Becoming a mother has awakened a profound hunger for narration in me. I seek the connection, the promise of life, and the epiphanies that reading about the experiences of others offer me. Now that I am tethered so intimately to another human life, I open more fully to the lives of others. I feel initiated into a network of witnesses — the women who know the terrain of motherhood.
In her second and most recent poetry collection, Terrain, Julia Lisella presents such poems of witnessing. Deeply rooted in the personal experience, these pieces follow in the tradition of contemporary confessional poetry. They read, in a sense, like poems of sleeplessness — where everything urgently draws near — compassion, anger, regret, awe, and wonder, all present and considered equally in quiet, solitary hours. There’s bravery and range in Lisella’s ability to not shy away from any of the prickly or sentimental aspects of a mother’s experience.
Lisella divides the poems of Terrain into three sections — “Third generation,” “Heavenly bodies,” and “Considering the universe.” The groupings set up a personal history as well as a progression of time and introduce generations of parents, lovers, children, and ghosts.
In “Because My Mother Taught Me to Sew,” which appears in the first grouping of poems, the matriarchal line is conveyed as an inheritance of the past and, simultaneously, as a resuscitation.
. . . You are
my crooked sentence, my selected house,
my inability to keep anyone’s secret.
In other cultures, the ghost of your own mother
Would devour you, but here we recycle:
The ghost of her has been spit from your head
And you pile her insults
Into the depths of my hands,
Your storage, your cave, your pit,
Your blessing house, the birthing room
Of my fingers.
In the section that follows, “Heavenly bodies,” familial ghosts expand to include deceased as well as surviving children. In “Old Body,” the speaker’s miscarriages communicate a family line of grief, as well as fruitful perseverance.
I am two dead babies so far. One more
and it will be almost my mother’s story, too,
the same dumb well
that can’t wail and carry on for its own sake.
Though in comparison, my life is charmed,
. . . Still my babies follow me everywhere,
enter our dirty mixed up family with tender feet.
Joining so many other ghost babies at the table.
Loss does not beget solitude in these pieces, but rather leads to the realization of womanhood’s community. In “Grace,” which appears in the third section of poems, “Considering the universe,” Lisella uses a first-person plural speaker and prayer-like structure to underscore this sense.
It is not salt it is not oil it is not ice it is not fire.
It’s more than Jesus’ face in the stained glass.
It’s more than the glass.
It arrives even if you fear mountains,
Sounds in the woods. It recognizes your disbelief.
. . . It has visited every nation
and the house of your brother, old boyfriends,
teachers who should have chosen another profession,
also the grieving, the happy, the brave.
. . . It’s lighthearted
and it can hear you more than once. Did you
hear that? You have another chance
and another and another.
The three groupings of poems work as comfortable divisions for the reader. Reading them, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which my own motherhood might be seen as a cumulative experience, realized not only by my own decisions, but by the choices, accidents, and histories of other women. In these poems, I saw the often solitary work of mothering not as a self-contained splash in the water, but as a wave — part of a long body of water rising and breaking on the shore.
The groupings also unearth and try to make sense of the complex entanglements of motherhood — the knowledge of our own growing up, of creating and losing life, of guarding the lives we love out in the world. From the isolation of “Sinatra Days,” in which the mother switches off the radio news of bombings and unrest in order to preserve the innocence of her home, to the loss of innocence of “Birthday,” in which a daughter shares her birthday with September 11th, Lisella portrays motherhood in the greater context of lived experience.
In terms of craft, not one of Terrain‘s poems fails to be technically well executed. Lisella’s line breaks employ a consistent use of enjambment, which artfully builds an anti-pause kind of pacing, as if underscoring the constant nature of motherhood. The lines themselves contain wisdom without drama. Lisella’s chosen imagery is also deliberate without being impenetrable. A rosebush, a peace banner, a sink full of greens — each a simple offering in and of itself, but arranged against each other to create a breathtaking effect.
Lisella’s collection also impresses in the ways it may be read. Reading the poems three ways — individually, out of order, or ordered as a whole — I’m struck by the strength of each particular piece, as well as by how its immediate context enriches it. The majority, if not all, of Terrain‘s poems are beautiful, thoughtfully placed, and subsequently haunting.
It’s not the pinning down of individual moments, images, memories in which Lisella specializes as much as it is the mapping of the connections between them. In “Children,” perhaps my favorite of these poems, and the one from which the collection’s title is taken, she demonstrates this brilliantly with a series of questions:
Did you take provisions when you left me? A sample
of skin, a small tin of blood and milk?
Did you remember to forget the sloping brim
Of what held you, clasped you,
Still young enough to swim freely
But old enough to leave
Your mark here? Did you
leave anything behind
a gift for your youngest brother?
Is that why he emerged amazed and startled
And would not look at me, but at the light
Above my head? Did he mistake it
For the stories of stars you left him?
Is he glad he did not follow your fishy trail
To the middle ocean, clean, bright with the life
Of whale and shark?
It’s impossible to read this piece unmoved. Lisella’s words validate that old mother’s secret: every love, every loss, every child — living or dead — leaves its own indelible impression.
Imagine a series of time-lapse photographs of a woman (whether mother or child) superimposed over each other, the specter of each previous incarnation, each point in history never far off. Forward movement, but also — always — the ghost’s grab of everything that’s come before. That’s the terrain Julia Lisella most stunningly charts in this collection, one in which any woman in progress may find recognition, and wisdom, and hope.