Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Review of Yona Harvey’s Hemming the Water

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Hemming the Water
Poems by Yona Harvey
Four Way Books, 2013; $15.95

Yona Harvey’s debut poetry collection, Hemming the Water, illuminates generational strength in family—how the body carries not only the physical but the emotional weight of the past and its attached memory. Women’s objects, such as girdles, sewing machines, and kitchen tools, continuously evoke these memories, reminding me of my own family’s valued objects. My grandmother’s porcelain clock. The curio and framed daguerreotypes of almost-forgotten ancestors. In sonic words that hum a mother’s song, Harvey leads the reader through poems that break traditional lyric and scatter across the page.

Mothers across familial ties fill this collection, appearing in physical and metaphysical contexts. In “To Describe My Body Walking,” where the speaker’s mother blurs the lines between a solid and ephemeral body, the mother is “made of snow & ice & the repetition / of years. (A means, a ways).” Another disassembling occurs in “Mother, Love,” which begins in neat quatrains and then ends in an uneven, long stanza. In addressing her mother, the speaker claims

you’re at least thirteen clocks in the span

of two rooms, each off by a minute or two.

Lord, help me when they chimed.

& so my love is awkward and ill-timed.

The final whirlwind stanza reflects this emotional conflict, where objects begin to pile up through jagged lines: “you tardy bell, / parcel package, unexpected visitor, / unanswered phone call.”

Breathing life into the inanimate are objects that stand in as metaphors for women throughout Hemming the Water. The speaker reports on a pair of shoes in “Open-Toed Shoes” while assessing her own feet, commenting, “I’d never fallen—on a stage, on a sidewalk, in a bad relationship—never. Not a single heartbreak.” Things associated with women’s bodies are further examined in “Discovering Girdles,” in which the speaker reflects on “this contraption / of polyester & cotton, troublesome lace” meant “to construct the skin / like a bit of truth.” Confined physically, by the end of the poem, these women are “reaching beyond the fitting rooms of Earth.”  At the store displaying the sign “All Merchandise Sold As Is: No Refunds, Returns, Exchanges, Guarantees,” mothers decide to “take / chances on blouses we’ll wear brazenly / as middle fingers.”

From being a daughter to being a mother, later poems grapple with childbirth and the impetus of letting go. In “Hurricane,” the speaker reflects on her daughter’s birth by giving voice to her daughter.

Mama, let me go—she speaks


What every smart child knows—

To get grown you unlatch


Your hands from the grown

& up & up & up & up

This kind of repetition of phrases, like a refrain, continues in the aptly titled “Devil Music,” a long folk-song-like poem with key refrains and phrases mixed into long-lined stanzas. Beginning with, “When I was waiting for my son to be born, I dreamt he would / turn to stone & I would drop him,” the poem navigates the presence of the Devil, “humpbacked, / crooked-letter backed, stirring his morning coffee.” Nightmares brought on by the Devil prompt the mother to act: “I draped the child in spikes & armor. & sealed / his room with a hundred questions.”

Harvey resurrects and remembers family through poetic retelling. Such rich language provokes the reader to begin sorting through the items remembered and forgotten through generations and to imagine new objects to keep and savor. While many strive to create a family mythology, Harvey does so with a keen eye for striking images and a decidedly matrilineal focus by honing in on the intricacies of being a daughter and mother.


Alyse Bensel’s poems have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Zone 3, burntdistrict, Heron Tree, Bone Bouquet, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Not of Their Own Making and Shift and serves as the Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review. A PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas, she lives in Lawrence.

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