It’s a truism that mothers of teenagers are less likely to write about their children than
those with little ones. Although I’ve found that true for myself, I’ve also found that my
poetry still sometimes springs from a maternal place, if more slowly and less obviously
I wrote “Niobe” in 2021, but it was based on an exhausting day in an exhausting week in
2018 when I did drive right past my kids’ school on the way home without remembering to
stop and pick them up. The mythological hook on which the poem hangs presented itself
well after the fact, a convenient side effect of working for classicists. Once Niobe’s story had
risen to the surface of my mind, it kept bobbing up again and again, every time I scrolled
past another empowering meme casting women as goddesses. Sometimes, given all of
motherhood’s opportunities for failure, honest humility is more empowering than the
pretense of divinity.
“Marketplace Excavation, 1937” was also inspired by my work outside the home (and
clearly not at all by my own children). Between 2017 and 2020, I spent a good deal of time
immersed in Amherst College history, working with students to gather both representative
and unusual news items into a timeline as the college prepared to celebrate its
bicentennial. Along the way, I was taken by a minor article in the October 1, 1937 issue of
the student newspaper, featuring an Amherst professor who had been overseeing an
archeological dig during his nearly three-year term as director of the American School of
Classical Studies at Athens. The Hellenistic racetrack he had exposed received top billing,
but, of course, I was more interested in the comparatively modern (i.e., early medieval)
remains of “a young woman, lying in a disorderly fashion on a road,” surrounded by a thick
layer of ash. The descriptive details in my poem—the jewelry she was wearing, the infant
held in her arms—came from that article, but there were other details I chose not to
include: the small, broken knife in her right hand, for instance. Why, in the path of volcanic
disaster, was she holding both a baby and a knife? The article didn’t speculate, nor can I,
and I didn’t want to steal focus from the simple humanity of the pair by introducing
additional mysteries. When I edited “Marketplace Excavation, 1937” for the Literary Mama
anthology, I whittled it down even further, wanting the poem itself to be skeletal, believing
that it could still be as poignant as those ancient, anonymous remains.
Labor of Love: A Literary Mama Staff Anthology was released on January 26th, 2024. Edited by Amanda Jaros, this collaboration with Small Harbor Publishing celebrates Literary Mama‘s twenty years of publishing the best writing for and by mothers. We asked the contributors, all Literary Mama staffers from across the years, to share thoughts about their writing process, their inspiration, or their work in the book. We’ll share those musings here on the Literary Mama blog.
Read Libby’s poems by purchasing Labor of Love, now available on Amazon.