If you’re looking for a book of poetry that oozes platitudes on beauty, sacrifice, and the transcendence of maternal love, or perhaps a book with black and white photographs of mothers in flowing dresses embracing pristine tow-headed tykes in a meadow, this definitely is not the book for you.
Mothersongs: Poems For, By, and About Mothers, edited by Gilbert, Gubar, and O’Hehir, is a strong, diverse motherhood anthology, offering wisdom, support, tribute, and companionship to the reader.
Mothersongs‘ three editors — two professors of English literature and a working poet — present the reader with the complexity and multifaceted reality of motherhood, featuring the work of widely known favorites, such as ee cummings, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rita Dove, alongside a considerable group of lesser known poets. These voices, collected together, form a dazzling choir that does more than merely sing the praises of maternal experience.
Though the anthology features both male and female voices covering several hundred years, the bulk of the work selected is written by contemporary mother-poets. As explained by the editors in the book’s preface, “Although maternity has been celebrated and consecrated for centuries, and although as primary caretakers mothers have always helped shape civilization, poets have just in the last few decades begun to speak as mothers and about mothers with unprecedented complexity, intensity and subtlety.” (17) Though the focus on more recent mother-poets could serve as the book’s point of weakness, I found that the modern sensibility helped draw me in and consequently made me feel a closer emotional connection to the poems.
The format of the book, which is available only in hardcover, is unfortunate; it is slightly too small and too thick to thumb through easily while the kids are in the bathtub or leave spread open on a nursing pillow. It is also a shame that Mothersongs doesn’t seem to be widely stocked in bookstores, though it is easy to order online or through special order at a bookstore.
The poems in the volume are divided into 12 sections, the first ten of which are grouped according to concrete aspects of motherhood, including labor and birth, living with children, the aging mother, and grandmothers.
These sections provide the reader with a wealth of poems showing a wide range of maternal feeling and experience. From Genevieve Taggard’s opening poem, “With Child” — “Now I am slow and placid, fond of sun” (27) — to William Blake’s romantic words in “Cradle Song — “Sweet dreams form a shade, / o’er my lovely infant’s head” (64) — to Lucille Clifton’s mourning in “The Lost Baby Poem” — “the time i dropped your almost body down / down to meet the waters under the city” (119) — to Adrienne Rich’s reflections on loss of a mother in “A Woman Mourned by Daughters” — “Now, not a tear begun, we sit here in your kitchen, spent, you see, already” (269) — these selections cover a wide range subjects within the umbrella of motherhood.
Even when the collection approaches subjects that lend themselves to easy sentimentality, the editors manage to highlight writers who never stoop to it. For example, in Section III, Living with Children, the editors select “Looking at Them Asleep,” by Sharon Olds:
- and I know if I wake her she’ll
smile and turn
her face toward me though
half asleep and open her yes and I
I wake him he’ll jerk and say Don’t and sit
up and stare about him in blue
unrecognition, oh my Lord how I
know these two. When love comes to me and says
What do you know, I say This girl, This boy.
Olds captures the moment of watching sleeping children without using a single lofty or groan-inducing adjective.
In Section IV, The Lost Child, the editors expand and give new boundaries to the idea of losing a child. In the beginning of the section, Sharon Thessen’s eloquent “Elegy, the Fertility Specialist,” allows the reader a glimpse into the experience of losing the hope of having a child. “Doors closing in swift silent succession.” she writes (115). The editors also tackle the topic of abortion by including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Mother.”(117) In Section IV, however, I longed for a stronger voice to round out the experience of losing a child. The selections on infertility, miscarriage and abortion were passionate and evocative, but the poems about the death of a child felt a bit more distant.
In the final two sections of the anthology, the editors include poems pertaining to a more theoretical vision of motherhood by including selections related to the mythology of motherhood and the meanings of motherhood. Though the collection would be excellent even without the inclusion of these final two sections, their addition encourages the reader to think beyond an individual mother’s experience and consider the images and expectations inherent in the concept of motherhood. It’s often easy to forget or neglect the historical, mythical mothers that have gone before us as we struggle with the daily work of mothering, fetching cups of juice, carpooling or attending dance recitals. These sections in Mothersongs are a good place to turn to remember those who have gone before and to find solace and enlightenment at the end of a long day with children, with words such as “Eve and Mary the mother are our stem; / All our centuries go back to them. / And delicate the balance lies / Between the passionate and wise: / Of man’s rib, one, and cleaves to him; / And one bears man and then frees him.” (Sarton 298)
The final section, Meaning of Maternity, closes with the inspired words of Sharon Olds, that, in my view, also apply to what the editors have done with this volume:
- I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.
So next time you have a baby shower to attend, order a copy of Mothersongs, and give a lucky mother-to-be the chance to find encouragement, understanding, comfort, and inspiration in the pages of this beautiful anthology.