Even the most casual of mothers is not immune to fear. From bullies and fevers to natural disasters, discrimination, and war, raising a child can leave us sleepless. Writers I adore, such as Louise Erdrich, Wanda Coleman, Brenda Shaughnessy, C.D. Wright, and Maggie Nelson, tackled these issues even before they became mothers but especially afterwards. And the Brooklyn poet and editor Laura Sims, whose work I discovered while browsing the shelves at Seattle’s all-poetry bookstore Open Books, joins these ranks beautifully. In fact, the central concern of her four poetry books is obsession with what scares her the most—from the death of her mother to terrorists, serial killers, and the imagined apocalypse. As a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, she said:
Now that I’m about to pass into middle age, now that I’ve had a son and want to hold tight to each joyful, exhausting, bountiful, maddening day, I’ve dropped all interest in darkness and doom. Except in my poems…. I feel like I’ve learned, slowly and painfully, how to channel the insights gained from touring the abyss into my work and then get the hell out of there.
Sims’s distinct style of terse, intense lines makes her work especially fascinating for fellow frazzled mothers. She seems to construct poems as a sculptor, whittling away the unnecessary until what is left pulses with energy. For several years, Sims, who teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SPS and is a co-editor of Instance Press, shared work with a group she affectionately termed “The Brooklyn Poet Moms.” The members would bring their small children to play while the adults read poems. As any mother knows, a room full of small children does not make for much focused attention, but being around other writers ensured that the conversation easily flowed from parenting commiseration to poetic craft. Sims’s poem “What Breaks” feels made for mothers:
When I move
The ‘booms’ and panics
This excerpt is from her second book, Stranger. The book’s poems center on Sims’s own mother’s life and illness and their mutual difficulties surrounding it. Her mother died at only 49, when Sims was 19. Laura told me:
I would attribute most of my obsession with death to my mom’s early death from cancer, but I was anxious about death well before that. I remember sitting in class in elementary school and realizing I would die someday; I went cold and goosebumps sprouted up and down my arms. It may have been my first adult realization—that I would die and there was no escaping it. Death is a huge part of life—death is life—so even though I joke about being a doom-driven lady of darkness, what I’m exploring is an undeniably central aspect of life.
In her third poetry book, My God Is This a Man, Sims explores death, life, and humanness through the integration of many sources—a mash-up technique she uses often in her work. “My writing (my poetry, anyway) is deeply influenced by music, film, and TV,” says Sims. In this case, Sims read “the confessions, interviews, letter and journal entries of, with, and by convicted (or suspected) murderers.” She allowed their words and ideas (as well as language from the Boston Marathon bomber’s confession) to influence and filter into her work. She also incorporated language from a “bedtime relaxation” meditation audio file from MIT into the book. The effect is a poetry page-turner where there are moments of deep beauty and unexpected empathy combined with moments of terror.
Kathleen DelMar Miller, in her Poetry Project Newsletter review of My God Is This a Man, said, “Sims’s writing occupies a transitional space, a space that hovers where the action hasn’t yet happened and is also already over. . . . Sims focuses not on the violent acts themselves but on the internal and external environments that support and perpetuate them.” One of the most phenomenal sequences in the book is about gun violence, as in this excerpt:
Walk into a Costco with guns. Walk into a coffee shop with guns.
Walk into a party store
with guns. Walk into a wedding shower with guns. Walk into a
weight room with guns
“Becoming a mother,” Sims told me, “left me feeling thin-skinned and constantly primed for disaster. I’ve become habituated to the feeling, and maybe it has lessened a bit as my son has grown older (he’s in first grade), but I am still easily freaked, and constantly imagine terrible scenarios. Some of them outlandish, others not so outlandish at all.”
In her latest book, Staying Alive, Sims imagines the most disastrous scenario of all—an apocalypse. But, even then, her signature graceful form and style encourage us to linger in the uncomfortable:
Nonetheless. Will it
Ends and another thing ends
But you you
Fawn on the ground in the shape of your
Basest self. It’s an infinite
Blur? The future
When I asked her if writing about the things that terrify us, as mothers, somehow purges her of those notions, she said:
Even when I’m verbalizing terrifying things, I tend to go broad. It’s a subconscious form of self-protection. I would like to say yes, that I purge the terrifying things and then go about my business, but even after I’ve written them down, they still haunt me. So, yes, there is a purging or a placing of these ideas outside myself and onto the page, but . . . the ideas always circle back.
Still, unlike her other books, this book was written partially in response to her young son’s questions (featured in the afterword), such as: “Were we alive in the old days?” and “What happens to people who die?” and “What’s at the end of space?”
Sims even dedicated Staying Alive to him, but, like all her books, this work feels more universal than particular to her personal life. When asked if she feels the need to address her desires for her son in her work, Sims replied:
I’m rarely, if ever, specific in my work. Maybe it’s old-fashioned of me, but I can’t bring myself to write so directly—or even indirectly—about family life. I feel that my work is sometimes excruciatingly intimate but, simultaneously, somehow, not personally revealing at all. Certainly not in the autobiographical way that would allow me to speak my desires for [my son] Caleb’s life. They are simple anyway: I want him to live long and be healthy, both mentally and physically. I want him to have a passion or a passionate vocation. I want him to form deep friendships and find a worthy significant other to build a family with. It is also true, though, that in my days since becoming a mother, I’ve been more able to stay in the moment and to feel more optimistic in general. I don’t spend so much time dwelling on darkness. How could I with my son’s ebullient presence filling every day?
It is easy to see yourself in Sims’s books, struggling to care for your family and yourself and, yet, retaining hope, acknowledging beauty. As mothers, we work to protect not only the lives of our children but their hopes as well. Laura Sims’s work, no matter the subject, echoes this desire: