Good poetry should be where beautiful words intersect with economy for maximum effect, but many times when I read modern poetry, I come away with no idea at all what the author is saying. It feels like the lexical version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, with me afraid to shout, “This is complete nonsense and gibberish,” lest the world, having affirmed the poet’s brilliance, denounce my low brow intellect. But some brave soul needs to say it.
I am happy to say that I have finally found a modern poet whose words make sense, who can drive home a pithy thought with the deft strokes of her keyboard, who makes me love poetry all over again: Shannon J. Curtin in her book, Motherland.
I want to tell you about my favorite poems in this book, but I’ve marked almost every page. I want to tell you my favorite lines without stealing from you the thrill of discovery or the impact of surprise. It won’t be easy…but I’ll try.
The wittily named “Fair Game” opens the collection, and I happened to receive the book when fair season was in full swing here. I love the fair, and she describes it so well from both idealistic and realistic perspectives…but it’s not about the fair, and what it is really about I relate to even more. That’s all I can say.
The title poem, “Motherland,” is next—a succinct description of a hometown in all its grit and glory. There were details that reminded me of my own hometown and I smiled; there were details quite unlike my own background, and I was intrigued. She concludes with a simple statement of what makes home, home. I might have teared up a little (not for the last time.)
“Vacancy” tells of a mother offering solace to emotionally needy kids and is my favorite. Full of perfect lines like, “There is a vacancy sign always lit above her front door in a typeface only the lost can read.” The woman in this poem is the woman I want so very much to be. It wraps up with one of Curtin’s signature perfect conclusions.
The mothers of other children are lauded in “The League of Other Mothers,” a less flattering but just as realistic poem balances that sweetness in the coming-of-age poem, “Before the After.” Nostalgia continues in the lovely images of “Communion”—I can hear the crinkle of wax paper and taste the cookies she describes. “My Mother the Fixer” and “Gift with Purchase” also celebrate mothers, imperfect, unique, heroic.
While many poems are from the perspective of a child (grown or not) looking at her mother, many others are written from a parent’s view towards her children or parenting itself. “Plea,” the two Pinterest poems, and “Rejection” make sharp comments on modern parenting. The Pinterest poems hint that fathers have fewer societal expectations, which may well be true, but I’m not sure we can draw that conclusion from a platform used by so many more mothers than fathers. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read.
“Growing Away” and “Fingers Crossed, Cross My Heart” discuss worry and letting go, themes every mother struggles with. “Languages” is a reminder to hear and treasure what children really mean instead of reacting from an adult’s perspective. “All Boy” is excellent; I have a little boy, and I was once a little girl sometimes squashed in spirit by boys who were raised to be mean brutes. My heart echoes Curtin’s words for my own son:
I hope you keep the balance
we all are born with.
I hope you ache to build up
towers to marvel at their beauty
just as much as you enjoy
the gleeful clatter of their crash.
As a book reviewer, my desk is piled high with volumes that publishers have sent me. With my little house, I can’t keep them all. Motherland will be an exception; it’s getting a permanent spot on my shelf to be read, enjoyed, and shared over and over.
Shannon J. Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, the Poetry editor of The Quotable, and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications). Her writing has been featured in a variety of literary magazines including Mothers Always Write, The Muddy River Review, The Mom Egg Review, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. She’s the mother of Quinn, a real boy, and Bruno a dog that wishes he was a real boy. She would probably like you. You can find her at www.shannonmazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.
Handling fabrics I feel a sense of respect.
My fingers grow wise skillful aware.
Of the things I like touching, cloth is first.
That was true since when I was a kid.
Linen felt alive like hair or skin does.
Once smoothing under my palms
a thin piece of cotton
I heard my voice say mother
I’m sorry… In my mind I saw
those red curtains of flesh
that I ripped head-first. Long ago.
I felt pain that wasn’t my own
pulls and cracks of frail stems.
I cried: desolate, mother if I tear you apart
with this clumsy passage of mine
if I rip this vellum of cells
this carpet finely wrought.
I swear I’ll recompose you
stitch by stitch whatever it takes.
I will fix you entirely, I promise.
A bit every day with fine needles
with the care of my hands
with the sharpness of my wide open eyes.
Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Literary Mama, Adanna, The Harpoon Review and Litro NY among other journals. She has contributed for a decade to various Italian magazines.
The chatter flow subsides
and I find myself alone,
the shish of turning pages
all I hear in throbbing stillness
as my board book brain
ponders twelve-point type:
It can’t talk back,
wipe off my kisses,
whine for the latest toy.
It isn’t forever in motion;
serifs don’t fidget or fuss
or jump on furniture.
Its rhetoric isn’t punctuated
with karate kicks, wrestling throws,
or the gatling of pretend gunfire.
When I’ve had enough, I simply shut the cover
to stop the flow of sounds inside my head,
which reminds me that written words cannot
rub noses like Eskimoses, sink my battleship,
or druggle a snowsy “I love you.”
Still, their black-on-white crispness calms me
as I dogear another page in the story of Mom.
Amy Nemecek is a book editor and a home-schooling mother of one energetic teenage son. When she is not teaching or working with words, she enjoys watching baseball, playing the violin, hiking, cross-country skiing, and researching family history. Her family lives in rural northern Michigan along with their two cats and a Yorkie. Recently, her poem “Mechanics” was published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Another of her poems, “The Work of Our Hands,” received high praise from the Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference in Grand Rapids, MI, and was awarded a scholarship so I could attend that gathering last fall.