Reynolds Stone wood engraving, Rachel Kelly-on the consolation of poetry, SF Issue 71

Poetry, My Mother and Me

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My mother Linda Kelly was a historian and lover of the eighteenth century, with biographies of Sheridan, Tom Moore and Talleyrand to her name. Though I studied history at university, when it comes to my own writing, my subject matter has been rather different – books on mental health and wellbeing, including a memoir about my own expe­rience of depression, and a cookbook about eating with your mood in mind. But we had one literary overlap: I have always loved poetry and so did she. I think we both found it easier to communicate through the words of others. Poetry was our common ground.

We had very different upbringings. A child of the Thirties, she grew up in Hampshire, in a comfortable mock-Tudor house covered in Virginia creeper. She belonged to the post-war stiff-upper-lip gene-ration. I remember her telling me admiringly that her father never spoke about his wartime experiences. To me the implication was that she found it best to avoid talking about anything too personal or emotional.

By contrast, I grew up in Notting Hill in the 1970s and loved chatting about my feelings. She rarely opened up in return. Other people’s poems were the safe place where we met, and in the poems she recommended I glimpsed something of her own rich interior emotional life.

When I had my heart broken as a teenager, she gave me ‘Apple Blossom’ by Louis MacNeice, with its lines:

The first blossom was the best blossom
For the child who had never seen an orchard.

There would be other blossoms, other love affairs. She knew what I was going through. More than that: she too had known the agony of young love rejected.

Then, in my last year of university, a friend died. She sent me Ben Jonson’s poem on a life cut short, with its verse:

A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night –
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

That last line meant a lot to us both, I felt. A few months before my friend’s death, my father had been struck down by a stroke which left him semi-paralysed. My mother’s life would never be the same again. She effectively became his carer for the next thirty years

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My mother Linda Kelly was a historian and lover of the eighteenth century, with biographies of Sheridan, Tom Moore and Talleyrand to her name. Though I studied history at university, when it comes to my own writing, my subject matter has been rather different – books on mental health and wellbeing, including a memoir about my own expe­rience of depression, and a cookbook about eating with your mood in mind. But we had one literary overlap: I have always loved poetry and so did she. I think we both found it easier to communicate through the words of others. Poetry was our common ground.

We had very different upbringings. A child of the Thirties, she grew up in Hampshire, in a comfortable mock-Tudor house covered in Virginia creeper. She belonged to the post-war stiff-upper-lip gene-ration. I remember her telling me admiringly that her father never spoke about his wartime experiences. To me the implication was that she found it best to avoid talking about anything too personal or emotional.

By contrast, I grew up in Notting Hill in the 1970s and loved chatting about my feelings. She rarely opened up in return. Other people’s poems were the safe place where we met, and in the poems she recommended I glimpsed something of her own rich interior emotional life.

When I had my heart broken as a teenager, she gave me ‘Apple Blossom’ by Louis MacNeice, with its lines:

The first blossom was the best blossom
For the child who had never seen an orchard.

There would be other blossoms, other love affairs. She knew what I was going through. More than that: she too had known the agony of young love rejected.

Then, in my last year of university, a friend died. She sent me Ben Jonson’s poem on a life cut short, with its verse:

A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night –
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

That last line meant a lot to us both, I felt. A few months before my friend’s death, my father had been struck down by a stroke which left him semi-paralysed. My mother’s life would never be the same again. She effectively became his carer for the next thirty years. She knew only too well that ‘in short measures life may perfect be’.

I remember too the moment in my late twenties when I realized how intense her love was for us children in her choice of William Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’, which she gave me when my first son Edward was born.

I have no name
I am but two days old. –
What shall I call thee?
I happy am
Joy is my name, –
Sweet joy befall thee!

I hugged the poem tight, knowing that she was signalling not just the delight she felt at the birth of her first grandson, but also her own delight when she had become a mother, and indeed her profound love for us three children. This was something of which she rarely spoke – unlike many of my generation who say ‘love you’ to their offspring in every passing text.

Perhaps the deepest poetic communication between us was during my thirties when I fell ill with serious depression. I was in need of poetic consolation, and my mother was a rich source, for she knew literally hundreds of poems off by heart. Her richly stocked mind came to my rescue. Lying in bed, I was a child again as she recited poems to me or read to me from her own private collection. It turned out that all these years she had, in a battered red leather book, been squirrelling away snippets of poetry, prayer and anecdotes that had particularly struck her.

I drank up the collection as if it were ice-cool water offered to a parched traveller. Towards the end of her life my mother decided to publish it. In the introduction to Consolations: A Common Place Book, she wrote: ‘The collection has always been for my own con­sumption but recently I lent it to one of my daughters who was suffering from depression and she found it so comforting that I thought it might be a source of consolation – or interest or amuse­ment – for others too.’

Poetry helped me in lots of ways, not least in dissolving the feeling of solitude. Others had suffered – among them the poets themselves. And of course, as the months passed, the extent to which my mother had also suffered slowly dawned on me. While she had not succumbed to clinical depression, inevitably the themes of loss and pain had played through her life. I only wish now that I had asked her more about her own dark nights of the soul. I think we shared the feeling that the poets had made something of their suffering, reordering the seemingly ran­dom cruelty of illness into some kind of sense.

Poetry absorbed and revitalized us both. Its condensed nature and sophisticated vocabulary required a concentration that shocked us into the moment in an almost physical way, freeing us from worries past and future. Because of course she was worried too – that her daughter might not recover.

We began with short poems, many of which are dotted through my memoir of that time, Black Rainbow. One favourite was ‘New Every Morning’ by Susan Coolidge. It particularly helped at the painful start of the day and was better than any pep talk my mother might have given me about the virtues of a positive attitude:

Every day is a fresh beginning,
Listen my soul to the glad refrain.
And, spite of old sorrows
And older sinning,
Troubles forecasted and possible pain,
Take heart with the day and begin again.

Later, as my concentration improved, we turned to the seven­teenth-century poet George Herbert. When she read the first verse of ‘Love (III)’, I felt a sudden shock of recognition.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin . . .

The idea that my soul was ‘guilty of dust and sin’ seemed the perfect description of depressive illness. The poem pinpointed a sense of guilt that I should be depressed even though I was blessed with a loving home, husband and children, feelings of shame that I had not previously acknowledged. Yet love wins through. Now I wonder more what my mother’s own psychological struggles had involved. Needless to say, we never discussed them.

My mother chose the poem for her funeral, and I recited it that day at St Mary of the Angels in Bayswater. It is the only poem I can recite without a smidgen of worry that I could ever forget a line or a verse. I often recite it now when I am awake in the small hours, comforted by the thought that the poem was one to which my mother had turned.

Later, when I had recovered from the worst of the depression in my early forties, I edited a children’s poetry anthology, dedicating it to my mother who had first instilled a love of poetry in me. After so many years of receiving poems from her, I had begun to slip poems her way. I developed a passion for Emily Dickinson. Knowing my mother’s love of small birds, and the trials she faced nursing my father, I gave her ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’. Doubtless she already knew it. But by giving her a copy, I hoped that she knew I recognized her sacrifice and her need to keep on keeping on.

One of my last memories of her was in the hospital dialysis unit, a windowless, airless room, attached to a machine she didn’t want to be attached to. Desperate to distract her and make light of how mis­erable things were, I searched for ‘The Lady of Shalott’ on my phone. It was one of the first poems I had ever learned by heart, something we had done together, me lying on the beaten-up olive-green sofa in our sitting-room, she pacing the room with The Oxford Book of English Verse and correcting my mistakes. I had mostly forgotten what I once knew of the poem, so now I read aloud to her from the bright white of my screen, as once she had read to me. I think I was trying to say thank you, for nurturing my own love of poetry and the rich poetic inheritance she had passed down to me. And to thank her for everything really.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 71 © Rachel Kelly 2021


About the contributor

Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. She is an ambassador for SANE and Rethink Mental Illness.

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