Jackie Wills’ beautiful ode to ageing womanhood is strangely relatable in a world smothered by Coronavirus
Originally Published by: Arc, 2019
Ageing womanhood is still a taboo in Western society. Frequently misrepresented and oftentimes ignored, the perspectives of women over 60 should be another bolt in the educational foundations of life.
As a woman in that demographic, legendary British poet Jackie Wills is succinctly placed to dictate the mental and physical realisations of that stage in life. But A Friable Earth casts its net wide, and like all the best poets, she teases those realities – sometimes beautiful, often excruciating – out of both big societal discussions and matters that seem pedestrian in comparison.
There’s also plenty here that’s relevant to many of our current realities. The places her mind wanders, the uncertainty about the future and constantly evolving approach to time are all easily accessible to those currently living in a lockdown. But almost all the poems here, whether they ooze quiet humour or real despondency, take Wills’ identity and transcend it to something that needs to be perceived.
The Natural World Can Help Us
There’s a hefty helping of ecological love in A Friable Earth. For example, in Watering she manages to encapsulate facets of love and missed opportunities via the outline of humanity’s relationship with nature:
‘the city’s staggered roofs house chicks who mew like cats, how earth sends back the sounds of rakes and spades, that you and me can blur somewhere in between’
In the staggering Road From the North she expertly uses spaciousness and contrasting language to reflect the beauty of nature, its relationship to humans, a deep spiritual connection with it and racial apartheid. Tortoise is an ode to looking for/finding purpose in the later stages of life. The obvious connotations of its title aside, this collection ultimately seeks recovery in the beauty of the natural world.
Life Through an Experienced Lens
It being A Friable Earth’s default purview, there are essences of ageing on almost every page. Where they really stand out is when they’re used to highlight universal prejudices. In Glamour she wonders whether women who refuse to pluck their bodily hairs are the truly glamourous ones, taking a hammer to the Hollywood-affirmed definition of beauty.
Wandering womb is a beautiful discussion of womanhood’s purpose after having children, when shallow, misogynistic attitudes can no longer physically apply:
‘compared to a womb, which is now joined in its ambling by a kidney, eye, spleen, all of them nomads seeking relief from a 24-hour contract to remain in the same’
Vho Mjedzi – one of many poems where Wills conveys her South African experience – wonderfully explores the relatability of women across cultures, but also the ways in which femininity excels in those cultures – and they’re often ways that ours doesn’t.
Pocket St. Anthony is an almost maudlin take on ageing, before Silver Inkwell counteracts it brilliantly, playing on the ‘you decide what to do with your time’ motif.
There are myriad other strains and resonances – revolving around death, racial prejudice and motherhood – that I’ve barely touched on here. But throughout A Friable Earth, Wills has a graceful nuance that whether in short or long-form verse, she executes with real beauty. It’s a touching and strangely relatable snapshot of a moment in life.
You can buy A Friable Earth here.