Georgia Poplett reviews The Song of the Whole Wide World: On Grief, Motherhood and Poetry by Tamarin Norwood (Indigo, 2024).
I. For sale: baby shoes, never worn
Somewhere in a smoke-filled bar in the middle of the twentieth century, someone bet Ernest Hemingway ten dollars to write a six-word story. ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ was the arresting result of that little wager; but its origins are as shaky as its impact remains rock-solidly felt (Churchwell, 2019). Its earliest mention in connection to Hemingway appears in a letter written thirty years after his death, while the story’s shape may be traceable back to 1906 and even before. This narrative veracity – or lack thereof – is not what’s at stake in this particular context. Rather, what strikes me is that those unworn baby shoes still elicit the same tremble of lip and pressure in the throat as they did a hundred years before, in three deceptively gut-punching couplets.
In contrast to received ideas we might have about our ancestors, historians of infant mortality have shown that baby loss was almost always perceived as a deep and lasting tragedy, regardless of its past ubiquity (Jorm, 2017). This is not to say that parents across time, space, and cultures have mourned in the same way; nonetheless, the grieving of a child is a shared – and yet often hushed – experience. Just as the gutting effect of infant death is made explicit in six short words, Tamarin Norwood does something similar in 144 short pages detailing the loss of her second son, Gabriel, after being diagnosed with anhydramnios during pregnancy. As she describes it: ‘There was no more amniotic fluid, the liquor that protects the baby from heat and cold and shocks from outside movement and gives it space to flex and grow. What there was had been used up, and no more was coming’ (2024, 19).
Norwood is a writer, artist, academic and mother, whose memoir originated from her Lancet Wakley Essay Prize-winning essay ‘Something good enough’ (2021). For all the glaze and beauty of her dislocating prose, Norwood never loses sight of the core of her work: that this is a wretched grief. She translates its wretchedness into lyricism without falling into abstraction or inaccessibility; her meditations are incisive and rich, infusing The Song of the Whole Wide World with vitality and immediacy.
This review is a creative response to Norwood’s work. Shortly before her memoir was published, Norwood collected ‘all the things that grew into [Gabriel’s] book’ (Norwood, 2024). Beneath the image of a tabletop bursting with flowers, books, prints, and keepsakes, she wrote on Twitter/X, ‘I think it shows how Gabriel’s life has grown over time, accumulating more meaning and brightness as the years go by. He wasn’t with us for long enough. But in these things, these memories, this writing, we have built him a secure place in our family life.’ She noted that she initially felt the flowers should have been all blue, but in fact, their multicoloured abundance is the perfect choice: ‘We’re celebrating in colour.’ The collages that follow use bright and brilliant colourways in honour of Gabriel’s bright and brilliant legacy.
II. The cut of the pear
The Song of the Whole Wide World begins with a cored pear: Norwood’s mother slices it open, and the little girl wonders at the parted halves and the pips revealed within (2024, 1). I wanted this collage to reflect the many interiorities Norwood draws on in her work, from the secret hidden space of the womb to obscure clinical understandings of how it feels to be born and the private, unknowable world of Gabriel’s mind. The sparrow speaks to a returning image within the text, embodied by its epigraph: ‘There flew a sparrow / into the house / and then away,’ its simple fragmented structure again oxygenated by invisible meaning.
III. A lonely ocean
In short, The Song of the Whole Wide World is breathtaking – which is fitting for a work that inhabits so many different subaqueous worlds. The prose is long and lyrical, unfolding like a ribbon or one of the bloodlines which guide us through the narrative. Norwood is ever in touch with the shifts and reenactments of memory through the womb-water bond between her two sons, Gabriel and Anatole. ‘There was a word for the underwater feeling newborn babies are meant to feel, all at sea in their mother’s arms,’ she writes. ‘People call it oceanic: the peace of oneness with the infant’s world who is the loving mother’ (2024, 61).
It is well documented that there is something oneiric in the littoral, in the shared rhythms and tides of a space slightly beyond our comprehension. The Song of the Whole Wide World is cognizant of this in proximity to anhydramnios, the foetal life-limiting condition describing the absence of amniotic fluid which was diagnosed during Norwood’s pregnancy with Gabriel. Cultural understandings of the womb as a dark, watery haven are granted particularly poignant expression, then, in the image of Gabriel returning to the dark waters of dreaming after seventy-two minutes of life: ‘We had watched him steer his own solitary boat across the black waters to safety. He had done it by himself. We had put our arms around his little vessel to cradle best we could, but we could not board, and we could not steer its course’ (2024, 79).
It is a strange and circular coincidence that, usually habitually inland, I was beside the North Sea when I first read The Song of the Whole Wide World. On a train hurtling up to Scotland, I intended to pass the journey making notes for typing up later. But the beautiful cover – an artwork created by Norwood herself – caught the attention of an elderly passenger opposite. We shared our respective books; like Norwood, he was an artist, so his were all colour theory and histories of art. We spoke about the extraordinary power of making. There we were, speeding through Northumberland countryside, talking about anhydramnios beside a great body of water, and it occurred to me that perhaps this is precisely what lies at the heart of The Song of the Whole Wide World: something very small – a smudge on an ultrasound; seventy-two minutes within the great hull of a day; 144 pages – and its monumental impact, spreading like a sea.
Norwood makes something extraordinary with The Song of the Whole Wide World. For all its littoral zoning, this work has the velvet qualities of the organic: each sentence is woven through with meaning, every word cardiovascular in its carefully selected function, cause, and effect. Indeed, Norwood grounds her language in the bodily even at her memoir’s rawest moments, as when after cradling Gabriel’s body, his ear becomes folded: ‘Something in the soft symmetry of his expression had moved very slightly under the pressure of my skin and would not go back’ (2024, 78). Similarly, in the song Norwood sings to her sons in utero, her description of what they might be able to hear veers between the delightfully speculative and the anatomical:
Midway through pregnancy, the growing bones of his inner ear would already be registering vibrations that fell against his eardrum and transmitting their hum through the fluid of the spiral shell cochlea to fine hairs that tap their message against the auditory nerve. What impossibly miniature instruments, and what a strange underwater world they must describe to a growing brain: the close bubbling and pulsing of the mother’s inside, her voice heard from within herself, and ambient noise and speaking too, only not as we hear it. (2024, 32-3)
Later, once Norwood learns about anhydramnios, the act of listening travels through the shifting half-lights and shadows of medical science. At first, she explains, the ultrasound anomaly was erroneously thought to be ‘a teratoma, a tumorous region of growth named after the Greek for monster’ (2024, 17). Later, when listening has altered again and the family must find words to articulate their situation to others, Norwood reflects that ‘there was nowhere it could belong, this half-mythical story. It was happening privately, inside my own body’ (2024, 42). Her work finds words in these liminal, ‘half-mythical’ spaces between language, body, and the translucent webs linking birth and death.
IV. There on the table we laid everything that was his
Such materiality is deeply important to Norwood. ‘Gabriel was […] profoundly of the matter of the world,’ she explains, ‘having emerged from matter and then returned to it almost without a breath’ (2024, 131). After his passing, his parents find themselves in search of ‘things to be left behind. Safe things, symbolic things, markers in the ground whose meanings we could, to some extent, control’ (2024, 43). Without glossing over the vastly distinct contexts of their production, I am struck here by a kinship between Norwood’s writing and tokens on display at London’s Foundling Museum: everyday items left by parents on surrendering their children as ‘billets’ by which they could identify them in future (Levene). From scraps of fabric to written tokens, they are devastatingly observed expressions of parental grief as in the below 1758 poem left for child number 8338:
Go, gentle babe, thy future life be spent
In virtuous purity, and calm content;
Life’s sunshine bless, and no anxious care
Sit on thy brow, and draw the falling tear;
Thy country’ s grateful servant may’st thou prove
And all thy days be happiness and love.
We might look at The Song of the Whole Wide World as speaking to the function of these written tokens: a tangible link between parent and child on the cusp of a separation. Early on in her pregnancy, Norwood recounts sending Gabriel a hazelnut; now, five years later, she sends him a piece of writing (2024, 35).
Inspired by this act, in the above collage a hazelnut branch floats on a sea of torn blue notepaper while a superimposed ultrasound texture conveys movement and drift. Beneath the hazelnut is a raft of writing: a handwritten postcard layered beneath scraps of a textbook on insoluble substances.
In this way, the lasting impression of Norwood’s tremendous, shiveringly slim work is of not-aloneness. By drawing her experience of baby loss – one shared by thousands of others – into visibility, she writes, ‘It completed a circle’ (2024, 32). The Song of the Whole Wide World is Norwood encircling her palms around her readers, reminding us that her experience is not an island, and she is not alone; neither is Gabriel, nor all those who must return early to those dreaming waters.
About the Author
Georgia Poplett is a Postgraduate Researcher based between the Department of English Studies and the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University, where she is currently completing an interdisciplinary practice-led PhD. Her research investigates literary models for representing the lived experience of postpartum psychosis in fiction. Find her on Twitter @GeorgiaPoplett.
Churchwell, Sarah. 2019. “For sale, baby shoes, never worn – the myth of Ernest Hemingway’s short story.” The Times, June 23, 2019. Accessed 31 January 2024, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn-the-myth-of-ernest-hemingways-short-story-pws8jz6qh.
Levene, Alysa. “Tokens of History: Written Tokens,” The Foundling Museum, accessed 23 January 2024, https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/tokens-of-history/written-tokens/.
Norwood, Tamarin. 2024. The Song of the Whole Wide World. London: The Indigo Press.
—. 2021. ‘Something good enough,’ The Lancet 398: 2305–06. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02690-8.
Jorm, Jennifer. 2017. “Mourning Children with Objects.” Histories of Emotion, March 10, 2017. Accessed 1 February 2024, https://historiesofemotion.com/2017/03/10/mourning-children-with-objects/#_edn8.
Figure 2. Original collage. 2024. Featuring photo by Jonathan Sanchez on Unsplash. Hazelnut, European Filbert, Corylus avellana, circa 1854. Photo via Public Domain Pictures. Design assets (postcard, textbook, paper) via Adobe Stock.