Book Review: What Are You After?

“Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.

I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.”

What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, is a collection of poems and prose poetry on love, life, family and self. It explores grief, loss, belonging and not belonging. It posits that memories are not what make us but rather that they provide a script from which we may write ourselves.

Subjects include marriage, class and religion. In the opening poem, Honeymoon, the narrator is taking her new husband north to visit a coterie of widowed aunts, noting how differently she and her partner are treated now that they have said wedding vows.

“my father’s brothers dead,
their crucifixes still hanging. In each house
we were given the double bed,
my aunties inviting us to fornicate

on concave mattresses, dead men’s
seed. Had we come one week before,
you would have been given nothing
but dusty blankets on a downstairs floor.”

The deaths of parents and unborn children are movingly presented, affecting waking and sleeping dreams. Children subsequently born carry with them as they grow a shadow of the losses that predate them.

The narrator of the poems investigates their own heritage. From the titular poem:

“A German seaman who abandoned his family
A seaside town in the North West of England
A new wife with a Scottish surname
English-speaking children
Three baker’s shops
Blond hair and blue eyes strong in the gene pool
Something for my children.”

The unimportance of possessions is conveyed as the narrator steps into their life outside of the already bereaved family circle.

Form is effectively played with in Telephony, a reverse poem.

Political issues are touched on, such as in “Police Say Sorry” which lists many apologies made for the behaviour of supposed law enforcers who earnestly claim, time and time again, that each transgression cannot be allowed to reoccur.

Harry Potter earns a mention, as do immigrants and their valid if too often ignored attempts to assimilate. Torrential is a powerful thought-piece on attitudes to suicide.

The anthology reads through as a personal history. One gets the impression that the narrator has had to be strong growing up under difficult circumstances and will not now suffer fools gladly. In Psychologies of Economy Ham reasons for donating to a food bank come under scrutiny. Certain poems do not offer comfortable reading.

Attitudes towards the elderly are included. Schooldays are remembered. Gavrilo is set during a history lesson, each group in the class of girls – the cool, the popular, the sporty, the nerds – thinking about their plans for the weekend. Unusually the remainder of the class earns a mention.

“Unremembered girls somewhere in the room […]

Drawing hearts and flowers around his name.
Not picked for netball teams
or parties or cinema trips”

Searing at times but wholly relevant the collection both moves and challenges. Beautifully presented it deserves wide consideration, and continues to reward on rereading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Nine Arches Press.

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3 comments on “Book Review: What Are You After?

  1. I have to admit I don’t read much poetry at all but this collection with its autobiographical leaning really appeals- thanks for sharing via this brilliant review.

  2. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and generous review, Jackie.

  3. […] I am extremely grateful to writer and book blogger Jackie Law for writing about my poetry book, What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press)  on her excellent blog. […]

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