Rachael Briggs Reviews Maxine Beneba Clarke

19 May 2014

The image is intriguing in its ambiguity. Are the two cups for mother and child? Or has the child has gone to bed (it’s night, after all), leaving the mother to set the table for real or imagined adult company? The second teacup is either a symbol of cozy domesticity, or of loneliness. The appearance of the poem (a tiny cluster of marks surrounded by white space) might represent either of these.

Another single-parenting poem that benefits from its comfort with ambiguity is ‘being alice walker’s daughter’. Clarke considers the case of Rebecca Walker, who has criticised her mother, Alice Walker, for not being more present in her childhood. Clarke wonders:

will my daughter disown me

will she say

shit/ she always seemed to be climbing
on some god-forsaken stage

In this poem common parental worries – am I giving my child enough of my love? what if my child grows up to hate me? how can I set aside time for my own ambitions? – give a taste of the speaker’s particularity, as well as her connection to more universal aspects of parenting.

Some of the other poems on this theme are sadly underdeveloped. ‘sleep while the baby is sleeping’ opens a wonderful door, but fails to walk through it. The title line, Clarke tells us, is not merely advice ‘about shut-eye between feeds’, but a reminder that ‘us women must also learn/ to dream’. This is where the story ought to start. What dreams does the speaker dream between feeds? What are the obstacles she must overcome, and the strategies she deploys? Unfortunately, the poem ends before getting to any of the intriguing specifics. Likewise, ‘immediate sale’ begins ‘two children for immediate sale’ (a sentiment that I have often heard expressed by parents), and never moves past that musty set-up to what is special and particular about the speaker’s situation.

The book is weakest at the level of poetic phrasing and imagery, sometimes using stock ingredients when fresher ones are called for. Consider these lines:

a child was born
in bethlehem
beneath a star

but a childhood died
(‘boxing day’)


in the middle of everything
is the eye
of the storm:

that come-what-may
bittersweet/ brief
heartbroken moment


in the end
of course
they’d warned her in vain
(lot’s wife)

there are children
want to give her the world
and are too young to understand
the unconditional nature
of a mother’s love
(somewhere on your street)

The refrains often clunk where they ought to reverberate. The most problematic poem, in this respect, is ‘thin air’, a lament for missing children. The words ‘thin air’ repeat throughout the poem, but the poem makes no special use of that accumulation – no attempt to contrast thin air with thick air, no reinterpretation of the refrain that would help it to do different affective things at effective points in the poem, nothing to raise it above the level of cliché.

Clarke has taken up a worthy cause in nothing here needs fixing. In the best parts of the book, she wields the rhetorical weapons of humour, irony, and flexible register with verve. But there are points where her words and imagery are too bland to bring her stories fully to life. I hope she keeps sharpening her blades: her ideas deserve the most impressive technology she can muster.

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About Ray Briggs

Ray Briggs teaches philosophy at Stanford University, and writes poems in their spare time. They are the author of Free Logic (UQP 2013) Common Sexual Fantasies, Ruined (Cordite 2015) and Modern American Gods, Volumes I and II (with Anna Zusman, self-published, 2018). Their poems have appeared in Rattle, Able Muse, Cordite, The Weekend Australian, and other venues.

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