Sarah James & Angela Topping
Mother’s Milk Books, 2015
James’ and Topping’s poetry duet explores ideas of home through memories and objects from childhood. Crows, sewing and laundry lines are recurring images; “The sister I never met hangs out my sheets” (The Washing Line, James) and “small acts of love, pinned up with such hope of drying” (Spring Lines, Topping) with a nod to Larkin and Hughes, amongst others.
Page-paired poems directly riff on shared themes but motifs play from page to page. One page’s poems are based on music boxes and their mechanisms and these echo in a grandfather clock and a wind-up toy. The same musical motif resurfaces regarding pianos and songs. Buttons – loose or in their tin – feature along with washing. “To watch the women pegging out, / you’d think the breeze was all for them / and not to hold us up in air” says a crow in the final poem duet.
These poems conjure safe, hard-working family childhoods. There is nostalgia but not the syrupy it-was-all-rosy -then nostalgia. It’s the sort that says we are older but we carry memories to pass down; a solid ground from which our families spring upward into a future distance far beyond us. In Firefighting, “It’s Mum’s job, down on her knees / on the rag rug, every morning, // Just as she did in service” (Topping) took me back to memories of my own Grandmother, born in 1902 who became a kitchen maid at twelve, just as WWI began. So many things in these poems echo my own childhood. So, as reader, the poems speak to me and to others’ similar childhoods despite age differences. If my childhood had been different, I think I would still be drawn to these references as they are so enticingly specific in detail and voice.
Mother’s Milk aims to promote “breast-feeding and celebrate femininity and empathy”. While I feel “femininity” is rather open to definitional debate, breast-feeding is A Good Thing if it is possible (physically and emotionally enriching mother and infant, scientific data confirms) and empathy is what glues human societies together: laudable aims. Hearth is a gentle, accurate, evocative duet that fits that remit perfectly.
I should also add that I know Sarah James (she is an excellent promoter and organiser in West Midlands poetry) and I am acquainted with Angela Topping from Facebook and a couple of readings. However, I have tried to examine Hearth independent from those friendships.