Mother Want, by Maria McLeod
Winner of the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest
Review by Risa Denenberg
Thank God for poetry and horses.
In her prize-winning chapbook, Mother Want, Maria McLeod narrates harrowing tales of childhood, both hers and her parents’— rendering a panorama of inter-generational wounds. Breaking the cycle involves finding a way out of the story, without disowning it. For McLeod, the poetry muse offers a pathway through the act of writing; horses heal simply by being, as she describes in “And the Sky Bloomed Pink”:
I learned about love
when working with horses.
[…] those sweet moments
mucking stalls, alone
with the horses at first light.
Still, the through-line, to the last poem, “Summer’s End, Dogs,” does not relinquish want or hide melancholy. Watching children leave the house, McLeod finds keepsakes in an ordinary life: backpacks, yellow school bus, garden weeds, plum tomatoes, and the “unrelenting loneliness/ of neighborhood dogs, announcing over and over:/ someone is missing, someone is gone.”
Inevitably, the mother looms large in Mother Want. In the title poem, the longing for a do-over is a poignant wish “to love what isn’t lovable” and “to meet my mother/ before the years of sleep.”
I want to know her before she disappeared, before
she gave up being the mother, before she gave up
being the body of the mother, the breasts
and words, and touch of the mother.
But also “to empty her out, to ransack/ her body, to cause damage.”
In childhood, we don’t recognize our parents as beings apart from us with their own stories, and certainly not as children themselves. Aging and death of parents can be a time for reappraisal, perhaps even forgiveness, or at least acknowledgement that they did the best that they could. “Joyce, 1945,” subtitled, “fur meine Mutter,” reveals disturbing scenes of the mother’s childhood—stories McLeod was told “when I was finally old enough to hear of it.” McLeod speaks perceptively of her mother as a child, “unable to discern joy from terror.”
In “On Sunday, Our Father,” the father is portrayed as the more functional parent in the home with an absent mother. He was portrayed as frightening: “We could hear the anger in his walk/ across the hardwood floor/ hatred of his wife.” And “Once he punched a hole/ in our bedroom door.” But also this:
He warmed bottles
of milk while my mother sleepwalked through life.
He made us pizza for dinner;
he let us drink pop. We loved
Later in “Death Defied,” we learn that the father was a “sickly boy” who was supposed to die but instead “rose out of bed, defying his doctors.” Similarly, the narrator in Mother Want defies the somber prospects of her childhood. Indeed, both parents’ backstories are sewn into the fabric of the child’s day-to-day reality.
There are other possible configurations of childhood in these pages. In “Bereft/ for Stephen,” the death of a beloved father brings forth the wisdom that,
Death has no dominion over your child self,
grieving not for the absence
of the frail father, but for the familiar
comfort of the sturdy back you mounted
before you could swim.
There are also present-day stories here, such as in “November Green/ for Mary.” November is a seen as a time of decay and decomposition as two friends walk and talk “of our work/ as professors, of love and marriage, illness, and our parents/ decline.” A cancer diagnosis is disclosed— “the wife of a friend … was dead,” while the speaker is “13 months post diagnosis,” but is “reluctant to refer to [her]self as lucky.” In this rambling friendship, there is also the story of a 10-year-old daughter’s elaborate funeral for her hamster “Creampuff,” with friends dressed in black and “some of the girls/ wearing fascinators, as if attending a British wedding.” There is a tenderness towards children in this poem that was often lacking in the poet’s childhood.
The poems in Mother Want are not only memoir, although the childhood memory pieces recounted here are indeed memorable—in the way an earworm won’t go away after the song ends. There are also poems of portraiture—ekphrastic poems of persons, so to speak—which are both memorable and gentle, a relief from traumatic memories. In “Hammer and Nails,” a carpenter, “imagines where/ he’ll frame out windows, add a door.” As the day draws to a close,
He measures his next day’s work, makes his way
onto the dilapidated porch, faded color
he’ll need to scrape off, recoat. Make it new:
make it right.
Standing alone, this is a lovely portrait; but it is also an immensely satisfying metaphor for what might be done for a broken childhood.
Maria McLeod writes poetry and prose. Honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize, and three Pushcart Prize nominations. She was named the 2020 WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest winner, judged by then Oregon State Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, for Mother Want, published in 2021. Her second poetry chapbook, Skin. Hair. Bones., is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2022. Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Puerto Del Sol, The Brooklyn Rail, Painted Bride Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Sonora Review and others. Originally from the Detroit area, she currently resides in Bellingham, Washington where she works as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press and the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online. Recent publications include slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018), and Posthuman, finalist for the 2020 Floating Bridge Chapbook Prize.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.