Review of The Don’t Touch Garden from ArtemisPoetry Nov2015

a random button / from my mother’s button box / though each one had its story, / a scrap of whole cloth / dangling from its shank. (Sometimes I Feel Another Face)

Foley’s account of her search to make the random particular is absorbing and moving. She writes of the intimate details of family life, warts and all, with painful regret at the stiffness of her relationship with her mother who as she remembers “made the world / seven times over each day … and peopled it, / a touch of iron / for those who strayed / beyond the picket / of your imagination” (Making the Days).

Her father – whose large hands, at once hard and tender, feature throughout as a kind of avatar for his care and protectiveness – provided, you feel, the nurturing of that poet’s sensibility which has helped her to look back at her parents with compassion and understanding, until finally she can write “I have collected all our tears in a small bottle / and put it on the shelf with the household gods” (The End of a Long Conversation Has Come).

Foley is a mistress of the spare but telling detail which gives immediacy to the places inhabited by this unfolding story. The reluctant forcing down of “cold gobs of cod” and the limping home “in my new stilettos / and sugar starched slip, / creaking like ice” for example have an immediacy that vividly evokes either end of the post-war decade (Milk). The awareness of difference built up by small accretions are suggested by snatches of conversation – “thicker / than water hissed at the tea table / wasn’t a cup of weak tea, / but how you described / who I would never be” (Elephant Aunts).

Foley, like all adopted children, has to resolve the matter of belonging. She asks (and it feels as if she is here addressing both her birth and adoptive mother) “Do you see me now / in my skin, in my own skin, / printed with relics / of a child never yours? //1 will wear your echoes / for company” i Adoption). She concludes that perhaps “Ostermilk was thicker than blood” (Thyrotoxicosis), but leaves us with an acute awareness of the “trembling / possibility of nakedness” (Sometimes I Feel Another Face) and the sense of a search that is ongoing until “one day / if only I can find the right bones” she will find reconciliation with both life and death (The Right Bones).

However, for Foley the reclamation of personhood through love is also possible – exploring the lines of “A very wise poet” who “once said lovers / ‘are each other’s parents’ ” she reaches with great tenderness a place of new resolution “let the roof shelter / nouns into verbs” (Mothers and Fathers).

This is a remarkable collection of poems that should be read by everyone. The Don’t Touch Garden is concerned with many of the specifics about adoption and its aftermath, but contains much wisdom that also applies more generally about self-discovery, making sense of our pasts and moving into a future which can, at least in part, be as we make it.

Joy Howard