Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A review of No More Milk

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No More Milk
by Karen Craigo
Sundress Publications, June 2016; 80 pages; $15

A friend told me a memory she had of her mother: every Friday, the two went to the local pizza place together and shared an appetizer and a meal. For her, the memory represented the intimacy between them, the special moments of sharing time alone with a parent. When she talked to her mother about it as an adult, her mother wept with shame. She remembered not being able to afford more than one meal, scrimping to bring her daughter this half treat. As I read Karen Craigo's debut poetry collection, No More Milk, I found myself thinking on this story. Craigo's poems walk within memories, where both scarcity and plenty are possible depending on perspective. In poem after poem, Craigo chooses abundance — in kindness, in language, in story.

In "Milk," one of the first poems, the poet-speaker writes of hearing a baby crying outside her hotel window. The poet, far from home and missing her own weaning baby, has been trying to pump milk to prolong this bodily connection between herself and her son, even in his absence. That crying voice speaks to her of hunger, of what the body can provide. The speaker considers the milk, its potential for sustenance, and drinks it down, a toast to sating the hunger for nurture that exists in everyone.

The world is dense with hunger.
Sometimes I have to pull
my baby's fist from his mouth
just to feed him,
and I am mindful that for some
hunger is a fist that never stops
being a fist.

Craigo responds with kindness, taking the gift the body has given, no matter how small, and making it matter as a kind of grace, rather than viewing it as a loss. This sets the tone for the book.

No More Milk lives in that zone between suffering and grace. Over the course of the volume, money gets demoted from idol to utility; in "Special Money" Craigo writes of raiding tooth fairy two dollar bills or Bicentennial quarters, "Nothing is so special it can't / be made bread. Remember" she urges. The break of the second line, after "remember," reinforces her primary point — that what feeds, sustains, and nurtures is vital. Money is only as good as the experiences it buys, as in the poem "How We Save," where the speaker borrows against her son's bank to pay for the tank of gas that takes them to the park, where they

…lay down together
in the grass the day he blessed
it with a name—Place of Fresh
Butterfly Milk—as if a butterfly
were a thing that could nourish.

Here, the speaker opts out of shame; instead, she celebrates what the painful exchange made possible — this interaction with her child, this place in time and space that the child himself identifies, however unknowingly, as a nurturing one. Craigo proves particularly adept at finding the small holy moments in life, from goldfinches to walleyes, "the starfish / hand of a brand new boy" to the "old workhorse body."

A large sectioned poem in praise of the body serves as ballast at the center of the book. In it, Craigo pays homage, but it is an homage to the doing, not just the being. These poems do not bless the golden tresses and noble brow, though there is beauty here. Instead, they make much of the daily gifts. In "Guided Meditation: An Inventory," section five, "Arms," she writes,

how they’ve carried
potatoes, folding-chairs,
your dying dog.
Bless them for trying
to hula, for the time
they flew a kite.

She moves easily between domestic duties and spiritual moments, adding resonance to each by showing how they coexist. Here again, Craigo's deft line breaks create layers of meaning — she blesses the arms for simply trying, and though she offers her own images of what that means, the line break also acknowledges the ways they have failed in equal measure.

In the same series, she also posits the body as a place of comfort for the self. In section three, "Hips" she writes

Your pelvis is solid, the body’s firm cradle.
But you can invite yourself to settle in, to curl up
like a cat in an inglenook. There is even a fire.
It burns red in you.

Craigo flouts popular obsessions with the body and its particular size or state, celebrating instead all that it can do, all that it can hold. There is a kind of faith in this volume, and it is in the potential for each person to be enough, in and of themselves, and in the kindness with which they can choose to act. In, "In Praise of the Body Broken in Two" the speaker, a new mother, writes of her own healing body, "This place is so holy / you'd have to leave your shoes / to step inside."

Still, even as Craigo recognizes the holiness of the body, she notes that it is unprotected, even from its owner, who considers multiple ways to die in a short series of four poems. Though marked by hope, the volume is not without darkness; the financial struggle that undergirds many poems is a reality for a great many mothers and writers. Working-class poems have a powerful history in contemporary poetry, from Dorianne Laux to Philip Levine, and Craigo situates herself within that canon, bringing to it her own complex rendering of scarcity and abundance.

For me, the book sent me back into my own life, my own experiences as both a mother and a daughter, considering the ways in which I have colored my own memories with interpretation. In "What It Means to Wait," the speaker talks to the reader in second person, as many of the poems do. Suddenly, the audience is the waitress, reaching into her purse to pay in coin for a gallon of milk, and again, the warm voice of the poet guides the moment: "Go deep, / you might find what you need." I plan to honor that advice.

Camille-Yvette Welsch is the author of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and FULL. She is a Teaching Professor of English at The Pennsylvania State University where she directs the High School Writing Day at Penn State. She also participates in the Poems from Life program, which links local writers with senior citizens to write poems about their lives.

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