Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews All We Can Hold: an anthology of motherhood poems (published by Sage Hill Press).
When I first picked up the poetry anthology All We Can Hold, I was skeptical because I was expecting a collection of poems with flowery language about what a gift it is to be a mother. And, well, I was wrong (as I often am about things). These are poems not proclaiming the greatness of motherhood, but they are poems filled with sadness, loss, hesitancy, fear, and, yes, joy. Being a parent is not about being in love with the job every moment of the process, but it’s about putting in the time and effort to do the best you can; and this book is able to focus in on all the emotions involved.
All We Can Hold opens with a Sherman Alexie poem. He was trying to praise the stars, but his son began to cry. He knew his son’s comfort “was more important than the stars” and so he goes to calm his son. In the second stanza he was aware that the “mother was more important than the stars / So he cried for her breast and milk. It’s hard / For fathers to compete with mothers’ love.” This book is not about who loves the child more, but rather it’s looking at the natural inclination a child has to their mother. They are drawn to her, and no matter how much other people try to step into the role it still won’t quite be enough to eclipse the connection they have to their mother.
Like I said, not all the poems in the collection are uplifting examples of motherhood. Kate Peterson writes about miscarriage in her poem, “Carried.” At the start of the poem her significant other “thought it was just / another infection, you told me / not to cry so much.” What I think is at the core of Peterson’s poem is during an early miscarriage the people around her may not fully understand the connection that has been severed. A lost child is a lost child and simply because it happens early on in the pregnancy doesn’t take any of the pain away. It’s a short but powerful poem and one of the standouts in the collection.
Along the same lines as Peterson’s poem, Divya Ramesh has a short poem called “Secret.” She reveals to the reader that sometimes when she is alone she’ll adjust her posture to “stick out my belly just a little / arms akimbo” and pretend she is still pregnant. When no one is looking she tricks herself into believing she “never lost you.” While Peterson’s poem is about working through grief, Ramesh reminds us that loss never fully leaves or dissipates. Even on the good days there will be moments when the mind wanders back and considers the other possibilities.
Possibly my favorite poem in the collection is called “Pereids in August” by Bethany Fitzpatrick. She was lying in their backyard with her daughter looking up at the stars. She was thinking about how “stars die, and I see them still.” They are millions of light years away, so what she saw are echoes of things already dead. She took “hold my daughter’s warm hand in mine, / finding strange comfort in the thought that I too / will continue to exist / in the helix of her.” This poem makes me think about a lot of different things (nature versus nurture, the upsides of nihilism, the multiverse, immortality), but primarily it gives me hope. Sure, we pass on some undesirable traits, but at the same time some of our best qualities are being passed on to our children. It’s not wholly about remembrance, because I have the same laugh as my dad and I tend to debate like my mom. These are traits I’ve inherited and have inevitability already transferred to my son; and with that I’ve kept the line moving.
All We Can Hold is about the limits parents are expected to strive for, but it is also a study on how much further we expect mothers to go. It seems like we see a lot of “Super Mom” or “Mother Knows Best” and with these clichés we often forget that our mothers are people. They have struggles; and what this collection of poetry does is shine a light on the struggles. Admitting that it is sometimes hard doesn’t make someone a bad parent or a weak person—it shows they are aware of the difficulties and are still willing to get up every day and continue to do their best.