All Else Falls to Shadow, by Amy Lee Heinlen
Review by Christine Orchanian Adler
For many, motherhood conjures thoughts of gurgles and coos, tiny clothes, pastels and talcum. The cover of Amy Lee Heinlen’s chapbook, All Else Falls to Shadow (Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2018), with its pink and white candy-cane stripes and child’s rocking horse, give it as charming and harmless an appearance as those innocent perceptions. Yet Heinlen’s poems also explore the real and darker side of motherhood many women experience after baby arrives.
Postpartum depression, and its power to overshadow the joy of life with a new baby, is all-encompassing, and too rarely discussed. As a mother who experienced post-partum depression after my second child, I couldn’t see it when it was happening—but I could see myself in the pages of this book.
In every culture dating back to biblical times, motherhood has been depicted in art, poetry, and song as a transformative experience, as natural as the tides. Fittingly, the bible and the ocean are referenced in Heinlen’s poems, like touch points for the speaker to grasp, to keep from drowning in her new reality.
The book begins with a peek of life before, when the speaker’s power lies fully within her mind. In “Self-Portrait As The Apostle Paul”, she glimpses her reflection, her hair wrapped in a towel, creating,
an image of a man in a turban, God shining
through him. In the mirror, I don’t have a beard,
but I could grow one if I wished, like an erection,
strong and sharp as the sword of a man of God
Understanding what’s to come seeps in slowly. In “What to Expect,” the nursery is prepared. Fresh paint, alphabet flashcards, and a mural of Noah’s Ark on the wall create a peaceful setting for the coming baby. Yet we begin to sense something ominous looms, that reality will soon violently overtake the fantasy of motherhood:
I sit in the rocker, gift from the aunts.
Green parrots squawk and flap
their wings but can’t warn Noah’s wife,
who has fallen asleep beside the bull
below deck. Leopards lick
the blood of unicorns from their lips.
In “Birth Plan,” the preparation and expectations are paralleled through repeated lines, half of which are heavily redacted. This visual depiction of fiction versus fact—literally and metaphorically in black and white—reveals how little all the preparation mattered; how little registers in a woman’s mind in the throes of labor; how little power she has when the act of childbirth fully overtakes her body until, at last, a healthy baby emerges. Finally, it would seem, all is well. But then the fall begins.
In the poem “Light, Blue”, it has only been hours since her child arrived, and the speaker has already deemed herself an unfit mother:
The first hours of your life, I fail
To help you wash the yellow pigment
From your body.
xxxxxxxxAt the hospital,
xxxxxxxxjaundice is common.
My dumb breasts sit and stare.
Throughout the poem are all the perceived ways the mother fails her new daughter: the inability to fix her jaundiced condition; the frustration of being unable to feed her, and the helplessness of listening to her cry because she is too hungry to sleep. Reading these lines, I just want to hug her.
Doctors tell her of the jaundice, the trouble breastfeeding: this is common. But what of the mother’s mindset? Is this depressed state common as well? That this question is not explored by the doctor is the real failure.
Heinlen writes with authority and without sentimentality about what a woman is told to expect after giving birth, versus what she experiences. The speaker’s shifting condition is revealed, poem by poem, throughout the book. Through this larger picture, the reader can feel the mother’s mind changing by degrees, making it is clear how the slow descent into a seeming madness can be overlooked from the outside.
“When You Come Home” is not about the baby coming home but, rather, the mother and the changes she sees in herself:
You will mark the time by hours, minutes.
The last time you…
xxxxxxslept (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxate (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxbathed (not you, the baby)
xxxxxxcried (you and the baby).
The speaker’s physical routine is gone, so she maintains some semblance of control by instead marking when she last accomplished these simple acts. Later, she considers how her mental norms have also changed:
You love your partner.
xxxxYou will hate him.
He will sleep right through it.xxxxxxNot at first.xxxNot
xxxxxxYou will hate him for it.
xxxxxxYou will hate that you hate.
xxxxxxYou will be amazed by the heat of it. xxxThe spark.
The true understanding of how her foundation has been shaken, though, is most stark in “It’s Not That.” Here, the speaker considers the horrible fates that could have befallen her baby as a result of her postpartum depression, and how close the danger came:
xxxxxxIt’s not as if she sat secured
in the backseat on a hot day, overlooking a lake,
the Volvo left in neutral.
xxxxxxIt’s not even that I left
xxxxxxfor long, never came back, never made it home.
xxxxxxIt’s more that I could have,
xxxxxxhow some mothers do.
When a baby joins the family, s/he becomes the sun around which the other members orbit. Because the infant’s needs are tantamount, a mother will often question whether her new struggles are real or imagined. Are they due to a larger problem with baby or merely her own inadequacies? More often than not, she will blame herself and press on. But by allowing baby’s day-to-day needs to trump her own, she unknowingly banishes herself into the darkness.
In a fitting parenthetical to the book’s first poem, a hopeful ray of light is eased into its last with the mother’s mind having righted itself, and her power finally returned. In “Considering A Second Child,” Heinlen writes, “I trade these / words for the chance to change my form once more.”
Ultimately, All Else Falls to Shadow is an introspective book about birth, both of a child and a mother. The woman births the child; the child transforms the woman into a mother. Heinlen brilliantly examines the multiple and complex threads among which the status of “mother” is tangled. By illustrating one woman’s experience—both the good and the frightening—she thoughtfully brings to light that which is too often left in the shadows.
Amy Lee Heinlen is a Pittsburgh-based poet and academic librarian. Her poems can be read at poets.org, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, Wicked Alice, Rogue Agent, Pretty Owl Poetry, Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and elsewhere. In 2016, Amy Lee received an Academy of American Poets University and College prize and Best Thesis in Poetry award from Chatham University where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing for poetry and publishing. She is a mad-proud member of the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops. You can find more about her current projects and poems at amyleeheinlen.com
Christine Orchanian Adler is a writer and editor whose poetry has appeared in Coal: A Poetry Anthology, Inkwell, Penumbra, Tipton Poetry Journal, and online at Bird and Moon, Damselfly Press, The Furnace Review, Literary Mama and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Undressing the Heart (Finishing Line Press, 2021), won an honorable mention in the Palettes & Quills 3rd Biennial Chapbook Contest. She served as a judge in the Greenburgh Arts & Culture Committee’s 35th Poetry Contest; The Harvey School’s annual Michael Lopes Poetry Recitation Contest, and as Editor and Managing Editor of Inkwell. Her articles, essays and book reviews have appeared in various publications throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. You can read more of her work at http://christineoadler.com/.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.