Published by The Emma Press.
Review by Laura Cooper.
The Emma Press is a small, Birmingham-based publisher specialising in elegant, beautifully illustrated contemporary poetry anthologies. The latest addition to their catalogue is The Emma Press Anthology of Aunts. Acting as a statement of intent, the introduction features a quote from the doyenne of literary aunts, Jane Austen. In a letter to her niece and new aunt, Austen wrote, “Now that you are an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence”. Unlike the way parents tend to fade into the background for children, aunts stand out as unique individuals of consequence. The collection shows that there are many ways to be an aunt. They can be young or old, spinsters or married mothers, severe or strict; captured in poems from the perspectives of nieces and nephews, and the aunts themselves.
The poems tend to follow a number of themes. There are the ‘happy family’ poems portraying the bustling warmth of family life, which do tend to be alike. The disciplinarian aunt is powerfully shown in Stephen Bone’s ‘Coal Tar’. The aunt is defined by her relationship to Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, which is used to scrub herself “as if she were a stain” and to cruelly wash the nephew’s mouth out with soap. Margot Myers’s ‘The Sex Lives of Aunts’ is a riot of comic episodes in the love lives of sisters. In Joan Michelson’s ‘Aunt Syl’, the aunt dismissed by the child is praised by the adult persona as a “brave loner”, defiant against the pressure to marry.
But family connections can bring heartbreak. ‘Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing’, by Mia, explores what happens when genetic links become a cancerous curse; “A blood line stained/ by bad blood”. Matthew Haigh’s ‘What Will Your Sims Do Now?’ is a very novel exploration of grief, symbolised by the chaos the dead aunt’s Sims fall into in her absence. ‘Broken Biscuits’ by Kathleen Jones deals with the disappointing life of an aunt for whom real happiness is fleeting and is left unsatisfied, “consuming the crumbs, never the whole thing.” Then there are the poems written by aunts themselves: ‘On becoming an aunt’, by Hilaire, details how the newly growing love for a sibling’s child changes the aunt herself.
For me, the stand-out poem in the collection is one which does not deal with the biological aunt at all. Rachel Long’s ‘Aunty’ is an older female Yoruba cleaner who reminds the persona of her mother, but whom she fears will not recognise her as kin because she is mixed race. Family, ethnicity and belonging are all bound up with the concept of the aunt.
Though slim, the anthology ranges around the various territory of aunthood, so there is a lot for anyone who thinks about women’s roles in the family. I must credit the beauty of the volume, the delicate and shadowy black and grey watercolours and the sturdy paper that present the poems with the consideration they deserve.