Mari Ellis Dunning is a poet, researcher and workshop facilitator. Pearl and Bone (Parthian) is her second poetry collection following the highly acclaimed, Salacia (Parthian), which was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2019. Her poems and short fiction can be found in several publications including Banshee Lit Mag, New Welsh Reader and The Lampeter Review. Mari is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University, where she is writing a historic novel set in 16th century Wales, exploring the relationship between accusations of witchcraft, the female body and reproduction/fertility.
Pearl and Bone was my first introduction to Mari’s work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The collection is a celebration of womanhood, including sharing the highs and lows of pregnancy and motherhood. Whilst some of the poems are autobiographical, Mari also explores the lives of other mothers. There are pieces looking at Mary and the birth of Jesus, and Mary Wollstonecraft who was mother to the woman we know as Mary Shelley for such a short time.
Other women’s stories also form part of the collection: Christine Keeler and the treatment she received after her affair with John Profumo, Sarah Everard whose rape and murder shocked and scared us all and Bertha Mason, the fictional “woman in the attic” from Jane Eyre who was discarded and hidden away. All women who have had horrendous experiences at the hands of men and misogyny in the wider society.
The foreword to the book is a fascinating read as well, giving an insight into the motivation for the collection and also explaining some of the background to the way women have been and are being treated differently.
Mari’s motherhood poems include pieces written to her unborn child, changes to a body during pregnancy, after the birth and being a mother. The honesty and openness of her writing is welcoming and enlightening. A new mould explores the adjustments to the female form whilst the baby is growing. The poem is laid out on the page with spaces and gaps to echo the transition being detailed in the words. The words used are powerful and alliterative, “hip / bones shoved outwards”, “a slow, silent, stretching”, creating a visual image of the remodelling taking place.
The compositions about Christine Keeler paint a picture of the objectification of women, the judgement they receive and the high standards they are held to. Flash describes a photo shoot in London, “A sunless studio in Soho.” Christine is “Stood stripped and bare as a newborn foal”, pressed uncomfortably into a chair and every inch of her is photographed. She is so vulnerable and exposed, “I did as I was told.” Then they question if she loved any of the men she had slept with and if there were any who loved her. It is such a cruel way to taunt her after using her to sell papers or magazines.
Eve tells us about her creation from her own point of view, I love the imagery used where God pulls Eve from Adam’s side and says “this should keep you busy.” The description of her meeting with the serpent and how she enjoys watching him and “the glorious threat of fangs” is vivid. Most of us know the story, the serpent tricks Eve, she bites the apple, Adam and Eve are exiled by God and mortified. This poem has a twist in the tale, Adam is panicking, scared, while Eve “took another bite” of the apple. Listening to the serpent becomes a choice not a trick, she has grown weary and likes the idea of something different. It empowers Eve rather than depicting her as a foolish woman, it is superb.
Poem for Bertha Mason is another piece where the character tells us her side of the story. For anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Bertha is married to a rich man and has some sort of mental illness. At the time, this kind of illness was not recognised so she is banished to live in the attic to keep her away from polite society. Her husband meets another woman and brings her to the house, this poem describes Bertha’s perspective. “They say I scuttle like a beetle”, “They say it was madness” “but reader, / I married him first”. Mari brings the femininity, the humanity back to our narrator. She is a woman scorned, badly treated, misunderstood. The final stanza is so poignant, she demands, “Acknowledge me: I am more than a metaphor”, as the flames take her, she finds peace, “A welcome home.” This is so poignant and heartbreaking but gives Bertha back her strength and her own mind.
I could go on and on, telling you how much I have enjoyed this collection but my recommendation is to read it yourself. It is a celebration of the triumphs and strengths of women as well as sharing their vulnerabilities and sensitivities. A powerful compilation of brilliant individual pieces. I look forward to reading more of Mari’s work in the future as well as to reading her back catalogue.