In Mary Crockett Hill’s poem “The Fat Cat,” one line in particular stands out: “Someone should write a manual for avoiding random horrors.” Although that manual may not exist, three recent collections of poetry — Mary Crockett Hill’s a theory of everything, Amy Lemmon’s Saint Nobody, and Rebecca Foust’s Dark Card — address how mothers reconcile a world filled with beauty and pain, attachment and loss, especially when motherhood doesn’t turn out the way we imagined it would be. If we can’t avoid life’s challenges altogether, these writers suggest, we can deal with them with in a myriad of ways: with patience and detachment, as Hill demonstrates; by embracing contradiction, like Lemmon; or with the clear-eyed honesty of Foust. Though each writer takes a slightly different tack, these three books offer the reader poems that are nothing less than roadmaps for a journey, providing us tools with which to navigate the intense connection and vulnerability we face when we love as mothers.
Throughout a theory of everything, Hill blends flights of fancy with elegant language, always grounding her poems in the honest emotion one might experience in a foreign, or difficult, situation. No matter how odd the premise of the poem (“Alien Wedding,” for example, describes a bride waiting for her lover’s spaceship), the recognizable emotional response in each case reminds the reader that vast differences in experience don’t seem to matter as much as our basic shared humanity.
Hands recur throughout these poems as a symbol of human connection in the midst of difficulties. In “Pantoum for Attachment,” a speaker argues with her Buddhist sister on behalf of her attachment to her child: “I say it makes sense I don’t want to let go / the hand of my daughter as she sleeps this morning.” Later in the poem, the speaker expands her argument:
Why should I let go
of her tender-boned, still small hand
where lies the love my grasping mother-love
builds a nest to rest in? I would make a sculpture
of her tender-boned, still small hand
— a totem to carry against the future
By the final incantatory lines, the poem itself becomes that totem, a creation to hold the present moment against the encroachment of the future. Art may not actually stop time, but this poem demonstrates how art allows us to reexperience a particular moment long after it has passed, an apt argument on behalf of attachment to the “now.” The poem’s physical presence, as well as its argument, illuminates how one poet copes with the challenges of attachment and loss to her loved ones: by creating a work of art that then becomes a signpost for a reader in her own journey through “grasping mother-love.”
Several of Hill’s poems attempt to reconcile the comfort inherent in being attached to someone and the paralyzing fear of losing those to whom we are attached. In “February,” the speaker describes a dream that could be any mother’s nightmare: “another Isabelle (not a real girl at all) / there in the tub, her face a foot under water.” In dreamlike logic, her daughter runs past the bathroom as the father hands the mother the wet, unconscious child from the bathtub, and the speaker/mother wonders, “I already had so many children. / How could I possibly mother this broken girl?” When the speaker finally wakes, she finds “my true daughter’s hand / tucked in the sleeve of my gown / where she’d found it, silent, in the night.” As this poem attests, concern for our children’s safety shadows the joy of our intense connection to them. By bravely confronting her fears, both imagined and real, Hill creates a deeply satisfying collection of poems that explores the paradox of attachment and its resultant threat of loss, allowing the reader to experience that same paradox as a well-defined whole.
Amy Lemmon, in her book, Saint Nobody, also confronts the heartache of trying to keep a child safe from harm, poetically reconciling the power and the vulnerability we experience when we love another person intensely. The eponymous poem, for example, resounds with a mother’s understanding that she is neither blessed nor cursed by having a child with Down syndrome, yet sometimes feels both like a saint and like nobody at all. After the speaker complains that “Lately the pain is sharpest where my wings would be,” the poem moves fluidly between literary allusions (William Blake, bits of jazz standards, and Goodnight Moon make appearances) and devastating insights, such as the speaker’s response to a friend’s thoughtless comments:
The word retarded, tossed from a dear friend’s mouth,
feels sharp as swords or stones. I am no saint.
I don’t know how you do it.
How? I don’t.
Ah, vestigial angel-parts ache to emerge.
The poem is a wonderful meditation on the contradictions a woman faces as she comes to terms with the mother she has become, rather than the one she perhaps expected to be. “Saint Nobody,” as with many of Lemmon’s poems, juxtaposes the high (sainthood, literary allusions) with the low (erasure of personhood, nursery rhymes) to depict the struggles inherent in a personal journey toward wholeness.
Unlike Hill, who frequently uses fanciful premises to navigate the paradoxes of human emotion, Lemmon’s poetry is rooted in the physical, often addressing how the body can both sustain and betray us. In “Scar,” a speaker describes her infant daughter’s body after surgery, illuminating not only the child’s fragility, but her own emotional state:
How delicately it runs down
your sternum, this seam paler
than your pale skin, sign
that something within has
been repaired and healed over.
In the NICU, this mother watches helplessly while her baby’s “face reddened in a scream silenced / by the tube pressed against your vocal cords,” which seems to describe the mother’s sense of frustration, as well. When she can finally nurse her baby again, “Tears / come with the milk, and these liquids / are all I have to give, O daughter,” further illustrating the mother’s sense of helplessness to protect her baby. Despite their pain, mother and daughter prevail, powerfully aware of their physical and emotional fragility but demonstrating their mutual strength as they learn to love and heal together.
Over the course of the book, poems flow thematically from mother love to romantic love to love of self, always with careful attention to concrete detail in the service of emotional or spiritual experience. In “Domestic Policy,” the speaker begins by recounting “the details without a speck of God”: dirty dishes and piles of laundry that suck romance and even spiritual strength out of the day. But by the end of the poem, she has come to a new understanding of what it is to love in the midst of domestic chaos:
Let us just live in the gritty cracks between,
if we’re lucky, for years and dusty years,
through dishes, grime, and yes, the laundromat,
our underwear tumbling together over and over.
From quotidian details, this poet constructs an alternate vision of connectivity, as the tumbling underwear becomes a symbol of enduring romance. Whether juxtaposing sainthood with nothingness, the strength of mother love with the inability to protect a sick child, or the banal fact of underwear in the dryer with lifelong emotional connection, Lemmon’s poems embrace the facets of one woman’s experience with humor and pathos, allowing the specific aspects of one life to become universally relatable. In this collection, Lemmon joins the disparate elements of a life together to show how brightly the human spirit can burn despite difficult circumstances.
Rebecca Foust’s chapbook, Dark Card, describes yet another difficult journey through motherhood, from her child’s traumatic birth to the challenges of understanding and appreciating his Asperger’s syndrome. Foust’s voice in these poems is intimate and clear, as if a close friend were describing the details of her life. Like Hill and Lemmon, Foust creates a holistic view of a mother’s experience by contrasting the seemingly incompatible emotions that result from frustrating circumstances.
Painfully aware of how perception of her son affects how he is treated, in the eponymous poem the speaker explains the verbal sleights of hand she performs: “I play the dark card of the idiot savant, // trotting out parlor tricks in physics and math.” She does so to redirect others’ fears of her child’s differences into appreciation for his talents: “It’s my ploy / to exorcise their pitchforks and torches, / to conjure Bill Gates when they see him, / or Einstein, not Kaczynski or Columbine.” But she knows that her methods are problematic:
But it’s a swindle, a flimflam, a lie,
a not-celebration of what he sees
with his inward-turned eye:
the patterns in everything
By reducing her son’s unique perception to “parlor tricks” to appease others, the speaker is aware that she shortchanges that same uniqueness, defining him before he can define himself. By the end of the poem, the speaker gives up her tricks in favor of naked honesty, recounting the beauty her son finds in the most pedestrian surroundings with a growing sense of wonder.
The rest of the poems follow this lead, favoring clear-eyed honesty to describe her frustration, disappointment, fierce love, and pride. When her son wakes from a nightmare in “Unreachable Child,” she struggles vainly to reassure him, as she begs, “I can help with the monster in the closet; / please let me help / with the monster in the closet,” another mother unable to protect her child from suffering. In other poems, the bullies who pick on him at school — and some teachers, and an ignorant psychologist — cause her to worry, as she says in “He Never Lies,” that he’ll “draw their attention, / their anger, their rage / …I imagine him drugged / or locked down in a ward; / in my nightmares / he’s caged.” As with most mothers, and artfully demonstrated by all three of these poets, parental fears for our children are almost as powerful as our love for them.
But as her son grows, Foust learns to understand that his uniqueness is not always detrimental. In “Asperger Ecstasy,” the speaker creates a litany of her son’s pleasures, such as “committing to memory for joyous recounting / the entire year’s schedule for the El-train,” as she marvels, “Oh, never to grow bored or experience a numbing / sameness of things!” And in “Like Dostoyevsky’s,” Foust recounts several figures from literature that she identifies as having autistic traits, including Dostoyevsky’s idiot saint, Harper Lee’s Boo Radley, and Tennessee Williams’s Laura Wingfield. Like them, she says, “My boy loves who he is, / even if the world does not / appreciate how he fills his days.” By the end of this poem, she realizes that she, too, is learning to let him be who he is:
My illiterate heart
is a mother’s heart that beats
and breaks by rote, but I’m learning
to let him alone and to see
that his pacing and humming
are how he keeps time
in a world made of chaos
Rather than redirecting attention with “parlor tricks,” Foust lays her own experience bare, allowing the reader to travel with her from knee-jerk fear to compassion for and acceptance of another’s difference.
Like Lemmon and Hill, Foust demonstrates how a mother’s fierce protectiveness, born of her intense attachment to her children, transforms into pride as she grows along with them. All three poets face life’s unexpected challenges — those random horrors — and transform them into works of art, providing readers with inspiration for their own journeys.