Kate Foley’s eighth collection, The Don’t Touch Garden, is firmly rooted in her own life. A short prose introduction explains the circumstances of her adoption then the poems explore particular episodes from the standpoints of Foley as both child and adult, giving voice to her adoptive and birth mothers and the midwife along the way. It is a highly personal story which avoids sentimentality to explore themes of identity, “inheritance” and family relationship. The question Foley grapples with is:
‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’
the old joke says
‘I am my mother after all’
but which? (“Paradox”, 61)
It is hardly surprising that it has taken Foley, born in 1938, so many years to publish these poems. She confronts dif-ficult issues and complex feelings head on. “Lost Property” (8-9), imagining the distress of her birth mother, ends rue-fully: “She’s lost her memory but not / its weight and shape and pain.” (9) At times there is a quiet detachment to Foley’s writing which makes her words all the more stark. In the long poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden” (16-31), she enumerates her adoptive mother’s attempts to bear children: “Seven stains or clots. / The seventh breathed / awhile. The eighth, / a piece of paper.” (18)
Foley is adept at using sound, particularly alliteration and rhythm, to bring observed moments to life. So, in the title poem, we distinctly hear the repeated hacking as: “My father coughs the cough that kills / thirty years later” (16). There is beautiful rhythm as well as image in the description of her “borrowed” father, when, in the same poem: “he takes her in his hands, / hard as a wooden cradle / and rocks the rhythm of woe.” (20)
Foley adopts different voices to tell her story from different per-spectives, recalling her feelings as a child in church:
I’m s’posed to feel Him here. Welcome Jesus,
Sacred Heart, sorry for my sins … what else?
How long before He goes away?
The altar looks like meat, brown with yellow
curls. Don’t think of liver, or you’ll sick Him
up […] (17)
The vocabulary and syntax give voice to the child saying these words to herself. The collection makes for a challenging read, confronting all of us with the vulnerability of childhood and the isolation that comes with inability to articulate feeling.
But there’s humour too. In an observation which may resonate with many British readers, “My mother murdered cabbage. / It died with a yelp in the pot.” (“Sometimes I Feel Another Face”, 48-49; 48). This same capacity for layering images with other sensory impressions is also used to evoke more poignant scenes:
[…] when her breasts ached,
I roared, the landlady tutted,
my borrowed father sighed,
she never smelt of milk. (“Milk”, 32-33; 33)
These are war years when “Nothing must be named” (“The Don’t Touch Garden”, 25) and the war-time atmosphere is evoked beauti-fully and understatedly – “D-Day coming. Even the stars blacked out” (26)
This is a tender and moving collection. Although it is about adop-tion, there is something in this collection for anyone who has been a child or, failing that, who has experienced complicated love:
I learned that love’s
a climbing frame for separation, teaches
gaps and leaps and reaches.
(“On Growing a Face”, 55)
The different perspectives and voices give the collection a satisfactorily fragmentary feel. But as Foley states,
fragments speak the truth
and broken is better than whole. (“The End of a Long Conversation Has Come”, 52-53; 52)