A familiar scene of motherly multitasking unfolds in “Homeland Security,” the first poem in Nicole Cooley’s new collection, Milk Dress: a woman nurses her baby while listening to the television’s “flat metallic voice” as “jets cross and recross over this city.” While watching, the woman exhorts herself to “Write against blankness, a sheet strung tight.” In a single poem, Cooley captures the thoughts of an overwhelmed new mother trying to reclaim her poetic voice in post-9/11 New York City. This prologue-poem, or “proem,” sets the tone for the rest of the book. Cooley fearlessly explores the identity crisis often sparked by life-altering experience. Specifically, she explores becoming a mother and surviving disaster — both natural disaster and those created by society — and what happens to a woman forced to deal with both simultaneously.
Cooley has authored three earlier poetry collections, a novel, and many scholarly essays. Her writing has won many prestigious awards, and she currently directs the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York. She grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside New York City with her husband and two young daughters.
Cooley’s personal experience informs Milk Dress: her pregnancy, the birth of her first child, her experience of the World Trade Center attacks and the floods of Hurricane Katrina, and finally the birth of her second child. Despite the book’s realistic narrative and chronology, readers may not assume each poem is narrated by Cooley herself. In many poems, the speaker is purposefully ambiguous, as befits a collection exploring the essence of identity. Through a range of poetic styles, Cooley examines the roles women play — mothers, teachers, poets, wives, daughters — and the conflicts raised when roles intersect.
After the opening proem, she launches into motherhood with “Self-Portrait with Morning Sickness,” in which a speaker articulates her fear of embarking toward the unknown:
My body is its own shipwreck.
No map. No vision of the shore.
Just a slow undertow pulling me
away from my old life.
The poem concludes with a science-fiction-like description of pregnancy: “Inside my skin, another // body floats.” From morning sickness through pregnancy and birth, Cooley describes a sense of betrayal by her own body as it adjusts to accommodate another, a betrayal tempered by the wonder of creating new life. This ambivalence toward motherhood, a wavering between wonder and fear, is a hallmark of the poems in Milk Dress. Indeed, Cooley does not hesitate to explore the darker side of motherhood. In “Three Documentaries: Photograph #3, Interior, Mother & Child,” the speaker worries about losing herself once she becomes a mother:
The road back to myself will be lined
with gravel, stuttered with dirt, running
through the family plots behind the house,
Mother, Beloved Mother, all unnamed.
This ambivalence toward motherhood still feels shocking, as if Cooley is breaking taboos. In “Breastfeeding at the Harvard Club,” she explores the simmering rage a new mother might experience, but keep to herself. Under a photograph of T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivian “knocking / cocktails together,” a woman nurses her infant daughter, unable to move. Quietly steaming, with photos of a notoriously sexist poet a reminder of all she is not accomplishing, she imagines breaking free:
While she feeds, the baby rests her fingers
on my tongue. I’m tired of the poet’s own voice
but can’t recall any others. Just an instrument,
this body I haven’t practiced. Eliot smiles,
sips his drink and I’d like to knock the circle of daisies
to the floor. I’d like to write about the Women’s Entrance
Vivian used. I’d like to write about silence, to flip
on searchlights to sweep the drawing room,
and set every corner burning.
The speaker’s urge to break the silence in this genteel setting is both poetic and feminist (and a little punk rock). Cooley decries the ways in which women have been silenced over the years — by husbands, by society, by their own children — and exposes the resulting anger that bides its time before bursting forth.
In “Milk,” the speaker compares herself to another woman who is knitting doll clothes at an estate sale while behind her, “through the window, // behind the glass: her children, wanting.” She expresses awe of the “still-life” mother who “never feels that deep // blue bottomless lake of a child’s too / much wanting.” As her own child begins throwing a tantrum, she wants to learn lessons from the calmer mother, like how to “Forget this dark, clotted center of myself, // crushed red plum of anger” and how to “Save this girl / I love so fiercely but still leave her. // Forget my anger boiling over like milk / on a stove.” The speaker seeks silent guidance from another mother on how to find her own calmness, somewhere between her all-encompassing love for her child and her child’s all-encompassing needs.
Motherhood so often creates a crisis of identity, and Milk Dress repeatedly addresses this confusion: if I am not who I was before, who am I? For Cooley, however, external challenges compound this crisis: Soon after her first child’s birth, the World Trade Center is attacked, making “…the baby / the same age as the war” (“Weaning”). In this poem, the mother’s newfound sense of vulnerability is heightened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as she wonders how to keep her infant safe when she feels unsafe herself. In “Couplets Toward the Future,” Cooley chooses the ghazal, an ancient Arabic form often used to describe the pain of loss and the beauty of love despite that pain. Each couplet rhymes and ends with the word “disappear,” creating an obsessive, powerful description of post-9/11 fear:
I used to ask how my body made another. Last year’s
question. Now, I ask you, how can a body disappear?
Your hands hold me. In the unmapped future,
I will refuse to let the three of us disappear.
Hope in the face of helplessness characterizes Cooley’s attempts to process each challenge she faces. In “Disaster, an Instruction Manual,” she juxtaposes dictionary definitions with brief journal-like statements to deal with both the post-9/11 climate in New York City as well as the destruction of her hometown, New Orleans, by Hurricane Katrina: “You want to save your parents, but you can’t. All you can do is watch the news, the city filling like a bowl.” At one point, she cries out: “How to make it beautiful? How to keep them safe?” This line hints at Cooley’s coping mechanism: create meaning — even beauty — out of life experiences through poetry, even when it seems impossible.
The creative act, however, produces its own tension. In italicized, untitled segments between the poems, Cooley intersperses quotations from “Love in Infant Monkeys,” the infamous 1959 experiment that exposed baby monkeys to wire or cloth “mothers” to study the mother/infant bond. Rather than focus on the babies’ responses, Cooley imagines those of the mothers, even the ones of cloth and wire: “Which mother will lie awake all night, wishing for solitude, yet wishing for her daughters’ small bodies wound into hers….” In some segments, an unnamed mother — her identity unclear — is separated from her own infant: “If I wanted to stay with her, I was told to put on the lead dress. … I tried to soothe her but the lead collar choked my voice out of my throat.” In many poems, Cooley describes women who prefer to remain emotionally aloof in order to observe, analyze, and turn experience into art, yet in these untitled segments, the act of separating from a child, physically or emotionally, creates anxiety. The speaker knows that separation from her children is inevitable, and both mourns and craves it: “I prepare myself by pretending they’re already gone. They’ve already left me. I practice the separation of mother and infant.” These segments allow Cooley to write as both scientist, analyzing what seems beyond analysis, and as mother, suffering separation from her babies, against her will or by choice.
The latter part of Milk Dress describes the birth of a second child, and the poems shift toward stability and self-acceptance. In “Hour of the Pink Flashlight,” a speaker asks herself, “What is the lesson? / How to be a stranger to yourself. How all it takes // is the smallest shift in your visual field: the two girls sleeping / beside each other, two girls who once lived in my body.” Observing herself, this speaker finds herself doing things she wouldn’t have done a few years before, such as “Sidewalk Chalk Anointing,” but now, watching her girls, she realizes that although she doesn’t love every minute, she is learning to be this new person. By the end of the poem, she seeks reconciliation with herself: “What do I want, secretly? / How to be a woman in a cocktail dress walking expertly past / our house. How to love an act and its embodiment.” Looking back at who she used to be, and who she is now, a mother sometimes feels alien to herself, but with patience and honesty, she slowly adjusts to who she has become.
The final poem of the book, “In the Anatomical Museum,” revisits the moment when the speaker braved death to become a mother. Walking through Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, she studies horrific early obstetrical tools while seeking gentler examples of midwifery: “women holding each other, women delivering.” Instead, she finds a mock-up of a labor scene that recalls “the birthing room where I had failed, // lifted off the bed on a rubber sheet and wheeled / to the surgical theater where nurses tied down my hands….” After recognizing that “a hundred years ago I would not have come back,” she returns to her present-day reality: “Now my two girls running on the lawn beyond // the museum, behind the black gate, my girls / who cannot be bodiless.” As in so many of this book’s poems, the solidity of her children’s bodies offers a touchstone for the speaker, something real to hold onto when she gets lost in her ruminations on what she, and so many other women, had been through on their way to motherhood.
Cooley describes a difficult journey, yet one negotiated with bravery and a willingness to transcribe challenge into beauty. Despite shifting perspectives and sometimes painful subject matter in this collection, this is an accessible, moving book for any woman who has endured upheaval in her life, whether becoming a mother, surviving disaster, or both. Cooley writes from a place of strength despite doubt, describing deep joy alongside fear and anger in clear, vivid language. In Milk Dress, Cooley has created a collection that will have casual and serious readers of poetry alike nodding their heads in recognition: Yes, I, too, have felt wonder and fear, and am so glad that I’m not alone.