Motherhood, though a wellspring of experience, has for a long time been considered somewhat taboo as a subject for serious poetry. That’s the particular reason it interests me as a topic: the dangers are obvious. Joy Katz has a great, funny essay called “Baby Poetics” in a recent issue of American Poetry Review that skewers the anxiety of the writer-mother who takes on this subject. To quote her:
Who would write the Mommy Poem, then? Who would want such a categorization? And yet many, many women are doing it. In looking for trends in this “kind of poetry,” I read a huge stack of books and found many poems in magazines as well—poems that will probably become books in the coming years. Further, I asked around for suggestions of work that deals with this subject and got a torrent. This definitely felt like a “trend in contemporary poetry.” Perhaps not even “under-the-radar.” But then I also roved the Academy of American Poets website, where I came upon their introductions to poems on particular subject matter. The title “Poems about Motherhood” was the first hit I got, and I thought: mother lode! (Excuse the pun.) Then I began to read. The introduction begins:
Setting aside these clichés about mothers, this essay’s purpose is to introduce a discussion of “poems about motherhood,” yet it seems to expect that no mothers will be writing these poems. Mothers are the subject, the mythic muses, icons it’s hard even “to see as humans.” These are poems about motherhood from the perspective of mothers’ grown children or, less often, their partners. (The majority of the Academy’s referenced poems are in fact by men.) In other words, these poems are not about motherhood at all, but about Mother.
To be fair, the Academy of American Poets also has a page on “Poems for Birth and Parenting” (this, however, focuses oddly on poems by Whitman and Dickinson, some of the most famously non-childrearing poets in our canon) and a wonderful essay by Miranda Field on the influence of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born—in other words, there is plenty of more enlightened material out there, on the Academy’s website and beyond. But despite the proliferation of writing from within the experience, this kind of cultural myopia continues. We have not culturally or critically recognized the poem about the experience of motherhood fully, and I think it’s time we do.
Within the last decade, the breadth and volume of writing on the subject of motherhood is immense. I am talking about the subject of motherhood as experience, rather than poems about babies, to be clear. The babies may of course be present, but my interest is in that speaking voice, that perspective. When I think about great motherhood poems, I think of Eavan Boland, Toi Derricotte, Bernadette Mayer, Linda Gregerson, Rita Dove . . . on and on. But most of all I think of Sylvia Plath. I’d argue that for most of us she is the poetic foremother figure for the motherhood poem. She wrote fierce, startling lyrics about the experience—they’re many of her most anthologized poems. Yet in her famous “Morning Song,” the mother figure is a spectator, standing around “blankly” and later becoming a cloud that watches its own “effacement at the wind’s hand.” The mother disappears in the presence of the all-powerful baby. The poems being written on this subject today, in contrast, perform no such disappearing act.
Instead, these poems introduce a consciousness of the expectation of the motherhood poem to provide a certain kind of sanctioned motherly experience. In “Liquid Flesh,” for example, from her book Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy writes: “I know I am his mother, but I can’t/ quite click on the word’s essential aspects, / can’t denude the flora// or disrobe the kind of housecoat / ‘mother’ always is.” Kathryn Neurnberger’s speaker says, midway through her poem, “Toad”: “Somewhere in the mess/ of that morning she’d become person enough to, in the space/ between us, create momentum, and then I did not/ set her down, but pushed her and she fell against/ the wall and was crying because I, her mommy, pushed her. / And I know this should be the poem about how I’m horrified at myself.” In both of these examples, the speakers consciously and self-consciously reject the societal idea of what a mother is, and what a poem about that experience must do (how it must limit itself, more specifically). Jessica Fisher in “Inmost” (from her book of the same title) does a similar thing, referencing Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song” directly: her speaker claims that she was “never ‘cow-heavy and floral,” rejecting Plath’s depiction of the new mother’s self-perception.
“And I know this should be the poem about” inevitably leads to “but,” which can only open the poem to surprise. In large part, by simply acknowledging what the poem is “supposed” to say and who the speaker is “supposed” to be, the speaker defuses that danger. It brings the reader closer to her, trusts us to understand that bind and sympathize. Or maybe it simply lets her reject it outright by declaring that she’s wise to that trap.
These poems then proceed to bring us into the much more interesting, because truly individual, world of their speakers’ perceptions. The body becoming a vessel for another body is a perspective-altering experience in itself: no longer is a woman only herself, and no longer is her interior private. And the person in residence inside her is a complete stranger. These poems enact that transformation through the ways they twist and invert language itself. Take Maria Hummel’s book House and Fire. It focuses on these odd inversions of experience. Throughout the book, which is very much about birth and parenting small children, we are always perilously close to death. She gives us language that seems lulling in its gentle narrative syntax, but quickly takes us to places that are startlingly insecure. In “Ultrasound,” for example, she addresses the gestating child: “When you were born, which you are not yet, / and grew up, which you have not done, / loved another, which you have not found, / and lasted long in life, which you may, // I gave you this: somewhere there is a tree / that grows its leaves on the inside./ Somewhere a forest that rustles and hushes / in no breeze.” Both the baby and the tree are looked at inside out, end to beginning.
Jessica Fisher, similarly, twins words to flip back and forth between creation and destruction, outer and inner, mother and infant. Throughout her book, she plays on homonyms such as raise and raze, and the construction of language and grammar itself. Take for example this passage from “Want”:
I love the mileage she gets out of “contraction”—it’s the tightening of the birthing muscles and simultaneously the fusion of multiple words. And it’s the fusion of mother to child: did I deliver, or was I delivered? And when you read the full poem, you’ll see she comes back to it at the end as well. This is a poem that is thinking deeply. The speaker is engaged with a child who is new to language, and that search for meaning and understanding prompts her own re-investigation of the ways we translate our world.
Rachel Zucker’s Bad Wife Handbook has a long poem called “Annunciation” that also muses on perception during new motherhood. The context is travel, and each section of the poem involves the speaker looking at things—paintings of the Pietà, ocean views, parks, buildings. For her, it is both the eyes and language that transform the world around her. A double vision seems to develop. Take this passage, for example: “sex, romance, tourism, humidity / obscured by the new baby, the baby, discipline, weather, will—our work, our work, / the distance to town, the meager produce, slippery rocks and what was for a moment/ a whale on second look just driftwood behind a buoy— // the sea today has got a grudge against something—look! I say, waves! and the baby / waves…” There’s a domino effect here—Zucker repeats words and images frequently, but the second instance seems to reposition us. She’s not just repeating, but revising. That “on second look” is a critical moment of rethinking, recontextualizing, and suddenly seeing further.
I’d like to make some tidy concluding point about style in the proliferation of motherhood poems, but they are all quite different, which is what makes them worth reading. The only commonality I’ll claim is that what’s most interesting about them is not the narrative—not the babies or the birth story or any of that—but the sharpness of perception. Claudia Rankine wrote a phrase that I always think of in relation to this idea: “what alerts, alters.” It’s lovely because it’s true, but also because alerts and alters are made up of the exact same letters—the alteration enacted in the phrasing itself. I would say that’s what these poems do, or perhaps the inverse: what alters, alerts. The experiences of pregnancy and motherhood are hugely altering—and these alterations make these poets intensely and newly alert to the world around (and within) them.
RACHEL RICHARDSON was born and raised in Berkeley, California. She earned a BA at Dartmouth College, an MFA at the University of Michigan, and an MA in folklore at the University of North Carolina. She is the author of the poetry collection Copperhead. Richardson's poetry investigates the disjunctions of remembered and recorded history. Richardson’s honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the Hopwood Award, and five Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes. She teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lives in Greensboro.
Academy of American Poets, “Poems About Motherhood,” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poems-about-motherhood
Jessica Fisher, “Inmost” and “Want” from Inmost (Nightboat Books, 2012)
Maria Hummel, “Ultrasound” from House and Fire (Copper Canyon Press, 2013)
Joy Katz, “Baby Poetics,” from American Poetry Review, vol. 42, no. 6 https://www.aprweb.org/article/baby-poetics
Kathryn Neurnberger, “Toad,” from Cincinnati Review, winter 2014
Sylvia Plath, “Morning Song,” from Ariel (Faber and Faber, 1965)
Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2004)
Brenda Shaughnessy, “Liquid Flesh,” from Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012)
Rachel Zucker, “Annunciation,” from Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan University Press, 2007)