We Get to Be Everything: Life with Motherhood in Slowly/Suddenly
by Allison Blevins
Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2021; 66 pp., $15.62Buy Book
A quote from Joan Mitchell opens Allison Blevins’s Slowly/Suddenly, a poetry collection that explores motherhood in its entirety. Mitchell, an abstract artist best known for her paintings, says, “Well I use the past to make my pics and I want all of it . . . every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had—every friend—nothing closed out—and dogs alive and dead and people and landscapes and feeling . . . it’s all part of me and I want to confront it . . . and paint it.” At this opening portal, I thought of how abstract work can look at first glance like beautiful chaos, which draws the viewer in to discover the pastoral landscape unveiled in hectic brushstrokes. There is no better inspiration for Blevins to draw from as she dives deep into subjects while keeping an eye on an expansive landscape. Life—in pursuit of motherhood and as a mother—is all of it, together, including heartbreak, illness, humor, and, sometimes, the Kardashians.
Blevins’s first description of birth is in a prose poem not centered on first-person experience but on that of a member of that notorious public family filled with mothers. It’s entitled “Season 4 Episode 11: Delivering Baby Mason / After Gino Severini’s Femme et Enfant, 1916.” Future references to the Kardashians throughout the book contextualize the title, but Severini’s painting is framed in these lines: “I am watching a woman pull her own child from her body. I can’t believe he’s all mine. Woman folds and folds into squares, into herself, disappears.” Blevins is not only creating Severini’s visuals with her words, she’s also introducing an outcome of childbirth not always shared. She repeats in the poem, “I am watching a woman pull her own child from her body. We are folding into her. She watches the child at my breast from the screen, from the street, from two towns over my own mother, lips rosed and eye sharp, turns to look . . . woman and child, woman and child, woman and child.” The collection quickly delves into fertility challenges and pregnancy, a transition that is more of a transformation. The speaker, who guides the reader through nearly every poem, shares this vulnerable admission at the outset of that evolution: even when it’s desired more than anything, there is as much a disappearance as a rebirth in the new title parent.
This poem is shortly followed by “Reciprocal IVF or How To Explain the Similarities Between Ecstasy and Loss,” where Blevins ultimately breaks into fragmentary lyric lines to explore an in-between state:
I cannot explain how infertility feels in all my small and deep
spaces. I’m not the only mother to carry loss, lament arrival,
mourn acquisitions. Like water swirled to mud, like all the gray
evenings remembering orange. I can’t explain this sadness
to my wife.
—carrying what isn’t mine—
even to myself.
It’s heartbreak and fear in the face of possible joy. For anyone who is facing fertility challenges, Blevins’s attempts to communicate these feelings is a gift.
With similar generosity, Blevins tackles the turmoil of pregnancy in poems with titles like “By Four Months Pregnant, Surging Hormones and Lack of Sleep Disturb Cognition, Brain Circuitry, and Spatial Memory” and with lines in later poems like, “At six months pregnant, the limits of language make me cry / over every sound.” Through these works and their tonal shifts, there is an underlying sense of something other than contentment. It’s starkly displayed in “On the days I think about my stay,” which continues immediately after the title to say, “in a mental hospital, my children say Mom / and the word thorns under the skin on my face, / stings, swarms my ears. Today, they shoot / bubble guns into tall grass. Bubbles / skim the feathered stalks, burst in a drainage ditch.”
Like bubbles, the swells of feeling Blevins gives voice to aren’t permanent, but the poet uses them to express aspects of motherhood that are still taboo. To cite a stay in a mental hospital and directly link it to the word “Mom” is to give recognition to the many for whom motherhood is not always blissful, even when it’s hard-won. It seems to un-inhibit the collection and allow Blevins to delve further into shared pains and realities that, even when they circle around motherhood, are not solely connected to it. In “How to Come of Age,” Blevins speaks to tragically familiar traumas: “A girl and a man. This story has never been told. This story is told every day.” She reflects further on the burden of this story as a parent: “I can’t look at my daughter’s face without feeling his hand move between my legs.” It’s an example of the immense task taken on in this collection—to give voice to what is so often silenced. The book’s ekphrastic nature and the use of quotations throughout allow for a small bit of distance without diluting the strength of the work. Blevins borrows perspective or draws inspiration from something removed from the subject in order to dive into it with startling intimacy.
She opens the scope of her examination in the second section, led with this quote by Claudia Day: “This is why, even with a broken heart, a mother will bring herself back to life.” It’s a useful introduction for these poems, which reckon further with life as a mother. The poet shares her own heartbreak in the poem, “As I read the text messages on my wife’s phone,” which continues from that title to say, “I struggle to capture—in a neat tight box—the heat spreading across my chest.” Of course, life continues (a bit rapidly in this section) and not long after, there is new love in all its perfect glory and impermanence. In another Kardashian-influenced poem titled, “My New Wife Tells Me She Has Given Enough Patience,” Blevins writes, “I love you so much I want to leave you. Before the days become long. Before your laughter curdles. Before our kisses sour. Before I yellow from obligation. This love is like water.” Beyond relationships and to great effect, Blevins notes the helplessness of illness in “Creed: After Mark 9:25.” She writes, “In every MRI machine, I imagine my body is a coffin. I try to pray but can only remember the Serenity Prayer. I’ve never been to AA, but the wisdom to know the difference.” In this poem, Blevins creates a line between addiction and illness, while also connecting her health issues to the fertility journey; all require acquiescence in tandem with resolve.
The poet constantly finds ways to relate her experiences, rather than cloud them in mystery. The feeling of release that can guide someone from hopelessness to a new beginning is not so different from what Blevins’s speaker references in their journey to motherhood within the collection. It calls back the poem “Slowly/Suddenly” in the titular section of the book, which is introduced by a quote from The National MS Society (Blevins suffers from the disease). Over twelve pages of short prose, the experiences of MS and fertility struggles mirror each other so closely that the poem ends with an almost exact parallel between that physical condition and parenting itself: “When the more-famous-than-me poet asks if I’m pregnant, it is difficult to stop myself from screaming . . . imagine my scream—silent and piercing as a toddler buckled into a stationary car.” Having children, like having an illness, is not the end of the story. Good or bad, the best-case scenario is that there is more to come.
As Blevins shares the intimacies of the body and heart, she keeps all parts of herself alive. In every poem, she is a mother, but not just a mother. She is a woman in mourning, in love, in sickness, in health, in rage, and in joy, but never solely any of these. She allows all of them in the final poem of the collection: “—my daughter is mine. One day, I’ll fall. / She may remember the worst of me. A bird somewhere / has given up. These months, I find myself breaking like wet sand.”
When I first opened this book, I felt like I’d been let into a secret. A place where motherhood and the pursuit of it are granted a complexity that is not often revealed, let alone venerated. The poems dealing with heartbreak and illness felt like more familiar territory for poetic work, but Allison Blevins’s use of ekphrasis and frank lyricism create a fluid trajectory through all of it. As much as I clung to the struggles in the first section, in this phase and moment of my own life, with motherhood on a hazy horizon I’ve only just begun walking toward with certainty, I appreciate that this work will stay with me. After all, it’s not about becoming a mother; it’s a book about everything you are while doing so and long after.