And then I was a mother. The mother. And all my mothers could not save me.Mothers by Rachel Zucker
It’s hard to remember quite how I came to be having a Rachel Zucker phase. I hung out with this poem by Jenny Browne for quite a while earlier in the year and, as much as I loved the poem, I also loved Zucker’s assessment of it as, ‘a delightfully strange poem: seductive but not coy in its disclosures’.
(A dusty post-it note stuck my copy of the poem says ‘inhabiting a poem’, a phrase from an interview with Sarah Howe. Howe, I later discovered, like Zucker, was once a student of Jorie Graham.)
There was a phase of internet obsession with Zucker: reading some of her poems, finding out that she’s a mother of three sons, that she’s trained and worked as a doula. That she writes about the messy, the real, the concerns of life and of motherhood:
My poems have trash in them. Also: soccer balls, puke, toddlers, the New York City subway, dirty dishes, sex, my husband, toilet training, other poets, and groceries. It’s dangerous writing this way—I could slip on a banana peel or, worse, be labeled a “mommy poet,” which is this century’s version of those “scribbling women” Hawthorne scorned.
I don’t know at what point I bought Zucker’s Mothers but I remember it arriving in the post sometime before the summer holidays, beautifully tactile, enticingly shaped. It sat for weeks on top of the recipe shelf in my kitchen, giving me a strange sense of comfort every time I saw it. She’ll understand, I thought. She won’t mind waiting.
I had wanted so desperately to be a mother but was shocked and ashamed to find so much of motherhood boring, smothering, intolerable, and self-immolating. The deepest shame, the thought-feeling I could not forgive in myself because I could not forgive it in my real mother, was how often my mind said, “I don’t want to be here.”Mothers by Rachel Zucker
I finally turned to it at the end of summer, tearing through it over the long August Bank Holiday weekend. It’s a slim memoir, a kind of fragmented lyric essay, about mothering and being mothered. Zucker writes what she is ‘most afraid to write’, tracing her ‘mothers’ — her real mother, the storyteller Diane Wolkstein, her poetic mothers, including Alice Notley and Jorie Graham, and, for want of a better phrase, ‘motherhood mothers’, the two women she looked to for support when she herself became a mother.
“The woman who has felt ‘unmothered’ may seek mothers all her life — may even seek them in men.” Adrienne Rich Mothers by Rachel Zucker
It’s a gift of a book, incredibly vulnerable, full of hesitations and contradictions, and the interruptions of family life. In the short middle sections of the book Zucker’s youngest son, Judah, stops nursing & she examines her unexpected depth of her sadness at this loss. I loved seeing a grief so common, yet so unspoken traced with beautiful lucidity on the page,
“Why is there nothing left?”
“You drank it. You drank what you needed. You grew strong and healthy and beautiful. It was all yours.”
[My own thoughts on the end of nursing are here.]
It’s an uncomfortable book, wonderfully so, pushing the question of what is ours to tell to its limits. At the end of the book, Wolkstein asks Zucker not to publish what she has written about their difficult relationship.
She said if I published the book terrible things would happen to her, to me, and to my children. She said she could not imagine anything worse than me publishing this book.
And then, a few hours after telling her friends that she’s heartbroken by her daughter’s decision to publish the book, Wolkstein dies. It’s hard not to read her death as in total keeping with her character. I’ll die if you say this, the mother says. Then she truly does. But Zucker’s handling of the ambiguities and complexities of this unexpected ending and the months of meetings the two have had to talk over what she has written, is graceful and honest. What’s the worst that can happen if I write this? you might ask. And then you find out. As a reader, I’m grateful that Zucker carried through her decision to publish her complex book.
Here is Zucker, in coversation with Elisa Albert talking about her mother’s death:
I miss my mother. Despite all our difficulties, I miss her profoundly. […] I also feel a new sense of sad power or a new kind of responsibility. I need to take responsisbility for whatever kind of mother I am now, whatever kind of writer, whatever kind of person. I come from a long line of mothers (most of whom I don’t even know about) and these women are all a part of who I am. But what I do now, that is up to me. There’s no one to measure myself against in that way anymore. It’s a lonely and frightening and very powerful place to be.
Like all the best books, Mothers, has also sent me scurrying down new paths — reading Alice Notley (recommended), finally getting down to Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (I know — I can’t believe I haven’t sooner either), reading Zucker’s own poetry & rereading Jorie Graham (of whom I’m now even more intimidated). I feel my autumn syllabus is motherhood redux.
I also recommend more Rachel Zucker:
- a wonderful conversation with Elisa Albert about Mothers
- Zucker’s new podcast, Commonplace, saviour of my Sunday evening runs
- and an extract from Mothers on my old favourite, the Literary Mothers blog.