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Amie Whittemore standing by a pond in the woods

Rochelle Hurt: A Year in Motherhood

I spent much of 2018 investing in motherhood—not as a personal experience (I am not a mother, nor, at the moment, do I wish to be)—but as a prismatic experience with intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and political facets worthy of consideration far beyond the niche realm of “women’s experience” to which it’s still so often relegated. This year I read books in all genres that approached motherhood (and grandmother-hood) from multiple fronts, and I want to share with you in a few words what they offered, what they mothered in me

“Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself—it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.” 

Mother of indecision. Mother of reveling in indecision. Mother of coming to your other senses. Mother of chance. Mother of giving yourself over to time in ways we’re normally taught to fight.

“This is a love poem. / I’ll prove it to you. / Let me fill your cheek / with my cheek.”

Mother of obsession. Mother of parasitic love. Mother of spare lines and unsettling desire. Mother of wanting more and more and more.

“What significance, if any, does the fact that mammals gestate inside another body have for the mind?”

Mother of womb philosophy. Mother of embodied technology. Mother of doubt and gendered questioning. Mother of thinking bodies. 

“When I miss her, I open my popout map. / I spill my face into the streets of Tehran. / … I say Karaj like I’m telling you your future.”

Mother of lyrical spells. Mother of metaphysical inheritance. Mother of death as shape-shifting and memory as incantation. Mother of conjuring the self.

“I don’t know if I can define myself anymore, now that I’m your mother. You’ve consumed me. Being your mother has cooked me right down to the bone.”

Mother of inherited memory. Mother of nature in context. Mother of naming. Mother of reclaiming history’s weapons. Mother of travelling with child, of carrying familial trauma, of birthing new language.

“Like a daughter who has not forgotten / the world of her mother’s body.”

Mother of squelching shame with love. Mother of chicken bones and homemade clothes and trailer parks and Southern silt. Mother of generational understanding. Mother of women making their own beauty. 

“I am the mama weep beneath the fold, // that paragraph you skip, the wink of gold / inside a rotted mouth, that shredding note / of grief.” 

Mother of persona and channeled tongues. Mother of history’s whispers and sunk bodies. Mother of news ignored. Mother of grief on and off camera. Mother of moan as song. Mother of ugly as tool. 

Jenna Le: “Bitingly Unsentimental Explorations”

A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018)

Emily Jungmin Yoon’s ambitious debut on the history of Korean wartime sex slavery and its ramifications for a diasporic Asian woman writing today, was among the most masterful new releases of 2018: burningly clear, burnished with authorial maturity, each poem powerfully self-sufficient yet necessary to the whole. Yoon highlights connections among multiple forms of violence, including colonialism, distorted media portrayals of the “exotic,” and even ecologic destruction, reminding us violence begets violence, entangling all in its web of complicity. But 2017-18 was rich with terrific new releases, among which Duy Doan’s We Play a Game (Yale University Press, 2017) and John Foy’s Night Vision (St. Augustine’s Press, 2017) also stand out as bitingly unsentimental explorations of familial and national epidemics of violence.

Two older bilingual anthologies that ensnared me this year with their enduring timeliness were Poets Behind Barbed Wire (1985) and The Defiant Muse: Vietnamese Feminist Poems From Antiquity to the Present (2007). The former is a delicately illustrated pamphlet of tanka by Japanese Americans in WWII internment camps regarding their experiences. The latter upliftingly reminds us that the tradition of Vietnamese women’s poetry is a long and strong one, a muscularly winding she-dragon whose tail we have not yet seen.

Brenna Lemieux: “Half the Pleasure of Reading is Remembering”

Is it cliché to say a collection of poems has something for everyone? No? Good. Suture (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), a collection of sonnets by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, qualifies. First, the premise: sonnets with stolen first lines, written collaboratively by Muench and Rader. The mind boggles. Half the pleasure of reading is remembering, every few pages, that these tight, resonant, bursting-with-life works are mind-melds. The other half is the work itself: there’s sound music (“This bone-burned body—skin blade, flesh fade, / dust of its dust, cut and crushed, fine flint rust—is neither flask nor cage”), wrenchingly beautiful elevated language (“Welcome elegy, / here is your country, stuck on its own pole star, / and here we are: the last, the lost, the hanging tree”), and down-home honesty (“Let’s be honest, Reader, we’re both more at home / with dick jokes than iambic pentameter”). There’s even a dead-horse poem (if that’s your thing). Turn to the back for a bibliography of first lines (or what I call a “reading list”). This is a book to savor—the kind that will have you snapping pictures of poems and sending them to people you love.

David Nilsen: “Satisfying Melancholies”

I've learned to enter new poetry from Ada Limón with implicit trust, and The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018) amply rewarded that. The book is drenched in the colors and smells of growing things, and as often with dying things. In poems that deal with infertility, grief, ecological dread, and political despair, she has her fingers in the soil, tending to life: "...some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it's just to say I cared enough." 

Devin Kelly's In This Quiet Church of Night I Say Amen (CCM Press, 2017) brought on a satisfying melancholy, a comforting sadness like a winter blanket. These lines encompass my entire personal religion: "There is too much beauty here / for this to mean nothing." 

Ruth Awad's Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017) [Editor’s Note: We did not ask Nilsen to review one of our own, that’s just how good this book is!] is a lovely, moving document of her father's experiences in the Lebanese Civil War and her family's story after his subsequent exodus to the U.S. Focusing on moments subtle rather than explosive, the book is profound in its personal insights: "I don't know what makes a country a country. / If the sea softening an edge of land is enough / to say, This is mine and that is yours."

Reviewer Bios:

Rochelle Hurt is the author of In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street, 2016) and The Rusted City: A Novel in Poems (White Pine, 2014). Her work has been included in the Best New Poets anthology series and she's been awarded prizes and fellowships from Crab Orchard ReviewArts & LettersHunger MountainPoetry International, Vermont Studio Center, Jentel, and Yaddo. Hurt is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Slippery Rock University, and she runs the review site The Bind.

Jenna Le authored Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Indolent Books, 2018; 1st ed. pub. by Anchor & Plume, 2016), which won second place in the 2017 Elgin Awards. Her poetry appears in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles ReviewMassachusetts Review, and West Branch

Brenna Lemieux is the author of the full-length poetry collection The Gospel of Household Plants (Quercus Review Press, 2015) and the chapbook Blankness, Melancholy, and Other Ways of Dying (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Willow SpringsPrinters RowThe MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Lemieux lives in Chicago. 

David Nilsen is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his  literary reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The RumpusGulf CoastThe MillionsThe Georgia Review, and numerous other respected publications.