with critique by Jendi Reiter
Pink petal, concave curl,
So that I set the illusion
She is more a part of me.
But those days are over.
She is mostly apart of me.
Often in her infant slumber, reputed for its
Sweetness and tranquility,
She bucks and claws,
Writhes with tortured neck and arch
To draw around herself a circle,
Some clear air.
Yes, even in her dreams
Our recent separation
Is, for her it seems,
Not only fact, but desirable fact.
Soft fall of lashes on softer cheeks,
Lips parted in imperceptible breath,
This ambrosial drop of crushing sweetness
Is crusting over,
Portcullis slowly closing,
An inside joke to which I am no longer privy.
Copyright 2011 by Jenny Sanders
Critique by Jendi Reiter
For this month's Critique Corner, it seemed appropriate to begin 2011 with a poem about new birth and the passage of time. Jenny Sanders of Mount Airy, Georgia sent us this poem about her newborn daughter Lizzie. She told us that she uses poetry to "tap the myriad of intense emotions" engendered by motherhood. Where prose seeks to make experience transparent and orderly, poetry "almost always taps into a knowledge that cannot be defined as sense, but that operates on some other plane of knowing."
Sanders' reflections are a good place to begin our discussion of the use of emotional ambivalence to add dramatic interest to a poem. Coming off the holiday season, we can probably all remember moments when we experienced a disconnect between how we were supposed to feel and how we actually felt. When a poem makes room for the shadow side of an event that has been whitewashed by sentimentality, not only does it freshen up an old topic, but it wins over the reader by promising the relief that truth-telling brings.
Few milestones in life are surrounded by as many high-pressure expectations, both sentimental and judgmental, as motherhood. Recalling our own helplessness as infants, we would feel safer believing that the mother's passion for her child is always only innocent, harmless, and unselfish. As Freud and the Brothers Grimm would agree, though, all intimate relationships have other baggage: sensual desire, fear of separation, fear of mortality, and anger at the beloved for making us thus vulnerable. Like the new year, the new child is a fresh start but also an unwelcome reminder that time passes, and eventually we will die and be replaced by the next generation.
Some renowned poets who have mined this taboo territory include Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. For instance, in Olds' poem "My Son the Man", the narrator suddenly sees herself as a cast-off trunk from which her son is making a Houdini-like escape. Sexton's 1971 collection Transformations reinterprets familiar fairy tales to highlight the psychosexual tensions between parents and children.
Sanders clearly means to join this company, based on the signals she gives us in the title. "Sharing a bed with" and "heartbreaker" come from the language of romance. The concept of duality, of splitting, is also common to both phrases. Now that the child is out of her body, their perfect union is broken. A piece of the mother is missing, the literal image of a broken heart. They must share a bed because now there are two of them.
What makes this loss interesting enough to build a poem around is, again, ambivalence: both the mother's, and the reader's, uncertainty whether it is acceptable to acknowledge and grieve this loss at all. Shouldn't she want her baby to grow up and become a person? Ought we to sympathize with this character? Like the mother's sensual pleasure in her child, which Sanders conveys well through the tactile delight of the alliterative opening lines, the conflict of interest between mother and child is a truth we'd rather not look at head-on.
The baby in this poem, too, defies our wish for a simplistic greeting-card picture of infant sweetness. "She bucks and claws,/Writhes with tortured neck and arch/To draw around herself a circle,//Some clear air." Sanders effectively uses line breaks for a visual reminder of the baby's expanding personal space. From the beginning, she too is a wholly human mix of affection and aggression.
I felt the poem could be strengthened by cutting the next stanza: "Yes, even in her dreams..." Further explanation of the subtext is not necessary, and these more prosaic lines suffer by comparison with the strong images preceding them.
Critics of co-sleeping, to whom Sanders alludes in her title, sometimes fret that the parent might roll over on the baby and suffocate her. Images of devouring and crushing color the closing scene of the poem, where the baby is envisioned as an edible sweet treat. I like the sound-echo of "crushing/crusting", and the realistic detail that babies and their surroundings become encrusted with all sorts of fluids pretty quickly.
"Portcullis" is a great word, but perhaps not the most germane metaphor in this context. Nothing before it has really primed us to picture the baby as a fortress—a hard, inorganic object. When I saw the words "slowly closing", I thought of the fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby's skull that enables it to compress in the birth canal, and closes up during the first two years. I would suggest substituting "fontanelle" for "portcullis", because then you gain the idea of the skull as another boundary, without pulling the reader out into a new set of metaphors. The child's thoughts are becoming less transparent to the mother as she ages, as evinced by the last line about the private joke.
Of course, the mother has her own private joke to share someday, when her daughter begins to perceive the universal conflicts that give this poem its resonance: "Just wait till you have children of your own!"
Where could a poem like "Mama's Little Heartbreaker" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Orlando Prize for Poetry
Entries must be received by January 31
Feminist writers' foundation offers $1,000 and web publication for poetry by US women that celebrates "liberation from the restraints of time and gender"; enter online
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
Long-running award offers $500, web publication, and invitation to awards ceremony in NYC in April
Able Muse Write Prize
Entries must be received by February 15
New contest from California-based small press offers $500 apiece for poetry and flash fiction
Memoir (and) Prizes for Prose or Poetry
Postmark Deadline: February 16
Free contest from magazine of personal essays offers twice-yearly prize of $500 and publication for "traditional and experimental prose, poetry, graphic memoir, narrative photography, lies, and more"; all genres compete together
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Prize
Entries must be received by March 1
Online journal Melusine offers $500 for poetry "that explores all angles of the contemporary female experience"; enter online
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.