could have my baby’, it sounds so speculative, combined with (in my eyes) a strange dichotomy of power, that though the words appear soft and caring, you can’t help but see the end before the end, when ‘Round and round you rubbed / before you left me.’
But it’s not all hypothetical. We see the mother and child relationship shift, ranging from unexpected motherhood, infertility, fostering, to single parenthood. We hear the ‘eiderdown voices’ of a mother’s lullabies, we meet Pamela, who despite living a life filled with action (fit for the protagonist of a TV show, I’m sure), ‘could not / give her up / when it came to it.’ So it seems that we women grow with motherhood, beside motherhood, and in spite of motherhood.
The Poetry Duets
Aren’t these just BEAUTIFUL?!
I can’t quite put a name to the cover style of these (I’m sure someone will remind me of its name in the comments!) but the mix of folk art and medieval printing appeals to me BIG STYLE.
Each book is a collection of poems from a pair of poets, who create an almost ‘call and response’ effect through the poems. I’d love to know more about the process – did they write them in order, sending each other the poems they’d just written to inspire a response? Or Did the poets brainstorm together, pulling apart and away into their pools of creativity before coming together again? And how different would the results of each be?
Each Poetry Duet book addresses a different aspect of home and family. Which is your favourite?
Inheritance, by Ruth Stacy and Katy Wareham Morris
In ‘Inheritance’, the poets’ duet brings together a new mother’s sleepless nights in 2016 and the parallels with her own life she discovers in the letters of a long-forgotten relative from the nineteenth century.
Many of us hold onto letters like these, never having the time to give them the attention they deserve. Life is busy, and hours are full. And here, when she looks for a friend’s hand to hold in the middle of the lonely night, an ancestor reaches from the past to comfort her.
Each poem begins with the year, so it’s easy to follow whose words we hear. The first poem, ‘2016: Inheritance’ explains the source of letters; ‘My father’s mother’s sister died / and because I liked history / they passed down a box / of old photographs and a diary / that had belonged to a relative / no-one remembered.’ This box is somehow already potent through its apparent weightiness, yet has been already passed around unnamed family members without an explanation of what’s inside. If it wasn’t for the author’s love of history, would she even have been gifted the box?
We follow our author through the sleepless nights, through ‘ragged and sleeping, / eyes open / blurred, sleeping’, through to ‘catch[ing] her beat’ through the letters. It’s an instinctive matching of heartbeats, bonding the two women despite the centuries between.
The poets create two distinct voices for the women. Our 2016 author speaks in a voice as clear as water, while our 1887 ancestor’s language sings with hypnotic lyrics and nature metaphors. I can’t explain quite how much I enjoyed sweeping between the two – which were so stylistically different and yet remarkably the same, as if one was the other’s shadow. Like the author, I’m also a lover of history, and the period imagery used in the 1887 poems struck me as spookily authentic. I’m sure ‘Inheritance’ will be a poetry pamphlet I’ll read again during the silent hours of the night, just as it should be.
Handfast, by Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough
In ‘Handfast’, this pair of Scottish poets explore the dynamics of dementia and autism within the inner workings of family life, reflecting on the interconnectedness of generations when one is affected.
Unlike ‘Inheritance’, we’re not so clearly presented with two distinct voices (though in ‘Inheritance’ they’re perceived as the voices of characters, rather than poets), and instead the poems sway and flow, flow and sway, all rolling together to dissect the many viewpoints of those affected.
The first poem, ‘A litany across generations’, is written by both poets, and there’s some incredibly show-stopping language here; ‘Anyway, who owns this heart – this bright / million-shattered glass? Whose heart?’ I repeat poems aloud in my head and the voice these lines invoke is so loud, so powerful. Some of the final lines of the poem include; ‘seek a motif. Find reasoned patterns; / fumble for some catch that could exist’, and isn’t this what we’re all doing, trying to understand each other in the only ways we can?
In ‘His autism in the power of rain’, we experience different understandings of the world through a mother’s eyes. When her son is lost somewhere out in the ‘rainthreat’, he is found later (‘in a million terrifies of a second’), ‘naked of self, drenched in the joy of storms’. Mother and son experience the rain differently, but ultimately his dancing ‘spun / joys’ in her, sharing his own delight with her in the aftermath of her terror. And here is the crux of ‘Handfast’ for me, for all the differences in interpretation and poetry forms, as I moved through the poems I gathered a holistic sense of acceptance, or appreciation for the unusual everyday that autism and dementia can create. These are beautiful poems, personal, and true.
Hearth, by Sarah James and Angela Topping
In ‘Hearth’, this pair of prize-winning poets tackle home, memory, and commonality – exploring them around the everyday objects we keep around us. Our ‘hearth’ then is our ‘heart’, our innermost self, brimming over with warmth and the fires that keep us going.
As in ‘Handfast’, the collection opens and closes with a poem written jointly by the two poets. In this case, the book begins with the parallel poems; ‘Crow’s Book of Household Management’ and ’Sparrow’s Book of Household Management’. At first sight the form is peculiar, but on inspection they work brilliantly to create a slightly otherworldly opening to the pamphlet. Each numbered point raises a question, and sticks in your brain in the form of a little nugget of wisdom for you to chew over later. As you might be able to tell, I’m a bit of a fan.
What follows are songs, sung from the heart. None of the lyrics are over-complicated with flouncy language, as it’s never needed. Sometimes the simplest lines can sing the clearest tune. In the title poem, ‘Hearths’, we visit the hearths of family members with simple, evocative imagery; ‘Ours wheezes with out-of-dateness’, ‘My parents’ fire rules from stone’, ‘At Great Grandpa’s fireside, the weight / of his oxygen tank was clamped / to his rocking chair’s oak spine’. This poem reminds us that the collection is really about relationships. It’s our relationships that create our ‘selves’ AND our homes. The final lines reveal us that we carry around a heart which is composite of all these influences; ‘There’s no speck of soot on my hands, but the old fires still spark and flame – / all these hearths live within me.’
I wasn’t able to tell the voices of the poets apart, and whether this is by design or due to a subconscious art, I enjoyed searching for little secrets to give them away. I tried to not keep flicking to the title page to find out who was the author, but sometimes I just had to. There’s a lot to understand within these poems, and they definitely require re-reading to truly appreciate them. This is skilled poetry, crafted with years of expertise. Classical, and timeless.
And there you have it – a little spotlight on one of my favourite publishers. Mother’s Milk Publishing is really one-of-a-kind. Visit the home of Mother’s Milk Publishing, read more about their books. Maybe even take one home, and support an indie publisher.