Guest reviewer Amy Strauss Friedman discusses the told and untold truths of motherhood in Megan Merchant’s The Dark’s Humming (Glass Lyre Press, March 2017).
I’ve had the pleasure of reading Megan Merchant’s poems for years, with their sharp, insightful musings on the topic of motherhood. But with the publication of Merchant’s new, award-winning book The Dark’s Humming, I believe we should all agree to name her the Poet Laureate of Motherhood. Merchant’s work speaks to all aspects of the maternal experience in the most intimate and real of ways: to its joys, its fears, and the eternal, overwhelming responsibility that comes along with the position. However, her writing, like the subject itself, bleeds into the complexities and challenges of all human relationships.
The Dark’s Humming is divided into three sections, all of which are nameless; as I read this collection, the reason for this decision becomes clear. If I had to classify each, I’d say that the first section is about becoming (both as an individual and a mother), the second addresses what is lost, and the third focuses on what remains. And yet, these sections blend together as well, signaling the blurring of roles and emotions, and addressing the fluid nature of motherhood and other interpersonal relationships. In this way, leaving each section nameless suggests the interconnected nature of loss, happiness, and evolution.
Motherhood is painful. It requires endless scut work. And it is a role with the end goal of becoming peripheral, if not irrelevant. Rarely do writers address these truths, but Merchant does. She believes that painting over the chaotic nature of the experience and its many implications creates false expectations that ultimately do a disservice to us all.
Her poem “Grass Stars” addresses this chaos, along with a woman’s loss of agency and independence in the demanding aftermath of childbirth:
forgot to remind me I was something other
than a charcoal-etched list, a tender honey-do.
…there’s a little
pill that can make the world go from harried
and dumb to air-crisped and floaty.
A full bottle could make me kind.
The chorus of voices she references here speaks to the lies mothers hear externally as well as the ones they tell themselves. Lost in this chorus is the woman inside the mother who searches always for ways back to herself.
Merchant’s poems walk the fine lines of protection that inevitably crop up when attempting to shield children from the universe’s sharp edges. In “Household Labor,” the narrator vacillates between choices in an unknown world:
The slip-knot silk unwinding,
the slip-knot silk retying.
The taut bow pulling, the fletching grazing.
The taut bow snapping, the shaft soaring.
The womb like a trembling animal.
The womb like an animal wandering the trembling dark.
One of the lessons of parenthood is that there are about three answers to every dilemma, and all of them are in some way inadequate. As a result, mothers find themselves choosing the best bet in the moment, which leads to inevitable doubts and lingering fears. This uncertainty hangs heavy in the lines of each of Merchant’s pieces: “I inherited a color, / gray, and a gene” she writes in “Warning” from the book’s second section, “…an imbalance, / they explained, / so surely I’d fall / at the lip of anything.” Motherhood makes the narrator more unsteady, less grounded, less sure of the landscape she once deftly navigated.
This bumpy terrain includes losses along the way, some more consequential than others. In section two, Merchant alludes to the death of a child and the ways in which this loss informs the mother’s life going forward in “Postpartum Blues”:
I named her before
they could even say
that the cord we shared
snared her neck, starved her breath.
Shhhhh. My body doesn’t know yet
that it’s become a soilless grave.
Empty, unfertile ground. Merchant plants us here. Leaves us desolate. Brings us back to our own wreckage. And provides advice for survival. “I Offer You This” proposes a way forward: “I’ve been told more than once that my best chance for surviving / any crash is to remain limp, unaffected, to imagine it’s happening / to someone else, someone along the edges,” she proffers. For giving in is the only way to abide an endless loop of bliss, bereavement, and everything in between. To get by in a job that demands “endless grafts to heal/skinned knees and tantrum-cuts. // I’m raw from splicing/tissue from my own damn heart” Merchant tells us of the grit required in “Mothering.” And this is mothering: its endless demands and sacrifices, its interminable mountains to scale, its struggles for glory and peace. The Dark’s Humming casts this role with accuracy, clarity, and beauty. A book to read, reread, and then to read again.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poems have appeared in The Rumpus, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Escape Into Life, FLAPPERHOUSE, Red Paint Hill, decomP magazinE, and elsewhere. Amy earned her MA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University. She was born and raised in Chicago where she taught English at Harper College and at Northwestern’s Center for Talent Development. She recently moved to Denver, Colorado where she teaches poetry to elementary school students. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.