Anna Laura Reeve’s debut poetry collection, Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility, is one of the most honest and lyrical renderings of the volatility, vulnerability, and voluminousness of motherhood that I have encountered. It is also a singular, compelling homage to Reeve’s native Southern Appalachia. The collection shows how embracing her roots in the region and tending her garden helped her journey out of postpartum depression.
Many of Reeve’s poems ponder fertility and miscarriage. In “For Southern Appalachia,” the speaker grapples with miscarriage, postpartum depression and new motherhood. This crown of sonnets—a series of seven sonnets where each opening line echoes the previous poem’s closing line—is a remarkable achievement. Here we see the speaker grieve, realizing her placenta is “a witches’ brew of hormones” and nausea, where “an embryo, still and undeveloped, will develop no more.” Yet she refuses to cage motherhood in conventional expectations of purity or perfection, aware that too often the new mother feels like a “marionette, / limping home.” As each sonnet returns to the body—“the ribcage of Earth still rises / and falls beneath me”—it also commemorates the land “of budding, breeding things / on whose scaffolding we hang.” The poem celebrates everyday life in the home and in nature, including a memorable cataloging of insects and birds: a carpenter bee “rests on rosemary blooms,” and calls of mockingbirds “weave a lattice of sweet” around her.
Reeve’s work is embedded in the Southern Appalachian region of East Tennessee. “Appalachia” is one of the oldest place names in the US, originating from an indigenous village established in Florida by the Spanish in the 1600s. Rich in myth and folklore, due to its ethnically diverse mix of settlers and its history of economic hardships and resilient populations, the region abounds in cultural and literary pride. In “Notes on the Balds of Southern Appalachia,” Reeve’s at her lyrical best. She showcases the landscape with its “wild snapdragons” that “survive each summer mowing and multiply” and its “goldenrod and ironweed” that “freckle the hilltop” where a murmuring of voices “[loosens] like smoke.”
Keenly intimate with natural vernacular, Reeve’s collection is fun to read for its ecopoetic cataloging of names and biorhythms. It’s an almanac to regional flora and fauna, not in a casual, abstract sense but with a studied celebration of species’ habits and habitats. There’s an ode to Tennessee Red Cob (which she loves for its “gravitas”) and one to garlic (that “delicious slut”) that is probably the best eco-erotic poem I’ve read. Rock is not just rock but slate gravel, grass is not just grass but tawny broomsedge, weeds are chickweed, plants are hairy bittercress, edibles are riverbank grape, trees are sassafras saplings and boxelder tassels, birds are Carolina wrens and red-tailed hawks, flowers are celandine poppies, flame azalea, purple deadnettle, and echinacea bristles. And the green lynx spider is just that—luminously green.
Just as elements of nature shape the poems, examinations of fertility shape the artist-mother, a central figure in the collection. In the poem “Trying” the speaker asks what parents want when they have children. Is it souls to link us simultaneously to our past and to our future? The speaker wonders if the answer is in the need to recognize that “maybe our lives have not yet been lived.” It is as if the mother’s body, which the poet struggles to reinhabit as an artist post-motherhood, is also the garden she tends. “I seed clover, vetch / rye, and oats over four acres but nothing comes up in the fall, or our warm southern winter.” But actually, there is much fertile creativity here: not only do poems get written, but “doves burst into light.”
The collection teaches us to pay attention to the spaces in between stillness and sound, depression and acceptance, focusing on daily ritual as a type of meditation. Reeve’s speakers pay heightened attention to daily observations: a husband “balancing eggs and toast on his lap,” a morning’s run, news of Ukraine, a baby’s fever, the postal worker’s lunch break, an elderly neighbor. In “Driving the Baby” (first published in Literary Mama as “Driving the Baby to Sleep”) the warmth and coziness of home in winter is transported to the warmth of the car seat, which the mother can just see from the front seat, her daughter’s “tiny head / demonstrating how domestic.” There is a zen-like appreciation of how daily ritual structures a mother’s life—so there’s a lot of getting things done in these poems. The poems engage with a mad world where, like our gardens, we need to be tended to in order to survive, even though mothers are the ones who often do the tending.
Beyond lyricism, Reeve’s poetry displays wit and grit. I was often reminded of the off-kilter humor that can be so welcoming in Louise Glück’s work or the resilient fortitude in Jane Kenyon’s poems about depression. The poem “Sleep Deprivation” made me laugh out loud: “Motherhood is putting a sock in it. / Putting a sock on it. / Motherhood is the The Great Sock Hunt.” The poem “First Sugar Moon of the Pandemic” recalls the anxious dread that was mothering during the long, lonely days of the pandemic. Reeve’s speaker quips that when the cardinals “decide it’s spring, it’s spring. Calendar be damned.” A series of persona poems from the point of view of a so-called “Mad Mother” revisits Reeve’s artist-mother manifesto, with one speaker chanting to herself while subsumed in thankless tasks: “Your work is the real work. The real work is defiance.” I also laughed when the speaker says: “God never rested on the seventh day, not here in the valley. / It was the fourth day. She took off her bright clothes and fell / into bed.”
One of Reeve’s strengths is her ability to maintain the power of the individual line in strikingly different forms: traditional narratives, prose poems with experimental use of breadth and caesura, the twelve-line “Ars Poetica” that nails it (“I write four lines, and my husband’s alarm / goes off”). “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale,” winner of the 2022 Beloit Poetry Journal’s Adrienne Rich Poetry Award, is cinematic in scope. The ten-point scale of the title is given to mothers to self-chart their experiences after childbirth, including the ability to laugh and sleep. Using each criteria as a prompt to revisit her life after the birth of her child, the speaker endows even the darkest moments with meaning. She confides that it took two weeks to breastfeed her child to birth weight and worries that there’s sadness in her milk. Again she shares the experience of sleep deprivation in waking, “the nursing pillow buckled around me / like a soft closed cervix.” The intimacy of such lines makes for compelling reading, a tonic for any mother who has felt trapped or has grappled with accepting motherhood’s effect on the body as she searches for belonging and freedom.
In today’s political and ecological climate it’s important to highlight the anxiety and vulnerability working mothers (or doubly-working mothers, since mothering is already work) experience when we carve out time for our artist selves. As the speaker in a “Mad Mother” poem decides, “The artist who is a mother splits herself in two.” That we are living in a humanitarian crisis affecting everything we once knew, even about the seasons, only renders the fundamental questions of our art more relevant. In the poem “Look at Everything,” the speaker asks what we all seem to be asking: How do we teach our children to make sense of the world? The answer, the poem suggests, lies somewhere in the work of teaching, and, therefore, in poetry: “Look at everything, then look again at me.” Reeve’s impressive debut invites readers into this garden of perennial questioning about the roles of the artist-mother as she examines fertility, motherhood, and healing. Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility acts as a handbook in a world constantly threatened by powers which sometimes alienate mothers from the ability to heal. The vigilant speakers share moments when mothering is most lonely, as well as when it is most sustaining, in poems that are structurally various, always inspiring, and deeply rooted in the waking world.