New collections to make life more lyrical.
Lately, I’ve been contemplating the idea of the womb as a portal — that those of us with uteruses carry a doorway within, a potent potential. Since having my own child mere months before the covid pandemic began, I’ve also been engaged with the idea that wombs not only bring forth life, but also death. I’ve especially felt this since reading novelist Claudia Dey’s 2018 Paris Review essay, “Mothers as Makers of Death.”
“No one had warned me that with a child comes death,” Dey writes. “Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too.” The one nearly crippling anxiety I’ve grappled with since 2020 is the possibility of my own death, the terrifying thought of leaving my son, who is likely on the autism spectrum and who, I am coming to realize, is gifted beyond my understanding.
During his assessment, when the occupational therapist asked me what his birth was like, the profound relief I felt — that someone might understand the trauma both my baby and I experienced during his difficult delivery, and how it still affects us — shook me.
After he was born, my son refused to sleep without me, but also without a barrier separating us. Now, at nearly 4 years old, he has barely begun to conceptualize himself as an individual. He and I are so emotionally and physically intertwined that losing me would devastate him. But I cannot control when I die, and with each new sickness — so many lately — I’m reminded that the possibility exists.
I don’t know where to put these thoughts and feelings except in a poem. And isn’t poetry also a type of portal, something we enter in one place and exit out — utterly changed — in another? A place where the poet can admit their most unbearable thoughts and alchemize them into something sublime for both themselves and the reader.
It’s been nearly eight years since Eugenia Leigh’s debut, Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, hit the shelves and became one of my all-time favorite collections. I’m a bit shocked at the passage of so much time; it feels as if I first read it far more recently. Between then and now, Leigh, like me, also birthed a child. With that experience came a full-fledged emotional and poetic fruiting only hinted at in her first book. Leigh has lived in the intervening years, and it pulsates off every page of her new collection, Bianca (Four Way Books), which is both a primal scream and an exquisite catharsis.
First, a warning: This is not a collection that can simply be read and then put aside. No, we are bearing witness to a true healing here as Leigh peels away essential layers while chronicling her journey through a violent childhood with a mentally ill father, and then into adulthood, where she discovers that she has inherited the bipolar II disorder that haunts her family.
I grew up with a mentally ill, vicious older sibling and grapple both with PTSD and with a terror similar to Leigh’s — that I might have passed on some kind of genetic brokenness to my child, or that my own past trauma might harm him in some way. In “Glossolalia,” she asks, “Can the babies/planted in the dirt of our bodies/absorb the torments buried there?”
Leigh strips bare the concepts of stigma and shame, the harmful fallacy that we should bear our suffering alone and in silence. Not all healing can, or should, be done in isolation, and Leigh’s experience, though deeply personal, is also a collective one she shares with friends, colleagues, and even strangers. She references this community in the long prose poem “The Part of Stories One Never Quite Believes,” which follows her through the year after leaving her father — whom she’d recently reconnected with — back in Seoul and coming to Los Angeles, where she develops what she thinks is alcoholism.
During a particularly bad night, her coworkers call her a cab; as the driver takes her home, she shouts irrational, garbled directions and then throws up on him. The next day, while waiting for her shift to begin at McDonald’s, she finds a kind note from him tucked in her purse. She writes:
“I surrendered. I wept and wept under those obscene fluorescent lights as I thought about the taxi driver. The AmeriCorps workers. The friend who stood in the cold with me on Christmas. I thought about the tattoo artist. The friends at the bar. Shannon. I’d tried so damningly hard to punish myself and cut myself off from family, yet it felt as though some higher author had invaded my story with a cast of characters all fighting for the role of the Good Samaritan.”
Sarah Blake brings a different kind of experience with her third collection, In Springtime (Wesleyan University Press). An epic poem broken into four parts, Days 1-4, we find in it an unnamed narrator in the woods (are they lost? were they abandoned?) with hardly anything to keep them alive and fixated on their surroundings, which include a horse, a dead bird, and a mouse. We don’t know what kind of bird it is, only that the narrator tracks its decay and manifesting spirit. The horse turns out to be pregnant, and the mouse is the only thing that seems to directly interact with the narrator.
We don’t even know if the narrator — or the physical landscape, for that matter — truly exists. It could all be a dream, though the sequential days, and the narrator’s referencing of them, suggest they exist in real time, such as in “Day 1, Part 7”: “In the next dream you can see the spirit of the bird that will haunt/you for weeks.”
Isolation and death are the two big themes I take away from this strange poem, which, considering they’re also the two big effects of a pandemic, makes sense. I connect strongly with In Springtime because it evokes my own surreal feeling during the first days of the pandemic, when I had a baby about to turn 1 and no ability to go anywhere or do anything.
I’d sit outside on our portico listening to a particularly depressing heavy-metal song on repeat as I worked on a single poem in a form I’d rigorously created for some reason. This went on for weeks; I seriously thought I was going mad (the poem is here in case you desire to go mad with me). But it was cleansing, too, a release of something best not kept inside. The poem as portal. Reading In Springtime makes me think I wasn’t alone in this experience.
I wonder if this was the feeling of other young parents during that time, mothers in particular. Blake notes in her acknowledgements that her child “changed how my mind works. I wrote this entire poem on my phone by his side when he was one year old.” In Springtime is a physically rendered landscape of the cycle of life from one season to the next, and a reminder of how life is always preceded and followed by death, its protective cocoon. As Blake writes at the very end of the poem:
“You hear the world collapse. It sounds like singing a child to sleep./Which is to say, the song gets softer.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.