Life as It, a new book of poems by Daneen Wardrop, Professor of English at Western Michigan University, takes readers into the beautiful yet mundane moments of motherhood while using imagery that is often based in art, faith, and music. The book, divided into six sections, is made up of brief prose poems that each accumulate an idea, memory, or image and add depth to its meaning.
These poems are lyric, often abstract, cyclical, and complex; images enter a poem, become fragmented, and reappear in new ways through each section. Readers are continually brought to new places, and it is not always apparent how the poet arrived there; but repeated images and topics help provide clues, creating a layering of thought and memory.
Buddha and St. Teresa make appearances in many poems, providing advice, solace, comparison, and wisdom that relate to the narrator’s situation in a poem. Sometimes Buddha and St. Teresa appear separately and other times they are together to offer insight into the narrator’s mindset, which often leads the narrator to her daughter LiLi. The poems that include her daughter are some of the most beautiful in the collection. In “Tireless,” Wardrop writes:
Snow is tireless and so is falling. Buddha watched Teresa cross the gravely landscape, starting in the evening when the ground cooled enough for her to place her feet on it: toenails ten moons . . . This winter I would like to tighten my hearing so I can mark the lightning withheld in a flake. I go up and bed sit, put my hand on LiLi’s chest, feel her heartbeat.
Sometimes, Buddha and St. Teresa lead the narrator to realizations about motherhood and the world around her. Other times, a poem will begin with the self, move to a lover or other significant person or moment, then bring in the wisdom of St. Teresa and conclude in a different place. One such poem is “Third.” “If I could live on a note it would be mi. As it forms a two-tone chord with the note, do . . . The important thing is not to think much but to love much, says Teresa . . . He and I find third and fifth harmonies with the sparrows stringing past us.” St. Teresa seems to intrude on the narrator’s thoughts, providing new ways to consider the familiar.
The poems in Life as It often begin and end with the same story or situation, while the center of the poem illuminates this situation through a different image or experience. For example, in the poem “A Race,” Wardrop begins the poem with her daughter LiLi and her friend collecting “slugs to set up a race in the driveway.” But then she quickly takes readers to St. Teresa, who “seriously ill, fell into a coma and woke three days later during her own funeral rites, wax already poured to seal her eyes.” The following sentence reads, “I’m startled in moments of darkest July to find I’m held to the world by the ravel of guitar riff, trill of a cardinal.” She uses the darkness of St. Teresa’s situation to bring to focus and explore her own detachment from certain events. And then, she ends back at the moment of LiLi playing with her friend. “Some minutes ago the girls abandoned the race.” Wardrop requires her readers to draw comparisons across situations in order to get at a larger truth.
Wardrop acknowledges that mothers, with their multiple identities and roles, can feel a sense of being outside themselves, and she uses St. Teresa to help show this. Toward the beginning of the book, in the poem “Unnumbered,” she begins, “In some states of ecstasy, Teresa found she was both a me and a her together in the same rough dress.” In a later poem titled “Begin,” Wardrop writes about her daughter napping. “She sucks as if she thinks around her thumb. The day is the day: dozing on a blue chair, a woman. That would be me.” One’s sense of selfhood does not just consist of one self or feeling; Wardrop acknowledges that the need for looking outward and then back inward to realize that the woman living this life is more than just a mother.
In addition to all the prose poems, there is a series of poems in the third section that each have the same title “Caesura.” Seemingly influenced by Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes, white space, and abstractions (which is also evident in a footnote to the poem “Nth”), Wardrop elegantly uses silence as a way to provide room for her images to grow in the minds of readers. The “Caesura” poems have tracks of white space moving vertically and horizontally through them to address ideas of erasure: the act of erasing and pondering what has been erased. The images in these poems move readers into nature’s space, and because of their brevity, act as sparks, or very brief instances of beauty. In addition to her three books of poetry, Wardrop has also published books of literary criticism on Emily Dickinson, which has clearly impacted the way she writes about nature and womanhood.
Part one and part six of the book highlight experiences of motherhood more than the sections in between. The second section has many details taken from art and music, where Hendrix and Clapton make appearances as well as St. Teresa, sitting “in the lap of God, holding music in her mouth.” The fourth section focuses on the cold and warmth of bodies, mostly in November and in nature, with phrases reminiscent of Emily Dickinson. The fifth section focuses more on relationships as well as one’s self-worth and beauty, especially in the poem “Traffic Light,” which interweaves self-motivating phrases from a Christina Aguilera song with descriptions of being stopped at a traffic light.
Wardrop uses mundane moments to add humor and thread experiences of motherhood and childhood with both maternal stereotypes and unexpected beauty. LiLi brings humor to poems, such as “Very” in the sixth section, where Wardrop writes:
The mnemonic LiLi’s teacher gave her for the solar system: Mom Very Enthusiastically Made Jelly Sandwiches Under No Protest. The Protest part no longer in play now that Pluto’s gone. But the Mom—man, she slaps that bread together chipper as a kindergarten teacher, sun hotter than crayoned red. What’s the mnemonic for talking to the principal about kids needing art? Mom. Enthusiastically.
Wardrop’s humor also comes through in the way she moves through a poem, taking leaps of association. In “Lie,” she writes:
I’ve read that aphasics watching a presidential debate laugh at every lie, like snow reads a landscape. It’s a watcher’s game, laughter is foil crinkling . . . Sometimes snow finishes the punchline, I suppose our bones sparkle like that . . . Meticulous sparks move by standing still in the storm, they look like tell me again.
Wardrop stacks up the many layers of simple moments to create new forms of visualization. She meanders in memory to pull out larger threads of meaning and to lift the mundane moments of our lives into beautiful encounters that demand a slow, patient read.