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Bath of Herbs

Emily Zobel Marshall

(Peepal Tree Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Shara Atashi 


Having dedicated Bath of Herbs to her mother, Emily Zobel Marshall brings her back to the mortal realm in a ritual of gratitude. With this first poem, a process of transformation begins to give new shape and voice to grief and yearning. From the bath, the purpose of which is to calm the turmoil of birth, a new daughter is born. The mother appears now as a heartbeat, now as a vision, now as a breath. And these illusions are far more real than the reality which awaits us when we must part with and bury a loved one.  

The battle against death is fought by scratching away at superficial sentimentality to reveal authentic sentiments, holding them up against a world that promotes detachment, and a denial of despair in the face of our mortality. There’s the hospital, where Doc will immediately discard the bluebells in the paper cups due to ‘a contamination risk’ for the dying mother. At the hospice, ‘Doc Katrina’ forbids mango ‘for a sick and ailing woman who hasn’t eaten for days’, in spite of her longing for mango in the last moments of her life. There it is: the falseness of the sentimental versus the real sentiment. How absurd is the vicar’s notice for the cemetery: ‘We must ensure that all plants on all graves are no taller than 30 cm’, and his following notice of removal due to ‘Failure to comply’ with his rules ‘for the only Martinican woman in the graveyard of St Chads’.

Stories about ancient slavery and migration to the modern-day savagery of school bullies crystallise the dignity that marks the hands of the poet’s great great grandmother: swollen, hardened, cracked at every joint from cutting cane, so that her son’s hands can one day ‘poise pen over paper’ and write down the story. And the poet’s homesick mother loves her new ‘mamwlad’ (Welsh for ‘homeland’) found in the rawness of Wales, which was colonised like her own Martinique, enabling her daughter to absorb nature’s roughness and wildness so she can challenge desolate fells and icy waters, with body and mind and language, with the same brazenness with which Wales ‘holds fast to its tongue’. 

Fine details make the stories credible. And because I believe these small details, I believe the larger story she is telling. It is not about what happens, it is about how she crafts them from the experiences at hand.

For instance, her use of ambiguity in Brown Tights clothes the poem in a gothic gown: A doll dressed as her mother, which she carries with her all her life, turns out to be a ‘gollywog’ as its skin of brown tights is torn open. The poet finds ‘a needle, thread, stitch the homemade face back in place double-quick’. She deftly creates multiple layers: the accidental discovery not only embodies the fate of her maternal African ancestry, it also reopens the discussion of the gollywog’s representation of genocidal racism and its normalisation. 

The Reason I Slapped Barry is about a high school hooligan who takes away her ‘grey world of slate and dripping bracken, of Croesor and glistening sheep poo in the drizzle’ by calling the speaker ‘half caste’: ‘you cast me halfway out of my homeland, my mamwlad, and that slap was for halving me, though proving that all of it was mine in full.’

Dung Beetle responds to scientific observation with poetic truthfulness: this creature, who uses the light of the Milky Way for orientation, shows the same longing for stars as humans do. It does ‘mirror each midsummer star’ on its radiant shell as we mirror the stars’ light in our eyes, yet the secrets of its dung remain in the immortal realm of the universe. Who knows! Maybe the sublime beetle in its ‘drip’ outfit is there to point at the universe, and its ritual of rolling dung into a ball is to teach us universal patience and endurance. 

And so, here’s a book which earns its keep in the realm of immortals, just as the realm of immortals earns its keep in the book through reflection.