THE MOTHERS: Poems in Conversation & a Conversation
By Namrata Verghese
Laux, Dorianne, and Leila Chatti, Slapering Hol Press, 2022. $20.00
Writing can be lonely. It’s often imagined as a solitary endeavor—a single candle burning at midnight, a lone figure clacking away at a keyboard. One contest winner, one fellowship recipient. A zero-sum game: if one person wins, it’s at another’s expense. The Mothers, Leila Chatti and Dorianne Laux’s collaborative poetry chapbook, troubles this paradigm. The text is, as the “Poets in Conversation” series title suggests, a conversation. It’s littered with nods to other poets—Chatti’s “The New Mother Speaks” is a “golden shovel,” a form Terrance Hayes invented, and opens with a quote from Sharon Olds; Laux’s “Spirit Level” includes a Gary Snyder Epigraph that paraphrases an Ezra Pound translation of Lu Ji; Chatti’s “Childless Woman” is written in a form that she learned from Laux, in which “you take the last words of a poem you love and use them in the last words of yours.” Aptly, the text ends with poems Chatti and Laux wrote for each other. Each poem in The Mothers is a star in a broader constellation; they shine on their own, but glitter as a whole. What if, the project seems to ask, writing could be a conversation, not a competition? What if we rooted our writing praxis not in scarcity, but in abundance?
Given the project’s promise of abundance, of muchness, perhaps it is fitting that the subject of Chatti and Laux’s collaboration is motherhood. Chatti and Laux take an expansive approach to the topic, beyond the limitations of reproductive futurism; the text spans biological mothers, childless women, daughters mothering their mothers, inanimate objects, hometowns, Marilyn Monroe, the planet Venus. Chatti even calls Laux “Mama D,” and notes that Laux has been a “mother figure” to her. Motherhood is figured as a verb: a doing, a becoming—a liminal, shifting subject formation. Chatti’s “Pearl Ghazal” likens this becoming to pearls growing inside mollusk shells, years in the making: “I try to imagine what it was like to be inside / my mother inside her mother, try to see myself in the girl flashing pearly / whites in a sepia photograph in the last year of her 20s, imagine myself part of some light / shining through her—the layer beneath the layer of the pearl / that makes it glow.”
Chatti and Laux do not shy away from the thorns of motherhood. As Laux says during the book launch, she “loved [her] mother as deeply and passionately as [she] hated her.” This ambivalence cuts through the book. In “Singer,” Laux writes, “My mother was what some called / a sinful woman: divorced, pregnant / without a husband … She drank too much, thought too much, / laughed with her head thrown back, danced with anyone. Too pretty, too brainy, too tall, her black hair a snare / that hooked men in.” But for all its clear-eyed realism, Laux’s portrayal is a loving one; the poem ends on images of how the mother would “pull music through the air,” would “mak[e] something from nothing,” would perform care in quiet, everyday ways: “her long arms / around our shoulders saying Sit still. Eat. / Try not to spill anything.” The twin forces of honesty and generosity suffuse the text. Chatti’s “The New Mother Speaks”—which opens the chapbook—offers the speaker’s mother a retrospective absolution for old sins: “Mother, I / understand now how you could have / left the child weeping in the sink, how you could have kept / the pot on the stove until it seethed.” The speaker goes on to muse: “They never met your eye / when you returned from the dark, instead looked on / over your head and flashed smiles like jewelry. That / was a certain kind of hell, wasn’t it?” To daughter, the poets suggest, is also to mother—which is to say, to sin, to forgive, to rinse and repeat.
There is something of an epigenetic bent to Chatti and Laux’s rendering of motherhood. Motherhood is an inheritance, or perhaps more aptly, a haunting. In “Not All of Us Get to Be Ghosts,” Chatti writes, “I say I think / our ghosts become us, or at least reside in our dark / like tenants we haven’t the heart to kick out.” In “Spirit Level,” Laux writes, “My mother / was once a spirit in this world. Once / she breathed for me, above me, beside me, / behind me. Now I feel her warm breath / on my neck summer nights, peering / over my shoulder as I write every poem, whispering / Let me in.” If the homes of our bodies are thick with ghosts, then we are always already our mothers and those we have mothered, however ephemerally. There is no telos to mothering; it does not end with death, but lingers, in some land outside time, in the “breeze” blowing through “heavy doors” in “Spirit Level,” in the pearl birthstone Chatti’s speaker shares with her grandmother in “Pearl Ghazal,” in the speaker’s grandmother’s cups “packed … in a suitcase” and “carried…into the new world on a ship” in Laux’s “The Cup,” in the “gleam[ing] red” autumn leaves falling outside when Chatti’s speaker undergoes a miscarriage in “October.”
An undercurrent of grief ripples throughout The Mothers. Laux’s “Any Other Way Lord” opens, “A mother’s grief smells sweet / as rotten peaches.” As Chatti notes during the book launch, the act of giving birth is necessarily also an act of mourning; it is to know that your child is “someone separate from [you] now, who will go on to have their own life.” On a broader scale, love and loss are intimately linked; to love someone is to fear losing them: in Chatti’s words, “Anytime you love someone, you fear them, in a way. You don’t want to experience their loss.” The acute pain of this loss bleeds through the page. “October,” opens with the bleak lines: “Blood on my gusset. Blood in a vial. / The doctor says the hCG’s falling; leaves / outside gleam red.” “Pearl Ghazal” figures this loss as an absent presence, a physical marking on a calendar: “I am the mother of no one / ever born. My no one was due in June.” The space of nothing, a space that was once something, is dark and still as any casket; in “Childless Woman,” Chatti writes, “A year and still this womb / dark silence I grope through, moon / cold tile I pad alone.” Still, grief is not without its own stark loveliness. In “Pearl Ghazal,” Chatti illuminates these moments of beauty: “Grief is an heirloom, a rope of pearls / handed down … I treasure my little pearl / of foolishness, the belief I may be different. May survive the dark dark / as my mother’s hair. May string a life of days like pearls, / hoard them preciously.”
Importantly, joy inheres inthe experience of motherhood as surely as grief. Laux’s pieces, in particular, tease out the mundane miracles of motherhood. “Life on Earth” opens with the lines, “The odds are we should never have been born. / Not one of us” and ends with, “[R]emember your gambler chances, the bounty / of good luck you were born for.” Laux writes of the “hidden music inside us,” the “hidden life that grows / without light,” in “Midnight Is a Curse,” of mothers who cobble dresses together “from the waste of others” in “Singer,” of looking into the sky and seeing Venus, “goddess of love and beauty … aging so gracefully, / 4,503 billion years old, and she doesn’t look a day / over an eon.” The Mothers thus straddles the abyss between grief and joy. The authors’ distinct styles bolster this aim; Chatti’s taut, somatic lines (“rag of cloud and blood / punctual sun. Morning humiliation-red”) complement Laux’s gauzier imagery (“the buried bones / of the unknown future,” “each night a black veil needled with stars”). Together, the poets collapse the binaries of grief and joy, birth and death, motherhood and daughterhood; instead, they delight in inhabiting the shadowy space between them.
I’d like to end this piece on a gesture The Mothers makes that will stay with me: the portrayal of poetry itself as a kind of mothering praxis—a genesis, of sorts. Chatti mentions that she wrote the draft of her first book at Laux’s coffee table. Laux remembers how, when she asked her daughter if she resented Laux for investing so deeply in poetry, sometimes at her family’s expense, her daughter responded, “What are you talking about? … When you were upstairs writing, you were doing something important.” The book’s closing piece, Laux’s “Autumn Prayer, North Carolina State,” plays with this link between poetry and motherhood. Dedicated to Chatti, the piece was designed to entice Chatti to attend NC State’s MFA program. Laux wanted Chatti to know that she would not be alone, so she wrote about a Muslim student she saw praying on campus: “When I walk to my car, I see him / kneeling on a square of dirt beneath a tree, / his forehead pressed against a patch of yellow grass … He must do this all day, / no matter where he is—search for spots of earth / between classes, before work, after work, like this one…” The urgency behind this poem emblematizes motherhood to me; who is more of a mother than the person who reaches a hand into the dark, murmurs softly, you are not alone; I am here with you? None of us exists in a vacuum, despite what the myth of the lonely writer would have us believe. We need each other. As Chatti acknowledges in the closing “conversation” of the chapbook, “I know I am part of a community, an ecosystem, that thrives through these human connections.” The Mothers’s greatest strength is its illumination that we are not alone—that the clay of our bodies is indented with so many fingerprints. So many mothers.
Namrata Verghese is a writer and academic. Currently, she’s a graduate student at Stanford, working on a JD and PhD in Modern Thought and Literature. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Tin House, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her academic writing appears or is forthcoming in The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, The Dukeminier Awards Journal, and the Routledge Companion to Cultural Text and The Nation. Read more or say hi at namrataverghese.com.
Dorianne Laux’s sixth collection, Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems was named a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her fifth collection,The Book of Men, was awarded The Paterson Prize. Her fourth book of poems, Facts About the Moon, won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as a fine small press edition, The Book of Women. She is the co-author of the celebrated text The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.
Leila Chatti was born in 1990 in Oakland, California. A Tunisian-American dual citizen, she has lived in the United States, Tunisia, and Southern France. She is the author of the debut full-length collection Deluge (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), winner of the 2021 Levis Reading Prize and longlisted for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award, and the chapbooks Ebb (New-Generation African Poets) and Tunsiya/Amrikiya, the 2017 Editors’ Selection from Bull City Press. She holds a B.A. from the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University and an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, where she was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, and fellowships and scholarships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, The Frost Place Conference on Poetry, the Key West Literary Seminars, Dickinson House, and Cleveland State University, where she was the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Writing and Publishing. Her poems have received prizes from Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, Narrative’s 30 Below Contest, the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, among others, and appear in The New York Times Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, POETRY, The Nation, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review Online, Narrative, The Rumpus, Best New Poets (2015 & 2017), and other journals and anthologies. In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. She currently serves as the Consulting Poetry Editor at the Raleigh Review and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is the Mendota Lecturer in Poetry.