Last month’s “Birthing the Mother Writer” column asked readers to submit poems in the tradition of Dickinson, Rich, Rukeyser, and Olds whose poetry prunes away the hopes and fantasies of mothering and instead comes from the rich roots of the whole mothering self, in all its mess and dirt and imperfection.
The following two poems – by two mothers who each have a two-year-old – do just that. As you read them, I urge you to pay attention to the form (stanza construction, line breaks, and punctuation) of each poem. And then join us below for a discussion of how form matters to the poets themselves.
by Shanna Powlus Wheeler
those few months
my body made yours.
It was enough
to make a heart flicker,
first in secret, later
like a grain of rice
on the ultrasound--
to make your fragile sprout
of brain stem and spine,
your toe and finger buds,
the fused lids
of your still-forming eyes.
O the mercy in your brief,
You knew only
the peace of darkness,
of silence, and now,
if I can believe it,
only light and song.
in the months after, either.
Only revisions, the effort
to get it right, to align
and realign words
to urge the flame,
spur the song. To finish
the rough work
Shanna Powlus Wheeler is a poet from central Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in a wide range of journals, from Crab Orchard Review to Mezzo Cammin: An Online Journal of Formalist Poetry by Women. Her chapbook, Lo & Behold, was published by Finishing Line Press. She teaches writing at Lycoming College and lives in Montoursville, PA, with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
tonight, a full moon
by Caroline Gebhardt
a full moon
i should have known
should have paid attention to the taps
the signs, the cold latte, the two-year-old not napping.
to listen to the stillness
of the wisdom within my bones
massage the ache of disappointment in lieu of tightening.
i keep reminding
“remember your backbone
your shoulder blades, your throat, your gaze.
they will open your heart to a new dance of hope.”
a full moon
reminds me of the mist
the magical mist of thick morning fog
shielding our vision but not our desire for expansion.
Caroline Gebhardt is a freelance writer whose past work in broadcast journalism and the fitness world led her to a softer path of lights, camera, and action at home with her two-year-old boy. She wishes she could write and dance at the same time but takes what she can get with writing bits during preschool and yoga on the kitchen floor.
Cassie Premo Steele: Shanna and Caroline, both of your poems are “pruned” in form —short stanzas, minimalist punctuation, clipped lines. They are also about the “pruning” that takes place during mothering – the absence of creativity (in each case, writing and movement) that mothering can impose. Can you begin by saying a bit about the thought process (or feeling process!) regarding this experience of being pruned that you went through as the poems were coming to you?
Shanna Powlus Wheeler: This was one of the first poems I wrote after experiencing a second miscarriage – another painful “pruning” that, at the time, seemed completely unlike the pruning of vines, which is meant to bring forth growth and fruit. I had lost my literal fruit and felt little hope of bearing fruit in the future. The writing hiatus I had experienced during that pregnancy continued well beyond the loss; I found it hard to pick up where I left off. The only topic that mattered was the loss, but I couldn't write about it . . . yet. So I turned to revising older poems, because in them I regained a measure of control. But, of course, I didn't realize any of this until “No poems,” came to me, particularly the final stanza. So I consider this a breakthrough poem, because the fruit I couldn't foresee helped me see.
Caroline Gebhardt: Motherhood has birthed a tremendous search of spirituality for me in the sense that I yearn to explore the sacred, the divine, in everything. Our roots of the old start to sprout, and we – as parents, as mothers – tend to either allow them to grow the familiar route, or we push and prod for new ways to blossom. In regards to this poem, my husband and I have been long researching for a new place to plant our home, to nudge our roots to grow in a more creative, slightly edgy way – a community where we felt all the pieces could flourish. Our wish list had been fulfilled when an affordable home in our desired area presented itself. Boom, boom, boom, everything unfolded, heads nodded, papers were signed. Then, our inspector hit a proverbial brick wall issue, and we chose to terminate the contract. It was heartbreaking because I’d allowed myself to feel the raw joy of excitement and possibility of deeper connections – not only for myself but for my husband, for my boy, for my future community, and for my work. I’d happily given away furniture, cleaned my closets and was ready to move mountains – or in this case, at least my belongings. We thought the time, energy and dollar stars were aligning; we were trusting our nervous but excited guts. How could our honest intentions and proactive nature run up against this illusion? How could we not be in control if we simply took all the necessary and consuming measures? That’s when I had to step back. Do the surrendering thing – the pruning of my choice. Refusing the bottle or paci? Toss ‘em. Hating the pack-n-play? Put him in bed. Not excited to teach, to give? Stop, and simply take; receive. Competition and gossip getting old? Move on to new connections. Out with the shoulds, in with the new, maybe foggy path of the unknown. Take the steps of seeing the bigger container – letting it hold me. I truly wrote the poem on the night of a full moon, having felt a sense of ease, of transformation turning into acceptance.
CPS: Let’s look more specifically at the form of the poems. Shanna, your poem reminds me of how I described a poem of one of the poets in my poetry program recently: like toothpaste, squeezed out, because the words come from a tight and narrow place. Does this describe how you feel about the poem? What can you tell us about how you made the choice of form?
SPW: I like your toothpaste image. The lines are short and spare rather than sprawling partly because I was easing back into poetry. I was tentative as opposed to gushing. The pressure had indeed built up, as you suggested, so I didn't have the patience for a more formal structure. And I found that the shorter lines placed more emphasis on the images, particularly in the first stanza.
CPS: Caroline, your poem has a repetition of line length in the structure of each stanza in the poem. Why did you decide to do this and what effects do you think it creates?
CG: The repetition was like a steady massage for me to keep reminding myself of something bigger. In this case, it was the full moon. I loved that evening because I’d walked out on my driveway and saw how the moon casted an unusual opening of visibility and glowed upon the pine tree-filled street. I’ve always been afraid of the night-time – hearing things, feeling things, seeing things – but I’ve recently discovered the moon allows me to befriend the dark, literally and figuratively. That night I needed some light, some hope – therefore, I kept returning to “tonight” and then expanded on listening and surrendering to the subtleties, stanza after stanza, to reiterate the protective meaning of the white glow, to allow it to trickle down more and more, to give me deeper meaning and security, to practice feeling the richness of God, to be able to trust what I couldn’t see.
CPS: I have a confession to make: I am in love with punctuation! It can be so powerful when used well in a poem. But it’s hard to know what “well” means. Shanna, your poem uses commas and dashes almost like breaks on a bumper car ride. You even include a comma in the title, which I love! Your poetry has also been included in an anthology of formalist poetry. Can you tell us about how you use punctuation as a poetic tool in your writing?
SPW: I'm quite obsessed with punctuation myself. I try to follow the instruction I give to my students: Punctuation is a set of signals guiding the reader, indicating pause length, emphasis, and relationships among words and ideas. We punctuate not just to follow rules but to make choices that shape our message, so it's liberating rather than restrictive. This is true of both prose and poetry (though, as Caroline shows, a lack of punctuation can be striking and purposeful). I do take more liberties when punctuating poetry. This poem holds several lists, and so my commas serve to contain them. The dashes add emphasis and allow me to extend the lists even further. And the colon in the middle stanza is a rhetorical device (“Look, I'm going to complete this thought”). Plus it adds just enough of a pause.
CPS: And Caroline, the lack of punctuation in your poem gives the reader a sense of being squished, as if mothering is one long run-on sentence. What can you share about this that might help other mother-writers feeling similarly squished?
CG: While I like to believe it’s important to embrace and try to balance both qualities of fire and flow, motherhood seems to continuously give my uptight, fiery constitution the life lesson of surrender, to go with the flow, especially surrendering to simplicity right now. If I stress about forcing myself to finish the short story I started in June, or if I stress about my son hurling his spaghetti noodles into the Christmas tree versus placing them in his mouth, I’ll never feel settled, peaceful or worthy. I’m simply into getting short bits done lately: reading a chapter here in this book, reading a chapter there in that book, writing a short poem when inspiration strikes on a foggy weekend, and I limit myself to planning two recipes while grocery shopping – to fill in the food blanks, leftovers and breakfast-for-supper are good enough for me (and the Christmas tree!). Good enough. That’s my theme. There’s never a perfect mother, but a good enough mother, and I exhale and take that metaphor into other areas of my life.
CPS: Finally, what other poets have inspired you to do the difficult work of pruning and digging down to the roots of mothering in your writing? How has the form and the content in their poetry influenced your work?
SPW: The mother-poets Tania Runyan and Marjorie Maddox have influenced me greatly in these first two years of my motherhood. I'm drawn to how they convey both fears and joys – a mixture I wish to maintain. When reading their work, I've paid particular attention to how their poems fit together as collections. I use their projects as a guide for building my own first full-length book.
CG: I’ve found Mary Oliver’s approach to honoring nature parallel to what I’m discovering I value as a mother. I really never knew about mothering otherwise, so I am learning and being humbled every single day, but I do it by practicing staying with my breath, taking time to examine dirt piles and rollie pollies, and marveling at all the “dark tunnels” my two-year-old creates for his racecars. I find that if I follow the practice of staying present – instead of anxiously trying to fill the blank spaces with errands to pass the day – time is filled with moments of inspiration and aha! I find her language sweet, graceful and simple yet profoundly mystical. I believe my own work of paying attention to the subtle details of how I’m living right now – making sure I remember it’s a practice, not an aim for perfection – can serve as that piece of grace I desperately need to see, touch, taste, hear and feel everyday.
CPS: Thank you both for your poetry, and for helping readers understand the process that created them, and for your willingness to write from the roots!