A Review of What Kind of Woman: Poems
What Kind of Woman: Poems
by Kate Baer
Harper Perennial, 2020; 112 pp.; $15.64 (Paperback)Buy Book
Kate Baer is a poet for modern times. Candid and authentic, her debut poetry collection, What Kind of Woman, a slender edition, is robust with emotion-evoking lines whose captivating tales speak to all women, wives, and mothers. With stunning clarity, Baer’s poetry shines a light on the female identity and how writing about our experiences can bond us together.
What I appreciated while reading Baer’s introductory volume—multiple times, I confess—is how each poem provides an immersive experience. I felt dropped into her world, and gleaned parts of mine, through the relatable words she’s chosen to capture ordinary and uncanny instances of awe, chaos, heartbreak, and multiple levels of love. Her poems cast a new light on the essence of being female, the truths of womanhood, and the authenticities of motherhood. Baer’s poetry has opened my eyes to the craft and the merits of creatively sharing about what has shaped us into becoming.
“Moon Song” is one of many poems in the collection that showcase the intrigue and passion of this poet, and reveals how her proclamations seem so familiar. Through the written word, poetry no less, I have connected with a kindred spirit. Baer’s no-excuses poetry proves to readers she understands the dichotomized struggles they face, and certainly normalizes the internal questions I’ve fought in my own life. The poet gives her readers permission to be fully alive: “You may be a woman of / commotion and quiet. Magic and brain. / You can be a mother and a poet. A wife and / a lover.”
Split between three sections (Part I, Part II, and Part III), readers will follow Baer’s trajectory from single woman to wife and mother. The collection begins with the poet admonishing her younger version in “Advice for Former Selves” with an urgency to “Burn your speeches, your instructions, / your prophecies too.” And ends with the poem “For My Daughter on a Bad Day” advising, “There / is no remedy for a bad haircut or ruined / love like time.” From cover to cover, readers will appreciate the poet’s refreshing insight and intimate verse.
In Part I, Baer traverses past romantic relationships, cherished time with girlfriends, the effervescence of her youthful spirit and freedoms, as well as naivete, false choices, and regrets. The frightening hand dealt in “College Boy” raises the pulse and turns the stomach with a glaring depiction any one of us who socialized in a crowded bar can relate to: “(Did you know when you bait a deer / it’s called a violation, but when you poison / a girl it’s called a date.)”
Every turn of the page is like another woman revealed and mirrors the rich lives we lead and relate to, as the poetry moves from internal plight to other-centered struggles. The poet cares for the “slip of a girl” within “Plot Lines for Female Leads,” presents an in-your-face-meant-to-open-your-eyes mocking, judgmental, staccato tone in “Female Candidate,” and tackles overly-accepted and misguided assumptions in “Fat Girl.” Baer’s ability to create profound verse from the practical bits of our world is one of the hallmarks I find so compelling about her book of poetry.
I equally enjoyed how the poet writes frequently in honor of friendship and the female bond, and our relationships with ourselves. “Robyn Hood” speaks frankly to readers as if they were the author’s trusted, lifelong companions. Baer invites all of us to trade wasted moments of dieting, obsessing over our flawed bodies and judging by appearances, for daring to remove the shackles of, outward and internal, abusive body image:
Imagine the minutes that would stretch
into hours. Day after day stolen back like
. . . The years welcomed home
in a soft, cotton dress.
The poet returns to negative body perception multiple times in refreshing and poignant ways, emphasizing the scrutiny we women and mothers undergo inside our minds, hurl against one another, and are subject to by our thin-obsessed culture and some inconsiderate men. This imperative point is perhaps most directly addressed in “Like a Wife,” the first poem in “Part II,” beginning with these incredible, yet sadly relatable, lines: “The week before my wedding, my friend’s dad said: / just don’t get fat, like other wives do.” I found the twist of revenge following that gutting verse, the laugh-out-loud turn of fate the poet writes for that ill-spoken man, a delightful surprise. Readers will enjoy examples of Baer’s wittiness sprinkled throughout the book. Her ability to share an inkling of wry humor is quite refreshing and further humanizes poetry for all readers.
The middle section of What Kind of Woman immerses readers deeply and deliberately into delicate and somewhat difficult subjects: passionate lovers, piercing fears, the banality of normal familial living, and likening life to poetry. The author writes beautifully even when crafting poems of life’s greatest struggles and the most trying aspects of marriage, such as in “Curveball.” The poem’s voice recalls the vast valleys of isolation and long-suffering a marriage can endure, yet offers hope in the end. Despite the hardships, love can bloom, the poet declares: “That even in our darkest hours, / I still wait for the sound of your feet at the door.”
If you’ve ever said something in betrayal of your truth, you will cling to the poet’s “What I Meant.” If you have ever questioned the ups and downs of marriage, you’ll appreciate “For the Advice Cards at Bridal Showers” and the guidance it offers, “For now just remember how you felt the day you / were born: desperate for magic, ready to love.” If you’ve ever dreamed of running away, you’ll feel understood by the words of “Fear of Happiness.” If you’ve ever hoped for a rewind or a do-over, you’ll recognize the poet’s vow of repentance in “After a Psychic Tells Me I’m Going to Die,” a litany of how she intends to turn her life around. “I’ll be good,” she writes. “I’ll be the wife and / keeper. I’ll do anything just to live.” If you have ever thought twice or wondered aloud if your mere existence is meaningful—whether the female experience, marriage, and motherhood stories matter—read this collection and be fortified for the journey.
Many readers will be transfixed, as I was, by the poem, “Deleted Sentences” and the way the verse reads like a phone call to a spouse, or a conversation held solely inside a wife’s head. The poem starts, “Dear husband. Dear lover. Dear darling of my / heart” and propels into a litany of run-on thoughts and objections before pausing with a tender moment she witnessed: “In the morning I saw you dancing with / our daughter and for a moment I almost cried.” The poem picks up speed by questioning the husband in intervals, as the woman’s mind spirals to a dark space, as she continually beckons, “What time will you be home?” How often, in pre-pandemic days, had I, myself, had eerily similar conversations with my husband on his way home from work, only to be interrupted by the squeals and shrieks typical of the witching hour, stirring pots as my children tugged, clawed, and crawled on me while I desperately awaited my husband’s safe return?
One of the most tender poems in the collection is “What Kind of Man.” Baer gallantly portrays a husband, sensitive and strong, so moved by his wife’s ardent labor, who gladly accepts the badge of fatherhood and revels in the doing, shuns beloved pastimes for the family’s sake, refines his flawed self, and rises above the suffering to become “A steady ship inside a tireless storm.”
As much as Baer reveres the sanctity of marriage, she is also a truth-teller about the mundane, the dips and valleys of relationships, the turning of backs and the holding on, the wishing for the reinvigorated passion of early marriage, the arguments, and the questioning that plagues many couples: Would we survive without the children? The poem “On Our Anniversary” ends with the hovering question, “Who are you without our daughter’s / laugh? Without their bodies asleep / in our bed?” Baer’s poetry calls upon readers to name their fears, shed their skin, and fight for the relationships worth holding on to—partners, children, and self.
The third and final section of What Kind of Woman is replete with pregnancy poems, lyrical proclamations of the role of motherhood, joys and fears for our marriages and children, and the poet grappling with, as most mothers will do, the preservation of self. “Back to School Shopping” begins with a list of supplies and rapidly nose-dives into a mother’s anxiety about sending her child to school in the midst of a societal terror attacking innocent grounds. She holds back her fears for her child’s sake and keeps the questions internal:
. . . I do not tell you
I am afraid. Last night they played the screams of some
people dying. Last night they showed their guns in the
air. How does a mother hold her terrors? How does
a school become a haunted place?
Baer’s poems on motherhood resonate on multiple levels. The varied subjects and emotions touched on through her poetry have wide-ranging appeal. One can’t help but appreciate the snark in “Bus Stop” and the magnitude of “On the Evening of Her Birth,” and nod in recognition of a mother labeling the world for her child in “The Martian”: “Take my hand, this is what we call the world. / Sometimes we call it the earth, the most gentle / of words. Other times, a heaping pile of shit.” There are clever twists and satisfying repetition of touching themes woven throughout the book as the poet evolves from pre-pregnancy days to the most complex of roles—mother—sharing with readers an intriguing, fresh, introspective, honest book to read.
Kate Baer’s open tone makes poetry accessible to all readers and every type of mother. The poems in What Kind of Woman are not intimidating by any means, despite their depth and breadth of subject and feeling. The book will easily resonate with a range of readers because the poet has generously written words with sentiments emulating universal truths. Like a dear friend, this remarkable collection invites every woman into the realm of poetry, helps us to question and reveal our complex natures, investigates the nuances of motherhood and marriage, all her subjects summoned without judgment. Baer’s poetry will invite readers to inner-reflection, and compel them to courageously consider, “What kind of woman am I?” With clever transparency, the author’s lyrical works are an audacious call to proclaim every facet of ourselves.