Book of the Month
Briony Collins, Blame it on me (Broken Sleep Books, 2021).
Originally published in 2021 by Broken Sleep Books, Briony Collins’s Blame it on Me is a collection comprising 28 poems, most of which focus on the death of the writer’s mother, when she was just five years old. A sample of poems from the collection can be read in Briony’s Silver Branch (writer of the month) feature here. This is the first time a writer has had a book of the month
and a Silver Branch feature - a special occasion for us.
There’s a particularly impactful start to the collection as we are immersed in the smell of her mother in the first poem, ‘Harbour’ - “sand & tobacco, / wool and sea salt, sweetness of moss”. With the detail of her mother’s shape and form, Collins takes the reader into that almost mystical, half-forgotten realm of physical intimacy – near symbiosis - between parent and child. The ache of physical loss and disconnection with the mother-figure is further apparent in the short poem ‘Montbretias’ where the mother's hair catches sunlight and “gifts it back as copper”, only to be part of a body that breaks down in nature. This physical breakdown, decay after death, is partly associated with beauty and new life in the cycle of nature as energy contained in roots and flowers but this is sharply contrasted with the palpable sense of loss of the person.
‘Sunset’, the third poem, has a really epic quality and, for me, is the standout poem, as the poetic speaker keeps vigil with her mother, imagining all of the places they could visit but, in the end, all her mother wants on her “last Earth night is a glass of water”. The simple, haunting refrains throughout the poem, such as “Stay with me please” and “Don’t go just yet” really capture the mixture of dread, fear and fragility of people caught in this helpless position, a far cry from the dreams of going to “Rome to stand at the feet of Gods, /Hadrian’s Venus, Saturnalia until sunset”. These are beautiful, subtle, affecting poems (these three originally published in Black Bough poetry and the latter was the first poem broadcast on the Dylan Thomas Birthplace podcast).
The aftermath of a mother’s premature death is detailed in poems such as ‘To Fall Towards Stars’ and ‘What Goodbye Looks Like’, which contain vivid, dream-like memories of her mother, contrasted with the harrowing reality of day-to-day life without her - children searching for food in kitchen cupboards while “her husband soaks up his permanent/night, buries himself in her pillow”. There are many heartbreaking moments throughout the book and this, for me, is achieved by Collins’s deliberate use of contrast – the mother as she is presented in an almost idealized way (through the speaker’s ability to access vital memories in a multi-sensory way) to the biting emotions of grief and the cold reality of a whole family bereft, struggling to cope from day-to-day.
The collection focuses, too, on the loss of other people and the complexity involved in close relationships; also an examination of the ‘acceptance stage’ of grief and contemplation of the afterlife. On a literary level, the writing is well-honed and often dazzling, lacking an overly-complicated, off-putting style that can alienate readers. It's difficult, perhaps, to compare Collins to another writer for a reference point but I was distantly reminded of the great Welsh writer Alun Lewis, a romantic poet but an unsentimental one, with a fine balance and poise in his writing. Lewis was interested in what "survives of the beloved" in poetry and the power of poetry to evoke the essence of lost loved ones. Robert Graves spoke of Lewis's "poetic integrity" and this seems apt for Collins's writing - no grandiosity or pretension - just hard hitting, soulful words that linger with sadness and a sense of beauty, reflecting this writer's vocation to the craft. I read Blame it On Me last summer and the collection has stayed with me ever since. Perhaps this is the highest compliment you can pay a writer; that their work follows you and you still remember individual lines a long time after.
Review by Dr. Matthew M. C Smith