Review: Nostalgia for Bodies by Lydia Unsworth

Unsworth, Lydia, Nostalgia for Bodies, erbacce-press, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-912455-01-01. £10.

Nostalgia for Bodies by Lydia Unsworth was published in 2018 by erbacce press and is Unsworth’s second full collection. Featuring predominantly prose poems, it revolves around the themes of pregnancy, motherhood, and bodies, but also, travel, technology, and social observation. Unsworth captures a unique, but relatable experience, putting into words what many will understand, though were hitherto unable to explain.

The collection is split into four unequal sections: before, during, after, and enduring. The unequal number of poems of each section express volumes in themselves – before and after, being the longest sections. These sections refer to a pregnancy, and Unsworth explores the feeling, both physical and emotional, of this experience.

In the first section, ‘before’, Unsworth skilfully crafts her prose poems to carry the reader under the narrator’s skin. The body, as the title of the collection suggests, is a prominent point of focus, and Unsworth presents the disparity between what is felt, and what is shown. The opening few pieces fuse the narrator’s voice with the yoga-like exercises she is practising, emphasising movement and thought as key components. The disparity between movement and thought is something Unsworth plays with at various points throughout. One example of this is in ‘Itchy arms and legs’:

            Spikes of intensity, moments of it’s-all-coming-crashing-down-on-me realisation and then                        just making one’s way to the shop, as before, to transact appropriately with your                           immediate neighbours. Say the words. Smile. Repetition is at the forefront of all good                               behaviour.

Here the internal feelings and external behaviours are contrasted and the weight of social expectation heightened. This is a recurring theme, as it is seen again in ‘The weekend is a subtle stirring’ in which Unsworth writes, ‘I dip biscuits in tea and make engagements I will later cancel in exchange for a fleeting feeling of control.’ This is one example of many an instance where Unsworth captures something in a short and concise phrase which speaks volumes to the reader, inferring so much beyond what is literally written.

Technology and its developmental and ever changing nature is something Unsworth refers to frequently. From the first section is the quote, ‘Nature does not look like my computer desk’, and ‘even the lift is bilingual’. These true and, in the case of the latter, somewhat comical statements demonstrate a concern with the purpose and abilities of technology in the modern world. The collection progresses with the narrator coming to terms with an ever changing landscape, as things change, people change whilst constants such as the sun remain. Unsworth writes, ‘The sun means nothing because I had no idea what it meant yesterday’. The cutting language is a compelling feature of the collection, allowing for many surprises and twists for the reader as Unsworth turns our expectations on their heads.

The humour in the collection should not be overlooked, as Unsworth’s sharp narrative tone allows shock and comedy to work hand in hand. Often this humour can be dark, as in the poem, ‘before and after’:

            You need licences for lots of things; doctor’s notes, at least three 

            forms of personal identification, various other sorts of bureaucratic 

            permissions,

            but to have a baby you don’t even need to let your parents know

            that you have started seeing someone.

This poem comes from later in the collection, in the section entitled ‘after’. In this section, Unsworth largely shifts away from prose poems, adding a fragmentary and fleetingness to the moments these poems capture.

A wonderful thing about this collection is its accessibility and enjoyability for both readers that are and are not mothers. Unsworth’s sharp, witty and emotion driven poetry is captivating. She takes minute moments, such as a drive to Brussels and the purchasing of a new mattress, and turns them into something much more profound than they first appear. The details are astounding in their specificity, and yet they remain both comprehensible and relatable to the reader.

Ultimately, Unsworth has an immense skill for putting previously unexplainable experiences into relatable words. These words are often delivered with a punch which make the reader pause for thought as she expresses such personal emotions in a way that truly makes them universal. The narrative progress, from pregnancy, to birthing, to motherhood, is compelling and thought-provoking. It inevitably prompts the reader to consider their own bodies, feelings and experiences in a whole new way, as well as consider the world in which these bodies, feelings and experiences take place.

 

Beth O’Brien

 


 

You can buy Nostalgia for Bodies here.

Beth O’Brien (she/her) is a third year English Literature student at the University of Birmingham. She has published poems with Foxglove Journal and Nine Muses Poetry, and is a reviewer for Mad Hatter Reviews.She has also written articles for sheswanderful.com and the Graduate Recruitment Bureau blog.

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