Tuesday 31 January 2012

The Language of Cat and Other Poems

The Language of Cat and Other Poems by Rachel Rooney, illustrations by Ellie Jenkins (Walker Books)
RRP $15.95
ISBN 9781847801678
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Every now and then I ask myself, ‘how did this outstanding book find me?’ The poetry comes from an English woman trained as a special needs teacher who currently works with children with Autistic Spectrum Condition. She also does workshops for West Sussex’s Gifted and Talented programme. In November 2011The Language of Cats was long listed for the Carnegie Medal. The book contains 54 poems and has illustrations in pen and ink.
This is a brilliant compilation of poems in changing poetical styles, from sonnets to rhyming verse and written for children of no specific age group through to readers of any age. They are sometimes edgy, are always inventive, and more than frequently moving and profound. They could be enigmas, riddles or mind-benders, but every single one is thought-provoking.

Moved, I felt the need to contact Rachel Rooney. She was generous enough to tell me a little about her work. When I asked her how she learned to use words in this way; what experiences in her life brought about this skill, she replied frankly.

‘I didn’t start writing until I was 40, although I loved writing as a child. Initially I wrote very light-hearted stuff for children’s anthologies but after some fairly heavy life events in my mid forties, I felt the urge to write more questioning, fibrous stuff. The collection The Language of the Cat combines some earlier work with the latter writings.

‘I think I don’t specifically write for children these days, I write “with the child in mind”. So I hope that the concerns I’m addressing are as relevant to adults as they are to older children; questions about identity, desire, independence, etc. And I try to use references that don’t alienate either audience. These days I only write if there’s something I want to say or work out in my own head. Therefore I’m a slow worker!

‘I think I made a conscious effort to try a variety of styles as a way of cutting my teeth and learning the craft, although I do lean towards form and patterns in my work. How did I learn this? I’m not sure, other than reading and looking closely at poets I admired, i.e., Carol Ann Duffy’s poems for older children.’

I want to know if her work with autistic children shaped her view of the world and her writing in any way.

‘There are a number of poems in the collection that are influenced by my teaching of autistic children such as Tornado and The Trouble Is to name a few. Also I tap into my mildly autistic nature when I write – focused, attention to detail, the feeling of being “other/outsider”.’  I then query the possibility of new work.

‘I have a picture book, A Patch of Black, coming out in September. It’s pretty much a poem about fear of the unknown and was inspired by the same earlier mentioned life events. I’d love to write a follow-up poetry collection. At the moment I’m too busy teaching. I’m hoping that will change fairly soon.’

For something impressive, different and unforgettable, read Rachel Rooney.

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