In this beautiful collection of 51 poems, Alicia Jo Rabins captures the reader’s full attention; no easy feat in a world full of urgent news stories, cars that need fixing, undone homework, and emails that required a response last week. It is exactly this tone of messy, gorgeous family life that Rabins captures so eloquently. Much like she did in her first collection, Divinity School, which was selected for the APR/Honickman First Book Prize in 2015, Rabins relies on thorough research and her background as a Torah teacher. In Fruit Geode she applies the same technique with even more timeliness, summoning the ancient rituals of childbirth and motherhood into the modern era.
The opening poem, “Beautiful Virus,” leads with the aching, consuming love of motherhood: “You broke me open / Into death-in-life.” Mothers are the fruit geodes of the collection’s title, opening their very bodies to life. The amazing, and terrifying, opportunity of awakening to a completely new self—mother—is highlighted in the depths of these rich poems.
Rabins is unflinching in her portrayal of the physical changes that mothers endure while carrying and birthing babies. “The Vagina Healer,” and “To My Midwife” are particularly poignant birth poems. The first portrays her vision of childbirth versus the reality of her children’s births. She reimagines her birth story as more of a mythical one, rather than the medical experience it was, “Not in a magnetic field of hospital white / But under the apple tree.” The midwife as companion only through the birthing journey is compelling, “Now I am alone with my baby / And you are elsewhere.” The loneliness inherent in these poems remind us that mothers have to find their own way and keep rewriting their stories.
Rabins’s raw portrayal of the prenatal swirl of decisions, shock, judgment, and self-doubt in “Home Birth Videos” remains with the reader:
This is how I finally learn
what the body is
that cries out
again and again.
Another of Rabins’s themes that will resonate with many readers is shame. Mothers are frequently judged and shamed for the smallest perceived infractions, such as not putting a hat on the baby or letting a toddler have screen time. In “The Monastery of Motherhood,” she names the challenge of facing our own rage toward small children’s misbehavior, even as we know we would lay down our lives for them, “And so in the monastery / of motherhood I find the devil / in my own heart.” Mothers are held to an almost biblical standard, expected to rise above their normal emotions and to be transcendent in every moment with their children. Yet, what mother has not felt ashamed over the depth of her anger toward the innocents in her care?
“My Baby Cry” paints a familiar picture of what it’s like to be the noisy neighbors with a sobbing babe, “Ashamed as usual of our blood & noise.” Rabins hints toward healing in “Exit Interview,” when she cuts through the trepidation of new motherhood and moves toward acceptance and the shared truths of how hard motherhood is: “When you grow into your own pain / Then we can talk.”
At least half a dozen of these striking poems carry a poignant thread of time’s passage. In “Cradle Cap,” Rabins likens her baby’s dry scalp to what it may be like in their final moments—summoning the concept of cradle to grave and the devastating truth that she is unlikely to be at her child’s deathbed. A funny little poem, “Isis Lactans,” lightens the collection by documenting the daily balance of nursing while typing (one-handed, of course). With this snapshot, Rabins highlights how mothers keep going and do what needs to be done outside of the intimate domestic sphere, even while nourishing their children.
In “One Last Goodbye,” she pays homage to her former, naïve self, “To the one who got everything she wanted / And never once realized.” Closing the poem with the heartbreaking image of all mothers giving and then the ultimate sacrifice of letting their children go:
Of my own heart to offer sunflowers to the angry gods
The one who was alone
I bury those minutes in the garden as the baby
Grows free of his babyness
And walks away.
The longest poem, “Letter to the Moon,” also speaks to the temporary, beautiful images that make up childhood:
You know what I mean, moon, these details
Asking to be savored before we melt: the grass,
Bent down by small feet. The bees
Nuzzling clover, playground shrieks,
Blue plastic pool where we cool our ankles
And suck on lemonade popsicles
That my past self made last week.
The snatched images of “small feet” and “playground shrieks” are a reminder that children are not little for very long. Rabins captures the idea that motherhood itself is fleeting and ever-changing. The poem urges mothers to heed the passage of time, that while the depths of parenting can be hard, they will not last. They are “asking to be savored before we melt.”
As Rabins so masterfully captures in Fruit Geode, the years of raising babies and toddlers are full of physical and spiritual toil, but are also a time of transcendent moments. The raw honesty and metaphors of water, fruit, and crystal speak to the hard core and soft vulnerability that are exposed when we become mothers.