Saturday, June 13, 2015

book rec: mothers by rachel zucker

Yesterday I was at the North American Review conference where I presented on motherhood and poetics, and of course, in those six hours of driving, I fretted over a to-do list, and this little something came floating to the top. I had been thinking about literary citizenship (Jessamyn Smyth of Tupelo Quarterly called me this in a recent supportive post about our Kickstarter, and I thought, oh! that's exactly it! that's the why!).

So this was one of my ideas: start a Friday posting, make it regular, draw in other writers, have them write a little bit about a book they recently read that made the tops of their heads come off. Starting with me.

This week I read Rachel Zucker's MOTHERs in an attempt to draw in more voices to the panel paper I wrote, which was called "Out of the Bodies of Babes: The Ethics of Using Children as Subjects in Art." I talked a bit about stories and who has rights to anyone else's narratives, and there is much of this in MOTHERs, which is a lyric essay exploration of being a mother, of mentorship, of nonbiological mothers and loss, about facing her own family history, her mother as storyteller and the ways in which she tells her own story.

Here's the piece I shared with the audience:

One story she does tell is of her Iowa Writers’ Workshop mentor Jorie Graham, a mother-poet who does not tend to use her children as subject in her work. Zucker writes, “Graham feared that having a child might herald the end of her writing life. In despair she went on a pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s grave. It was storming, and Graham sought shelter in Emily Dickinson’s home. The home (also a museum) had shut down for the evening. Soaking wet and largely pregnant, Graham pounded on the door. A caretaker opened it. Graham begged to be let inside to see Dickinson’s desk. The caretaker nodded, and Graham rushed past her to Dickinson’s study. There, where Dickinson’s desk usually stood, was a small cradle. The caretaker explained that Dickinson’s desk was on loan to Harvard, and because the room seemed so empty without the desk, someone had put the cradle (found in the basement) in its place” (6).
Another moment that struck me was a passage where Zucker describes sitting in the audience in Tennessee while her mother performs stories on stage. She is writing in a notebook and her son pesters her about what she's doing. She tells him, I'm taking notes; it's what I do.

I can't help but think YES she's so right YES this is it YES. so often while reading the book. Or any of her books. I was a Rachel Zucker fan before our paths began to cross, and eventually, I learned the story of MOTHERs before it became a book--the things she reveals in the epilogue, the curse she feared from her mother, the struggle of what to do when one's parent passes away half a globe away. I remember the emails. I remember wishing the world was a rug and I could shake it, stitch it together, closer, just for a little bit of time. I wish closure came like breathing, or were something that could be wrapped and sent in the mail.

I wish everyone could read this book who has had some kind of complexity in sussing out feelings about Mother could read this book. But mostly, read it for the style: I'm in love with this form that is growing in popularity. My own Nestuary is a bit like this, and I think of Claudia Rankine's most recent two, of Eula Biss's essays at times, Christine Hume's Ventifacts. I'm hungry for this style of writing--for the disconnected essay shards that overlap and tease and tangle and drop off, maybe, maybe not come back again. How each feels like a worried, ocean-smoothed stone.

If you'd like to join this exercise in literary citizenship and write your own book recommendation, I've made a Submittable account, which will be most robustly used during contest periods for the press, but for now, I'll always take a look at book recs.

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