Image by Pauline Flynn

Poetry Review | Living Water

Living Water is the debut collection from Bernie Crawford. The collection is laid out in three sections, and negotiates themes of womanhood, memory and mortality. Crawford’s time spent living and working in Lesotho, Zambia and Tanzania enriches the work, adding a global perspective to the themes explored. Throughout the book, Crawford moves the lens deftly from domestic details, to a broader view. 

Rich in Detail

In the first section of the book, Crawford explores the connection between parent and child. We see this first in memories of her parents. In Leaving for Lesotho Crawford describes memories of her father on the last day she saw him. We are given only a snapshot of their relationship on that particular day ‘on the top step / where we recorded all our comings and goings’. However the poet’s attention to the details of that moment are enough to render him real for the reader. We see the closeness of their relationship as she ‘reached up / and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face.’ 

The reader feels a sense of closeness between the poet and her mother in Between the Pages of the Limerick Leader. In this poem Crawford recalls receiving packages from home to Lesotho: ‘I’d be full / of excitement for what I’d find between the pages: / a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas / from her garden … and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.’

Motherhood and ‘Unreal Questions’

Crawford writes with great honesty and tenderness about her own experiences of motherhood. In The Found Land of Motherhood we learn how the poet ‘envied those laughing women / who came into the coffee shop / after their ‘mums-to-be’ yoga class’. This sense of longing finds its resolution later in the poem. The poet tells us ‘I didn’t have a swollen belly…but I swathed you in a yellow chitenge / and carried you snugly on my back.’ We feel the bond between parent and infant as the poet feels her daughter’s heartbeat through the ‘woven amnion.’ This powerful image serves to challenge society’s limited definition of motherhood.

This challenge is also evident in Assisted Conception and Unreal Questions. The poem follows a question-and-answer structure: ‘Is your daughter’s hair real?… Are they real sisters?’ We sense the poet’s justified frustration with the litany of questions as they build towards what they really want to ask: ‘Are you their real mother?’ These poems call on the reader to re-examine their own notions of motherhood.

Global Perspective

The lens widens in part two of Living Water. In The Storyteller of El Far’a Camp, West Bank descriptions of simple domesticity – the filling of flatbreads, the making of hummus – are used to great effect when juxtaposed with ‘the bulldozers who come at night and uproot him from his dreams’. In this poem Crawford portrays the power of ‘the daily resistance of rising / and cooking, eating and praying’.

Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà at the New Guardhouse, Berlin describes the famous Berlin memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. The poem asks the painful question ‘Why nurture life that can so easily be cut down’. The question becomes all the more poignant when read following the maternal poems of the previous section. 

Mortality and Misadventure

The final section opens with three poems that confront mortality and loss head on. Living water could be considered the pain of bereavement in The Fluid Brush of Death. The poet asks ‘If I could play out / the minutes and the hours / of that day differently, / would you still be here?’ 

The poet’s playful side emerges in this section. In This is Just to Say Crawford echoes William Carlos Williams to humorous effect. The poet scolds the ‘you’ of the poem for leaving an empty tuna can in the sink. The structure of the famous Williams poem is used to beg forgiveness ‘for thinking monstrous / murderous thoughts’. 

Seamus Heaney also gets a nod in PS Get Out of the Car. Crawford uses the poet’s own poem to chide him for exposing the Flaggy Shore to hordes of tourists: ‘Seamus, / You took this sacred isolation, and with / Your big soft buffetings, blew it open.’

Lived Experience

Living Water is a bold and honest collection: these are poems born of lived experience. Crawford’s eye for detail allows the reader to fully inhabit each poem. We feel a kinship and understanding with the people we meet within the covers.

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Cover image Between the Soft Moor and The Sky by Pauline Flynn.