Lydia Unsworth’s second collection ‘Nostalgia for Bodies’ is a beautifully detailed photobook of the body and the self before, during and after pregnancy. There are images here, interwoven with feelings, cardboard boxes, scratch cards, bones and motion; all of this can be found in the concise and unpredictable poems that explore a body in transformation.
There are four sections to this book: before, during, after and enduring, each part with its own style so the reader isn’t drowned in repetition. In ‘Before’, we have thirty-eight poems (possibly the number of weeks Unsworth was pregnant), which focus strongly on the body as well as other central themes such as movement and urban life. Here Unsworth is separated from her ‘unreal body’ (p.26) as her ‘body image flies off in the wind’ (p.21). There is a contrast of what is expected of expecting-mothers and what the reality is, Unsworth writes that ‘we are made for this: built like machines, like central processing units, robots’ (p.18) and yet she notes ‘there is no grammar for what is about to happen’ (p.26). There are no rules, there is no structure, there is a fading and a growing. In her first poem ‘1.’, Unsworth describes. the potential treasure in the alley-dwelling cardboard boxes that are actually filled with nothing or worthless junk (p.10), all relating to technology or machinery, which throughout this collection is scrutinised as a way of trying to handle Nature. There is the reality and there is the dream of controlling reality and nature.
And yet, there is a desire to cast off her identity, which is transforming before Unsworth into something at first unrecognisable. There is the desire ‘to be a statue in the centre of every city, pointing with outstretched arms towards the sun’ (p.13), she wants to ‘shake my body, my fingertips, in attempt to be free of me’ (p.23). There is a sense of loss, despite the gain. In ‘after’, Unsworth has moved to a more pragmatic and practical view of the body: ‘the body is primarily a body despite its other interests...the body is primarily a body. It is made out of other bodies’ (it passes through you into me, p.68). There is a fully developed narrative throughout this collection, whereby we grow along with the poet to accept our bodies as other, as having a life of their own which, in the same way as Nature, we cannot contain and organise: ‘The guidance notes are longer than our lives. There is one who pushes towards the front of the queue and she is screaming and screaming’ (p.13).
There is a fascination with movement in this collection, from taking extra toilet breaks to the changing nature of a bus ride Unsworth can no longer take alone. Unsworth summarises this theme half-way through the book: ‘Through turbulence, free snacks, scratch cards, watches, and opportunities for charitable donations, you read the words lined up in order, translating them into solid movements, ways of being, actions / emotions to be performed in turn’ (p.32). Like her theme of control vs. reality, movement becomes at first something fundamental and later a force we can only be swept along with: ‘Let our hearts age and our bodies break in this world that is surpassing us inexhaustibly outwards and always’ (Guests, p.65). I have not given birth, but I have experienced death, and I wonder if my reaction would be the same if I were to discover myself pregnant: how can the world keep moving? Quickly followed up by the desire to move as fast as possible away from the core.
Unsworth’s language is familiar and easy to read, yet there is an artistic, abstract quality to her poetry, particularly the prose poems. These are snapshots, cocktails of hardcore emotion, memories and experiences and so absolutely full of Unsworth’s identity that I felt these poems were her sanctuary when that identity began to slip away from her. The language is so intensely personal, as she discusses her pelvis, her self, and her dreams, that I felt pulled into the narrative of her life and had to come up for air to do something wholly me.
I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. I imagine some readers might be diverted to other titles in erbacce-press’ collection due to the feminine qualities of ‘Nostalgia for Bodies’, but I hope I have persuaded you otherwise: this book is about so much more than motherhood. It is about identity, about the body in flux, it is about change and transformation. In side-glances, Unsworth comments on her baby, both in the womb and outside of it, yet it might as well be the reader, as Unsworth is always careful not to fall into the trap of potentially overpowering themes: here you will find subtly, sharp language and themes for everyone, not just mothers.
A digital copy of this book was provided by the author for review. Please note we do not currently accept review requests.