We’re living in trying, maddening, exhausting times. I often find myself at a loss as to what to do with all the anger and fear. Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo channeled hers into poetry, and the resulting book, Catastrophic Molting, is a brilliant, impassioned, and urgent collection.
Shimshon-Santo introduces the book with a poem titled “declaration,” her acknowledgment of purpose. The poem begins: “whereas the galaxy deserves better / whereas I am a mother who is the descendent of circumstances beyond our control.” It ends with Shimshon-Santo declaring herself ready to meet “ugliness with a warrior’s mindset” and to lean on the strength she has gained from wisdom.
This opening poem spells out the terms of the author’s contract with her reader. Shimshon-Santo tells us directly that, while she may have no control of where she came from, she holds power now and will use it. Who wouldn’t sign on to those terms, join her, and keep reading?
Shimshon-Santo is a beautiful, gifted writer. She is also a scholar and an educator, and her words have much to teach us. Her activism and absolute refusal to stay silent in the face of injustice will inspire readers. But the voice that rings out most clearly in her poems is that of the mother—both personal and archetypal. Shimshon-Santo is a fearless mama bear, speaking out for her children—and yours.
Shimshon-Santo calls out patriarchy, institutional violence and racism, white supremacy, and silence in the face of hate. The reader hears her frustration. These challenges cannot be met with “bumper sticker responses at the ready.” Pithy sayings won’t cut it. It will take deep commitment to effect change.
The reader feels Shimshon-Santo’s righteous anger: “who can be witness / to these times / and not want to be thunder?”
Thunder, indeed. While women have long had a complicated relationship with anger, Shimshon-Santo believes anger can be harnessed to mitigate harm. Resistance poetry not only rails against individual and systemic injustices, it often becomes a catalyst for ending them.
Poetry to inspire change—that’s where the mother’s voice appears again and again in Shimshon-Santo’s poems and where her words are most moving. In the poem “In Memoriam,” Shimshon-Santo writes about the murder of George Floyd and the cost of institutional violence on our children. Community members engaged in their daily routines witnessed an officer’s knee on another man’s neck. Shimshon-Santo writes, “my eyes have seen / the way a body looks / against the concrete.” So have the children walking by. After seeing a body robbed of breath, how can a child not wonder “what will it be like / to become an adult?”
Shimshon-Santo’s words are a mother’s words, and her poetry is especially resonant for mothers. In a particularly stirring piece called “The Future of Music,” she imagines Elijah McClain’s mother praying after her son’s tragic death. She then widens her lens and addresses the burden that all parents carry: “parents hide their children / like acorns in their cheeks / to keep them safe for winter.” It is a parent’s wish to keep their children safe, and always their worst nightmare when they realize they cannot.
The poems in the collection are richly varied in length and form. “Whistle,” one of the most powerful poems, captures the insidiousness of hateful dog whistles in a mere three lines. In “July 4,” Shimshon-Santo creates magic and sound on the page with white space and onomatopoeia. She electrifies with found poems, such as “Shades of White,” which she wrote after the January 6th insurrection. It lists “the actual tones of white paint currently sold in the US,” adding only one word: “seditious.” Shimshon-Santo visits ghosts in her work—those of her ancestors and her family’s past. Her ancestors’ experiences, as well as her own, inform her dreams of a better future. As a mother and a teacher, Shimshon-Santo says, “hope is her profession and responsibility.”
While loss plays a large role in this collection, Shimshon-Santo’s hope is expressed in the importance she places on community and on the possibilities for transformation. The collection’s title also reflects the critical role that community plays in change. Catastrophic molting is a scientific term but, in the case of this collection, it serves as metaphor as well. Shimshon-Santo explains the science: “Catastrophic molting is the collective ritual of loss and regeneration experienced by sea elephants (Mirounga angustirostris) along the California coast. While molting, the Mirounga rest together on the shore and fast to preserve their energy. Collective resting provides social protection during times when they are most vulnerable. Only through these periods of dramatic change can they grow sleek new coats.”
Her poems build on the metaphor. While Shimshon-Santo documents how we have been stripped of our skin, she ends the collection with the deep knowledge that now, through social action, we can grow new fur. The titular poem “Catastrophic Molting” asks us to imagine a world where we are not constantly engaged in a struggle to push forward, meet expectations. What would happen, she wonders, if we believed the world was working for us, that we were all connected and could walk together with that understanding? “What if we were a part of a whole/that loved us without ceasing?”
“New Moon in Cancer,” the next poem, challenges us to take those very steps, to dream of a world that is “on our side.” Shimshon-Santo encourages us to breathe and be mindful. She reminds us that our bodies contain all the knowledge we need to join together and create change.
The last poem, “Our Foremothers Greet the Unborn,” is a hopeful meditation, a vision, and a nod to the great power of women. We can and we must “move along the fractures” and heal our world for ourselves and for the children. Shimshon-Santo’s collection comes full circle. What started with a mighty “declaration” of womanly strength and wisdom ends on a softer but no less formidable charge.
Catastrophic Molting is not an easy read. This is not because the poems are inaccessible; they are, in fact, both brilliant and incredibly approachable. Yet each is chock-full of emotion that will move the ground beneath your feet. The voice is a mother’s voice. It is also of the earth and the body—a woman’s body, a mother’s body. Shimshon-Santo looks at the world through a mother’s lens, one that cries out for her own children but also for the children of others, current, future, and past—and challenges us all to do the same.