[This review first appeared in the Fall 2009 Sow's Ear Poetry Review. By arrangement with the editor, these reviews appear one issue later here on my blog. For the most up-to-date reviews, subscribe to The Sow's Ear!]
Christine Hume, Lullaby (Ugly Duckling Presse 2008)
Eleni Sikelianos, Body Clock (Coffee House Press 2009)
Barbara Ungar, Origins of the Milky Way (Gival Press 2007)
We write poems not just to cram our own experience into a stranger’s head, but to push ourselves through the membrane of ego. Out beyond, the “I” might dissolve (terrifying to contemplate) but also might unite with the enormous, difficult beauty of Otherness.
What forces us to this place in daily life? Loss certainly does. Jolts of transcendence also cause us to reach for the pen. Joy. And our fascinating miseries! But motherhood, which hurls us into all of these conditions, and which will not take “Must rest” or “Oops, I’m not ready!” as an answer, is one of the best catalysts. The subject has been hijacked, candy-coated and polluted by such powerhouses as Victorian culture and the post-war Fifties in America. Luckily, artists and feminists set out to rescue us from the sickly-sweet ideal that had shrink-wrapped the experience and denied the complexity of the role.
Three recent volumes of poetry refuse to pussyfoot around the subject: no false promises of effortless pastel harmony, no platitudes about nurturing. These books enact motherhood’s cosmic rearrangements, the way it dissolves and reforms the mother, the way she creates the Other from her intimate body and then sets it free. Motherhood leads these writers not to hover gloating over the cradle but to existential outer space, to political and quantum questioning and our genderless best nature.
Christine Hume fills the handsome chapbook Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense with a single long poem. The child in the womb hears the voice of its mother before it knows “she” and “I,” before any introduction to the world. Or are we eavesdropping as the universe speaks to the mother, who hears in new ways? The poem mingles these perspectives in a fusion/confusion/transfusion of oceanic oneness.
Themes of voice and rhythm steer the poem, lifting it beyond the biographical:
You are used by that rhythm
Carried into a patch of stars that pitch mnemonic-deific-amnesiac fits
Rhythm localizes the infinite
The poem asserts that rhythm reveals the parts of us that arose before language, memory, dichotomy and dialectic, before the idea of self:
Rhythm repairs a fragment
There is no argument, there is hypnotic pass
By instinct and by pleasure, it hovers
The poem itself builds rhythmically to its climax. A driving energy in the lines, like contractions, forces us out:
Hearing the cry, you mindlessly fill with milk
It keeps you learning to swim
Adjusting your rhythm to that of the waves, the undertow
Pineal gland gladdening
That havoc of rocking again
Faraway a train trembling like fire
A sound that wants to interfere with your wakefulness
Rhythm liberates what rhythm would contradict
Lullaby unselves you as it sugars you up
Listen your mama is gone, your papa is gone
Listen, listen lullaby goes on
This song transcends the traumas of birthing, the necessity of loss. It reminds us that where the life force is strongest, comfort is found. Mother and child are both urged not back toward the union and isolation of their private bond, but out into the world. Though this world needs saving from its own “contaminated branches,” we love its brilliance and music.
Barbara Ungar’s erudite, gutsy, read-’em-to-your-friends Origins of the Milky Way marvels at the entire process of gestation, from the strange and beatific invasion of pregnancy to the division back into independent selves. Deceptively accessible, the poems are crafted and clever without losing heart or depth. Musicality, metaphor, and allusion are so interwoven with the story of each poem that no strain or self-consciousness taints the reader’s pleasure. If I had to recommend one book to give all your friends on this subject, Origins of the Milky Way would be my pick.
We begin pregnancy in wonder, in “This euphoria/as if someone rubbed petals//of opium poppy all over/me, inside and out.” One source of wonder is that in spite of oneness, otherness is never forgotten: “I’ve become a door./Someone’s knocking.” Ungar’s “other” grows from “A butterfly wing…a liquid hiccup?” to
No more tadpole or darting fish—
when you move now, the slow coils
of a python rearrange their knot . . .
Mothers will recognize the muscular truth of this imagery. Other readers can taste the eerie, visceral delight.
Ungar’s images are both frolicsome and tough-minded. In “Coup,” she pictures:
My uterus, swollen with power,
has taken over Central Command:
on auto-pilot, bones loosen, ligaments
go soft, hormones flood, all systems
to blast-off . . .
concluding that the uterus is “the Juggernaut,/the Great Beast, Mother of us all.” Even describing labor she manages to make us laugh: “Dante, had he watched,/would have fainted.” In “Riddle” she is almost teasing:
There’s a penis deep inside me,
getting bigger every day.
I’m growing balls
& big teats all at once.
I’m of two minds, two mouths,
I’ve got a pair
This double-heartedness carries through to the dual duties of mother and poet. The mother’s unflagging kindness and the poet’s absolute truthfulness pull against each other, forcing the mother-poet to the edge of language. How can a mother announce, “sometimes I step on a landmine/of rage and have to put you/ down”? But how can the poet not write it? This mother-poet is true to both imperatives.
In Body Clock, with its non-narrative style, Eleni Sikelianos provides a quirky contrast. Dense and lush, her layered lines make quixotic leaps. These poems teeter at the brink of obscurity, but they never tumble over. Sikelianos’s instinct for image burns past the cunning to the brilliant. Each line enters us with such confidence that every dendrite salutes. Whereas Ungar dances with before and after, bliss and frustration, male and female, Sikelianos puts other pairs in organic tension: conscious and unconscious, productive and destructive, controlled and uncontrollable.
Body Clock struggles with the fact that the most complete and miraculous creation the speaker will ever generate is beyond her control—impossible to will in any conscious way. There is no “artistry,” no talent proven by procreating. She is on the one hand “an agent having power/ to reduce, destroy, or consume,” “a doggess sciomancer divining love/ and hate by means of shadow and cloud,” but on the other hand as small as the black palmetto bugs who make it
through the dark halls of cryptography,
nanotechnologists of the celled night
in us: 100 trillion tiny containers,
apartments for vacant lots / thoughts & makings
of vacuoles . . .
This is by no means a stance of hopelessness. In the new form of creation, “A creamy froth comes.” Images of fertility and generous expansion abound, which “the earth sprung forth, kernel by kernel.” As motherhood catalyzes humility, it stuns us with perfections, from Palmetto bugs to the rock that “makes a/ thought, spinning/ out (its word/ alters us).” We become “the embroiderer’s thread moving.”
Sikelianos’s core image is the body clock. It conveys her new experience of time: a spring moves us, unwinds us. A simple moment bends space, so that her daughter arrives “from the placenta’s vascular sheets//touching all the quantum fields she walked through to/greet me.” In one section, she tries to convey time’s physical shape. She sketches a minute (which looks a bit like an orange), writes about the attempt to draw it, and tells what time felt like as she drew. The palpable, intense newness of the mother’s world magnifies time:
watch a yellow
curve, curve yellow—can you? and a
pool of shadow. How the lemon
dives into its own (shadow), or is birthed
from an umbilicus
of it like
Venus on a darker wave.
Two pools of shade intersect. You learn
that the lemon has a half-life
of light. This lemon might
hurl itself from space
torpedoing like a sun-field into
the baby-sphere. Yellow [f]lies down in the bed
of the lemon, wakes
the baby who was sleeping there
like a hard bar of sunlight.
Still she cannot tell “What are the parts between the minutes, the seams between, how to count such silent machinery?”
Again and again, Sikelianos pushes metaphor to a startlement, as when we see “the blossom misplaced its minute, I mean its tiny smog-dusted microscope” or we hear “A’s and E’s—vowels so/radiant they’re waterproof,” or
a bead a bead in the long
string of living
the Ferris wheel of Barcelona will show you more world.
Transformed by motherhood, we inhabit a new country. Each atom and color and fence is new, both lighter and more dense with reality.
Love drives these three poets to ask, Can we rectify what has been done to the world? At first the political theme seems secondary, but cherishing what is gives birth to the desire to rescue what is harmed. No saccharine kindness, this drive has the urgency of our age and its precarious perch on the edge of irretrievability. After all, Sikelianos reminds us, the child “puts flesh on the future.” Hume’s speaker won’t lie; the child faces a “hair-raising childhood,” maybe “an abyss in every word.” Ungar says, “If I wanted to spare you, I should never //have brought you here.” Sikelianos’s Robot Angels rise
with eyes of industrial imagination
Sky rolls back to its black
bones & hooks; We hang.
There is no easy fix. Ungar admits that “Since his birth, I dissolve/at the merest pinch of death.” But when she catches her infant son chewing up a grisly newspaper story just for the feel of the paper on his gums, she sees him sitting “so beautifully, upright and plumb,/smiling young Buddha/who eats all suffering.” Sikelianos owns her “true human monster,” but promises “you too shall be honeyed/in palindromes of gold.” From these poets we learn to mix ruthless honesty with love. Perhaps that is grounds enough for hope.