Feed, by Emily Mohn-Slate
It’s nothing short of amazing that most women survive their infant’s first year. A mom loses about 1000 hours of sleep during that year, leading to all kinds of worries, including, for example, driving while exhausted, and perhaps having a car crash while rushing a sick infant to the pediatrician’s office. And sleep deprivation is only a slice of the predicament. More toxic is the way motherhood has the habit of swallowing personhood.
Emily Mohn-Slate’s chapbook, Feed (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), unpacks the strains and tensions that overwhelm mothers of infants: anxiety, forgetfulness, desperation, loss of identity, guilt, hypervigilance. In “So Easy” the narrator reminds us that it is possible to kill a baby inadvertently in a sleep deprived state:
A woman left her baby in the car,
rushed to work—her baby overheated & died.
Of course, the poems in Feed do more than recount this theme, familiar as toast to so many of us. The universal dilemma of motherhood is retaining a semblance—even a memory—of oneself. The muscle in Feed is Mohn-Slate’s ability to transcend the inevitable difficulties by describing those early days with intense attention and focus. When she says, “I want so many things” we tune in to the dissonance. But when she says, “What did my mother regret? / Guilt, a tight ring I can’t take off,” the weight of being a woman within generations of women rushes at us.
When she tells us,
The way I hold my son
no hands my arms as railings
I can read a little,
we know she has succeeded not only in holding on to bits of her non-mom self, but in insisting on it, and in that process, asserting that to do so is our birthright as well as our daughters’. But that insistence does not erase constant anxiety, as she asks herself,
Did I fasten the buckle around
the baby’s soft waist?
Most of the 15 poems in Feed are detailed sketches performed as the scattered thoughts of a new mother who finds the job to be more than she bargained for, and then finds a way through it. A baby “grunts, spits” while mom longs “to be alone.” Along the way, there are detailed observations—of the baby of course—but also of the “saguaro cactus” that “only blooms at night,” and “the guy who collects the grocery carts” who “hops up and rides each one a little way / before they click into each other.” Mohn-Slate vividly portrays the mood, the pace, and the angst of mothering in precise images such as,
My shoulders are wedged in a box hammered shut by others, their needs heavy on my chest.
The cover of Feed is a remarkable mosaic by Daviea Davis titled, “ Meeting the Aunts,” which gives us an infant’s eye view of being ogled by four terribly frightening faces. It is to Mohn-Slate’s credit that the poems in Feed maintain a clear-eyed view of the baby’s position, even while the poems focus on the situation of the mother. It’s not easy to look up at the world with infant eyes, while at the same time, experiencing the nonstop demands of mothering.
Two confesional letters addressed to “Dear Charlotte” were of particular interest to me. They frame the poems from “May” to “November” –a critical six-month period during which a new mother may or may not adjust to the tedium of caring for her infant. We are told in the end notes that “Charlotte” is Charlotte Mew, and Mohn-Slate is using “a few lines from Mew’s poems.” It is as a poet that Mohn-Slate takes solace from Mew. I see the connection to the mother’s plight in these lines from Mew’s poem titled, “Fame,”
I see myself among the crowd,
where no one fits the singer to his song
Two babies appear in the book: a boy whose “appetite is unfeeling, total” and a girl, who “screamed & coughed on her own drool.” The mother may complain “I never meant to be so needed” as she leans “over the counter eating / numb eyed” but she doesn’t lose her footing. The final poem in Feed is titled, “I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem,” where she starts out saying, “after reading Ross Gay’s new book /which makes me feel light and giddy.” But she can’t sustain it and the poem turns to,
but my poem becomes
about the collapse of long
love, how even the brightest
glint in the eye
becomes shadow eventually.
The poem, “Aubade with Teether” reminds us how often the teether hits the floor. We pick it up, wash it off (or not) and put it right back in baby’s mouth. Joy is found in those moments when kids can just be kids. Joy is also found in stealing time to read and write poems, in being a poet who is also a mother. Thus,
Joy must be at least
as complicated as sorrow.
Maybe joy is the real mystery.
Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of FEED, winner of the Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press, 2019). Her poems and essays can be found in New Ohio Review, Poet Lore, The Adroit Journal, Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript has been named a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press, and the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes offered by University of Wisconsin Press. She is a member of the Madwomen in the Attic Writing Workshops and lives in Pittsburgh, PA.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).