Heather Lanier’s first full-length poetry collection, Psalms of Unknowing, opens with a sort of epigraph—not an excerpt from a religious text or a mystic’s meditations, but one of her own poems, “Pumping Milk.” The speaker, a lactating woman, sees herself in jarring bifurcation: groomed for work, yet “topless at the office / like a scandal.”
Is this what it means to be a mother? The self, split in two, like the body in labor? or is this just the tear in humanity, even as we shoulder-pad our denial— always tugging us back to the garden, to the beginning
Thus, from the outset, Lanier draws a thoughtful distinction, in recognition that our experience of maternal incoherence may be more broadly reflective of the human condition. Even so, she leads with the condition of motherhood, with its particular challenges. The collection that follows is one of substance and strength, structured so as to make fruitful conversation among its poems, while exploring the fissures that complicate our being and keep us from each other and from God.
Language is a primary culprit, and across the collection Lanier hones in on the faulty words that Christians and non-Christians alike use to put God in His place (“‘Jesus Might Have Walked on Ice,’ Scientists Say”), to tell others how to bear their lot (“Things I Heard After My Baby Was Born,” “Before Writing Back to a Friend Whose Mother Is Dying”), or to celebrate myopically our own good fortune (“The Christian Ladies Talk Infertility”). In “‘Free Bible in Your Own Language,'” the speaker jokes that her language is probably too profane and pop-culturally inflected to be an option. Joking aside, she suggests sidestepping the encumbrance of words and replacing them with something more adequate to express divinity alongside our ephemerality: “With my footprints bending the blades, // I’ll write a psalm of unknowing, / knowing the sun will erase it, will call it back / into straight, green, speechless strands.”
“My Form of Yelling,” however, questions the fitness of non-verbal alternatives as a response to violence, injustice, and loss. Facing the shooting of a loved one, the speaker replaces yelling with swallowing (“The yell travels the body’s length, implodes”) and with other kinds of silence: “My form of yelling is to kneel in a church and refuse to pray.” On one hand, the truth of grief demands something louder; on the other, we’re taught not to communicate unspeakable pain: “Do not dare tell . . . the truth: / That it will be like screaming into a black hole” (“Before Writing Back to a Friend Whose Mother Is Dying”). Lanier further addresses our culture’s limited emotional tolerance in “Anger Choice Cards in My Daughter’s Backpack”: “You are permitted / to fold your anger / like a kerchief, let it peek / from your pocket for color.” She’d rather overturn a table like Jesus in the temple, but there’s important work to be done with words, too. By reclaiming the “Etymology of Apocalypse”—which means not destruction but revelation—Lanier takes a stand for openness, for being “willing to rewrite / daily the world / with our baring.”
She exposes a particular grief in the book’s second section, where we learn that her daughter has been born with serious disabilities. Although she has told us that “the worst / sometimes occurs” (“Bed Rest”), she could not prepare herself for “feeding tubes, seizures, diapers until when / we don’t know” (“To the Parent Who Says Her Child’s Disability Isn’t in ‘the Natural Order of Things'”). Nor could she prepare herself to hear what the mother of a special needs child hears: a comic making an insult of a missing chromosome, well-intentioned acquaintances offering pity through a range of intolerable phrases, another special needs parent disparaging her child as unnatural, women who had “good // quality / embryos” crowing praise to the Lord, “like when your God makes good // as consumer protection agent” (“The Christian Ladies Talk Infertility”). With her new perspective on motherhood, words hit in a new way, and in the third section she looks for new ways to listen:
Get low, not to repent but to press your ear to the earth. Listen for the pulse beneath the billions of you pacing. Hear it? Soft, subtle—same word you cry for mercy. Enough, enough. But not this time a begging. Enough enough—a blessing. ("Beatitude for the Internet Age")
Altogether, Lanier’s collection feels like enough: both complete and far too rich for this review to survey. She has peppered the work with thoughtful and unusual metaphors and with images that linger: winter so cold that “every molecule clenched frost / in a fist” (“Forecast in the Thirty-First Week”); “the lit fleck of forgiveness / floating in a glass” (“Only a Sliver of Love Runs Hot”); and “the labeled body, the wrong body, // housing your being like a planet / squeezed into a carport” (“Psalm For Doctor Normal”).
Many poems would merit multi-page exploration if there were space. “Rush Hour Commute, Good Friday,” “Trauma-Informed Christ,” “Skipping Stones,” and “Eve” are all particularly worth rereading. The first subtly evokes John Donne’s “Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward,” in which he thinks on the unthinkable spectacle of God’s death and struggles to turn toward redemption. Lanier, meanwhile, is pregnant, anticipating a birth, doggedly merging eastbound even as she feels her proximity to mortality in the stop-and-go traffic. “Trauma-Informed Christ” follows on this poem’s heels, and here she poses questions that would have fit neatly into Donne’s poem: How could Christ tolerate us, having retained the body we destroyed? “How did His golden psyche not split / when they drove the first nail / between two metatarsals?” Lanier merges language befitting a 17th-century metaphysical poet (“How did He not cower / from Man thereafter”) with bluntly modern verbiage characterizing our “stupid requests for more.”
“Skipping Stones” is a different kind of triumph, encompassing a genuinely erotic lesson in hucking limestone shards, a deeply sad family history warped by toxic masculinity, and a letting go that feels like a genuine release. Finally, although poets have been retelling Eve’s story for generations, Lanier does it memorably well, giving us new things to think about in this old story. Here, the perfection of Eden was about perspective: “It wasn’t always sunny in the garden. It’s only that the rain felt just as right.” The disruption of that perfection was about wanting more perspective: “I knew one thing. I bit to know two.” This Eve’s explanation points out that we’re now so accustomed to need that “none of us knows how to be human without it.” No wonder that a few pages later we see the poet overpacking for a silent retreat, loading up on distractions for fear of eight whole days in which she might not see the world as “plenty full.”
Psalms of Unknowing is a book for our own time, with a strong sense of origins and an eye on eternity. Above all, however, it offers true compassion for how difficult it is to live in our fallen world, especially as a mother. It is hard to learn love, to teach it to others, to keep on practicing it through sacrifice and suffering, and to persevere with faith when we can see, as the speaker does in the final poem, that our commitment to our better selves deteriorates as soon as we lose focus: “How quickly I lose my love / of all things” (“After a Silent Retreat”). Yet this same poem’s conclusion (also the book’s) is so loving, so breathtakingly lovely in its perfect simplicity, we might well believe there’s hope. We might yet win back some of the gentleness we’ve lost as the poet seems to, when she describes the kingdom of God as an ant, “tapping antenna // along the heartline of your imperfect palm.” Lanier leaves the reader feeling seen—loved, even—for making her own best effort in a world of pain and platitudes to nurture honestly.