Shared Mercy: A Review of Heidi Czerwiec’s “Conjoining”

Mother as monster and all that implies is Heidi Czerwiec’s focus in her beautifully haunting new book Conjoining (Sable Books, December 2017). Throughout history we women have found ourselves in a double bind in the eyes of men: too delicate to live without their help, yet strong enough to grow and birth children. This conflict has manifested itself in the myth of the monstrous woman. Without this myth, women would prove at least if not more valuable than men, and the men who make the world’s choices and establish its many structures can never allow for that. What results is the shaming and blaming of mothers for all of the world’s problems. For it is us who birth monsters; and where else can baby monsters emerge from but larger monsters?

To understand the world, women must understand men. After all, we live in societies built exclusively by them. Men run our government, our most powerful industries, direct and star in most movies, and are far more widely published than women. Therefore, by default women must understand men to get by. Men, however, can get by without learning anything about women, as women have not structured our society and by and large do not wield power over men in the public sphere. It is the conception of woman as monster that goes a long way toward proving this assertion. Women recognize the many complexities of men, whereas the patriarchy has had the luxury of inventing myth and remaining largely ignorant about the sex to which they do not answer and to which they have never assigned any meaningful power.

The author begins this finely crafted exploration with a story of conjoined twins “joyn’d breast to breast, double monstrous – ” Czerwiec tells us, and that “mother made money / exposing [them] in freak shows,” a nod to the monstrous nature of the mother and her willingness to pray on her children’s differences for personal gain. It seems the children’s deformities here are beyond even the mother’s ability to love, a feat we’ve long been taught through cliché is impossible. The mother/monster here does not understand just how much her children need this physical connection to each other, or how painful their separation will be; that all things do not belong in their place, or that where their place ought to be remains terribly misunderstood.

Our world insists on conformity, missing out on the value of difference. It demands that mothers birth “normal” children so that the mother/monster appears more “normal” herself:

            Everywhere mothers spilt their milk, split fetuses they

            feared, fearing that ancient threat: that a woman visited

            with a corrupt birth be with her brood buried alive, each

            child a lit lantern to be blown out

There’s even talk of eugenics in these poems, that “normal” equals order, deformity chaos. This extends to those who we’ve come to recognize as exotic, if not beautiful. Even mermaids here are seen as blemished. “Below the equatorial / I’m stumped where legs should be” Czerwiec writes.

On rare occasions variations of physicality are celebrated, such as the birth of:

the Goddess Lakshmi herself unfurled

her multiplicity of limbs

from my lotus body.

A girl

is rarely cause to celebrate,

but the village worshipped her

But this celebration doesn’t last. Gods don’t fare well on earth, especially female ones. The extra limbs become infected, and Lakshmi labors to survive. Men decide to amputate her extraneous arms and she heals, though is blamed after for any misfortune that befall the villagers. The non-conforming woman is guilty for almost everything.

These demands of conformity extend to all women, no matter how privileged or well-known. Even Queen Victoria of England is implicated. She’s “trapped within a gilded cage” designed, of course, by men, “pretending their prison isn’t made of silk / and live[s] inside her pretty fabrication.” Czerwiec’s work masterfully and implicitly insists that women must be allowed to create their own circumstances, or the mother as monster myth will persist, and the cage doors will never truly be opened.

The author ends with the tale of her own son’s adoption, a story that proves the persistence of the mother/monster myth, and the true strength and love that mothers possess even in the face of terrible suffering. The author fears for the health and welfare of her son Wyatt before his birth, a child conceived in rape and lovingly carried by his birthmother. “‘Profound grief or shock / that act upon the mother produce defect’” we’re told, the repeated accusation that society places on the mother for any problems incurred by the child. But Wyatt’s biological mother births not just a healthy child, but hope as well. “It was a shared mercy when Wyatt-to-be’s mom / chose me,” the author writes, “and when I chose to mother her son. / All adoptions are a sequence of small tragedies.” Small tragedies, indeed. Tragedies that can lead to beautiful outcomes. In this way and so many others, Czerwiec successfully turns the mother/monster myth inside out.


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.

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