The New Motherhood Poem
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the new motherhood poem. Around Mother’s Day on this podcast we usually try to feature poems about mothers. There are lots of them, and lots of very good ones. This time though, we’re going to listen to poems written from the prospective of motherhood. No crying babies here, just an outlook on the world that is informed by the life changing fact of having brought another human into the world. The poems were chosen by Rachel Richardson, a poet and a mother who lives in Berkley. Her latest book is called Hundred Year Wave. Hi Rachel.
Rachel Richardson: Hi, thanks for having me Curtis.
Curtis Fox: Oh, my pleasure. So in a book review that you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you noted that this is a trend in contemporary poetry; poetry specifically from the prospective of new motherhood. What’s new about this and where does it come from?
Rachel Richardson: I think we have a long tradition of the motherhood poem existing in American poetry, but it’s been a subject that’s been considered a bit taboo for serious poetry. Every mother writer who attempts this or finds herself faced with this material seems to face some anxiety that it’s a kind of poetry that might be dismissed; a domestic subject, a simple adoration or protectiveness that would diminish the seriousness of the poem.
Curtis Fox: So a lot of women poets fear the motherhood poem because they would be type cast as mother poets?
Rachel Richardson: I think that’s right. I think ever since Sylvia Plath, our progenitor of the contemporary mother poem, the mother of the mother poem maybe, we’ve been concerned that the subject will overshadow the craft involved in the poem. That the subject of motherhood makes it a kind of poetry, a poetry of the domestic or a poetry of adoration and protectiveness and not a fierce or well crafted piece of art.
Curtis Fox: So what’s changed? In recent years there seem to be younger female poets pretty comfortable writing mother poems, and even labeling their books mother poem books. What’s changed?
Rachel Richardson: I think that’s true. Women in contemporary poetry seem to be addressing this topic more directly rather than having it emerge slyly within the poems. I’m not sure what we can credit the change to, but I think women poets writing on this subject are more interested in the perspective shift that’s happening in new motherhood. Often the babies are hardly mentioned in the poems at all, we just recognize that the poet has undergone a great shift in perspective by having become a mother.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear some poems that illustrate what you’re saying. Carrie Fountain is a poet who lives in Austin Texas. Her latest book which has the poem you’re about the read from is called Instant Winner, and the poem you chose is called simply “Yes”. Is there anything you’d like to say about it before you read it?
Rachel Richardson: This whole book Instant Winner makes a subject out of one simple and comical element of new motherhood which is the surprise of being in it. We turned around and woke up one morning and there we were. There might have been this whole other life. The strangeness of that total shift is hard to recognize, so it’s as if she the speaker in Instant Winner wakes up one morning with a one year old and wonders how she got here.
Curtis Fox: Okay, it’s called “Yes”. Why don’t you give it a read?
I am done smoking cigarettes, done waiting tables, done counting tips
at two a.m. in the neon-dark dance hall, done sleeping with young men
in my apartment, done facing them or not, thinking of oblivion, which
is better than nothing. I am done not wearing underwear because
it’s so Victorian. I am done telling men I don’t wear underwear because
it’s so Victorian. I am done with the night a guy spread my legs
on a pool table, all those balls piled up in the pockets. I am done.
I am never going back. When I see that night on the street I will
drive past and never even glance over. I am done going to grad school,
nodding in your workshop. I am done teaching English as a second
language, saying I pointing to my chest, saying you pointing to them.
I am done teaching the poetry class where no one talked and no one
listened to me and outside the window the cottonwood wagged
its sun-white leaves in the breeze as if to say, I give up, I give up. I am done
being a childless woman, a childless wife, a woman with no scars
on her body. I am done with the wide afternoons of before, the long
stare, the tightly closed door. And I am done, too, for the most part,
with the daydream of after. I am after for now. I am turning up the heater
to see if that will make the baby sleep another fifteen minutes
so I can finish this poem. I am done thinking of the past as if it had
survived, though sometimes I think of the past and sometimes I see it
coming, catching up, hands caked with dried mud, head shaved clean.
Curtis Fox: In a sense, this is a valediction to her youth, she’s done with all that, she’s put it behind her.
Rachel Richardson: Right, although there’s a difference between I’m done and it is over. It seems that the past maybe still exists or the other possibility still exists, just on a different trajectory. The repetitiveness and pattern gives a weariness to the old and a readiness to give it up, or simply a finality with which those choices are given up.
Curtis Fox: Even though she seems to have some good memories, some fun memories and some boring memories.
Rachel Richardson: I think too that the poem is called “Yes” changes the feel of the anaphora, the doneness. There’s some affirmation of the life she’s now got or the decision she’s now made. It’s a surprisingly positive frame for this poem that’s talking about being done with everything.
Curtis Fox: Though it ends with a very spooky image: “ sometimes I think of the past and sometimes I see it / coming, catching up, hands caked with dried mud, head shaved clean.” That’s like an image from a horror movie, the past coming out of the swamp or the past coming out of the grave.
Rachel Richardson: Or the beast slouching toward Bethlehem.
Curtis Fox: What do you make of that? The past as something that’s going to kill her or something.
Rachel Richardson: Well, there is a happiness to be done with it. A clean break or a desire never to go back to those days. While some of the memories might have been positive, a lot of them are quite negative, things that one would really tire of.
Curtis Fox: Teaching a poetry class where no one talked.
Rachel Richardson: Going on tiresome dates.
Curtis Fox: But having sex on the pool table, that seems okay to me.
Rachel Richardson: (LAUGHING) Probably that part, depending.
Curtis Fox: Having a child who’s there in the room with the poet has changed her view of the past, but how does that happen? How do children change the past itself?
Rachel Richardson: I think in this poem most prominently the child changes the poem. That’s what’s most interesting about it to me. We have the child changing the form of the poem serving as the turn. We have this endless “I am done, I am done” that’s hardly ever interrupted or changed in pattern for probably 20 lines. Then we have "I am turning up the heater / to see if that will make the baby sleep another fifteen minutes / so I can finish this poem.” Whether the poem gets finished or not is determined by the baby not the poet at this point. The shape of the poem is going to be determined by the baby and not the poet. This is true for a lot of us, that we trained as poets, we practiced, we began writing before we had children. We had our workshops, we went on dates, we had sex on the pool table, we listened to the cotton wood outside and wrote. Then the baby came along and the question was would we ever write again. This is a poem that speaks to how the writer still writes, but the poem is never ignoring the fact that the baby’s in the next room sleeping. That’s part of the new life and the new consciousness of the writer.
Curtis Fox: Well said. Let’s go to the other poem you chose. This one is by Kathryn Nuernberger, who lives in Colombia, Missouri. This poem comes from her recent book The End Of Pink. It’s called “Little Lesson on How To Be”. This is also a prose poem. Is there anything you want to say about it before we hear this one?
Rachel Richardson: This is a poem that makes use of multiple perspectives and multiple characters. We hear a conversation that’s happening between several people who the speaker is observing. The poem begins to read like a short story.
Curtis Fox: It reads like a very very short short story.
Rachel Richardson: The characters end up representing all the different stages of life.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear it. Here’s “Little Lesson on How To Be” by Kathryn Nuernberger.
The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is in her eighties
and she underestimates the value of everything, for which I am grateful.
Lightly used snow suits, size 2T, are $6 and snow boots are $3.
There is a little girl, maybe seven, fiddling with a tea set. Her mother
inspects drapes for stains.
Sometimes the very old and lonely are looking for an opening.
She glances up from her pricing and says something about the tea set
and a baby doll long ago.
I am careful not to make eye contact, but the mother with drapes has
such softness in her shoulders and her face and she knows how to say
the perfect kind thing—“What a wonderful mother you had.”
“Yes, she was.”
Why do children sometimes notice us and sometimes not?
From the bin of dolls: “What happened to your mother?”
The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is crying a little.
She seems surprised to be crying. “It’s been eighty years and I still miss
When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we
were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her
to me even as she fought away or should I let her float off to wonder why
her mother didn’t help her? What if it’s fire and I have one bullet left? I
made sure my husband knew if there were death squads and he had to
choose, I’d never love him again if he didn’t choose her. If I’m lucky,
her crying face is the last thing I’ll see.
The mother with drapes is squeezing her daughter’s shoulder, trying to
send a silent message, but children are children. “Why did she die?”
“She was going to have a baby and—And she died.”
“But she was a wonderful mother.”
I’m holding a stack of four wooden jigsaw puzzles of farm animals,
dinosaurs, jungle animals, and pets. Each for a quarter.
“It’s silly how much I still miss her.” She takes out a tissue and wipes
her eyes and then her nose.
When my grandmother threw her sister, Susie, a 90th birthday party,
one hundred people came, including 5 of the 6 brothers and sisters. At
dusk only a few of us were left, nursing beers with our feet kicked up
on the bottom rungs of various walkers.
Susie said then to my grandmother, “Can you think of all the people
watching us in heaven now? And our mother must be in the front row.”
Grandma took her sister’s hand. “Our mother—Estelle.”
“Yes—her name was Estelle. I forgot that.”
They looked so happy then, saying her name back and forth to each
other. Estelle. Estelle
Curtis Fox: That’s wonderful, “Estelle”. They must have never called her that during her lives, but here they are repeating her first name. What do you make of the old woman? Apparently her mother died when she was quite young. What do you think the poems getting at about the centrality of motherhood?
Rachel Richardson: The older woman’s participation in the poem reminds me a little bit of the sleeping baby in the other room of Carrie Fountain’s poem. She interrupts and presents this other direction that the poem needs to turn, or another way for the poem to shape itself. She hasn’t gotten over her mother’s death, even though her mother died 80 years ago so she was probably quite a young child. Young enough that she wouldn’t think of her mother by her name she would only think of her as her mother in that mythic, intimate, intense childhood sense. She still exists there in this woman’s memory.
Curtis Fox: As opposed to the old women at the and of the poem remembering their mother’s name, Estelle. Remembering her as a whole human being beyond just being a mother. That’s a lovely touch. The part of the poem that amuses me is, the sickest part of the poem is “When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we / were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her / to me even as she fought away or should I let her float off to wonder why / her mother didn’t help her?” Those are the kind of crazy thoughts new parents have, usually just by sleep depravation and things like that, but it’s such a funny and bizarre moment to throw into the middle of the poem.
Rachel Richardson: I think those are the most primary thoughts we have as new parents, because we’ve never been responsible in that way for life. There’s this obsession with death and also with violence which seems to be the exact opposite of the expected relationship with the child, and probably the relationship that’s lived with the child. But how can one not think of it’s opposite.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s comically absurd because the scenario she imagines including a death squad which seems pretty unlikely for an American poet to face a death squad, but it does ring true to bizarre fears new parents can have about protecting their children.
Rachel Richardson: It also reminds us how much luck is involve in the raising of a child and in the having of a child in our particular circumstances. We probably won’t face these things, and yet how do we deserve not to think about that possibility. It is possible for us, it’s much more real for so many other parents, that it’s always lurking there on the edge.
Curtis Fox: We are lucky. It’s an unusual passage because it’s funny in an American context and not funny at all when you think about the context for a lot of people around the world.
Rachel Richardson: Right. Children are universalizing experiences. Maybe that’s why the motherhood poem has been diminished or dismissed by so many critics, is that it seems so universalizing as to be cliché, but it’s also what can make us reflect more deeply on our particular circumstances and our lack of individuality. That we are animal in so many ways, and we are vulnerable to fate in the ways that anyone else on the planet is. When we’re 25 and we’re doing the things Carrie Fountain talks about doing, we feel we have all this control in our lives. Upon having kids, a lot of that disappears. What happens if the death squad comes? What happens if we are all drowning. We start thinking about those things much more centrally.
Curtis Fox: Rachel, thanks so much.
Rachel Richardson: Thanks for having me.
Curtis Fox: Rachel Richardson’s latest book of poems is called Hundred Year Wave. Any motherhood poems in there Rachel?
Rachel Richardson: Oh yes. Motherhood and seafaring and all the kinds of adventures I am not having in my life.
Curtis Fox: Let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.