To be a parent is to know fear. Will a pregnancy be “successful?” Will I raise a healthy child? Will I maintain my sanity? I am a physician and a mother and struggle with these common anxieties, including how to discuss them with my patients. Textbooks, websites, and well-meaning advice can only do so much. Sometimes quiet introspection is needed. So, my “prescription” is as follows: push all those questions to the periphery, find a quiet spot, take a deep breath, and explore Viable, a new book of poetry by Chloe Yelena Miller. In the hours I spent reading and rereading the collection, it reminded me how a writer’s beautifully crafted words can help a reader gain awareness, insight, and appreciation.
The experience of motherhood touches us all, even those who may not describe themselves as mothers. We all have mothers or know mothers, are partnered with mothers, or respond to an occasional shriek, “Mom!” Many mothers read plenty about parenting, but find popular press articles may vary in their level of proscription and often lack depth that they seek. Most of what I read related to parenting leaves me feeling guilty for whatever I’m not doing enough of or in the “right” way. Though, I felt completely different reading Viable. This slim book of poetry reminded me how thankful I am to be a mother, allowed me the time to reflect on experiences I hadn’t thought of in years, and gave me permission to laugh and cry at the moments that are personal and universal to all mothers.
Miller’s book of fifty-eight poems is a chronological exploration of her road to parenthood. The first three sections of the book, “Carried,” “Carrying,” and “Carry,” represent the author’s miscarriage, ensuing pregnancy and C-section, and first year of motherhood. A final section called “Apologies” includes several poems addressed to her children, one living and one miscarried. In poems of varying length, Miller explores her halting, at times heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful, steps to motherhood.
The poems in the first section, “Carried,” are particularly powerful. I was struck by the verse in “Short Duet/Dualities,” which takes place in a medical office.
On the medical screen, a rounded sac, galactic space debris. That
particular quiet of a single heartbeat.
Words’ rhythm originates in blood flow, the opening and closing
of chambers. Internal iambic pentameter. Here I am, left with one
song. The doctor probes, searches for you where you were.
I remember with perfect clarity waiting to hear my child’s heartbeat at an early doctor’s visit. The room was eerily silent in anticipation, and I recall the desperation in waiting to hear the second heartbeat. Miller’s poems speak of these shared experiences in gentle yet profound ways, especially in her expressions of grief. For instance, in “Italian Vocabulary: Gravidanza,” Miller’s stark verse explores the “graveness of miscarriage / lack of a grave” and depicts the profound emptiness of pregnancy loss. In “Objects” she writes, “To mourn a woman, / carry her picture, wear her lapel pin. / There’s nothing to wear / or carry after a miscarriage.”
Viable delves into themes of love and loss, the changes motherhood brings to both body and mind, and the way expressing oneself in another language, in Miller’s case, Italian, can help us to reexamine the vocabulary we use to describe fertility, pregnancy, birth, and parenting.
Poetry offers time and space to explore word choice in a way prose may not. Is a delivery only “successful” if it results in a vaginal birth? How much time do medical professionals take to think through the language we use to describe childbearing? As Miller points out in her poem titled “Prune,” the doctor compares the growing fetus to various foods, “a gummy bear, / pea, kidney bean, grape.” It’s not just parents who are afraid to hope, there is something about using clinical language, dancing around the awesome potential of new life, that feels safer and less intense. It’s far easier for a clinician to talk through a list of things to eat, drink, or avoid than it is to open a conversation around the amount of hope and awe that is contained within a woman’s belly. In her poem “Pregnancy,” Miller collects various advice:
Collage from popular pregnancy books
Beat the clock!
Get on the expectant express faster.
Wondering when your eggs will be ripe?
There is nothing you can do about your age.
Most expectant and seasoned parents are familiar with the lengthy set of instructions that suddenly appear once pregnancy is on the horizon. I, too, am guilty of focusing on reviewing this information with patients who are trying to conceive: Don’t eat fish high in mercury, don’t eat anything unpasteurized, don’t. . . . I couldn’t help but smile in understanding as I read Miller’s poem “Italian Vocabulary: Pericolo”:
Soft cheeses, dusty stuffed animals, caffeine, cured meats,
and, disassembled in my parents’ attic,
my childhood crib with wide-spaced slats and drop-down sides.
What mistakes will I make?
Have I already made?
While a serious and thoughtful writer, Miller gives the readers clues to her wittiness as well. For so many of us, humor is essential in surviving parenthood. I often tell myself that if I can find anything to laugh about in a challenging situation, then I can find my way out of it. I appreciate that Miller seems to agree with this sentiment, especially since poetry on topics like miscarriage and pregnancy might lack lightheartedness due to their serious nature. This is not always the case in Viable. In the poem “I Knew,” from the third section “Carry,” the author writes candidly of the details of her own body after giving birth, “Only my breasts and hands would be remembered in photographs.” I connected with many lines in the book and nodded in solidarity at the author’s poignant expressions of shared discomfort for that singular gift motherhood has for highlighting our inadequacies, real or perceived. From the poem “Guide to Baby’s First Year”:
Pediatrician’s handout says your fingers should interlace
over your heart, reach for your feet, grasp smaller objects.
Check, check, check,
None of the pages offer bullet-point instructions
on how to twist my body to hold your head steady
between my chest, arms and thighs.
A unique aspect of Viable is how the author, fluent in Italian, interjects the vocabulary of her second language into the poetry she writes. While I am not a speaker of the language, I appreciate how incorporating Italian throughout her collection enables the writer to explore deeper meanings of words and themes her poems explore. There is also something to be said for how another language can create necessary distance and a diverse perspective on personal and universal experiences. I wonder if Miller uses Italian in a way that isn’t completely translatable, the way I struggle to explain the meaning of the Yiddish words I use in times of frustration or intense emotion. In her poem, “Italian Vocabulary Lullaby: Tutto”:
We are all together.
We’re all together.
Tutti, tutti, tutti.
You have everything you need.
This poem reminds me of how we often find ourselves repeating words to our children, sometimes in nonsensical ways that eventually begin to mean something we may not have intended. I made up songs of my children’s names—that they can now sing back to me—in an attempt to lull them to sleep in infancy. Miller’s poems with Italian verse evoke a similar feeling of nostalgia and comfort.
My favorite poem in the collection happens to be the last one. “Your Creation Story” tells intimate details of how Miller and her partner met and created their child but whose theme rings universally true for any parent. There are several variations on the beginning of our stories, but I hope that they all end in a way similar to the words below:
It comes to this: Your creation is yours.
I was your home; now we all nudge you forward,
make room for you to see out.
Balancing between the creek and trees,
we walk the pipe path.
Sometimes you run ahead, but
we keep you in our sight.
The poems in Viable, while intimately the author’s story, resonated with my experience of parenting, on many levels. Through her poetry, Miller poses many of the same questions I have, and similar to the ones that puzzle other parents. How do we mark something that is lost while also sustaining hope for the future? How do we stay present for our children yet give ourselves space to reflect on the past? How do we hold hope and fear in the same hand? How can we support one another without resorting to trite sayings?
Poring over this collection may be a step toward understanding how to solve the conundrums of motherhood and parenting, even for those not inclined to read poetry. The poems in Viable are so accessible, the language so clear, that anyone entertaining these thoughts and open to broaching these conversations will find it compelling and comforting.