All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood, edited by Elise Gregory, Emily Gwinn, Kaleen McCandless, Kate Maude, and Laura Walker
All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood
Editors: Elise Gregory, Emily Gwinn, Kaleen McCandless, Kate Maude, and Laura Walker
It’s easy to assume that only women can write poems about motherhood, that our primary function as the incubators of the next generation gives us sole access to the topic of mothering. However, as feminism becomes stronger and more inclusive, the need to explore the idea of motherhood being simply “woman poetry” helped birth this collection. By expanding the motherhood notion beyond women with children, including the voices of men, and cradling the fear and love we all feel as children of any kind of mother, this anthology offers the resting place many of us have craved when navigating the tragic and wonderful world of mothering and being mothered.
Motherhood in All We Can Hold goes deeper than women with children. Compiled by mothers, this collection addresses motherhood as an emotion, a practice, and an existence. The pieces answer the question, What does it mean to be a mother? For Maya Jewell Zeller in “Ode to All Women Who Walk into the Lake and Some of the Women Who Take Their Children with Them,” to be a mother is to give up oneself and “the long sweeping parabola of the horizon.” For Margaret Rozga in “Flesh and Bone,” to be a mother is to relinquish control over one’s child’s future: “If you think nothing / gets done unless you are there / cultivating remember // when the stone is ready / the peach turns ripe.” Poems like these emphasize the sacrifice mothers make raising their children, trying to raise them right. The pieces also bring up the fear for those children, that they may, in Sidney Taiko’s words, “have inherited my melancholy.”
Some of that melancholy is caused by the discussion of dead children. Too many poems in this collection discuss the death or loss of a child, whether through miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, PTSD, or some other tragedy. The haunting of a dead child guides Chanel Brenner’s “My Sun” as her speaker discovers that being a mother of a dead son and a living one makes her “a mother split in two worlds.” The how-to poem “Forgetting How to Hold a Baby” by Diana DiPetro breaks down the instructions for the body following the birth of a stillborn child: “Uterus, give up the bulging balloon. / Release the string. Watch it float to a dot. // Bones, snap back into place. There is no need / to stretch and contort into an empty cradle.” Each piece recording the reaction or aftermath of a child’s death shakes the reader, introducing the concern of how one moves on, how one has more children (as in “Writing Rules” by Chloe Yelena Miller) or doesn’t (as in Shana Youngdahl’s “I Have Stake in My Daughter’s Predictions”). This leads to discussions of postpartum depression, specifically how to navigate grief. In Annalee Dunn’s “On Hearing of the Death of a Friend’s Son While Postpartum with My Second Child,” grief is summed up honestly: “I am mourning her loss, yes, but I am mourning her work / as a mother.” How one can put so much into a child just to lose them, or have them and feel so broken still, circles the heart of this collection. Mothers of newborns, empty nesters, and every mother in between and outside fill this anthology, addressing what it truly means to go from person to mother: “I understood I was alone in it. I understood I would / come back from there with the baby, or I wouldn’t come back at all” (Beth Ann Fennelly).
In keeping with the editors’ understanding that motherhood affects more than just women, All We Can Hold includes the voices of men—three, to be exact. The anthology is organized alphabetically by poet’s last name, so it opens with Sherman Alexie’s “Dangerous Astronomy.” The villanelle highlights the jealousy of a father toward his newborn son, turning him into a “selfish father, I wanted to pull apart / My comfortable wife and son.” In contrast, Atar Hadari’s “There Is Nothing Quieter” speaks softly, addressing the morning after a birth, simply noting the new life and triumphant mother. Lastly, the son’s gratitude for his poverty-stricken mother comes from Jeff Walt’s “Groceries.” Though many within the collection applaud mothers, none combines the youthful innocence and adult longing like Walt’s piece does, detailing the “magical sack” the speaker’s mother used to shoplift food, “heavy with the love I would eat and eat.” By including men poets in a collection on motherhood, the editors reiterate the claim of feminists everywhere: this is an inclusive moment that needs everyone.
Though all the poems have their moments, my favorites included what I, as a woman but not a mother, could most identify with, specifically those written just about mothers or the accidental circumstances of becoming one. These poems include advice on patience (“Waiting for Limes” by Anna Elizabeth Schmidt), the hysterics at becoming a mother out of accident (Martha Silano’s “The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception”) or rape (“Birth Mother” by Carly Eccles Sheaffer), and the realization that our mothers are people outside of their children (“My Mother’s Creatures” by Sarah Miller Freehauf). Within all of these pieces and others, the reader experiences love, gratitude, familiarity, and relief. We may not all be mothers, but we are all children of someone, binding the collection for anyone who has been loved by a mother or mother figure.
All We Can Hold gives the reader a sense of belonging, rooting one in the tradition of generations of birthing, nurturing, and dying. With the expansive definition and connotation of motherhood, the inclusion of men’s voices, and the perspective of children (at any age), this collection offers a look into the hard, loving work of mothering and being mothered. Far more than the ability to carry and give birth to a child, motherhood is the constant extension of one’s hands to a child—to comfort, forgive, teach, and hold.
Reviewed for the SFWP Quarterly by Monica Prince.
Monica Prince received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University in 2015. Her work has been featured in The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, The Sula Collective, The Rain, Party & Disaster Society, and MadCap Review. Her choreopoem, Testify, was performed by the Cutout Theater in Brooklyn, NY this past December. She currently writes, performs, and works in Denver, Colorado.