When podcaster Hillary Frank, host and founder of The Longest Shortest Time, first started pitching her motherhood-centered show for radio, she “met rejection after rejection.” Editors pushed back on the grounds of market demand, as Frank recalls in a New York Times op-ed:
“We’re just not sure there’s enough of an audience for this kind of thing,” an editor said. “This is just too . . . small,” another said. One guy put it more bluntly: “Who would want to listen to this except for moms?”
Frank reasoned that even if mothers were the sole audience, for advertisers they are a “coveted demographic.” She suspected that something else lurked below the resistance to a show about motherhood.
Frank persisted, and in the nine years after her show first aired in 2010, it was recognized as a top podcast by Time and the Atlantic, and it won two Webby awards. In her online announcement that the show will wind down at the end of 2019, Frank reflected on the colossal shift over the past decade in media representations of motherhood. “Back in 2010, it was really hard to find anything that felt real about parenthood . . . So I felt like I was filling a void with this show. These days, nuanced parenting media is plentiful.” Indeed, parenthood in general and motherhood specifically have moved into a spotlight for listeners, viewers, and readers alike, who seem especially eager for nontraditional narratives, stories that go beyond cooing over babies in themed nurseries. On Instagram, followers lap up model Chrissie Teigen’s posts of “Real mom shit”: photos of herself in postpartum mesh underwear. Moviegoers flock to movies like Bad Moms for the antics of women who can’t take the second shift anymore. Commuters tune in to podcasts like Mom Rage, eager to hear stories about ways motherhood changes one’s sex life.
Other critics have noted a similar trend. Parul Sehgal in the New York Times reviews “a raft of new books” that consider “motherhood from (almost) every angle.” The novels and memoirs that Sehgal explores include works that range far beyond tummy time and sleepless nights. She rounds up five books from 2018, novels and memoirs that delve into postpartum depression, the decision not to have children, and infanticide. About this last subset of motherhood books, Sehgal says there are now enough to warrant a new genre name (which she calls a “ghastly moniker”): the “mom thriller.” Regarding the proliferation of motherhood prose, Lauren Elkin in the Paris Review asks the question “why now?” and suggests that a new “canon of motherhood . . . is beginning to take shape,” one that beckons even to non-mother readers. Elkin names a number of reasons for the “why”—one having to do with a generation of women who have come to accept they cannot “have it all,” another with the internet and writers reacting against its displays of perfect, pixelated motherhood. Both Sehgal and Elkin note that many of these motherhood books are written by white, middle-to-upper-class, heterosexual women, writers who do not in these works consider explicitly how race, class, sexual orientation, and ability inflect the experience of motherhood. Both critics point to a need for writing that does so.
Sehgal and Elkin consider prose—what of poetry? This past year brought us Ada Limón’s excellent and well-reviewed The Carrying, a book that through its exploration of infertility broadens the territory of the motherhood narrative. Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang features two sections of “Dear P.” poems, letters from a mother to a daughter. Brenda Shaughnessy’s experimental book of social satire, The Octopus Museum, is undergirded with poems on motherhood, the most stunning of which is her apocalyptic escape poem “Our Family on the Run,” which considers how their nuclear foursome would flee while accommodating her son’s wheelchair, G-tube, and other necessities. All three, poets of color, bring race, class, and ability into their work on motherhood, as do many other poet-mothers of color, notably Camille Dungy and Carmen Giménez Smith. White poets are also considering how their gendered, classed, and racialized bodies inflect their experience of motherhood—see Maggie Smith’s “Airplanes,” Molly Spencer’s “After Reading the Story of Assumption Chapel in Cold Spring, Minnesota,” and Jordan Rice’s “Pre-Op.” Of course, there is plenty of room for further interrogation, but mother-poets of the current generation are moving motherhood out of the household and considering it one of many intersectional identities.
Nearly fifty years ago, Sharon Olds’s poetry was rejected by a journal on the grounds that “The true subjects of poetry are . . . not your children,” and as recently as fifteen years ago, women queried other women on poetry listservs about where to send a poem about miscarriage or children, the idea being that a mainstream journal would not publish such a thing. Today, poetry publishers seem, if not eager for, at least receptive to motherhood poetry. In a given issue, most major journals contain at least one piece that engages motherhood, as if it is no longer a niche topic.
As a writer of motherhood poetry, I do not worry that I will encounter the descendant of Olds’s dismissive journal editor, but I have enough internalized misogyny that a doubting voice inside me asks the same question that editors asked of Hillary Frank: Is motherhood interesting to anyone besides mothers? It is ironic that in a nation still snagged in the roots of the Cult of True Womanhood, a nation that organizes tax-code and healthcare policy to push every woman toward procreation, motherhood is simultaneously so revered and dismissed. I see parallels in my work as a high-school teacher, another role largely reserved for women. Perhaps because we have all experienced school, we have no need for poetry about school. Perhaps because we were all born of mothers, we feel we’ve seen and heard enough.
Surely some of my doubt about motherhood as the subject for poetry is my absorption of the oft-heard-in-workshop warning against “sentimentality” in a poem. Sentiment is the realm of the feminine, of weakness, of un-rigorous subject matter. And what territory is more apt to inspire a woman to ooze sentiment than consideration of her own child? I have dealt with this in my own writing by employing the unsentimental gaze, looking at the terror of being a mother and the equal terror of being a child raised by a mother. And I have also dealt with this concern by making motherhood function in a dual role—as a metaphor for artistry, or as a new way into a received story. I defer to those who have no stomach for motherhood poetry, giving them an alternate entry point to my work.
Given my skittishness about centering motherhood and making it an anchor for a collection, I drew inspiration from three recent collections in which motherhood is the main event: Chelsea Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife, Keetje Kuipers’s All Its Charms, and Sara Mumolo’s Day Counter. These books join a lineage dating back to the sixties and seventies, when writing by women including Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born and Toi Derricotte in Natural Birth declared motherhood a necessary topic for poetry.
When my husband saw the title of Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife, he remarked, “That can’t be good,” and indeed, the provocative title positions the reader as an uncomfortable witness to the mother who has been caught, knife in hand. But these are precise, considered pieces, without any frenzy, bodies positioned intentionally into the tableau. The poems are mostly left-justified, and they unfold with sonnet-like logic. Reading them is like watching a mind work through an argument. Rathburn’s control of the line allows me to follow her into the psychologically dark territory of postpartum depression and filicide. I know the bottom will not fall out of these poems, because the author will find a way to dip me deep into the well and bring me back out again.
The collection follows a mostly chronological sequence: first comes the speaker’s childhood and adolescence; next, childbirth; then an exploration, through fine art, of early motherhood; and finally, life as a mother of a young child. Rathburn prods at what it means to be a mother who finds more parts darkness than light in her new role.
“Postpartum: A Fairy Tale” opens the argument. After detailing the murderous stories she’s heard—her aunt’s wish to drown her cousin in the washer, her mother’s wish that the housecat would steal the breath of her crib-bound baby-self—the speaker wonders:
If, as Bettelheim writes, the witches and giants
in the brutal fairy tales are really stand-ins
for the parents the child is afraid to fear and love,
what did we make of our mothers’ revelations,
which made us the monstrous creatures, changelings left
by trolls? That they could not, or would not save us.
That we had to learn to walk the woods alone.
The soothing music—a slant rhyme of “trolls” and “alone”—creates tension with the terror in this piece. In carefully sculpted verse, Rathburn makes a case for the normalcy of the mother’s wish to kill her child: the speaker’s mother felt it, her aunt felt it, the impulse has been analyzed by scholars, it exists in our archetypal stories of family life. And yet, from the child’s point of view—even the adult child looking back in this poem—this is a terrible revelation. Those whose role it is to protect you will not “save” you, and life’s metaphorical woods are yours to face alone. Rathburn’s sympathy in this piece seems to lie with the betrayed child, yet she is laying the groundwork for the speaker’s own desire to do away with her baby; she is making a case for the moment she will join the lineage.
Still Life with Mother and Knife comprises a series of poems all sharing the title “Introduction to . . .” with topics ranging from “Home Economics” to “Patriarchy” and “Mycology,” which creates a foundation for the book’s central argument—children grow up in a dangerous world, and eventually they become aware of that danger. The speaker has the double vision of the adult seeing through the child’s eyes, rendering the poems wry and playful on the surface. The adult speaker allows the reader to enter the dramatic irony in that she knows these moments of innocence will turn into the scars of experience. Rathburn plants seeds for poems that will come later—exploring ways that girls are trained to become women, to become mothers. “Introduction to Patriarchy” finds the speaker and her young girl friends mimicking the poses of nude women in their brothers’ and fathers’ pin-up magazines. “Introduction to Sex Education” looks at the age-old assignment for high schoolers, carrying around an egg and attempting to keep it unbroken as a proxy for childcare. While the tenth-grade students ignore the teacher’s warning, and learn only to “forge Ms. Greene’s initials in blue ink” on their eggs, Ms. Greene’s words remain with the older speaker, now looking back: “babies were hell: a never-leaving need, / hungry and squalling, shit-stained, refusing bed.” Again, the speaker seems to shake her head at her younger, naïve self.
In “Introduction to Home Economics,” the speaker’s mother allows her at age six to carve the Halloween pumpkin, a process that leads her to cut open her mother’s hand. Again we are given the still-life trio—the mother, the child, the knife—and their potential for harm. The story becomes part of family lore, and the speaker relates: “Each Halloween, [my mother] brought it up again, / reminding me what I had done, how I had hurt her, / though she was the one who handed me the knife.” The paradox of harm is on full display, as is the idea that the child might scar or alter the mother.
“Introduction to Thanatology” also presages the latter half of the book, when the speaker more seriously considers death. For now, she is only seven years old, and death is part of a party game. In tercets a narrative unfolds: a seven-year-old girls’ slumber party, a fainting game, the speaker volunteering to try. The girls are successful in knocking the wind out of the speaker, and she has a near-death experience complete with “a black room / with, yes, a slice of bright white light.” When she comes to, the ringleader swears the other girls to secrecy, knowledgeable that they have played with fire and should not admit it.
We didn’t know that kids could die
from games like this. We didn’t know
that kids like us could die. We never
tried again, but I remembered
sometimes how easy it was to slip
free of the body, like stepping from a robe,
and how certain I felt in that black space,
my friends and the darkness calling me.
This childhood experience with, even longing for, darkness, provides a segue into the next section, in which the speaker yearns for escape from her new role as mother.
For all that is magical and miraculous about childbirth, the event is equally messy and primal. Each time I gave birth it seemed deeply misguided of nature to send me—a wounded, weakened creature—home to care for a helpless being while I also needed caring for. Some theorize that this keeps the mother from abandoning the child; she does not have the strength to go far. Still, a birth is an apocalypse; the mother’s body the site.
We have known from Rathburn’s title and the opening sections that the locus of childhood danger will be the child’s own mother, and while section two of the book reaffirms that possibility, it also inverts it, looking at the damage that birth and the child can do to the mother. Containing only five poems, this section is perhaps the darkest and most potent in the collection.
The section begins as a speaker with an “incompetent cervix” undergoes cerclage, a stitch that cinches the cervix shut until labor. Before considering the poem, I want to call attention to the fact that “incompetent cervix” is an actual medical diagnosis. During my second pregnancy, I was diagnosed with its cousin: “inhospitable uterus.” I am curious if men have diagnosable conditions that begin with judgmental adjectives—it strikes me that “erectile dysfunction” sounds much less personal than “incompetent penis.”
In “The Stitch,” Rathburn’s speaker, already “incompetent,” suffers for the months of pregnancy as the stitch scrapes at her insides and will not loosen without “a tackle box of clamps / and scissors.” The stitch itself becomes a metaphor for the birth, a hard ball of pain that scars the mother’s body:
When the stitch
at last was out, he left it on a tray:
not thread but wire, a thick and mangled ball
we took a picture of, though unsure why,
stubborn stillborn, the tether that bound us all.
The chime of “ball” and “all” create a sense of inevitability. The pregnant mother is already blameworthy, a part of her body failing at keeping a child. The poem ends with an affirmation that the mother is the root of danger—“the stitch’s tug and scrape, // the sharp and constant pinch a reminder / of the danger we ’d escaped, the danger I was.” And yet, the child is unharmed; it is the mother’s body that bears the damage.
The live child enters the collection in “Metamorphoses,” where end-rhymed lines present the paradox of dependence:
And the child . . . understood
that I was the cause and end of suffering and cried
all hours, she who alone could recognize
me, a stranger to myself, a monster-mother,
but wanted me because she knew no other.
The child does not perceive a “monster-mother,” but the speaker has begun to turn the lens selfward, externalizing what she feels inside. She declares that she is the villain—the monster who will not tend to the helpless babe—and yet, the metamorphosis here is hers, she who has become “a stranger to [herself].” Pregnancy and birth have rendered her alien, and she is rejecting herself as much as she rejects the child.
That vision comes to fruition in the final section’s incendiary poem “Postpartum: Lullaby,” which expresses in sing-song couplets the mother’s desire to kill herself through the relentless nights of child care:
By day she whispers promises
By day she smiles and swaddles and kisses
By night beneath a callous moon
When she alone can soothe she croons
aloud aloud the unallowed
I want to blow my brains out now
And still they rock and rock and rock
beside a cold indifferent clock
I remember so keenly the terror of nighttime’s approach when my children were infants. Somehow it did not matter that I was robbed of sleep and autonomy during the day, but the knowledge that I would not sleep at night translated into pure dread. Rathburn’s juxtapositions capture several binaries: the day mother versus the night mother, the coos and love versus the suicidal impulses, the lilting tone versus the devastating content. She names what is supposed to stay unnameable, the desire not only to be free of the child but to be free of life, of this role, of wakefulness. Ironically, these words are unutterable, because the feared consequence of admitting to postpartum depression is having one’s child taken away. The source of pain is the very thing that must not be removed. Here the speaker and child survive the night, as does the “cold indifferent clock,” marking off the hours and the certainty that they will be in this position again.
Early on, in “Introduction to Art History” the speaker alludes to having been an artist’s model. This reference sets up the third section’s focus on Eugène Delacroix’s Medea. Though the implied analogy connecting the mother-speaker to Medea is clear, the most satisfying of these poems makes this connection explicit. In “Médée Furieuse, 1838,” Rathburn’s speaker meditates on the lack of rage in Medea as she clutches her children in the moment before murder. Instead, the emotion shows in one of the children’s faces. At this poem’s turn, the speaker acknowledges having seen “the flash of fear” on her own daughter’s face, when she knows she’s angered her mother:
Maybe all mothers murder their children’s
innocence. In the painting, Medea holds
her boys so close they’re one body again,
two cords she must cut. The children have no choice
but to love the hand that holds the knife.
Rathburn’s line breaks embody the tension; we are left hanging for a moment before learning that mothers murder their children’s “innocence,” not the children themselves. But just as we relax into Medea’s “hold,” we learn this is what she “must cut.” And, most damning to the murderous mother, the children cannot fight back, and they “have no choice / but to love” what will harm them. Look at how we treat the innocence entrusted to us, Rathburn muses.
Medea’s voice is an echo of the position Rathburn laid out at the start of the collection. The speaker, her mother, her aunt, Medea—all are part of this filicidal sisterhood—even if for different reasons. The book does not close in the murderous moment, nor is it frozen, like Medea, in the moment before. Instead, the speaker and her child make it through, and the collection becomes less about the speaker’s ability to mother a child, and more about the speaker’s ability to care for herself. Childbirth has been the metamorphosis, and the speaker must learn to see and accept this new self, the self who has traded Anaïs Nin for Maurice Sendak. She admits she is willing to follow her daughter both “out of the poem and the room,” a quiet but enormous declaration from a poet. At once it suggests the interruptibility of the mother-writer, who must dash off at the end of this short piece as her daughter teases her onward. But it also suggests a choice and a valuation—choosing the child over art.
Still Life with Mother and Knife closes with two instances of seeing anew. In the final poem, the speaker seeks out an artist who drew her, only to find that the artist is dead, leaving the speaker to render her own form. The rendering is enacted in the penultimate poem, “In the Shower, My Daughter Studies My Naked Form.” Here the speaker sees herself through her daughter’s eyes, tolerating being appraised by a curious other. She remembers not making eye contact with those who sketched her when she was young and an artist’s model, but notes that now,
My daughter looks more closely than a painter.
She rubs my ruined belly, pokes my hips.
Soaping my knees with her small hands, she studies me
the way I’ve stood before a work of art
The collection lands on this sculptural moment. Rathburn reposes the painting. Medea, vulnerable and naked in the shower, holds not a knife but soap; her child is unclutched, free to act upon her own wishes, free to consider the mother in such a way that the mother must consider herself, her power and humanity.
Keetje Kuipers’s All Its Charms explores motherhood narratives by way of single parenthood by choice, in vitro fertilization, new romance and marriage after parenthood, and the inability to conceive again. Though these topics are relatively new in poetry, this territory feels less taboo in some ways than Kuipers’s entry into the world of sentiment. While Rathburn speaks things a mother is not supposed to feel, Kuipers speaks things a poet is not supposed to say: professions of unabashed love.
Poems in this collection have the feeling of loose sonnets and villanelles; Kuipers works often in couplets, creating a sense of balance. While Rathburn’s work has allegiance to painting, Kuipers reveals in an interview with BOA that because of her background as a theater studies major, “I still find myself thinking about landscape as a stage set.” Like Rathburn, her landscapes are vivid, cinematic, inhabited by real people. But unlike Rathburn, Kuipers’s poems feel more observational than argumentative. While Rathburn retains allegiance to evenly measured lines, Kuipers occasionally roams the page, writing in lines pocked by caesuras. Her ideas make more imaginative leaps and are occasionally surreal. And though poems like “Names of Rivers” indicate that Kuipers is no stranger to darkness—“The river was once a place for me / to drown myself”—this book is more interested in investigating light:
Now the river is for showing me
the uselessness of sharp edges,
how each thing that curves away
is not a body resisting but a pleasure
waiting to be reciprocated.
Where in Rathburn we find the severe, in Kuipers we find an edge that has been willingly softened to a curve.
Kuipers’s book does not shy away from death—in fact in its opening poem, “Becoming,” the speaker imagines herself after her death in an icy-road traffic accident. I first read this as a piece about motherhood, seeing a pregnant belly being likened to the blooming earth in the lines, “In // the next season would I become just one / more hillside of purple vetch, unwanted // too-muchness sprung from a gravel pit’s mouth, / dead butterflies in my teeth?” On a second read I recognized this as an image of a roadside gravesite. My mistake here showed me how Kuipers’s landscapes paradoxically hold life and death, often in the same image.
The ravenous speaker in the following poem, “Landscape with Sage and the Names of My Children,” embodies this paradox. She roams the landscape, feeding on insects, a dead buck, maggots, the earth and “all its charms.” Her feeding is sustenance and destruction, but the names of her children “are already fast // across the sky,” suggesting that they will survive whatever becomes of the speaker. This poem posits, “There is no such thing // as a scar, no matter how much I want // to be one.” The scar is impossible, because everything is transitory, even the wound and its cover. The speaker acknowledges darkness and death, but her sense of time and space in the poem is so vast that there’s simply no dwelling in grief.
Another way this book surprises is in its defiance of chronology. In an interview included with BOA’s press kit for the book, Kuipers links this ordering choice to the nontraditional way her family came together. She explains that she was a single mother by choice for three years before marrying her wife and that “Over the years lots of folks—especially straight folks—have wanted to put us into the box of a happy little family living out the queer version of the American dream.” She explains that her life was not and is not like that, and that affected her ordering of the book. “My impulse was to put the poems in an order that would supply an easier narrative: A caused B, which led the speaker to C. But when I ordered the poems this way, the story was not only a lie, but also something dead and lifeless.” As a result, the poems in her book do not follow an easily mapped chronology. The baby’s development and the primary love relationship shuttle back and forth in time throughout this collection, with the effect of everything happening now. We are not watching a curated family slideshow, we are following an emotional metamorphosis and experiencing vicissitudes of modern love, marriage, pregnancy, and parenting.
Kuipers provides a refreshingly frank take on life as an adult. Alongside poems of passion are poems about the drudgery of married life. In “Digging Out the Splinter,” the speaker and her wife attempt to remove a splinter from the speaker’s finger together, only for the wife to leave to wash dishes so that the speaker accomplishes the task alone. She reflects at the end: “And I was glad, I saw— / despite all our sorrows—to be married.” The plainness of this sentiment does not undermine its power. Yes, it’s a slog, and yes, it’s still worth it.
Other poems detail the process of hormone injections and selecting a sperm donor, celebrating the modern tools that have allowed this speaker to become a mother. In “At the Museum of Trades and Traditions” the speaker considers someday finding in a museum “the squat centrifuge, // the gasping seal of its lid, the gentle click / and whir as it swirled the sperm into a thin serum.” Kuipers asks us to imagine a world where this machine, mysterious to most who have not experienced in vitro fertilization, is just another object from the past, like a rotary-dial telephone.
In her work to normalize topics that are only now considered the stuff of poetry, Kuipers gives us IVF poems alongside infertility poems. “At the Halloween Party” is a consideration of aging and transformation. The speaker, unable to tolerate a party, admits, “My body can’t make / another child. We’re both / done trying.” This realization cuts deeper when the speaker sees a younger woman wearing her old suede coat, “the red one I took / to the thrift store last week.” The young woman, dressed as a devil-doctor, stands in sharp contrast to the tired speaker, who is not at a rager, but instead supervising a Halloween party attended by dozens of tiny princesses.
Several references to past lovers juxtapose who the speaker was with who she is in the present. In “Migration Instinct” the speaker confesses
Today the wife of the last man who made me lonely
is having a baby . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Back when I was someone else this would have been a day
for wallowing, for bumming a cigarette off some
hot, filthy man and downing gin at noon.
But the speaker in this book is done with all that, largely because she’s too busy being a mother herself.
But I’ve got dishes to wash, tiny sock after sock
to fold. Sadness is so much work. Angry takes too much
time. And there’s my own daughter, mouth to my breast
as she winks in the lamplight, sucking it all right out of me.
She doesn’t have time for self-indulgence. She has a baby to tend to. The poem winks along with the baby—a sly acknowledgment that the speaker is not resigned—rather, she’s won.
Kuipers writes so lovingly about her child that she almost makes me long for that time when my children were small. In “Spring Letter from the South,” the speaker addresses her mother in epistolary form, admitting in a gesture typical of this collection,
the baby does—proclaiming song-words
to the birds, commanding trees
to hold still or spill their guts—
is magic I haven’t given up on yet.
As in other poems, the baby puts everything in a new perspective. Here, the baby makes the mother love the landscape in new ways, makes her “still feel so young.” And it’s not just the daughter as baby who has this magic. In the last poem, “Still Life with Beauty Berries and Two Theories of Time,” time telescopes quickly, the child growing from diapers to words to bringing her mother “beauty berries,” which are poisonous to humans. The poem evades the poisoned-apple metaphor. Instead the speaker educates her daughter on the berries and considers time once again: “Poison, / I say, poison, my breath sweet / with the burnt sugar smell / of everything that’s past.” Even the past takes on a different flavor, even poison seems impossible in this world that’s been sweetened to “burnt sugar” by the presence of the daughter.
Unlike the mostly white, middle-class motherhood authors critiqued by Parul Sehgal, who “seem wary of, if not outright disinterested in, more deeply engaging with how race and class inflect the experience of motherhood,” Kuipers wants to interrogate her whiteness as it forms her identity as a mother. In her essay “There’s no way you’ll ever be able to get this right,” an introduction to the “Failure” series in Poetry Northwest, Kuipers describes trying to “finish” the poem “I buy my white daughter a black doll.” In the essay, she recounts hearing Terrance Hayes speak about failure in a lecture at Bread Loaf, generating ideas that helped her recognize her poem would never be finished or a success:
My poem’s meaning—its very reason for existing—was intricately bound up in its inevitable failure. The purpose of writing it wasn’t to “get it right”—to demonstrate myself as an ally or to attempt to absolve my own complicity in the mortally racist culture we all make our lives in.
Instead, she writes, her poem is about “practicing failure publicly.” Kuipers asks, “How can we ever hope to get it right if we never risk getting it all wrong?”
In three poems, “I buy my white daughter a black doll,” “At the Arlee Pow-Wow with My Unborn Child,” and “Self-Care at the Playground”—written in response to the murder of Philando Castile by a police officer who pulled Castile, his girlfriend, and her daughter over for a traffic violation—Kuipers considers her white body and the role it plays through motherhood in replicating white power and complicity. Of these, the deepest interrogation comes in “I buy my white daughter a black doll,” in which the speaker likens her daughter caring for her black doll—daily feedings and nightly bubble baths—to the speaker’s own care for a former black lover. She questions whether she had
any business caretaking his body in a country
that would rather see him dead. What do I
think I can teach my daughter, especially when
I’ve still learned so little? Only that we might all
be transformed by our own unknowing love.
The speaker acknowledges that she has “still learned so little” and is likely incapable of teaching her daughter all she needs to know. The poem rightly asks what this education in caretaking is—is it about one body caring for another? Or is it about being a member of a “country / that would rather see [black people] dead”? The last two lines are slippery. The idea that “we might all / be transformed” raises questions of who “we” encompasses—we white people? All people? And what is the desired transformation? Finally, “unknowing love” suggests multiple directions—love that does not know it is love, love that does not know of what it is capable, or love, like the child’s love for the doll, that does not know what it is up against. Kuipers does not moralize or seek validation. No power structure can be undone until those in power speak of it. To dismantle white supremacy, white people—poets and mothers included—must examine their place as racial beings in the United States.
Rathburn and Kuipers are able to widen twenty-first-century frontiers of motherhood poetry because of groundwork laid over the past forty-five years by others who also chose to address birth as a real event, motherhood as a lived condition. The pioneers in this work—among them Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olsen, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Toi Derricotte—looked at something that was widely experienced yet not written about, and in the lead up to and swell of second-wave feminism, they created a framework upon which Kuipers and Rathburn could build generations later.
Rich and Derricotte had no precedents for Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published in 1976, and Natural Birth, published in 1983 but written in 1978, and these two books in particular clear a path for Rathburn and Kuipers. In her updated preface written ten years after the book’s publication, Rich notes that when she started Of Woman Born there was “virtually nothing being written on motherhood as an issue,” so she created a field of scholarship. Rich’s scholarship intertwined with her lived experience as a mother. In Natural Birth, Derricotte told the story of her pregnancy and her son’s birth “in a home for unwed mothers.” Like Rich, she drew from her lived experience, and like Rich, she wrote of things that other writers, even mother writers, had not seen fit for poetry. In the words of a contemporary review by Alicia Ostriker, the book “captures at length, and more than any other childbirth poem I know, the thing itself and not the myth.” Ostriker’s evaluation still holds to this day. While poets such as Brenda Shaughnessy in Our Andromeda have taken readers into the delivery room, Derricotte’s collection remains one of the only books of poetry to date to focus solely on pregnancy and birth.
The opening chapter of Rich’s Of Woman Born, “Anger and Tenderness,” directly establishes the legacy into which Rathburn steps. Rich begins with excerpts from her own diary as a young mother, snippets in which she expresses deep ambivalence about the “exquisite suffering” her children cause her, the “murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” Like the mother/monster Rathburn’s speaker imagines herself to be, Rich writes, “Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance.” Lest readers dismiss this as metaphor, Rich then describes a gathering of mother-poets in 1975 at which she recalls—in what seems like a droll entry for the society pages—“we talked of poetry, and also of infanticide.” Rich and her peers identify so closely with a local mother of eight children who had recently murdered her two youngest, that several of them wrote and signed a letter to the paper protesting the way the paper portrayed the woman. Rich writes, “Every woman in that room who had children, every poet, could identify with [the mother].” Like Rathburn, Rich foregrounds ambivalence, death, the harm a mother can do to a child who is no match for her strength. Like Rathburn, she conjures community, a room full of women who can all identify, as if to say, if you, Reader, are feeling this way about motherhood, you are not alone.
While Derricotte does not mention infanticide in the main text of Natural Birth, it does come up in the introduction that she wrote twenty years after publication. She writes of reading about and identifying with a woman who killed her own child—in this case a nun. Like Rich, Derricotte is overcome with compassion, and “The compassion I felt for [the nun] allowed me to see my experience in a different context. It connected me to feelings of sadness and rage that I had been unable to access before.” This experience precipitates her ability to write Natural Birth. Here, Derricotte’s work connects with Rathburn’s the way Rich’s does. However, in the majority of Natural Birth, her perspective as a single mother and one who is reckoning with her past shame calls to mind All Its Charms.
As Kuipers would with her own book, Derricotte struggled with the form of Natural Birth. “I couldn’t figure out what it was, prose or poetry. . . . When I cut it, however, and made it look more like a ‘poem,’ I killed the life—maybe exactly the way we kill the things we love when we are made to feel ashamed and guilty.” Like Kuipers, Dericotte could not translate her work into a form more digestible by others; rather, Dericotte had to “accept what [she was] given.”
Unlike Kuipers, Derricotte faced both internal and external resistance to publication. It wasn’t until her son left home for the first time—on an Outward Bound trip at age sixteen—that she felt she could write the book, and she did not seek publication until a few years after writing it. Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House at the time, wanted to publish the book but after nine months sent it back to Derricotte with the message “It doesn’t fit our categories; we don’t know where to put it.” In her attempt to find a publisher, Derricotte thought of Adrienne Rich researching Of Woman Born at Womanbooks, a feminist bookstore and publisher in New York City. Derricotte went there to “look through hundreds of books” in an attempt to find “a press and editor who might be sympathetic to my book.” Hundreds of books! Here we see how times have changed, as I imagine that today Derricotte’s book, with its hybrid poetry/prose form and its pregnancy and birth content could be published by Omnidawn, BOA, Graywolf, and many other established presses.
Though Derricotte might have an easier time finding a press in 2019, her work still feels daring and groundbreaking today. The culture of shame around single motherhood has shifted since the sixties, when Dericotte was pregnant, and the eighties, when her book was published, but has it changed that much? The modern nomenclature, “single mother by choice,” that Kuipers uses, suggests that a woman must assert she “chose” to parent alone—it was not the result of a man leaving her behind—in order to maintain respectability. Also, the stakes of pregnancy remain high for teenagers, especially teenagers of color. Derricotte writes, “It was a terrible thing, especially, for a black middle-class girl to come up pregnant. Part of the lifelong work of our class and gender was to prove beyond doubt that black people were civilized, not beasts.” Though we’ve moved away from the Reagan era’s vilification of “welfare moms”—described as a drain on society and assumed to be black—the pressure to not bring shame to one’s race still falls on black and brown girls and women in a way that it never has on white girls and women in the U.S.
I cannot imagine being pregnant while in high school and traveling far from any support network, then advocating for myself alone during delivery (or with the added layer of being blindfolded that Derricotte notes many of the young mothers chose, so as not to form an attachment to the newborn), all the while having to decide whether or not to keep the child. Despite this chasm between her experience and mine, Derricotte’s account of the mother’s internal state while giving birth resonates completely with my own experience. Derricotte gives language to ideas that for me were pre-articulation, such as the profound realization that the intense pain of giving birth is such a common experience:
how can every woman suffer so?
how can every man and woman walking on legs, the thousands
you see each day, how can each have had a mother like me?
how can life contain it? how can any woman know and let
this happen? one pain like this should be enough to save
the world forever.
The speaker is mystified, as was I, that birthing happens at all, as it seems women would stop once they ’d been warned what it entails. Later the speaker describes the out-of-body experience of labor, something I intellectualized in birthing class but can feel in Derricotte’s rendering:
like fist and i
like hiding in the sea and
sun and i
like sky and i
Derricotte traverses labor into delivery, capturing yet another profound moment of being, the mother’s understanding of a self now separate from the baby:
he is not i
i am not him
he is not i
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
here is the note he brings.
it says, “mother.”
but i do not even know
The baby is at once so familiar and a stranger. He has his claim on the mother, but what is the mother’s claim on him? By calling him “this man” the speaker collapses time and scale—the baby exists in the present and future; we understand him to be both tiny and a fully developed force.
While I personally think that everyone should be interested in the experience of labor and delivery, even if only to empathize with their own mothers, where Derricotte’s work can connect to people of all stages and positions in life is in her investigation of shame and transformation. She marries her baby’s father early in the pregnancy and lives over a garage, wearing a wool coat in public in July to keep her pregnancy hidden. Shame literally encloses her. After a month, she realizes that she cannot depend on the father to reorder her life and reputation. She asserts, “I ’d have to make a plan for myself.”
The speaker begins to create her own circumstances, rather than allowing societal norms to dictate. She travels to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and before there is room for her in the maternity home, she lives with a white family. On one hand, this is a safe place:
they treat me all
the same: human. i am accepted, never question who
i am or why. never make me feel unwanted or afraid.
but always human love and never passion, never clutching
need . . .
On the other hand, the speaker cannot identify with this version of family and motherhood, the mother who busies herself with cleaning and canning, who was once a student and a teacher but now cares for children. The speaker asks,
how will my house ever run on silence, when in me there
is such noise, such hatred for peeling apples, canning,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and no lovemaking noises like broken squeaky beds. where is
that part i cannot touch no matter where or how i turn,
that part that wants to cry: SISTER, and make us touch . . .
This speaker longs for connection, for language, for noise. She recognizes the difference and distance between herself and the white mother, Ms. Reynolds, who is untouchable. Further, the speaker’s recognition of herself as an entity that will not be transformed, even by motherhood, into a silent housekeeper shows her resolve. In some sections of this book, the speaker appears naïve: for example, prior to delivery she believes it will be painless. However, in this instance, we can retain faith in the speaker’s vision of the noisy, lovemaking life she will live, as nothing later in the text contradicts it, and we know the author is writing these words over fifteen years after the speaker had these thoughts. The speaker likens the Reynolds family to “either fools / or the holy family,” and indeed, they seem somehow outside time and reality. By contrast, this speaker will inhabit the real world.
At the end of this first section, Derricotte captures a feeling common to Kuipers’s collection: moving beyond shame. The section closes with the speaker going for a walk to the drugstore late one night from the Reynolds’ house: “for some reason, the way i feel, pregnantly beautiful / walking into the bright fluorescent drugstore, it is / the most vivid night in my mind in the whole darkening / november.” Though in the book’s introduction Derricotte describes the majority of pregnancy as a time of “shame, guilt, anger, and depression,” this moment of being self-sufficient and not trying to hide her body are briefly transcendent for the speaker. Kuipers’s speaker notes how in the past she would have hidden behind sex or alcohol, but now she simply moves forward, no matter how her path deviates from the “norm.” Both authors seem to say that shame can only live in shadows, and doing for oneself is the way into the light.
In Day Counter, Sara Mumolo enters the space of motherhood poetry but turns her lens in an underexplored direction: economics. The book announces its twin concerns in the second poem, “Before: waiting.” In this two-sentence prose poem, the second line reads, “There will never be enough money my mother says when I tell her I’m pregnant.” When I was pregnant, many older women said the same to me, though usually they added “and there will never be enough time.” The desire for more time undergirds the work of many mother-poets, including Mumolo, but Mumolo’s focus on money makes her collection one of a kind.
The other revolutionary aspect of Day Counter is that, although the book takes place mostly after birth, the physical child is almost completely absent from its pages. Most titles in the book refer to the child’s age, for example, “22 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days: being”—language reminiscent of the hundreds of parenting books and websites that track developmental stages based on months, weeks, and days before or after birth. And the baby does appear in a few poems, screaming, crying, and toddling, but Mumolo is generally less interested in tracking the baby’s development than the experience of the mother as an earner and a physical being in the workplace, in Mumolo’s case as the associate director of the MFA program at St. Mary’s College of California, who is trying to afford life in the nearly unaffordable San Francisco Bay Area.
Many poems in Day Counter seem straight out of the workplace satire Office Space, set in an office with “an administrator” where lots of meetings occur. While the explicit nature of the speaker’s work is unclear, the bureaucracy weighs upon her. “16 weeks and 2 days: fading” reads in its entirety, “The meeting about the meeting about the committee forms.” Mumolo’s satire is both funny and sad, especially considering that as the speaker sits in the “meeting about the meeting,” somewhere, her sixteen-week-and-two-day-old child is discovering the world without her.
In this soulless space, the speaker is reckoning with her new form and identity. In “6 months and 3 weeks: pump” she must pump milk in the “second-floor bathroom, only male restrooms on the first floor,” about which “the administrator” comments, “It must be intense to have to deal with that all the time.” Experts estimate that breastfeeding/pumping is a forty-hour-a-week job, and while it can feel great for a colleague to recognize that you have hours of new work on top of your old work, it’s also awkward to think of your workmates thinking about your breasts and the milk they produce. The speaker also finds herself in a new, postpartum body sitting in her old roles. “9 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days: dawning” captures the defamiliarization of the new mother’s body poignantly. The piece opens in yet another meeting: “Enter the meeting about initiatives. Enter the meeting about about about. Enter white stain, black blouse. Enter the previous body behind a new body.” The “white stain” is the nursing mother’s call to nurse, the breasts leaking when they fill on the baby’s feeding schedule. This juxtaposition of the “white stain” and “black blouse” (of course it is a blouse—office wear—not some sloppy tee shirt on which a milk stain would not show) presages the more stunning juxtaposition to follow, where the speaker notes, “Enter the wolverine. Exit. Unsure if my body is draped in matted fur or skin.” So much of new motherhood feels primal—an experience that’s both powerful and vulnerable. Through this surreal turn, Mumolo captures the defamiliarization of motherhood. Suddenly, one’s body is a wolverine taking a seat at the oval conference table.
Through her focus on quotidian, specific details, Mumolo captures the painful cost of living and parenting in the Bay Area, where most of these poems take place. “12 months, 2 weeks and 3 days: submit” traces the speaker’s path on foot, through public transportation, through the consideration of a car en route to picking up the child from daycare: “The app says there’s enough money to get home but not to take a car. Walk to Civic Center. Civic to West Oakland. Honda Civic to Thornhill Ave. Park, take all belongings. Enter. Exit with child.” We learn in “11 weeks: gallop” that this is the second daycare, after having found the crying baby abandoned by the clothes washer at the first. At this second daycare they pay “$1,200 a month—a scholarship, payments broken up on the 1st and 15th—for what we hope is excellent care. Sometimes it really is.” Something bracing and refreshing in Day Counter is its use of precise sums. Not only does it suggest the difficulty of making ends meet, it quantifies the dollar amount required. The speaker and her partner “do side jobs to make daycare & rent like your chicken gig at the island music festival.” The nature of the “chicken gig” is never fully explained, but the job title speaks to its absurdity, more poignant for its necessity. In another poem her partner works for a moving company and is learning computer programming at night. The speaker in “20 months, 2 weeks, and 3 days: owning” writes poems “on an already torn open envelope from the pediatrician’s billing agency,” noting that every time she fills out another form from the pediatrician, it costs ten dollars, such that before the midpoint of the poem, she owes “the 12th $10.00.” The speaker and her partner hustle, constantly trying to stay ahead of costs.
Cost is both literal and metaphorical in “10 weeks then 3 months then 26 months: supplying.” The speaker starts with the cost of the breast pump:
the machine prescribed to you by your doctor . . . The company contracted to provide the machine charges you $1,800 on a piece of paper in the mail. They send your account to West Asset Management Collections. Two and a half years later you win the fight against the company whose name you can’t remember. You supplement at three months, rely on formula by six. You punish yourself for both the punishment and the lack.
While Mumolo’s language is not musical or image-laden, the power comes in her juxtapositions. She places the inability to produce enough milk for one’s child—signified by the need to supplement with formula—against the cost of the pump and the inability to pay a bill that her insurance should have covered. Brilliantly, painfully, she encapsulates the pressures on a new mother. The speaker feels that she “should” be able to provide both sustenance and money. And though not stated explicitly, an undercurrent here is that a mother who can stay with her baby all day may never need to pump, and therefore will never rent a pump, if she can feed on demand. While it’s entirely possible that the speaker’s milk supply would not have been enough even if she did have access to her baby 24/7, the culture of shame around mothers who do not breastfeed exclusively is so strong that this becomes yet another reason for mothers who work outside the home to question their choices. The speaker wins “the fight against the company,” wresting some power back, but still she punishes herself “for both the punishment and the lack.” This double-layered guilt is an offshoot of the double bind. A good mother goes back to work so she can pay the rent for her family. A good mother can feed her child on demand. Therefore, no woman can be a good mother. Despite feeding and pumping around the clock, I too produced less milk than my children needed. Knowing that breastfeeding prevents all sorts of future ills, I could not forgive myself for not meeting this particular gold standard of motherhood.
In the midst of work and parenting, writing occasionally cries for attention in Day Counter. Four poems in the collection are titled “While not writing,” and they each use anaphora beginning with the word “About.” One folds sexual desire into the things not being written about:
About the desire for another. About pulling over to whisper words into the phone’s recording app as writing. About the desire for another. About peer reviews. About how the man tells the mother that women thank him for celebrating their bodies during sex because he likes clothed bodies best. About the absurd. About sexual healing. About taking out the building’s trash to get a discount on rent. About the discount.
Even in a meditation on writing and desire, economics intrude in the form of the dirty job of taking out the whole building’s trash. The lines have a dual impact: first, money as necessity is never far from mind. Second, writing and desire turn to garbage and are subsumed by rent.
The form of the pieces in Day Counter mostly serves to reinforce Mumolo’s central aims—all prose poems shaped like tidy rectangles. They use both sentences and fragments, stunning the reader with artful repetition, juxtaposition, and the occasional wolverine image. I first read the book after a long day at work, and in my exhaustion, the pieces began to blur into one another. The titles, despite the gerunds like “earning,” “pumping,” and “being” that follow the day count, did not help to distinguish poems from one another. Picking the book up again after a good night’s sleep, I was better able to appreciate its structure. Mumolo’s subject matter is the daily grind—getting up, going to work, attending meetings, paying the rent, picking the child up from daycare, doing it all again the next day—and these pieces draw the reader into the feeling of that repetition. On the surface, each day looks and feels like the rest, though their contents differ in tone and allegiance to realism. In the latter half of the book, the speaker does attend two writing retreats, and that was the only place I questioned the formal choice, as these retreats feel like a world apart and thus may have merited a different formal style from the work life represented in the bulk of the book.
Mumolo’s innovation—looking at money and earning and staying focused on the mother instead of the child—makes Day Counter another landmark collection, re-establishing the boundaries of motherhood poetry. However, economic survival is not just a motherhood issue. Most readers—and most writer-readers—can relate to the tension between personal passion and earning. And for those who do not have their own children, the comparisons of the workplace to a needy child reveal new ways of thinking about tantrums and tedium. Mumolo’s focus on something universal but previously unconsidered in poetry also raises the question of what other dailiness is fit for poetic exploration.
Rich and Derricotte both make a case for the personal as political, as empowering, as universal. Rich writes in her original preface to Of Woman Born, “I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will truly be ours.” She asserts that silence around experience, motherhood in particular, keeps women from recognizing and, through recognition, taking control of the world in which they live. Derricotte describes her hope that her personal story will not only speak to universal truths but help to undo harmful social mores, such as the theories from the 1950s and ’60s that a good mother could give birth free of pain, that motherhood meant immediate love and bonding with a child. She writes in her introduction, “By showing one woman’s experience, which so diverged from the ideal, and yet which, in the end, I believe, does testify to the power of nature and love, I hoped to revise the revision of natural birth that had been attempted by those theories in the fifties and sixties.” Their projects are no less than revolutionary.
Why, if this work of describing motherhood honestly began in earnest nearly five decades ago, do Rathburn’s, Kuipers’s, and Mumolo’s texts still feel new? I attribute this to several factors. First, the publishing industry, like the radio industry that Hillary Frank probed with her motherhood podcast idea, did not loosen its resistance to motherhood narratives until recently. Only in the past decade have motherhood narratives become mainstream, such that an aspiring Toi Derricotte would no longer need to search through “hundreds” of books to find a potential publisher. Second, I attribute the feeling of newness in Rathburn’s, Kuipers’s, and Mumolo’s work to honesty, to the scrutiny that they apply to life as they have lived it. Audre Lorde writes in Poetry Is Not a Luxury: “As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.”
These books roam the field of motherhood poetry, erasing silences and widening the space. They let in depression and IVF, infertility and joy, making rent and surviving meetings, and they do so with undeniable rigor. They are instructive to writers for their beautifully wrought lines, landscapes, logic, and juxtapositions. But these books are wise and worth it for the world beyond mothers and writers. All examine the ways in which a speaker has become something other than what she was. These speakers overlap undeniably with the writers, who don’t hide behind personae, but declare their lived, powerful experiences. Each speaker/writer finds a different way into accepting her new self—one through realizing she is not alone, another through turning toward joy, another through surviving to count another day and managing to write even about not writing. They all look at themselves anew, seeing without judgment even when the light is harsh. Rather than instruction on how to be a mother, these books instruct on how to be, allowing us permission to accept ourselves on the other side of metamorphosis, even if at first, we are unrecognizable.
*An essay-review of:
Still Life with Mother and Knife. By Chelsea Rathburn. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 80 pp. $15.95.
All Its Charms. By Keetje Kuipers. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2019. 112 pp. $17.00.
Natural Birth. By Toi Derricotte. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 2000. 86 pp. $10.95.
Day Counter. By Sara Mumolo. Oakland, CA: Omnidawn, 2018. 80 pp. $17.95.