Categories
Billets Reviews

Rachel Bower: the poet as mother

Where were the poems (or short stories or novels) about shame and loss, about unbearable love and unimaginable boredom, about the intersection between birth and death?

Rachel Bower, “On the Poetry of Motherhood”

Rachel Bower is a young poet and academic based in Sheffield. She has published two volumes of poetry and has received several prizes for her poems, the list of which can be found on her website. Her main interest in her poetry is one that I happen to share with her, that is the representation of motherhood, in literature, and specifically in poetry. Her two collections, Moon Milk and These Mothers of God are both concerned with the poet’s autobiographical experience as a mother of young children, in the same vein as Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood, but also with the figure of the mother in the culture in general.

In an article she wrote about “The poetry of motherhood”, Rachel Bower tries to draw a map of the current verse being written about motherhood, and while she notes that there has been a flurry of books, specifically of poetry, that put the experience of motherhood front and centre1, there is still a certain tendency to view the topic as somehow marginal, or niche, just not worthy of the same interest as other major topics of poetry, which are deemed more “universal”. Motherhood, it seems, is always at risk of sounding “sentimental”.

The majority of the reviews and blurbs about the above poetry collections, my own included, include an appreciative (if surprised) comment about how we have succeeded in writing about birth and motherhood without sentimentality. The implication is that such writing necessarily sets out from a place of sentimentality; that the risk of ‘bad’ writing is particularly high. Or, to put this differently, these well-meaning comments imply that the writing begins with a subject that is not entirely proper for poetry, and that it must therefore escape these experiences in order to be of any merit or skill.

Rachel Bower, “Writing Birth: On the Poetry of Motherhood”

With this reflection, Bower places herself in the footsteps of the two major influences of motherhood poetics with references to the ever-present Adrienne Rich, of course, but also to the work of the Irish poet Eavan Boland, whose essay Object Lessons, along with A Journey With Two Maps rank among the finest writing on the subject of motherhood and domesticity in the contemporary poetic imagination. Like Boland, Rachel Bower is aware of the risk of writing about motherhood in a cultural landscape that is still very much impregnated by the conventions of the Romantic and the Modernist period. How, in other words, does one write about the experience of motherhood without one’s verse being labelled as mawkish? How does one write about the every day without sounding trite? For Bower this conundrum is solved in two ways: first by making the experience of motherhood, and particularly of childbirth, a poetic experience in its own right, and this second by decentring the autobiographical experience from the I to the we.

Moon Milk

The collection of poetry Moon Milk reads like the diary of a pregnancy, subsequent miscarriage and new pregnancy, followed by the experiences of postpartum, lactation, up to the early years of raising a child. The poems are grounded in a very concrete imagery, with references to food, and particularly sweet food (fruit, candy, etc.) running through the collection, as well as references to animals: birds, wasps, horses. The poetry grapples with the concrete, and with the tradition of concrete poetry with several poems written as calligrams, including the first two ones which document the author’s use of pregnancy tests, the one barren single line eventually becoming the two lines of pregnancy. The poems then follow the evolution of the poet’s body, her encounters with the baby over ultrasound imagery. With the poem “Fruit” the poem, like the mother’s body is so large it doesn’t fit into the page anymore, and the layout of the books needs to be adjusted.

The experience of childbirth constitutes the climax of the book with a series of poems documenting the “becoming-beast” of the mother and her baby. As she gets ready to give birth to her child the mother suddenly transforms into a mare, or a doe, as she bolts from the hospital and its dehumanising lights and noises to “birth her foal” in the silent dark. There are echoes of Liz Berry’s poetry of course, but also of Sylvia Plath’s motherhood poems like “Three Women”, “Morning Song”, or “Ariel”. The experience of young motherhood opens up a whole range of emotions, like the creeping horror in “Wasps”, which describes nascent postpartum psychosis, or the sense of wonder of “Oyster” to the doting tenderness of “Surgar Beet”. This is a poetry that speaks not of the mind but of the body, and specifically of the fusion between two bodies, the mother’s and the child’s. Only gradually does the poet manage to regain some form of independent selfhood and to connect with the rest of her family first, then the rest of the world. In the final poem in the collection, “Sheffield to Aleppo”, the poet projects her consciousness outside of herself to imagine she is a mother shielding her children from bombings in Syria. The usual references to sweets, fizzy drinks and pastries become a form of reassurance against the cruelty of the outside world.

and I stroke floss hair and sweet-bun cheeks
damp from steam, breathing milk
and I ache for it only to be fireworks

for thumbs in the dark to be enough
to stop glazed buns cracking in the dust
for shells that spill only golden fish
for grazes that heal with the fizz 
--- Rachel Bower, "Sheffield to Aleppo", p. 41

This last poem announces the topic of the poetry to follow, the extension of the reality of motherhood from autobiographical experience to all-encompassing perspective of the world in all its complexity.

These Mothers of Gods

The autobiographical elements present in Moon Milk are also present in These Mothers of Gods with poems dedicated to the intimate experience of childbirth and mothering, but they are this time mixed with other poems which portray motherhood as a particular form of attention to the world and our interconnectedness. Motherhood is a force that runs through the ages and the cultures: the fact that we are “Of Woman Born” to quote the title of Adrienne Rich’s famous book on motherhood, is probably what defines our common humanity the best. Some poems are inspired by myth, fairy tales, religious narratives, historical documents and even contemporary issues such as climate change or the migrant crisis.

A recording of Rachel Bower’s “Water Birth” from the Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation, directed by Matthew Thompson

All the references to food being ingested are replaced with images of feeding – feeding one’s children, and wishing to feed other children in need, for example. Images of animals are also to be found, with references to bees and the “hive mother” (Rachel Bower is also a beekeeper) caring not just for her offspring but for society as a whole. The hive mother also gives us a glimpse of a society in which mothers are the central figure of power, and not rendered powerless by their confinement to the home and the domestic sphere. Other animals are convoked alongside the bees, with a silver seal, a vixen, a snake, reminding us that the experience of motherhood is grounded in our animal nature.

Several poems are concerned not just by mothering, but what Sarah Hrdy  would call “othermothering”, with references to stepmothers, mothers-in-law and foster mothers in Christianity, Hinduism and Islam: a constellation of mother figures whom we tend to forget with the isolation of the mother-child dyad in the nuclear family, but who were forever part of the activity of child-rearing. Other poems evoke the tragic events of US slavery as well as the mother-baby homes in Ireland and the separation between mother and child as a particular type of civilisational crime. The mothers in the collection are not always the glorious and powerful hive mother, they are also often made helpless by climate change, chased away by careless fairy-tale husbands, or just simply worn down, trying to escape if only for a few minutes the burden of motherhood.

Conclusion

WIth these two collections, Rachel Bower is walking in the footsteps of other poets of motherhood, such as Eavan Boland or Sylvia Plath. She is participating in the effort of placing motherhood on the map of human experience, out of the confines of the home or the hospital, and in the collective conscious and inconscious. Motherhood, for Bower, is not just a niche subject, and does not condemn poetry to sentimentality or mawkishness. It is the foundation of our common humanity and as such it deserves to be the subject of the finest poetry.

Works cited

Berry, Liz. 2018. The Republic of Motherhood. London: Chatto & Windus.

Boland, Eavan. 1995. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

———. 2012. A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet. Manchester: Carcanet.

Bower, Rachel. 2018a. Moon milk. Scarborough: Valley Press.

———. 2018b. “Writing Birth: On the Poetry of Motherhood.” Wild Court (blog). November 14, 2018. https://wildcourt.co.uk/features/1869/.

———. 2021. These mothers of gods. Edited by Isabelle Kenyon. New Mills, Derbyshire: Fly on the Wall Press.

Elkin, Lauren. 2018. “Why All the Books About Motherhood?” The Paris Review, July 17, 2018. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/07/17/why-all-the-books-about-motherhood/.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species. London: Chatto & Windus.

Plath, Sylvia. 2016. The Collected Poems. Reprint édition. Harper Perennial.

Rich, Adrienne C. (1976) 1995. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. 2nd ed. Women’s studies. New York: Norton.


  1. Lauren Elkin reaches a similar conclusion in her article (Elkin 2018).↩︎

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.