In the recent issue of American Poetry Review, an article titled “Baby Poetics” ignited a fascinating discussion on Wom-po, the on-line list-serve for all things women and poetry. Much of the conversation was an attempt at figuring out what the author, Joy Katz, was actually up to with her essay: decrying poems that actually attempt to write about babies in them or pointing out the fear that women poets have in writing about such topics? A complicated essay about a complicated subject.
Donna Vorreyer’s fascinating first collection of poetry, A House of Many Windows, addresses this important subject matter. What is a woman in relationship to motherhood? When does a mother become a mother? How are we as women allowed to write about, or allowed to feel as mothers or as women who can’t or don’t become mothers? And why exactly are these questions so deeply important?
One of my favorite of Vorreyer’s poems, “Billy Gets the Analogy All Wrong” speaks exactly to the necessity of asking these questions. Billy Collins: Poet Laureate, filler of poetry bookshelves in book stores across the country. Billy Collins, an actual name people can associate with poetry. And here is what Billy Collins has written about women without children: “a woman without children, a gate through which no one had entered the world.” In her poem, Vorreyer closely examines that analogy and picks it apart, the idea that a woman is just some door to a hip bar or event, where “children / [are] waving twenties and straining / to catch their names on the list.” But Vorreyer doesn’t just show us what we aren’t—more importantly, she shows us what we are: “not the shuttered womb, / but the unlatched heart, wide open.”
The first section of Vorreyer’s book describes the attempts and failures of a woman trying to get pregnant and to stay pregnant, likening her body to a city, “waiting for the scaffolding to rise.” Many of the titles are heartbreaking, alerting the reader to what occurs with an unflinching accuracy: “Upon the Second Attempt, Whole Foods,” “After the Third Failure, Silence,” “After the Sixth Failure, IKEA.” Notice this movement of language from what are at first “attempts” to what becomes to be perceived as “failures.”
Throughout the book, the relationship between the woman and her husband are also detailed, and how this relationship is effected by the effort at pregnancy, which causes silence and strain between them, such as in the poem, “When I Don’t Love You Anymore is a Wasp.” Here the speaker is struggling with quick momentary spurts of feelings that could be released through angry language, compared to a wasp, but is held back: “She wants me to spit her with wild / velocity, stinger first, straight into your patient face.” That word “patient” adds such an honesty to the speaker’s complexity of emotions in this poem.
Another, thoroughly heartbreaking poem, is “Still Tending Each Garden.” Here, the speaker addresses her “tiny truth, my traveler.” Having a miscarriage is such an emotionally challenging situation, where one is grieving for something unseen but yet known in a most intimate way. This poem is partly a list of things the speaker compares to her unborn child:
My grace note, my disembodied echo,
your hum rumbles through my limbs,
a melody unfinished, without a refrain.
Some days, I hear you, calling from
an unseen place in umbilical code,
my confidante, my secret semaphore.
Such tender grief.
The last section concerns itself with the adoption and subsequent trials and errors of becoming a mother. And in the prose poem, “How You Become A Mother,” it is clear that each way of becoming a mother is fraught with its own challenges and emotional difficulties:
You sit in the social worker’s office, and she asks you what sort of
child you would like to adopt. The only answer you can think of
is human. You have to write about your whole life, the
therapist’s foot tapping in time with her pen as she grills you
about your parents, your childhood, your definition of family.
You have to circle yes or no on checklists: would you adopt a
child without a limb? With a heart condition? You are a monster
whenever you circle no.
This first book of poems is a wonderful, truthful look at what issues are at stake for women and mothers. It is an attempt to define what those words mean in the most honest way. We need more books like this, written by women in the attempt to define ourselves since, as Vorreyer says in her poem, “Anatomy of A Day,” the miracle of our ourselves is “what our bodies hold.”