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‘Women are just expected to endure’ – Mari Ellis Dunning discusses her new poetry collection

18 Sep 2022 6 minute read
Pearl & Bone and Mari Ellis Dunning

Holly Porter

‘For me, the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the side-lining of women, particularly in healthcare settings. Both the UK and Welsh government were more concerned about reopening pubs and restaurants than women having to undergo ultrasounds, antenatal appointments, labour and childbirth alone. It always amazes me how much women are just expected to endure.’

Mari Ellis Dunning

Writer and PhD student Mari Ellis Dunning brings us her second poetry collection, after her debut collection Salacia was shortlisted for Wales book of the year back in 2019.

Pearl & Bone builds upon the poet’s experience of womanhood first explored in Salacia by now focusing on women whose narratives are ‘often side-lined due to their gender’ and delves into the nuances of how motherhood influences this concept, with Dunning offering a unique perspective on this since becoming a mother during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ever since she can remember, poetry has always been a way for Dunning to explore complex feelings – she first began experimenting with poetry in her teenage years as a way of coping with her poor mental health at the time, with her writing providing her with ‘an outlet’ to understand and process her dark thoughts.

This, along with analysing the often subjugated and varied female experience, informed her first collection, with the latter subsequently feeding into her second with her poetry once again becoming a way of confronting the uncomfortable.

In Pearl & Bone, the poet tackles this by frequently putting well-known women at the centre of their own stories, from Mary Magdalene to Sarah Everard, to Zelda Fitzgerald (often only remembered as being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whimsical wife), who is mentioned in both collections.


Dunning’s decision to write specifically about these women stems from wanting to frame the injustices found in their previous portrayals and sometimes even finding parallels between their lives and her own:

‘For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the need to tell the stories of marginalised figures, particularly women, who are often side-lined due to their sex/gender. […] Because I was writing about my own recent experiences, Pearl & Bone is centred on motherhood […] – many of the women in the collection are mothers, from the Bible’s Eve to Christine Keeler.’

The poem entitled ‘Flash’ indeed explores the mythologised promiscuous character of Christine Keeler against the stark reality of a woman exposed and distressed when posing for Lewis Morely’s famous photograph, ‘The Chair’ (1963), which pictures the model straddling a chair naked.

This theme of the female body being centralised is prolific throughout Dunning’s second collection, whether it is a sort of acceptance of ‘A body, postpartum’ or rather, a female body that is constantly scrutinised and ogled by society.

Dunning admits that her fixation surrounding the female body ‘is likely a result of [her] own experiences growing up’ and explains that ‘in spite of my own attempts to find self-acceptance, we are living in a world which constantly polices women’s bodies’.

Hags and spinsters

The poet further contemplates this notion in her PhD research in the context of the historic accusations of witchcraft, in which ‘women who were elderly and therefore unable to bear children (‘hags’ and ‘spinsters’) were ‘accused’.

‘Disturbingly, our situation hasn’t changed all that much’, proclaims Dunning, and she is right – with how society still views childless women, not to mention the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade, even female reproductive rights are dubious in the hands of the patriarchy of today.

Ironically though, in her poem ‘A Sudden Mother’, Dunning details a first-hand account of the neglect of new mothers and their bodies instead of the protection of them during a time when they were especially vulnerable:

A Sudden Mother

(Staying on the postnatal ward during Covid-19)

There is no sleep here, where women shuffle, barefoot. Elasticated waistbands. Nightgowns trailing linoleum.

We are pale and bloodless ghosts. We are waning

moons. We do not speak to one another. In a bed

feet from mine, someone chokes, a sob thick as toffee

cloying her throat. An indifferent curtain hangs between us. Somewhere on the ward, a baby cries, pitching its vowels

to the ceiling fan. The baby isn’t mine. My baby is a lost creature, hibernating in a sterile incubator, a corridor stretching between us like a deep lake. Tubes like terrible worms

curling his nostrils. Burrowing into his hands. He has shaken something loose in me, like coins rattling in an old tin. I swell and I leak. A sudden mother. For a week, it goes like this: me, wringing my hands at his cribside, my stupid pupils dry and wide. Watching his heartbeat form steady mountaintops against the darkness. Friends framed like portraits,

stuttering their congratulations through phone screens.

His father, pitched miles away, butting at doors that scream:


                                                                                                       No Entry.

From Pearl and Bone (2022)

In discussion of the poem, Dunning had this to say:

‘For me, the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the side-lining of women, particularly in healthcare settings. Both the UK and Welsh government were more concerned about reopening pubs and restaurants than women having to undergo ultrasounds, antenatal appointments, labour and childbirth alone. It always amazes me how much women are just expected to endure.’

This is a contemporary injustice that suggests women are policed only when it is convenient for those in power to do so and that a woman’s needs are never the priority, a theme consistent throughout history and thus, throughout the poems in Pearl & Bone – a history that keeps repeating itself.

Female narratives

Both of Dunning’s collections merge her own experiences with those of prolific female figures to discover the illustrious injustices perpetuated against women and the distinctions between these experiences.

Yet, in Pearl & Bone, the poet faces a new conflict, one directly personal to her that she shapes this collection according to; how her identity as a female is influenced by becoming a mother and what this means socially and politically, not just for her, but, for female narratives, fictitious or fact.

Therefore, Dunning sees her collections as ‘markers of [a] particular time in [her] life’, exhibiting how our experiences inform the way in which we see the world and shedding light on what prevents people from empathising with those they cannot relate to.

But by listening to others’ perspectives is how we learn and Dunning’s use of distinct famous figures in her poetry is emblematic of this.

Hence, because no two female experiences are the same, there is always a surprise around the corner in Pearl & Bone, and it is this concept that Dunning always tries to instil in her students, because ‘a playful, unexpected piece of imagery will linger longer than a cliché’.

Pearl & Bone can be purchased here, or from your local bookshop.

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