Ann E. Wallace’s debut collection of poems, Counting by Sevens, is, at first glance, about the wounds we all bear as humans. Some of these wounds are borne publicly, such as the collective trauma brought on by cultural tragedy. Other hurts—those stemming from illness or personal tragedy—are endured more privately. Wallace’s poetry, with its clarity and precision, not only observes the effects of all manner of wounds, but also testifies to the specific lens that motherhood lends to hurting and to healing.
In the first section of the book, “America, Another Day,” Wallace examines wounds of a national scale without sacrificing the power of minutiae. Drawing their content from school shootings, racial, sexual, and anti-immigrant violence, and other cultural tragedies, these poems offer an active and clear-eyed commentary on the kinds of wounds that call for collective healing. Wallace’s diction is stark and reflective of the gravity of her subject matter. Eschewing metaphoric language and pathos, she instead relies on contrast and scalar shifts to convey her magnitude of feeling, as in “The Weight of Numbers” and “Cherry Picking.” In the former poem, Wallace shifts between numbers of a cataclysmic scale, such as “7,000 unique pairs of shoes laid out on the lawn” and an intimate, though no less poignant one, as in the “6 minutes and 20 seconds” of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Similarly, “Cherry Picking” contrasts the relative peace of an afternoon spent in an orchard with the horrors of racial violence, specifically lynching. These shifts and contrast create tension and gravity without relying heavily on metaphoric devices for their power.
Within these poems, the speakers’ perspectives are clearly oriented toward the role of the mother as the wounded and/or the healer. In the several poems about school shootings, as well as those that center on the detainment of refugees at the US border, it is the mother who finds herself in the center of the poems. “Cradle Will Rock,” for example, is a powerful piece, a reworking of the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” in a poetic form known as a Golden Shovel. The poem describes the horrors experienced by children detained at the border by ICE, “huddled in the / cold of cages slammed shut.” Unexpectedly, however, the poem does not end with the atrocities experienced by the children, but with the “steamrolling of the maternal will / to protect, pulverizing into dust what once was rock.”
This line galvanizes a pair of motherly anxieties that run throughout the poems in the first section of this book: that parents cannot protect their children from the tragedies of the world and that no mother can know her own child completely. This latter idea is developed especially in the poem “Silence Falling,” which also provides a transition into the second section of the book. Situated after a series of poems that deal with sexual violence, this poem describes the speaker’s shock upon finding that her daughter, during a painful fall down a flight of stairs, uttered no noise during the ordeal. The speaker of this poem wonders at the closing of the poem, “what muted / pain is / tucked deep / inside / of a girl / who does not / scream when / she falls?” This poem expresses a deep anxiety about the ability to know one’s own children completely and recognize their pain.
After the wounded immensity of the first section, the second, “Interlude,” moves further into the privacy of family. In these poems, primarily drawing their subject matter from both childhood and motherhood, Wallace’s speaker develops a resilience that hinges the public and personal tragedies that bookend it. Some of the poems, including “Prom Season” and “Measure and Stitch“ describe the speaker’s practical resourcefulness. In others, Wallace describes the various ways that mothers deal with and heal from the wounds they are dealt. In “Dare,” the speaker reflects on her toddler daughter’s gracelessness in the world: “my daughter / with bandaged knees dares the world / to hurt her.” Both the daughter and her mother are described as “scrappy and fearless,” and both heal from life’s scrapes with wonder and humor. This attitude toward the wounds of the world, however, lies in direct contrast to that which underlies “Kay’s Kitchen,” which recalls the aftermath of a childhood tangle with a blackberry bramble. In this poem, the small hurts add up to something greater: so besotted by berries, the speaker “could not feel the pain / of each tiny skin prick” until she was overwhelmed by thorns. Between these two poems, Wallace’s speaker expresses her ambivalence about the natures of pain and healing, and the role that motherhood can play in each.
In the final section of the book, “Body Rising,” Wallace turns toward the physical body and the wounds of illness and trauma. These poems, though sometimes filled with grief or fear, do not smart of bodily betrayal. Instead, Wallace’s speaker observes the physical changes with keen, but objective scrutiny, even in the face of great uncertainty. In “Numb,” the speaker offers an elaboration on the attitude expressed earlier in “Dare”; the “scrappy and fearless” speaker of the earlier poem finds her skin toughened with time and exposure, and “[the] tingling of pain / rejected” by both body and psyche. But this numbness isn’t dull or hopeless. In “Rising,” Wallace makes it clear that wounds are meant to be healed, not simply observed. Despite being “assaulted by disease, pain, disappointment” the speaker observes wonderingly that, in fact, “not small / not solitary / that body endures / that body rises.”
This is an assertion that outlines the entirety of the collection and reflects the wounds of birth as well as the wounds of the world. In “Tufted,” Wallace’s speaker provides a litany of her physical scars, which contour her midsection “like tufted / upholstery.” These bodily scars are a tangible metaphor for the myriad hurts she has borne in the world, and yet the poem settles on the weight of a single scar, “eight fiery inches,” from a Caesarian section. It is this wound, nearly “faded into a benign nothing,” that defines this poem and, ultimately, the whole collection.
Between her unflinching approach to difficult subject matter and her spare prose, Wallace has created a collection of poems in Counting by Sevens that both recognizes the wounds of the world and works to heal them.