Book Review: MOTHERING THROUGH THE DARKNESS Edited by Jessica Smock & Stephanie Sprenger

 photo 7be5b3ba-0f07-401a-8b6a-f7a00db9f988_zpsi80e646q.jpg Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience
Edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger
She Writes Press, 2015

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Postpartum depression is the most common pregnancy-related complication with at least 1 in 7 new mothers mired in its dark water for months or even years, if left untreated. At least 1 in 7. But the nature of the disorder, the way depression, as Nina Gaby describes it, is like “Vaseline over the camera lens—the view is distorted but the object hasn’t changed,” paired with a new mother’s fear of being stigmatized as a “bad mom” or worse, an “unfit mother,” keeps many women wading alone through the murk of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, and other postpartum disorders. They never report it. They never ask for or receive help. They suffer through feelings of inadequacy and guilt, an inability to connect with their newborn, severe panic attacks, obsessive worry, and even thoughts of harming themselves or their baby. But this is an illness, no less controllable or the fault of the person suffering, or less deserving of treatment than brain cancer. But it is the trait of mental trickery, this hormonal deceit that locks mothers into silence, that makes Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, a collection of 35 beautifully crafted, highly personal essays, necessary reading for anyone who plans to become a mother or is close to a woman who is considering motherhood.

This anthology opens with poet Maggie Smith’s essay, “Here Comes the Sun.” Smith artfully drops the reader into the obsessive, redundant thinking that ushers itself into Smith’s world as a new mother, turning her into a person who is overcome by the need to “find The Pattern.” While heightened protectiveness, awareness, and focus on a new baby is part of the biology of new motherhood, the reader is quickly made aware that the intensity with which Smith experiences these inclinations was anything but normal:

With my son I wrote everything down: every feeding, what time he started, what time he finished, when he burped, when he spit up, what the spit up looked like, when he peed, when he pooped, what the poop looked like, when he cried, what his cry sounded like, when he slept, what position he slept in, when he woke.

If I wrote everything down, I would see The Pattern. The Pattern That Would Make Him Happy. The Pattern That Would Make Him Sleep.

The Pattern That Would Fix Him.

The Pattern That Would Fix Me.

Postpartum disorders associated with new motherhood do not only affect the biological mother. As Jill Robbins describes in her essay, “A Different Side of the Baby Blues,” adoptive mothers can experience post-adoption depression and are even more at risk of having their depression symptoms misunderstood and ignored by those they reach out to. The partners of new mothers, as well as family and friends, also need to be made aware of the symptoms of pregnancy-related mental disorders because, as this collection makes clear, the afflicted new mom will more than likely not be willing or able to ask for help, believing the lies of the postpartum disorder which tells her the problem is her failing as a mother and it is untreatable.

Although each of these essays is as different as the women writing them, there are striking similarities between them. Most notably, the realization that outside help is not only needed but vital is slow and takes the suffering mother, even those who are health care professionals, months, even years, to seek help. The new mothers think the lack of joy and contentment is their fault. Quite a few of these authors write that in their darkest times a glance in the mirror yielded in an unrecognizable, disheveled, miserable person looking back. But sadly, it is the recurring thoughts that their family would be better off without them, the vivid picturing of fatal accidents involving themselves or their babies that forces them to break their silence, to do what they most fear and tell someone about what is torturing them. And all, after getting the help they need and deserve, only wish they had been able to ask for it sooner. In essay after essay, the reader is faced with how common it is for women to want to lie about having postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, OCD, perinatal depression, or any other overwhelming feelings besides joy at being pregnant or having brought a new child into the world. And in every essay in this collection, talking about what is happening in the new mother’s mind does not lead to her child(ren) being taken away as she fears, but to her getting into therapy, sometimes taking medication, but most importantly getting her life and sense of joy back.

In “Recognizing the Darkness,” Lea Grover writes:

We’re learning more about postpartum depression all the time. We’re learning how a flood of ante- and postpartum hormones can trigger latent bipolar disorders, anxiety, all manner of mental illnesses that we already has susceptibilities for. Like an infection in an old, not-quite-healed scar…

We like think that our brains are above the petty illnesses that plague the rest of our bodies, but it’s not true. Our brains are as susceptible to fatigue and disease as our bladders, our lungs, our livers.

More and more, these postpartum complications are becoming part of the broader conversation about motherhood. This anthology is proof of the need to shatter the stigmas and allow women the freedom to open up about their true, myriad experiences with motherhood.


Book Review: POEMS AND THEIR MAKING: A CONVERSATION Moderated by Philip Brady

 photo f538c001-2258-4192-ad0a-14944652bcaf_zpse78heuaz.jpg Poems and Their Making:
A Conversation

Moderated by Philip Brady
Etruscan Press, 2015

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Poems and Their Making: A Conversation isn’t the kind of book that you read through once and put away.  In specific and individual ways, it is a peek inside the writing process of 31 accomplished poets. Whether a writer, reader, or both, we all want to know the secret to the mystifying process of writing poetry. While there is no definitive answer here or anywhere as to exactly how a poem comes to be, it is an endlessly fascinating process to talk about and this anthology creates a way for this conversation to be revisited.

Inspired by beloved and revered poet/professor, John Wheatcroft, “moderator” Philip Brady writes in his introduction, “No pronouncements here, just a conversation—a continuation of the dialogue Jack Wheatcroft nurtured for so many years [at Bucknell University].” And so Brady kicks off the conversation with a poem and essay written by Wheatcroft. This is basic model for each contribution, though sometimes the essay precedes the poem, or the lines of the poem are within the body of the essay. The poem and essay lengths vary, as well.  Just as it can be an insightful experience to hear a poet read their own work, a poet writing about how their poem came to be, all the backstory, the edits, the time they spent away from it, the moment when it fell into place, is illuminating. Writing is hard work. But what does that work look like? This accessible collection gives its reader 31 personalized, concise approaches to writing poems from their inception, revisions, and completion.

This collection will give the reader a unique insight into the work of the writers they are already familiar with as well as poets they may not recognize or only know by name. In almost every instance, the reader is quickly invited into the poet’s life. The contributors divulge personal details about what was happening when they wrote and revised a particular poem, as Betsy Sholl does in her essay about writing “Redbud” which begins:

More often a poem’s original impulse seems mysterious and then just dogged revision takes over: try this, try that, turn it on its head, turn myself on my head, etc. With this one, however, there was a specific incident that got it going, then a long process of finding its real concerns, and having to wait until I experienced something else, a counter-story to play against it.

Others take a more philosophical view, not only recounting how this exact poem came to be but how they engaged in their own writing framework to create this particular piece. In Paula Closson Buck’s lively essay, “On “Elegy for My Novel,” she identifies and explains:

The Principle of Unforeseen Collapse—the first of several tendencies or inclinations governing poetic practice (mine at least) that, were they not so uncannily responsible for creation, would surely be the destruction of the poet.

There are in fact ten of these “tendencies or inclinations” and the rest are just as excellently named.

I did find my wishing the collection included citations or a reading list. Many of the poets refer to other poets they admire, they quote or summarize favorite morsels they use to keep going with their poetic practice. This would be a great way to continue the conversation, the lineage and legacy of writing, but it is sadly missing.

While some may want to read this book straight through, it’s so delicious, so fortifying, it’s also a manual, a source of inspiration when your writing life is drawing shallow breaths. When this collection is read in the intended sequence, elements from one essay echo in the next. But each voice in this conversation is unique, each offers wisdom worthy of close study as well as practical approaches to revision. I look forward to picking this book up again in a couple of months to see what insights speak to me next.


 photo 4b17c1ca-2ed4-45c7-82b4-0ee134c060ff_zps9a4hynly.jpg Closing the Book: Travles in Life, Loss, and Literature
by Joelle Renstrom
Pelekinesis Books, 2015

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Joelle Renstrom’s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, does not try to explain to the reader how to lose a loved one. This is not a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense. It is a travel memoir, a coming-of-age story, a tribute, a book of essays where the author wrestles with the fact that our world is not fair or easy. In each essay, Renstrom grapples with the early death of her beloved father, a well-respected political science professor, using the best tools at her disposal: books. She turns to literary works like Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, Camus’ The Stranger, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Obama’s Dreams From My Father, as guides in how to process this tragedy that has befallen her father, a good man by all accounts. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is one who asks the right questions.” Renstrom is searching for the right questions.

The authors and books she incorporates into her search for meaning are sometimes the centerpiece, the driving force of the essay, but other times they are part of the background. The essays don’t become homogenous, which would have been an easy pitfall for such a focused endeavor. Renstrom’s prose is smooth and lively and, despite the somber nature of her subject, I found myself rapidly reading through these essays. In addition to her internal turmoil and the books she is reading, she pays close attention to place. In every essay, the concrete details of her surroundings ground the reader as the author travels through time and space: her family home in Kalamazoo, an apartment in New York City, a classroom, her father’s office, Scandinavia, or even a supermarket.

The opening essay, “A Sort of Homecoming,” tells the straightforward story of Renstrom’s world-altering experience of discovering her father is sick, then terminal, then never coming back. “In a strange strangled voice [Mom] says, ‘It’s not pneumonia.’ This is the moment that divides my life into before and after.” Suddenly, human mortality is all that she can think of. DeLillo’s White Noise is a book whose characters are also preoccupied with death. In one of the most powerful scenes in this essay, after a harrowing event in the woods, Renstrom enters the supermarket, struggling to find normalcy in this “after” she has been thrust into. She wanders, like a character in DeLillo’s novel, through the grocery store:

The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating, trying to right the squeaking wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbone sinking, chests caving.

Most of us ignore death until we’re forced to face it. With Renstrom, like DeLillo’s characters, we go right up to it and survive, but not wholly and only for an indeterminate while longer.

Renstrom taught high school and her class makes an appearance in a few of the most formally interesting and imaginative essays. In “Letters to Ray Bradbury,” Renstrom introduces her students to the genre of science fiction through his work, and documents the opening of their minds. In this series of epistles she is raw with her father’s passing and credits Bradbury for helping her find a way through the normal routine of life, “A thousand times a day I dissolved into pieces and, with your help, a thousand times a day I attempted my own resurrection.” The format of this essay allows for an intimate conversation, though one-sided, with the only person she called a hero besides her father. It is also a vehicle for proving the positive impact ideas in science fiction can have on otherwise disengaged high school students. In “Fighting the Sunday Blues with Camus,” Renstrom has a conversation with Camus as well as her students. This essay reads a bit like a lesson plan in absurdism, which turns out to be a fun read. In “How I Spent My Free Will,” the author flexes her comparative literature muscle and continues her dialogue with Camus, folding in Kazuo Ishiguro’s alternate views:

Never Let Me Go trades blow philosophical blow with The Stranger. I picture Camus sitting on my right shoulder. “We’re all going to die some day,” he says, breezy as autumn. “It doesn’t matter if or how much we hurt.”

Ishiguro sits on my left shoulder. “Yes, we’re all going to die someday,” he says mildly. “Thus, how we hurt is the only thing that matters.”

These essays underline the importance of debate, a skill her father, a political science scholar, no doubt taught her. Done well, a creative argument can be a balm and an inspiration, as well as a successful form for an essay.

In some ways, this is a selfish book, just as death is selfish. Renstrom rarely mentions her other family members and does not try to assign emotions to their experiences. She focuses intently on her experience with anguish and loss, her relationship with her father. This creates a sort of tunnel vision for the reader, enveloping them in the desire to know the unknowable. Though there is a sense of closure in the final essay, “The Stars Are Not For Man,” it is one of learning to live without a loved one. It is not about how it gets easier, or everything happens for a reason, or any of the other well-meant but useless things people who are grieving are told. Rather, with the help of the imaginative minds she admires, Renstrom comes to a place where she can bear to live, be happy even, though she always misses her father, wherever he is.