April. Crisp and cool with budding trees outside my window. It’s Poetry Month, which has me thinking about my poetry life. More specifically, my life as both poet and mother. How I expected these two parts of myself to strain against each other, each pushing in front of the other for my attention. And how in reality they often intertwine.
A dozen years before motherhood, I’m in grad school. My mentors at New York University are the poets Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. Both write stunning poems about their children. His Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight. Her Pre-Adolescent in Spring. A classmate of mine tells me, “Your poems are so pregnant.” I’ve read her a work-in-progress in which the child I used to be lives inside my body as though I’m a layered Russian doll. There are others, including a prose poem where I sit on a smoky bus beside a man I think I love, ruminating on my desire to have a child.
But when I marry Richard, who will become my one child’s father, poetry wanes. For six years, we’re a childless couple, yet the genre that calls to me is children’s books. I take classes, set about learning that craft. I try poetic picture books and fiction for teens. Finally, Starfish Summer, a middle grade novel, and my first published book. Though I couldn’t have said it then, I now think I left my hometown of poetry because of the introspection it requires. There were gaps in my marriage I didn’t want to look at. Aspects of who I am that I put to sleep in order to stay. With my adult life closed off in this way, the world of children’s books is a safe place to linger for a time. Still, my next book, Tangerines and Tea, isn’t it a poem. I write it after finally becoming a mother, composing the rhymed couplets that make up its pages while pushing Ethan in his stroller or on the swings.
My marriage ends when Ethan is in preschool. Two years later, my mother dies at 82. Soon after, I turn forty-one. This could be the exact midpoint of my life, I tell myself. Then I ask myself a question. What am I not doing with this one life? The answer comes quickly. I’m not writing enough. I have a young adult novel-in-progress but I wait for chunks of time to work on it. They rarely come. Poems are small, I think. Then the realization: I really miss writing poems.
It’s startling how I see subject matter everywhere: losing my parents; living in a painful marriage; finding new love. And, true to my poetic lineage, I write poem after poem about my ever-changing son. I become the kind of writer I’ve never been. Prolific. Able to write despite interruption. Willing to work with the sound of cartoons leaking in from another room.
Like mothers who document the years with a camera, crafting poems about Ethan is such a part of parenting for me I can’t envision life without it. I imagine it’s similar for a mother who draws and paints. A line of sunlight follows her child’s profile in a way she finds arresting and her hands itch in their desire for a piece of charcoal and a clean sheet of paper, in their desire to replicate the image as precisely as they can.
I’ve sought the perfect word to describe the particular blonde of Ethan’s hair. Honey-colored, I wrote because, as it changes with the seasons, his hair takes on the various hues of that thick, sweet stuff lined up in jars. I’ve attempted to describe the still, not-yet animated face I glimpsed in the birthroom mirror seconds before he woke to the world. Calm as milk in its cup. The simile surprised me, both because it’s odd and exactly right. That’s the thing. I make poems about my son because that deep place in me that poetry comes from is so much smarter than I am. It makes leaps and connections I’d never come up with in simple conversation or less directed thought.
Not all of it is pretty. I’ve written about the sense of disconnection I feel over the fact that my child sleeps away from me a third of week. That he sleeps on bedding I didn’t choose and have never touched. I’ve written about the rifle he used at summer camp. How the hand that once lay splayed on my chest as he nursed has held an actual weapon, his finger pressed against the trigger to shoot.
What I’m trying to locate as I work on these poems is the feeling of being my child’s mother in a given moment; though ironically, I sometimes time travel in order to do just that. I suppose I’m luckier than the painter and photographer in this way. A shadow may eclipse that inspiring line of light before the artist mom can gather up her charcoal and pad, while the experience I hope to distill on paper is often clearer to me a decade after it occurred. Recently, I wrote a poem in which teenage Ethan is again just fifteen months. I watched his tentative first steps, noting anew how they mirrored my own palsied walk. I got it down.
To capture time. Don’t we all try to do this in our own way? Don’t we all have moments when we wish we could say to our children, be still. Stay with me in this one-of-a-kind hour. Stop, just for now, growing into the stranger both of us have yet to meet.