Writing the motherland

“How many of you,” Betsy asked the audience, “think you know your mother’s mind, maybe better than she knows herself?”

Whoops, I thought, raising my hand. That’s arrogant of me. But trying to read my mother’s mind was one of the most urgent and constant occupations of my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve kept up that imaginative work, writing poems from her perspective in Heterotopiaand eighteen months ago, trying to negotiate her into hospitalizations she was resisting. “She’s English” is one of the ways I’ve explained it to others and myself–meaning concealment of suffering is an ingrained impulse with her, forcing me into detective mode. But of course it’s not just that. Many of my friends report the same frustrated efforts at maternal telepathy. And I pass silence down the generations when I clamp my own mouth shut. Sometimes I so fear saying something wrong to my daughter that I say nothing which is, of course, another harmful message.

Early on, my daughter became my very best mind-reader. “You have a tell,” she coolly informed me when she was seven. “When you lie, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.” I was gobsmacked, still am, and think of her every time I try to conceal my own woes but my voice slides up an octave.

borderlands-draftMother’s Day is not far off, but mothering is also on my mind because I just got back from the CityLit Festival in Baltimore, where I was participating in a celebration of Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk. Laurie had flown down from Canada for the weekend and read from her contribution, as did Baltimorean Betsy Boyd and Marilyn Moriarty, a Hollins professor I’d somehow never met. Jane played moderator and finished up with a poem by Rishma Dunlop. It was an intense reading, because it’s an intense book. No Hallmark pink aisle fake news here. Mothering is intensely complicated, as is being a daughter, and the many border-crossings addressed in these pieces tend to fray mother-daughter connections still further. If anyone protests that it’s all sweetness, listen for the tell.

When it was my turn, I talked about motherhood being, for me at least, an occasion for constant dread and peril. I’ve been reading the book in small doses–all the poems first, and now the prose–and it’s clear I’m not alone. I just finished Camille T. Dungy’s essay “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses,” a riveting account of visiting west Africa with her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, who knows a slave dungeon when she sees one. I recommend it, and the whole collection, strongly.

I remember chasing toddlers vividly, but to my surprise, that constant state of vigilant panic never stops. It just changes. Some of it is totally irrational. I once told my 13 year old not to shower until we got back from our walk in case he slipped and hit his head and drowned, and he really gave me an earful. But the same kid, now 16, has been having migraines forever while we wait for the neurologist appointment, and my daughter is planning a summer internship in Siberia. I can talk myself out of full-bore terror about these scares, but it’s right to be cautious, to keep asking questions and paying attention. As they get bigger and more competent, so does the field of risk.

Anyway, at this lovely event, I met the fear head-on. I chose to read Marilyn L. Taylor’s sonnet “To the Mother of a Dead Marine”–a poem that represents a parent’s nightmare–and “Zebra” by January Gill O’Neil, a fierce encouragement to her son to “Raise those ears. Kick your legs,” triumphing over people who would diminish him. I also read my own contribution to the collection, the alarmingly titled “Abortion Radio,” also collected in RadiolandIt features not just worry but the preemptive guilt I always feel, framed by testimonies heard on a religious radio station on the way back from Lynchburg late one night. It owes something, I’m sure, to the famous and much greater abortion poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton, but I don’t know what. A sense of death’s closeness, maybe. The terrible mixture of power and powerlessness mothers feel.

Abortion Radio

God told me and I did not listen, the tinny
speakers lament. Outside the car, ghost boles
of oaks float by. Brown leaves jump up
from the mountain road, swirl down again. I felt
something pass, I caught it, my baby. Tiny
hands, skin translucent. Every stump resembles
a deer that’s poised to leap. My friend just hit
a doe last night, driving home from a conference,
having missed her son’s bedtime for three
nights running. Her first thought: I killed a baby.
She stood in my office door to tell the story,
her eyes pinking up as she laughed at herself.
Shortwave talk refracts through me while I
tune in a stronger signal. A spouse has put
the kettle on, and children sleep in nests
of pastel belief. The deer my friend struck
lay down by the faded line at the verge of the road.
Its sides fluttered fast and then it died.
It went somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.

Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 2: Seams showing

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“I’ve quit hoarding,” Kimiko Hahn said at her reading, “and now collect myself.” I, on the other hand, was hoarding good lines–hers was one of many I collected last week in a little notebook bound with blue thread. My tattered Moleskin is beginning to fill with quotes and drafts and lists and spiral doodles–and I gathered a variety of each at the second annual Poetry by the Sea conference, as I began to describe in my last post.

Some highlights: Jon Tribble, in a panel on publishing, reminding us that a good poetry book drives you to keep turning pages. Listening to him (an editor who personally reads a massive number of mss annually), I scribbled almost illegibly, with my sprained right wrist: “How does every poem reward you for being there?” That’s a good thing to think about, the flip side to the need for suspense in poetry, a subject I wrote about here a few months ago.

Alicia Stallings charged me up similarly by reading poems about the migrant crisis in Greece–work that could not have felt more urgent. Ange Mlinko commented during her lecture, “At Sea,” “how frequently the classroom is a site of humiliation”–a sobering thought for someone who wants to foster inclusive spaces for pondering art and speaking adventurously. I was pleasurably startled by a reading pairing Mahogany L. Brown, one afternoon, with Gregory Pardlo–an unlikely duo. Poems in Pardlo’s physical voice were funnier than I’d realized–especially some new work about raising children–and when Brown’s teenage daughter accompanied her mother’s verse by singing a cappella, I wasn’t the only listener who broke out in goosebumps. In another event, Marilyn Taylor made me laugh out loud and Joshua Mehigan’s intense long poem, “The Orange Bottle,” riveted my attention almost painfully. There are many, many ways to make people want to keep listening.

I also kept recording scraps of conversations, mostly with other women, about the life hinges we’re occupying–worrying over ailing mothers and struggling daughters. “Valerian tea for anxiety,” reads one page. I think I jotted that prescription in the meditation garden, looking out at the seam between the blue sky and the blue water. I have notes from Jane Satterfield’s memoir panel and also about the brands of cute-yet-comfortable shoes she was wearing. I drafted a couple of poems and a couple of flash fiction pieces, too, although I wasn’t enrolled in any workshops. The combination of gorgeous ambient language with a borderworld landscape–that’s just irresistible.

One intermittent list consisted of advice I quilted together more deliberately. Tell me something good, I kept asking, about approaching the age of fifty. I’ll leave you with some answers, as well as an invitation. If you’re in the D.C. area, please consider coming to the launch of of the annual Joaquin Miller series, this coming Sunday, June 5th, in Rock Creek Park (5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015). I’ll be reading along with some young contest winners, and I believe there’s an open mic, too.

Till then, the pluses of middle age:

  • It’s better than old age.
  • I care less about what other people think.
  • Fruitfulness. So many things you work for over decades finally come ripe.
  • Now I HAVE to cultivate a balance between body and mind; my body breaks down otherwise.
  • I have a deep knowledge of my own work rhythms now.
  • Clarity–the unimportant stuff drops away.
  • Time seems more limited and precious.

The last one I’m feeling. Carefree fruitful balanced clarity, hmm–here’s hoping I figure that stuff out before September’s wave drags me out deep again.

joaquin miller flier