Sunday, March 15, 2009

Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing Edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff

As a poet and a mother-to-be, Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing (2007 Fence Books) has been on my radar screen a long time. I remember coveting it at the Fence Books table at AWP last year, in fact, well before we were actually pregnant ("we" meaning me and my wife, not me and Fence Books, an entity with which I have no children). I had first read about the book online, so I was surprised at its heft when I physically held an actual copy. It's over 460 pages, which makes it comparable to carrying around a copy of the New Testament - another book that some might argue goes on too long.

But the Bible it isn't, nor is it one of those Hallmarky collections of overly sentimental poems about little feet and new beginnings. Though, I admit, I am a sucker for sentiment, done well, of course. And I think Not for Mothers Only could've benefited from a little more warmth. A lot of these poems feel like overly academic explorations and/or cooly removed ruminations of "child getting and child rearing" (the poems from Norma Cole and Akilah Oliver are a good example of this). I think some further paring would make this a tighter collection. Also, I noticed a good number of typos throughout.

Not that there aren't good things to be found here. I discovered Pam Rehm, for one, and am eager to read more of her work. You can read her poem "Indebted," which is included in the collection, at

Susan Holbrook's "Nursery" was a surprising favorite. Surprising because it is really dense and really long (meaning there are no line breaks so the text just engulfs the five and a half pages it spans). According to the book, after giving birth, Holbrook "decided to make her mothering life work for, rather than against, her writing, and started composing a line every time she nursed the baby." Every line starts with "Right" or "Left," depending on which breast she's on. Here are the first two lines: "Left: Trace pictograph of an elk in the fine veins of your temple. Right: If it were a Virgin Mary we'd be on the news." Not all of the lines are this brilliant. Some are only two words ("Left: not again") or feel more like what one mom might Twitter to another ("Left: Ugh, plugged ducts"), but the over all concept is awesome and the result is a surprisingly intimate ride-along, if you will, of the nursing experience between these two people.

Michigan is well represented in this collection: Thylias Moss and Amy Sara Carroll from University of Michigan, Christine Hume from Eastern Michigan University, Carla Harryman from Western Michigan University.

At least two poems in Not for Mothers Only mention monkeys: "At the Door" by Jean Valentine ("Chimpanzee of longing, / outside the light, / wrap your long arms / around the globe of light") and Maxine Chernoff's "Identity Principle" ("...twins, those clever monkeys, allowed to eat at table").

Maureen Owen's "Bedtime" is one of my favorite poems from Not for Mothers Only, and incidentally one of the shortest.
I have this power     At night
I kiss three people     minutes later
they are all sound asleep     the bizarre
& the miraculous     are the same thing.

(Maureen Owen, from Not for Mothers Only, 2007 Fence Books)

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