Poetry review: Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning

Book - Pearl and Bone by Mari Ellis DunningPearl & Bone is Mari Ellis Dunning’s second poetry collection, focused on the theme of motherhood. Her poems are full of fragility and vulnerability, but also strength and celebration, evoking the strange miracles of pregnancy and birth. I enjoyed the simple, audible delicacy of some of these poems, especially those that use very short lines, pulling you through from start to finish.  

Many of the poems draw on the poet’s own experience of giving birth during lockdown. I particularly liked the sparse exhaustion conveyed in ‘Preterm’, which describes the weeks after birth:

for four weeks
you slept

a lost thing
clinging to me

your legs drawn
like a frog

The poem ends with a moving image of the premature baby as ‘not yet ready / for the world // part of it / nonetheless’.

In ‘Spell for a Mother’ there is a sense of desperation portrayed through images of scraping ‘the pepper corns of sleep // from your eyes’ and pacing about the house, dealing with the realities of breast feeding and screaming. The beautiful and hilarious image of the baby as a ‘fleshy bomb’ is contrasted immediately with his ‘peachy // skin’, celebrating this unearthly, messy bond that exists between mother and child.

Other poems, such as ‘Daffodils’, have a loneliness at their core, recalling the sense of claustrophobia and isolation felt by many, especially new mothers, during lockdown.

These poems of experience are interspersed with more complex, visceral poems that re-imagine the stories of women from the past, from Sarah Everard to Christine Keeler, giving them a voice and a physicality on the page that celebrates the female body and its resilience in the face of violence and denigration:

She cannot know how her name
will echo in the mouths of strangers.

How it will grow back, like a daisy,
clawing back, relentless, through the soil.

There is also a sense of reclaiming the wrongs of the past through language. The final poem ‘The Womb Speaks’, echoes the sentiments of many who were horrified at the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US, and the stark reality of what this means for so many women. It gives a voice to those who have suffered and will suffer as a result, railing against their lack of control with a ferocity of words and imagery:

I will wear these scars like jewels, mined hot from the earth.
I will bleed and leak. You shackle what you fear: the minotaur
pacing its maze. The circus bare sweating its rags behind bars.

This is a collection that speaks of vulnerability and strength, fragility and endurance, but it does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of motherhood. Dunning presents us with the realities of pain, exhaustion, abortion, misogyny and disbelief, alongside the tenderness and love.

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning is published by Parthian Books.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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