The pain of nursing and losing a sick baby inspired the poet to write a collection which has earned her a place on the Forward poetry prize shortlist
Rebecca Goss knew that locking up an empty house and moving away should not be this hard. Yet when she finally turned her back on her old front door in Liverpool last week, she was racked with sorrow.
The 38-year-old poet has enjoyed much of her life in the city, so a little sadness was to be expected. Her overriding feeling, though, was that she was letting go of powerful memories of the place where she had cared for her sick baby daughter, Ella.
"Leaving Liverpool is one of the worst things I have had to do," said Goss this weekend, on the eve of the announcement that she will appear on the prestigious shortlist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection of Poetry.
"It really was incredibly hard to go, almost as bad as when Ella died. Because of everything that had happened there; happy things and some very sad. All my belongings were going into storage too."
Goss was heading for Suffolk, where she grew up and where she and her husband will make what she describes as "a complete new start" in a 17th-century cottage, close to the places she knew as a child. By chance, the move has coincided with intense literary interest in her newly finished poems about the illness and eventual loss of Ella after 18 months of life. Goss knows the unveiling of the shortlist on Monday will bring a fresh period of focus on the pain of her recent experiences. She is braced, she says.
The book Her Birth, published this month, is her second collection but the first to propel her work into the top rank of poets working in Britain and Ireland. "I realise I am the name on the list that no one will know, so it means a huge amount to me that the judges felt it should be there," she said.
Her plain, spare writing is proof that the specifics of individual impressions can connect with readers who may know nothing of the unhappiness and stress of dealing with a baby who has been diagnosed with a rare heart problem and then clutches on to life much longer than any doctor predicts.
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One of the characteristically clear poems in the book deals with the impact of being led by hospital staff into a suspiciously cosy room.
"No tabloids, no vending cups, no debris
of the bored and hungry. Instead
carpet, fireplace, neat homely items.
This is not the room where you wait for news,
this is the room where you are told it."
The impact of this poem was clear at a recent reading given to paediatricians, nurses and bereavement counsellors. "It was very different to reading to the sort of people who usually come to hear poetry," said Goss. "Several of them said afterwards they often wonder about the look of the rooms they use to give bad news. It is good to find you have seen something. When I read Toast, my poem about forcing myself to eat in hospital, someone told me they had just taken a call from someone trying to explain the same thought."
As a child in Suffolk, Goss shared her parents' interest in books and remembers being prompted to write her own poems when her father read her the Seamus Heaney poem, Trout.
An early attempt to write a sestina at school won her the WH Smith Prize for young writers. With private determination, Goss settled on becoming a poet after studying English at John Moores University in Liverpool. She married a widower and helped look after his two children, teaching at the university and writing whenever she could. Her first book, The Anatomy of Structures, was a collection of narrative poems, largely fictional. The birth of Ella then threw everything into a different gear.
The new poems, which Goss calls her Ella Poems, were written to address the emotions of the months she spent in and out of hospital with her daughter and her burgeoning hopes for a new life now. Setting out on the book, it was a while before Goss saw the collection as a whole.
"I sent off the poems separately and so it was only later I started to see it that way," she said. "One evening my father asked me what the book was about, which was a strange question when he knew I was writing about Ella, and I said, 'I think it is a book about bereavement'."
The collection follows a great tradition of English-language elegies, right back to the anonymous Middle English poem Pearl, which mourns a young girl with the words "Earth, you have marred her purity", and then the idealisation of Wordsworth's Lucy Poems, all devoted to the loss of a mystery child ("The floating clouds their state shall lend / To her; for her the willow bend").
Goss was wary of seeing herself joining any sort of literary lineup, however.
"It felt much more personal and I couldn't see where it would fit in," she said. The poet concentrated instead on communicating her observations, for example, about the mixed emotions felt when entering hospital. "When I used to go in the door of Alder Hey with Ella, a part of me used to think, 'Good. I am safe now and the real world can't get to me here'. But I also knew I was there because Ella was ill again."
And there are dual emotions to deal with even today, after the happy birth of second daughter Molly, now a toddler.
"I do feel a bit nauseated when I read about mothers who are having this idyllic time ... I find all their expectations difficult: the fact they think it is all going to be all right. It is jealousy really, although I am not a jealous person by nature. If I see a mother with two girls I sometimes think, 'Oh, I was meant to have that'."
During her second pregnancy, Goss found it hard to socialise with other mothers-to-be. "I couldn't go to antenatal classes because I had heard it all already. I thought I could go to baby singing groups once Molly was born, but I was far too emotional. I found it difficult when people asked me, as they do, if this was my first baby."
As a result, Goss stayed at home with her new daughter and "valued every second. It was just me and Molly hanging out. It was exactly the right thing to do because I really got to know her."
She finished the collection during this period, putting housework on hold. "I really only had Molly's nap times to work. Sometimes I felt I should just be grateful to have Molly, but I knew that the book should not drag on long into Molly's life. I have lots of friends who juggle work and parenthood, so I guess it is the same for them. Anyway, I am used to storing up ideas in my head for later and I have a very supportive husband."
Molly has recently called her mother a "poemter", so she clearly knows about the writing. She also knows about Ella: "When she talks about the family she lists my stepchildren, Jamie and Rosa, and then Ella and Jack the dog. She did ask me recently if we could see Ella, but the time for me to explain about death has not come yet."
The family had always intended to move to Suffolk with Ella, but her illness made that impossible. Now, with Molly ready for pre-school and the grown-up stepchildren living in London, the break has finally been made.
"We are living out of a bag at my parents' house and, in a way, I have been caught out by the interest in the book. I thought I would spend a quiet summer unpacking."
Goss had suddenly understood, she said, that she needed to live somewhere else. "You don't realise how many ghosts there are around you. I may have panicked for a while that I was leaving Ella behind, but her ashes are on the Suffolk coast. I don't think I could ever have left Liverpool otherwise."
The Forward poetry prizes will be announced at a ceremony at the Southbank Centre on 1 October