Scriptora (in association with the Society of Women Writers and Journalists), 2019, £7

Review by Jennifer Allan

Both title and cover of this long-awaited poem collection are so arresting that even if I did not already know the poet, I’d want to take a second look. It is the perfect title for a poet who, in her poem ‘Print’ writes ‘I need to know what really lies beyond/where lines and colours end.’

Many artists have written of a quest, a journey towards that which we do not yet understand. What I enjoyed about this poetry is that the journey to her terra incognita (unknown land) is not an academic quest. We all ‘can trace that beckoning path’, so that even those of us who aren’t sure about poetry are tempted to take it. We might, as in ‘Christian’, be pushed ‘gently in the ways of love’, but this doesn’t mean that in the next move we won’t be ‘lost, untethered’. This poet’s way is not without its challenges.

I first heard Mary read ‘Brooke Perdue’ over ten years ago at Illiterati, the St. Leonard’s writers’ group. There’s only one reason for a silence after a contribution to a writers’ group evening, and that is that it’s taken the listeners’ breath away. Mary’s poetry is breath-taking.

In a world where we are bombarded with lazy images, W.H.Davies’ famous poem opening with ‘What is this life if full of care/ We have not time to stand and stare?’ demonstrates how a good poet can get us to be still and just to breathe in what is around us. It takes skill though, to draw a picture that resonates with readers. The back cover of Terra Incognita shows in tributes paid by three excellent poets just how good at this Mary is.

For example, in ‘The Hare’ we are invited to observe a beautiful elusive creature at rest, who normally is ‘swift as thought’.  And again, in ‘Now’, she describes ‘an elongated pearl of water/pulling to its fall’. She literally stops a drop of water falling through the air.

Mary is too generous and companionable to be a saviour, but in giving us images of a ‘dried-out sea bed’ or ‘snow that coated sleeping cars’ she shows us that salvaging memories can sometimes take us to a new land of insight and appreciation. In ‘Brooke Perdue’ we are taken to a derelict garden with ‘roses rambling, pink and white’. In ‘Now’, we are in a garden ‘that hums with heat’, and ‘draws breath on a pulse of time’. In ‘Remembering Churches’ she doesn’t tell us about life’s fragility, she takes us to where we can see it for ourselves – ‘acknowledged, quietly displayed, not hidden from sight’.

Those of us who had the honour of watching Mary the wordsmith at work both in Illiterati and in the Hastings Writers’ Group know that it is her commitment to her craft that delivers lines which influence our own journeys in life. As Toni Morrison puts it, she possesses the writer’s power to ‘familiarise the strange and mystify the familiar.’

Finally, in the haunting ‘Sunday Afternoon Walk’, the skill of this poet shows us she understands why some might still be nervous of her ‘unknown land’. But if we choose to travel with her, we might also travel through ‘a garden lost but not forgotten’, and indeed ultimately to ‘recognition’.

Terra Incognito is available at The Bookkeeper in Kings Road and on Amazon.
Mary Rothwell is available for readings (Call 01424 431664).
Illustrator Jasmine Lapper-Goodrum can be emailed at [email protected]

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