“this webbing of routes across the earth”

Terra Ignota, Rosalind Hudis, £5.00, Rack Press
reviewed by Jim Murdoch

Rack2013
“Beyond here be dragons” is the expression I’m more familiar with than terra ignota or terra incognito. Our lives are mapped out for us—at least that’s how it seems sometimes—then the unexpected happens and we find ourselves gazing out over Shakespeare’s undiscovered country, expecting, ailing or facing death. This is where these poems are set. In the first three: a man has leukaemia, his son is wheelchair-bound, an old woman’s crippled by senility and grief and a father’s died after a long illness; the last three trace the life of a Down’s syndrome child—“a chromosome too many,/ a glitch in the smooth/ running chain” —from her conception to becoming a Friends-obsessed young girl.

The opening poem feels slightly out of place here although it’s the only one that’s identifiably Welsh and reminded me of R.S. Thomas—perhaps because these people are neighbours (all the others have a familial feel)—but it’s the first to introduce the mapping theme which unifies the collection:

Beneath me, the earth’s
a map, its roots
spores, seeds, twigs,
small bones stored

like codes.

This theme is taken up in ‘Rupture’ where an old woman (Rosalind’s grandmother?) is clearly lost:

There are days the phone rings,
but she can’t re-map the way
her hands could bridge a room
to open or close the tap of speech.

In the titular poem we have a similar portrait of senility:

My father, in his final illness, adrift
across an armchair, barely able

to tack the crucial space from hearth
to toilet

Is the unknown always bleak? It depends “how you colour it”. What threatens to be a rather dark collection ends, surprisingly, on bright note:

       on this webbing of routes across the earth

that’s skin deep wherever you go
my daughter paints in the chiaroscuro
episodes of a self she will be.

None of the poems in this set are available online but Snowscape and Photograph especially will give you a taste of Rosalind’s style.

I wasn’t sure about that first poem but I suppose it has its place. We start at distance, with neighbours, and move through grandparents to parents to children. It’s a journey. Rosalind can no longer stand at a distance and watch. Her foreign-looking child has wandered off into unexplored territories and she must follow:

                                lead me there
into the heart of this pale green valley of paper
in safety, go where I go without history

Poetry’s a strange place, a land to get lost in—in good ways and bad—and so it’s the perfect setting for a discussion of uncomfortable topics like illness and death. Textbooks and leaflets—like the one she’s handed in ‘Disclosure’—list “the defects” but they don’t see, can’t see, the individuals. These poems do. Even if most of the characters remain nameless we recognise them; we know them. They may have set off for parts unknown but they’re not foreigners. They’re us and some day we will be them. A thought-provoking and touching collection.

Jim Murdoch
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/

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