In Sonia Greenfield’s Letdown, elegantly crafted prose poems weave a narrative of the heartbreak of imperfect motherhood. We move chronologically through the poet’s pregnancy, birth, subsequent miscarriages, and her son’s hospitalizations as he is diagnosed with autism and epilepsy, and we travel closely with her through her hopes and disappointments as she delivers us raw, candid, and beautifully narrated poems. The poignancy of having a child later in life, of her body’s ultimate failure to deliver her everything that she wants, and of her inability to control and protect all she loves are themes that Greenfield wrestles with throughout this collection. We agonize with her as she experiences the push-pull tension of love for her son, her joy and sorrow for his differences, and her grief for her body’s failure to create the viable second pregnancy she so desperately desires.
Greenfield’s deeply felt poems cover a range of topics—rage, love, miscarriages, and sorrow—that arrest us in their honesty and woo us with their beauty as they document the intensely emotional, finely wrought experience of a mother’s roller coaster ride of want and have. The pieces also create the sense that we are delving into a very private world, as if we are reading a diary. And like a diary, rather than giving each poem a title, Greenfield numbers her poems. In doing so, Greenfield gives us a sense of passing time and mounting days, as if the experiences of motherhood are stacked up in a pile of blurred experiences.
A constant thread throughout this collection is a sense of shame. The speaker in these poems addresses her difficulty in finding satisfaction—she knows she has “enough,” but wants more, and feels both sorry and justified in that wanting. In “No. 37,” she says:
Someone says to me, This is really about shame, isn’t it? Shame in that I can’t be satisfied with what I have. . . .Someone says to me, You chose to put your professional life
before seeking motherhood. But that wasn’t it. I waited until I was safe. . . . Someone says to me,
He seems normal to me. . . . Someone says to me, This is all because you wanted another baby.
I knew I was to blame. Someone says to me, Why can’t you be happy with what you have?
We don’t know who these “someones” are—friends perhaps, random people, or arbitrary voices in the speaker’s mind. But it doesn’t matter. What we know is that the woman in these poems is tortured by her desires for more children or a perfect child and her sense of feeling like a failure because she does not have either. How many of us mothers can relate to this desire for perfection, for just one more thing to fall in line to make us “good” mothers? Greenfield wants to feel differently—to accept her reality, to celebrate what she does have: a beautiful, if different, child. Sometimes, the world seems to be assisting her in her quest to find acceptance, like in the poem “No. 19,” where she writes:
Another heat wave, and succulents send up pink kerchiefs. . . . on the electric box at the bottom of the hill, I find street art of a man with a bird’s head, and it has a written reminder for me: You already have everything you need.
But Greenfield can’t help but want more, trying to get pregnant while caring for her son, who has frightening seizures that leave her feeling powerless.
As we crawled through the interchange, late sunlight glaring off game-day traffic, you seized. . . . I wouldn’t say I watched, couldn’t say I stared, won’t say I saw when your mouth went slack and your eyes rolled white. All I could do was throb.
Living in traffic-packed, heat-razed Los Angeles, she navigates the terrain of “enough” while making her way through days in the city, searching for green spaces, entertaining her child in traffic jams, all familiar ground for mothers living away from family in American cities, where parks are few and isolation is extreme. In “No. 22,” she writes:
Joy is pocket-sized. Like quarter rides. We could ignore the patina of grime on the pagodas of Chinatown where dusk dropped wet against the steamed window of the dumpling shop, which was one bead on a string that went herb shop, gold Buddha shop, bonsai shop, repeat, until pinwheels in the pinwheel store turned to the breeze and you said, Bye wind, then blew kisses I tried to catch.
Her son’s innocence and beauty and her awareness of his potential difficulty in the world haunt her constantly even as they are out enjoying a park or a playground. His autism, the difficulties he has in controlling his body, his “weird energy,” as she calls it, all affect her daily life deeply and, in these pieces, Greenfield is walking the tightrope of love and fear we all walk when we mother a child or children; the questions she asks are the questions we all ask ourselves: “Can I love my child enough? Will my child be ok? Will I?”
The author’s worries about her son—his health, his life—are woven inside these delicate poems with an obsessiveness only mothers can really understand. One of the most moving parts of this collection are her poems relating a few experiences she has meeting with parents who have lost children. She is stunned by the potential grief that motherhood carries in its arms—that the children we tend will die, maybe before we do. That potential horror is something that all mothers face, and she delves deeply into her fear, connecting us with the universality of the terror mothers feel for the safety of their children. In “No. 29,” Greenfield writes with alarm: “They found the body of the nonverbal boy in the East River. He was obsessed with subways. It is said they all love trains.” We feel her concern for her own autistic son, her worry that his difference could put him in harm’s way. And even while she tries to shield her son, she cannot.
In “No. 35” she writes: “Side Effects: Ever since your wings sprouted, I keep trying to tether you, but you flutter off before I can reach your ankle.” This is a universal truth of mothering—no matter how we try to keep them safe, ultimately, we cannot.
For Greenfield, words are a way to connect with her son, and herself. In “No. 36,” Greenfield explains to her son what the word “eventually” means, which then leads her to explore the word “letdown,” from which this collection gets its name:
Once when you were eight months old, I rode something like a centrifuge at the fall carnival, and when I stepped off the ride, two wet circles on my shirt marked me as your mother.
Also, per the dictionary: let-down. . . . 1. a decrease in volume, force, energy, etc.: a letdown in egg production. 2. Disillusionment, discouragement, or disappointment: Her husband’s earlier refusal for more children was a letdown. 3. Depression, deflation: She felt a terrible letdown at the end of her fertility.
Her miscarriages are explored with painful candor in the second half of the collection and, as a reader and mother who has experienced miscarriage, I reeled in the gut-wrenching losses with her. No woman who is trying to conceive wants to see blood, but Greenfield takes us into the experience with her, a painful but cathartic experience for any woman who has also been through it. In “No. 47,” she writes:
Déjà vu was the same right red gem of blood on the toilet paper the same profound cramping the same newsletter saying my fetus was the size of a poppy seed. So early such an ovum is just a whisper of maybe. One can barely call it a miscarry when what is carried is just a speck of desire embedded in blood.
After reading Letdown, readers may feel a heightened sense of compassion for all women—women who have had healthy pregnancies and healthy children, women who have lost children, women who have not been able to have children, women who have miscarried, women and young girls who have had abortions, women who have not been able to get what they most desire—I know I did. The raw candor with which she shares her experiences mothering, successes and failures, is extremely courageous, and inspiring. Being a woman is a difficult business, and Greenfield’s poems take that difficulty and give it wings.