The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Fiction from Mexico City

Valerie Laws: All That Lives

 

 All That Lives

Red Squirrel Press

By Valerie Laws 

 

 

 

Review by Jack Little (Published in Issue 17)

 

Laws’ latest collection All That Lives explores sex, death and pathology from a sensual and surgical perspective. Arising from Laws’ personal experiences witnessing the death of loved ones the book explores the science of dying down to the cellular level, her images of strange specimens and conditions brings awareness of the human condition, the taboo of the deformed and the hilarious concern of a rediscovery of modern sex and dating. Her analysis of death and bereavement takes an innovative and scientific path with just enough comedy and warm, if not strange moments, to make the book far from morbid.

 Law’s exploration of death was borne from the feelings brought on from death of her father and mother which led her to “discover the science of dying down to cellular level” in an attempt to celebrate the terrible beauty of the final phase of living: death. Her research was carried out during residencies at several research centres around the UK, working with neuroscientists and pathologists to write poetry about the brain, its bizarre beauty and the life cycle towards death.

 Her seven poems which reflect upon the process of Alzheimer’s, The Incredible shrinking Brain I to VII provide an achingly sad and poignant analysis of loss as word’s disappear from page to page as they develop, to leave in poem seven just the word ‘gone’. Moreover, the beauty of death is explored in ‘In the Dissecting Room’, the weight of the world doesn’t not hang from the shoulders of the dead- their beauty which has always been there, now visible, both biological and spiritual:

 

The bloodless bodies display
Something few of the living attain:
The ability to simply be, without apology
For imperfection, without awareness of
How they look. This is what gives them
Their final outward beauty, as the scalpels
Scrape, exposing the beauty within
Which has been there all the time.

 

As well as death and loss, Laws explores the taboo subject of deformity with cuttingly beautiful language. She breaks the specimen’s jar and gives it life, giving identity to deformity and beauty in the deformed. For instance, in the incredibly sad “Girl has second head removed” the ‘parasitic’ twin is removed from her sister, unwanted and undesirable. Laws take the viewpoint of this living creature, part girl and part of her weak and also deformed sister. The parasite comes alive with a soul and heart:

 

She is the baby girl, I am ‘the parasite’,

‘It’, an affliction she struggles to feed, for

She is my heart, and her heart falters often.

Only one nurse has named me.

 

 Mingled between her study of death and deformity, Laws look at post divorce sex. Her poem ‘The Grouch Marx Guide to Dating’ provides a hilarious look at starting to date again which, although one might think goes against the grain of the rest of book, provides the softer and sexual complement to her more scientific analysis of dying:

 

If you’re hitting on me, there’s a flaw I can’t see.

I can’t be with a man, if he wants to be with me.

 

In summary All That Lives took seven years in the making and the collection has won many awards prior to its publication, including a Time to Write award from New Writing North and funding from the prestigious Wellcome Trust. All That Lives is published by Red Squirrel Press and is available to buy from the New Writing North shop. The Rotting Spot has just been released on Kindle. All That Lives is a very interesting read with some extremely sad yet fascinating poems.

 

Sample Poems from All That Lives

 

Your Skin Will Outlive You
  
‘anticipating the heaven of actual touch’
      – Elizabeth Smart
 
 
Do you know that your skin will outlive you?
 
My mother’s, before they made me
Leave her, smelled so good against my face,
Like a baby’s, purged of all impurity through her
Long dying: I didn’t know then, it was still alive.
 
Whether the brain, like hers, dies first, killing
The breath, and with it, the heart: or like my father’s,
Holds out until the struggling, suddenly blood-starved
Heart gives up, strangling brain, then breath:
Either way, the rest follow, bowels, liver, kidneys,
 
Until there’s just skin, holding things together
In its quiet way for a day or two more, mute
Witness of our premature grief, the attendant’s
Wash cloth, the clutching hands of the bereaved.
 
No-one told her skin it was time to be dead.
When I let her go for the last time, maybe
It registered, somehow, my hand on her arm.
Left alone, perhaps it was still
Anticipating the heaven of actual touch.
 
 
 
 
Published in By Grand Central Station We Sat Down and Wept
edited by Kevin Cadwallender (Red Squirrel Press, 2011).

 


In the Dissecting Room
 
 
The boy slices an old man’s scrotum, his face
Intent, inches above the pouch and the thick hump
Of penis. A girl scrapes at the abdomen of a woman
Of ninety, the turned-back skin flap
Backed with creamy fat like wet sheepskin.
But though lying naked on steel drainage tables,
These are not victims. These are not
The tabloids’ ‘frail pensioners’. Veterans
Of the war on gravity, they are massive, grand,
Muscular, with beautiful strong necks, chins
Superbly jutting, hefty thighs and calves. The genitals
Seen from this angle are surprisingly big, roomy,
Solid and durable, unselfconsciously exposed.
 
The faces we can see are grave, unwrinkled,
Filled out by death and formalin. Some
Are veiled by cauls of sacking, the students
Avoiding their silent teachers’ eyes.
Clutches of gorgeous boys and girls glow
Amber, rose and gold, clustering round
The ivory dead, like exotic birds pecking
Nervously at the skin of splendidly indifferent
Rhinos. The bloodless bodies display
Something few of the living attain:
The ability to simply be, without apology
For imperfection, without awareness of
How they look. This is what gives them
Their final outward beauty, as the scalpels
Scrape, exposing the beauty within
Which has been there all the time.
 
 
 
 
‘In the Dissecting Room’ won a Commended Prize in
the 2010 Hippocrates Competition.