Magazine article The New Yorker

Mother Tongue

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mother Tongue

Article excerpt

MOTHER TONGUE

BY DAN CHIASSON

Poetry and prose by Rachel Zucker. Zucker's poems read like skin-of-your-teeth escapes from impending disaster.

Motherhood isn't war, madness, or addiction, but for a writer it can be an adverse condition, undermining the very work it inspires. The problem is time: writing and attending to children are contesting emergencies, each an existential threat to the other. The best contemporary poetry on motherhood understands the subject to be this temporal crisis. Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" is, among other things, a book about working at dawn, before "the child's crymelts in the wall"; the wall between art and life, at that moment, melts as well. After centuries of sentimental poems about mothers and babies, Plath and others--Adrienne Rich, Alice Notley, Louise Gluck--came to write poems that were tensed by the incipient threat of interruption. Gluck's were often taut and epigrammatic, as though, her hands full, every impurity had been removed by long refinement in the mind. Rich's poems were "snapshots," as she put it, the extended intervals required for formal portraiture no longer in her grasp. Any minute, Rich's "buoyancy of . . . attention," bobbing like a helium balloon above the fray, might be "snatched" from its heights by competing demands.

Rachel Zucker is a mother of three and the author of several books of poems; her latest, "The Pedestrians," has just been published, along with a memoir, "MOTHERs." Her poems read like skin-of-your-teeth escapes from impending disaster. She learned her fleetness from Frank O'Hara, but O'Hara, one of the greatest poets of gratitude, was a little like Pac-Man: he moved forward only by ingesting the world. Zucker's speed is used for actions of flight and evasion. This is the opening of "mindful":

jammed my airspace w/ a podcast &

to-do list filled up inside I run & running

then a snowstorm so no school I cried &

said

Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded

with hot

cocoa when someone said Yay for snow!

I'm

cutting it too close Erin if a blizzard

makes me

cry I used to long for snow for that quiet

filling

everything up What are you talking

about? asks Erin

Seriously what are you talking about?

crammed

in the toddler bed I say If you want me to

stay

you need to lie still the toddler tries why?

must he?

There is a devotional poem hiding somewhere inside these calamities, an attempt at "mindfulness" undone by the mind's fullness. Calm cannot be willed or "jammed" into one's inner "airspace" by prayer, or even a soothing podcast: the competing voice of the to-do list drowns it out, or, as Zucker writes, fills her up inside. (The suggestion is that pregnancy doesn't end when the child is born; a mother's burdens just shift.) The podcast promises some minutes of rapture and possession; it stands no chance against the demands of the to-do list, whose mental fulfillment--formulaic and repeated, like a rosary--requires not just attention but reiteration. Somewhere Zucker remembers the prior self who longed for snow, now a terrified parent who must engineer a day for her children using cocoa and coercion.

"Mindful," like much of "The Pedestrians," is a series of adjustments to abrupt temporal shifts: the podcast cuts to the to-do list, which cuts to the school cancellation, and so on. The presence of an interlocutor, Erin (a name that, as every Erin I have known tells people, means "peace"), suggests that it's impossible to keep even these complaints about effaced interiority quiet and on the inside: what seemed like a silent shitstorm is in fact a litany of mounting injuries wailed into the phone or texted as they happen. What the poem seeks is timelessness, a condition it finds in miniature in "one nap moment of silence," although, as Zucker concedes, "if that's what I wanted I should have made/other don't you think choices? …

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