Poetry sometimes holds the grief of its author tenderly and in reverence, like new parents might hold a just born child. Shanna Powlus Wheeler’s first full-length collection, Evensong for Shadowsis dedicated “To my husband, Drew, in memory of our three who came before,” so that its readers know, immediately, that this book is put into the world with the often unspoken difficulties of becoming a mother in mind. The title, which is also the first section of the book, “Evensong for Shadows,” comes from the first poem in the collection, “After a Tour of Britain,” in which “walks a nameless child / like the one I lost, but older, / or the one I haven’t yet conceived.” The poem is hauntingly gorgeous. Toward the end, the child “holds evensong / for shadows; she hums / like an organ pipe.” An evensong is a service of prayers or psalms—and here the service is done for “shadows,” the areas of the world where light has been blocked out by an object. Wheeler’s emphasis on the shadow illustrates an interesting quality of grief – that it, like a shadow, is both ephemeral and yet a very present part of who we are.
In this collection of poems, grief becomes a companion, and Wheeler’s writing about grief is exceedingly compassionate and necessary. In “C. S. Lewis Grieving,” Wheeler uses his published journal A Grief Observedto write a poem in his voice: “She had whole faces / I cannot reassemble now; the endless combinations / cancel each other, so I am left / with no face to remember in love. / This is the tragedy of memory.” Writing is the connective tissue between time periods and people. Wheeler is connected to Lewis’s grief by her own loss, as the readers of her poetry will be connected to Wheeler’s and Lewis’s grief by their own losses. These griefs are easier to bear knowing we are not alone, and Wheeler’s writing invites us into the arms of her words to be held in their language. Although Wheeler’s poetry is comforting, it is not predictable, and throughout the collection we find the unexpected: a hive of bees that has taken up residence in a church, a poem that praises the highway patrol, and a short, melodious “Doxology with Crow,” which is full of the “unfurled” music of poetry.
In the book’s second section, “A Choir of Cells,” Wheeler writes a stunning “Fertility Lullaby”: “But think how a baby lulls a womb / with a choir of cells splitting in song / hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,” which captures the longing for a child along with the fear of something happening. That fear is skillfully illustrated in the last lines of the poem: “Love lull you fearless / don’t say a word.” “No Poems,” is a weaving together of the poet’s inability to write new poems after a miscarriage, and of only being able to revise, with the idea of how revision might occur in the body. The poem is a thin, tight line down the page:
in the months after, either.
Only revisions, the effort
to get it right, to align
and realign words
The poem “Aftercare,” is dedicated to Wheeler’s maternal grandmother, Janet Andrus: “At your table of mercy, you fed me watermelon / and warm tapioca fluffed with egg whites.” The poem is a lovely tribute to the importance of quality care and support after pregnancy loss, and was included in The American Journal of Nursing, which speaks to its ability to capture those elusive feelings that cannot always been pinned down with medical language.
In the last two sections of the book, “The Music of the Spheres” and “Ring of Vowel,” Wheeler carries the loss, but makes space for the children she does have, while turning her poet’s eye to those small, wonderful existences in life, like the water chestnut. Her “Haiku in Praise of the Water Chestnut” are fantastic reminders that the stuff of which poetry is made can be found all around us—in the ground, in the sky, or as a morsel on our plates. I found the last haiku of the series especially delicious:
Most steadfast chestnut.
No wok robs your crunch, no boil
can soften your song.
As a mother and a writer myself, I especially relate to the last poem in the collection, an “Ars Poetica,” which begins, “I write for the same reason I believe / the Word became flesh: I will die,” and continues later with, “And if I die while my child / is too young to know me beyond / comforts of face, voice, touch, may she find me later in lines / rendering what shimmers.” This is the very thing Wheeler’s poems do – they “render what shimmers,” so that even the shadows are their own kind of reflection of whatever light has created them, a gathering together of what is and what was, a collection of words that emphasizes the human spirit in all of its glorious forms.
This is why I kept returning to the sonnet that finishes the third section of the book called “Verse,” which ends with these lines: “No line of verse / can stir like Scripture – only the very voice / of God can still all turning, reverse all choice.” Yes, perhaps no line of verse can change the rotation of the earth, but I believe a book like this, which brilliantly contains the honest, powerful voice of a woman who has experienced great loss and great love, canfoster and create change. Wheeler writes these poems with a Christian voice, and yes, Christian readers will find much to identify with, to relish in, and to praise here, but this collection is a generous one; Wheeler offers a clear, thought-provoking picture of parenthood and of life that I believe readers of all religious and non-religious backgrounds can benefit from, learn from, and enjoy.
Alexandra Umlas holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from California State University, Long Beach and an M.Ed. in Cross-cultural Education. She also serves as a reader for Palette Poetry. Her first book of poems, At The Table of the Unknown, is forthcoming from Moon Tide Press. www.alexandraumlas.com
Native to central Pennsylvania, Shanna Powlus Wheeler studied creative writing at Susquehanna University (BA) and Penn State University (MFA). She published a poetry chapbook, Lo & Behold, with Finishing Line Press, followed by a full-length collection, Evensong for Shadows, with Wipf and Stock Publishers. Her poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines and journals in print and online, including Mothers Always Write. For over a decade, she has served as Writing Center Director and Instructor of English at Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA. She and her husband are busy raising their two children. Visit www.shannapowluswheeler.com for more information.
I am split in two. When my son is up and the world is awake, I live my first life; errands to run, dinners to cook, swings to swing. Things upon things to fill up our day.
The garage down the street welcomes their noisy trucks back to their ports all morning, and I think briefly about the men inside their small cabins, listening to the radio, checking their messages, eating their breakfasts. Sometimes it feels like I am in elementary school again, looking outside the window from the nurse’s office, wondering what kind of day everyone else is having. Sometimes it feels like I am the moon and my son is the Earth, our orbits aligning perfectly without a hitch; the light and the dark times.
I must be practical and sentimental every moment of the day. The bathtub needs to be cleaned for my son’s bath, but I have to make sure I watch him toddle into the kitchen and remember how his chubby legs look without a pair of shorts on. I need to remember to squat down on the kitchen floor where he has made a symphony of pots and Tupperware lids and listen to his orchestra before straining the pasta.
The fullness of the day swells bigger than any kind of days I’ve had before. Moments so important, minutes so long. Sometimes it is so overwhelmingly monumental.
In the hour or so window before bed, the world outside seems to still, even if it’s light out and I can hear the neighborhood kids riding their bikes and playing ball on the street. I like to leave the front door open and let my son see the yard and the road from where he is eating dinner at the table. The wood-paneled walls of our old home sometimes give off the impression that the day isn’t bright, and I want him to know how bright it can be.
I switch my son into his small pajamas with Spider Man or Elmo or Santa on them. We clean up, well, I clean up, but he’s starting to help, and I shut down his world, one room at a time.
Cartoons, books, milk and toothbrush and we are off to bed. Say goodnight to the candles and the plants, the windows and the remote. They, too, are going to sleep, sweet little boy.
When he rests, the house becomes quiet; the chores are slower now that the urgency is gone. I remember that baking is not a race. I forget how to sit down sometimes, lingering at the kitchen table, waiting for a noise, a cry, a sound. When nothing comes, I drift for a while. I walk into each room and can’t remember why it is that I’ve traveled there in the first place. What needs to be done? What have I missed?
There’s a delicious coffee shop about 10 minutes into town; a busy, much too cool for strollers, artisanal coffee shop that switches to a wine bar after six. The busy college kids and business people of the day empty out and are replaced by aging hippies, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. That is what I aspire to be. This switch, though, is how I imagine my house changing at night; the high octane of the day slips away into the drowsy slowness of the night.
When he finally decides on a position in his crib, I take off my proverbial work clothes and change into my pajamas.
My second life: the after-bedtime life, kicks into gear the moment my son’s body falls quiet. The house is a different space, even if Dora the Explorer DVDs litter the floor and chicken nugget trails trace the kitchen table. I can listen to jazz, I can use the bathroom, I can sit. Just sit.
The house is mine, in a way, but I never know what to do with it in between the time my son falls asleep and my husband arrives home. I settle up any dishes, fold miscellaneous laundry, worry about what to do tomorrow.
I can’t say I feel whole since becoming a mother, but something bigger than whole. I am split as a person, night and day, but my soul is full, my focus is clear, my brain permanently washed by him.
The second life always wants a moment of sun while I’m busy being mom; selfish thing. A book I’m reading will catch my eye, a sentence will pop into my head, begging to be expanded, nearly demanding my time, threatening it will go away if I don’t tend to it right that minute. It must wait, though.
And sometimes, when my son needs my shoulder, a gentle rock, a calm reminder that mom isn’t all gone when he goes to bed, I am there, ready to breathe slowly so his short breaths match mine. Ready to relish his small head, completely melted into the right side of my neck. Ready to give up any free time just to feel the power I have to calm him, and the power he has to remind me to slow down and feel what now is like.
Angela Schwartz is a full-time mother, writer, and part-time English tutor. She drinks a lot of coffee and eats a lot of cheese doodles. Her work has been published in Workers Write! Literary Journal, Connotation Press, and Wolff Literary Press, where her first poem was recently published.
My first baby’s face was rosy and round. “Like a doll,” people said. But this wasn’t enough to make my lungs work on a cold February day. No flower scent, no hug could bring me back. That day, I thought I was dying.
I opened the door and felt the cold air. I paced. Nothing helped. So I called my husband, John, at work. Even his easy-going southern drawl wasn’t enough. I called 911, and they came out and took my pulse. She was screaming in the pack and play.
The EMT looked at me. She offered to come over and help some time. “What did I think about that?” she asked. My mouth was dry.
We went to urgent care; they feared a blood clot. So, we went to the ER. “Does she usually have trouble talking?” they asked John.
They waited for me to speak. They were like the soft sleep sack for rest, the car seat that carries, but I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t be lifted. I was not the Mary with the baby; I was the Mom who could not breathe.
It started with my breasts. After I gave birth, I assumed my body worked the same as other women. The child would shimmy up my puffy after-birth belly and latch on. Soon my breasts were bleeding from trying. And then it didn’t matter because we discovered that little to no milk was coming from the spigot.
Here I was—the blue-eyed, brown-haired middle-class girl who went to college and married and did all the things she was supposed to do, and my body couldn’t feed my baby.
I tried harder. It didn’t work. One day, the lactation consultant sitting in the pretty room with the soft pillows stared at my breasts. “Can I touch them?” she asked. Her voice sounded like Delilah on the radio. She is trying to be kind, I told myself.
But it felt weird—that voice, those pillows. I told her no. I left with a diagnosis of mammary hypoplasia: little to no milk supply from insufficient glandular tissue.
The consultant advised me to keep her at the breast several times a day and to pump eight times a day. Ok. I stared at her, wondering when I would eat or just be.
But I couldn’t fail. So I pumped and sometimes got a quarter of an ounce. Was it enough? Would my doll-face not be stupid, overweight or get cancer? I didn’t know.
I started checking to see if she was breathing in the middle of the night: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times.
And then John nicked the skin cutting her nails, and the bleeding made my breath stop.
One evening, I stared up at the stucco shapes on the ceiling of our bedroom, and John said I needed help for postpartum anxiety.
“No,” I said. I will be fine. I just needed to do this or that.
“No,” he said. He emailed the therapist, and I sat in her office with my daughter. I was grieving, she said, because I could not feed my daughter from my body. I took pills.
John told me to quit trying to place her mouth on my nipple and to stop using the pumping machine.
One day, I placed her on my warm chest, my heart rapid. The baby had lived off my body for nine months, but it didn’t need my body anymore. I put the pump in the little black bag in the trash. I poured the powder into the bottles. Each day after, I stared at my doll-face, the flesh of my flesh. I prayed and nourished her, and she grew.
And my lungs filled again.
Hilary Covil has been writing stories and poems since she first shared her story about a giant over the school intercom at her elementary school. Besides writing, she enjoys hiking, teaching preschoolers and being with her two daughters, Claira, 3, and Abigail, 9 months.
She sits at the kitchen table, apron slung
over the back of a chair, and allows herself
a sigh. Ward’s relaxing on the couch
with coffee she prepared and the evening edition
of the Mayfield Press. Wally and Beaver
fed, washed, tucked in. Dishes done,
kitchen scrubbed to sparkling.
She removes her pearls and traces lazy
figure eights on the checked tablecloth,
lets her spine slip into a slouch. Swirls
red wine, which looks charcoal in her black and white
world, stretches her legs, allows her practical
pumps to fall to the floor with muffled plunks.
She closes her eyes, lets her mind amble
away from the spotless kitchen,
away from the new hole in Wally’s jeans,
away from the latest polite but stern note
from Beaver’s teacher,
away from the monotonous vise
of this perfect life.
In her mind, she steps onto an empty beach,
where sun explodes like fireworks on endless
turquoise water, a place full of color and possibility.
No roasts to season, no tables to set, no children
to gently reprimand, no pearls. She shrugs off
her fashionably prudent dress, her sensible
undergarments, tosses them in a careless heap
and stretches supine in the sand’s soft embrace.
For just a moment she wonders what Aunt Martha
would think, what her family would think,
but decides she won’t let them in. Instead, she lets
the sun run its long fingers through her hair, over faded
stretch marks and breasts Ward no longer relishes.
She throws her arms wide, tries her voice—the real one,
beyond the stilted range of perfect housewife.
It’s rough and clumsy at first, but it warms up
and she lets loose a throaty goddess yell
as she strides toward the water, sand spilling
in glittering trails of stars from her naked
reclaimed body, and dives headfirst into the waves.
That’s when Beaver walks in to the kitchen
in rumpled pajamas, half-grinning half-squinting
in the kitchen’s low light, says he can’t sleep.
She wrenches herself back to the black and white,
swallows her goddess voice till it’s just
a lump in her throat, ties the apron back on
as she gets up to warm some milk.
Lindsay Rutherford lives and writes in Edmonds, WA. She studies fiction at the Writers Studio and works as a physical therapist at a local hospital. Her fiction and poetry can be found in Lunch Ticket, Medical Literary Messenger, Poplorish, and WA129+.