Although they are two very different debut collections, Inhale/Exile by Abeer Ameer and Mother, Nature by Aoife Lyall share a number of similarities when considered together, the most obvious being that they are both concerned with notions of Home. In Inhale/Exile, Home is Iraq, or perhaps the more ancient Mesopotamian homeland, ‘the land of two rivers’, from which her own family and many of the characters in her poems fled during the days of Saddam Hussain’s totalitarian Baathist regime. But Home is also the UK for a poet who was born in Sunderland and raised in Wales; and so, much of the work is suffused with both a refugee’s paradoxical longing to return to what is now an ‘alien land / called home’ (The Fugitive’s Wife (vi) return) – Ameer uses the evocative Welsh word hiraeth in her acknowledgement of gratitude to the Iraqi diaspora community – and an understanding of non-belonging in a land which remains foreign: language errors, for example causing a recent exile, who I take to be the poet’s father, ‘an awkwardness he’ll know well’ (The Waiting Groom). The awkwardness is not Ameer’s as a second generation Iraqi immigrant to the UK, but that of her parents’ and her grandparents’ generations, for whom Inhale/Exhale stands as an impressive tribute. For Lyall, simultaneously celebrating the birth of one child and mourning the loss by miscarriage of another, the speaker/poet herself is Home to her surviving baby: ‘I am your home / Hold me close and you can hear the ocean’ (‘Hermit Crab’). The ‘I’ and the ‘you’ of these poems exist in a state of symbiosis, their mutual dependencies are the fabric that binds them and protects them from the outside world. They are the universe drawn inwards, and for a time (painfully short for the mother) they are hermetically sealed and yet all-containing. But this is no smugly beatific Earth Mother; the Mother-as-Home in Mother, Nature bears all the pain and responsibilty of nature’s personification: ‘…I tried not to cry. I felt your stomach fill / with the violant sting of golden milk. / My body bled for you.’ (‘3oz’); ‘There is no room for error / (…) / …If I open / my eyes to the chance of falling / I will fall. And down will come baby, / cradle and all.’ (‘Trapeze’). And the grief of a mother’s loss, Lyall shows us, is an emptiness which is far from metaphorical; it is of course the all-too-physical reality of an unoccupied womb, ‘this house your home in me a hollow place’ (‘Ithaca’). This is a truth we may have already known, but Lyall’s language begins to make us feel it. Body-liness and the material mechanics of life pervade Mother, Nature, from the contractions of childbirth (astonishingly rendered in the typography of ‘Labour’) to the ‘unfolded’ family resemblances of ‘“Origami…”’, a well-crafted concrete poem in the shape of an ear (knowing where to place words on the page is a particular strength of Lyall’s), to ‘each starry breath’ of the sleeping child in ‘Caledonian Sleeper’. And breathing, of course, is also central to Inhale/Exile, as the title suggests: the held breath of ‘The Diver’ who dredges the Tigris of dead bodies ‘holding his breath hoping for peace’; the ‘shallow breaths’ of the boy hiding from Saddam’s soldiers in a watertank in Sulaymaniyah (‘Kurdish’); and the breath that brings music from a reed flute, whose ‘inhale / is your exhale’, and whose ‘larynx speaks your exile’ in one of the collection’s several stand-out poems, ‘The Reed Flute and I’. And just as Lyall considers the unspoken name of her lost child to be a ‘folded treasure map / I hold in my throat’ which when she is lost will ‘lead me back to you’ (‘Your name’), Ameer also makes a connection between words and motherhood as her speaker struggles to find a word for a sensation of survivor’s guilt that she cannot quite express, searching ‘for a link between / the tip of the tongue / and the body of the larynx / vocal cords stretched / to umbilical chords’, going on to ask what the word is that could describe the feeling ‘when the words / form a tumour in your throat / but do not make a sound?’ (‘A Word I&II’). The relationship between the mother, the word, and the body is implicit in a number of Ameer’s poems, but made extraordinarily explicit in the third poem of the four-poem sequence ‘The Interpreter (Alif to Thaa)’ where she notes the inadequacy of English to capture Arabic’s intense employment of body metaphors, as a son recalls the last time he heard his mother’s voice: ‘she calls him the light of her eyes, / her heart, / her after-liver, / says she’ll put him on her head, / go to sacrifice for him, / that his leaving burst her gall-bladder / and dragged her soul from her body.’ English translation from Arabic, Ameer tells us, ‘is too dry to taste the spoken blood / which flows through gutteral throats. ’ (‘Taaت ’) and we can well believe her. While Ameer’s poems are social, political and outward-looking, Lyall’s are ostensibly almost the opposite – their power coming from the unwavering gaze of a mother on her child – but the final poem of Lyall’s collection, ‘Acrania’, changes gear, turns around and faces politics head on with a powerful attack on Ireland’s Eighth Amendment (‘By law she carries you. / She will know the sound of your first breath. / The rest is silence.’) Such a stark final move should not work, especially post-repeal, but it emphatically does, bringing all the tenderness and strength built up over the preceding poems to bear in this now-historical context and serving, as Lyall notes in her preface, to ‘give voice to the present before it becomes an inevitable, and untouchable, past.’ – something which is achieved in both of these startlingly successful debuts.
Inhale/Exile by Abeer Ameer (Seren) £9.99
Mother, Nature by Aoife Lyall (Bloodaxe) £9.95