ISBN: 978-1911027225
£9.99/80 pages


Reviewed by Stella Backhouse


Whatever you’re reading in this strange spring of 2020, the temptation to interpret the writer’s message in the light of coronavirus is almost overwhelming. And indeed, viewed though the lens of now-daily exhortations to embrace ‘the new normal’, ‘What we don’t know we do not know’ from Tania Hershman’s 2017 debut collection Terms and Conditions seems almost eerie: “This uncertainty who knows anything for sure is our new reference frame” she warns. “The instructions that you crave are liable to dance always and forever change” (author’s bold text).


In truth, I doubt that Hershman – any more than the rest of us – had ringed 2020 on her calendar as the probable date of the next global pandemic. But in a world turned so vertiginously upside down by something almost no one saw coming, a collection that explores the blurry interface between what we know and what we don’t must surely acquire new relevance.


In particular, Hershman – herself a science graduate and former science writer – is fascinated by how much insight, how much reassurance, modern scientific knowledge has really given us. In ‘Missing you’, a twenty-something woman confounds “jaw-dropped doctors” by “doing fine…without the chunk/that in us normals holds half/of all our neurons”. Meanwhile the pilot in ‘The weight of us’, “surrounded by technology”, trusts only his own hand and “what looks like a tissue” to wipe mist from the window of his plane.


Following a rough trajectory of human life, beginning with babyhood and progressing through youth and adventure to self-acceptance, decay and death, the poems in this collection question the primacy of scientific knowledge by presenting it as just one ingredient in the rich broth of human experience – and a contradictory ingredient at that.


So while the female subject of ‘For which we have no names’ questions “how…we know/what anyone means when they say anger/when they say jealousy, when they say love” (author’s italics), she still believes that getting her brain “wired up” to a machine is the key to finding out who she really is. Likewise, the medical student in ‘The medical student comes to talk to me…’ is upset by having to write an essay on an ethical dilemma because “up to this point/she has skated coolly/on facts”.


The uncertain borderlands between what we know and what we don’t are mirrored by other arbitrary boundaries, ostensibly firm, but actually fluid: male/female; alone/in a relationship; flight/falling; within/without. Dividing lines are mirages; subjected to scrutiny, they fold in on each other and cancel each other out. Sometimes science is the catalyst. When Hershman’s mother has an echocardiogram, her daughter first helps peel away her clothes, seeing “for the first time/the vest she wore to cover/where her breasts had been”.  Her gaze is then taken inside “that body/I used to be a part of” only to find her heart “like a star, shooting/through her ribs”.


And all the time, our only recourse for conveying this uncertainty is the uncertain vehicle of language. Many of the poems of Terms and Conditions use repetition, carefully weighting words as if to hold down their meaning: “Night will come and then the night will come and then the rain. The night comes, rained” (‘1&2’). Other poems are almost filmic, such as the companion pieces ‘Lessons in Flanders Agriculture’ and ‘All their hands’ (‘A wind/catches their hair; all their hands/go up at once”) or the self-contained reel-to-reel of ‘Kiss the first’, supplementing language with arresting image, helping it to take shape.


As we attempt to navigate our course through the uncharted waters of the coronavirus pandemic, we have no choice but to trust to science and technology to find the way out, even as their limitations are paraded starkly before us. Every day our leaders assure us that they are ‘acting on the best scientific advice’; every day the best scientific advisors warn us that, as yet, they still don’t have the answers. Rarely have we been made so painfully aware of just how much we do not know. Terms and Conditions feels very much of the moment.


Terms and Conditions is available to buy online from Nine Arches Press.