Founder and editor-in-chief of Whale Road Review and Associate Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University, Katie Manning scaffolds her first full-length book Tasty Other on a single fairy-tale phrase: “Once upon a time, there was a mother.” This sentence introduces each section of the book and, with each repetition, Manning deconstructs its history and meaning, word by word. Only in the ninth and final section does she unearth the definition at the crux of her book: “mother: More than her. Flying creature, tasty other, ill-defined.” Manning’s poems amplify this definition of motherhood: an experience equal parts ambivalence, hypnosis, and absurdity, with roots in both the visceral world and the phantasmagoria of fairy tales.
The experience of motherhood that Manning describes in Tasty Other isn’t sentimental, but rather oneiric and even humorous. About half of the poems in the book stem from Manning’s dream experiences. Although they often describe nightmarish scenarios (“I didn’t know I was holding you. / You’re dead.”), they manage to remain firmly planted this side of the macabre and are balanced with a playful sense of humor. “The Dream Job” offers a perfect example: in this poem the speaker, who is frantically trying to defend a nest of eggs from an ovivorous dog, finds the eggs to be filled with both the ridiculous (“a tiny, perfectly formed poodle wearing a 3-piece suit”) and the sickening (“something translucent and pink”).
These dream-poems, like the eggs in “The Dream Job,” offer an assortment of absurd scenarios that belie the anxieties and ambivalence that accompany motherhood. The topics range from fetal development (“The Minor Mutation”) to the sexuality of breastfeeding (“The Stranger”) to marital insecurities (“The Break Up”), but Manning’s candor and absurdist humor run throughout. Although these poems present a range of tones, the strongest poems retain the fantastical quality of the original dreams that inspired them. “The Fountain,” for instance plays with perspective and persona in a way that enhances the ultimate revelation of the Madonna statue at the heart of the poem. The contrast here between picturesque city and grotesque motherhood (“a bloody baby writhes on her belly, liquid / gushes from both breasts”) is made more poignant by the sudden switch to second-person narration, and the imperative of the last lines: “Look down / at your own face. Look up through her eyes.”
Manning explores other forms and subject matter beyond dreams, though. In fact, one of the persona poems in Tasty Other, “Wendy Lady,” was published in Literary Mama in 2011. In addition, she peppers Tasty Other with playful forms of her own invention. “What to Expect,” for example, is an encyclopedic poem that draws from the popular parenting tome of the same title. Working through the index from A to Z, Manning pens a hypnotic prose-poem that plays with humorous juxtaposition. “Expect / bathing, bending, botanicals, and breaking news,” she implores her reader. “Expect electric blankets and equal / employment…. Expect kick-boxing. Expect K-Y jelly.” The vast survey of topics included in “What to Expect” is not only amusing in its specificity, but it also encapsulates the barrage of questions and advice that accompany new motherhood. However, Manning’s exhaustive list does not ultimately come across as obsessive or fretful, but rather upholds the sense of absurdist humor that permeates the rest of the book. Manning makes this plain in the poem’s final lines: “Expect warts and water, workouts and witch / hazel. Expect x-rays. Expect yoga and zinc.” These lines are almost anticlimactic in their mundanity, and they draw attention back to the poem’s formulaic structure by highlighting the final letters of the alphabet. Between this renewed sense of the ABCs and the rhythm of the final items on the list, the reader is left with the sense of a sing-song, nursery-rhyme world that is at once easily cataloged and yet entirely absurd.
This nursery-rhyme sensibility—hearkening back to Manning’s anchoring phrase, “once upon a time, there was a mother”—threads through several of her dream poems as well, most notably “The Well.” This poem is disarming in form and macabre in content, but like any good fairy tale, it ultimately brings light to the ambivalence underlying the hypnotic days of early motherhood.
The poem’s unusual form performs its content remarkably well; the implications of the words deepen as the eye descends the column, like stones tossed down a well. The simple words and short lines lend a primer-like quality, as do the repetition and archetypal elements repeated here—women, babies, well, wish. Reminiscent of children’s nonsense verse in content, this poem presents a farcical solution to the problem of infertility. But this poem also says something poignant about the hypnotic cycles of early motherhood and child-rearing, as well as about the bittersweetness of children growing up. The women in the poem sacrifice their children for an endless stream of babies who ultimately do not grow up.
When Manning returns to “once upon a time, there was a mother” after this poem, she takes up the difficult task of footnoting the word time, “Which runs in circles like a clock no matter how the squares on calendars try to contain it.” This definition feels pertinent after a poem like “The Well,” which implies a cycle that runs ad nauseum into the future. But these sorts of cycles and rhythms permeate many of the poems in Tasty Other: cycles of sleep and wakefulness; of growth, development, and death; bodily rhythms such as pulses and digestion. Even her repetition and almost obsessive dissection of “once upon a time, there was a mother” create a cycle of their own. Ultimately, this heightened sense of time and timelessness enhance the dream-like quality of the poems.
Katie Manning’s collection of poems, Tasty Other, which won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award in 2016, examines motherhood with a fresh, acerbic eye and an imaginative wit. While not lacking in tenderness, Manning eschews sentimentality in order to dissect the daydreams and nightmares of the new mother in fantastical detail.