In her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” – a foundational, though I hesitate to call it seminal, work – Ursula K. LeGuin puts forth a set of related theories about women’s ways of writing. LeGuin points out that the archetype of the female artist is that of an unnatural woman who has chosen to be barren because conventional wisdom holds that one can’t sustain both children and writing without one or both suffering as a result. She cites Alicia Ostriker:
That women should have babies rather than books is the considered opinion of Western civilization. That women should have books rather than babies is a variation on that theme.
LeGuin’s response is simple: Nonsense. Women can, should, and must write from their own experience. While this does not necessarily include child rearing, nor does it exclude it. She writes:
White writing, [Helene] Cixous calls it, writing in milk, in mother’s milk. I like that image, because even among feminists, the woman writer has been more often considered in her sexuality as a lover than in her sexuality as pregnant-bearing-nursing-childcaring. Mother still tends to get disappeared.
LeGuin cites Ostriker again:
The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruptionâ€¦.If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself.
Julia B. Levine’s Practicing for Heaven could have been written with the explicit desire to follow Ostriker and LeGuin’s exhortations. These are poems written out of a woman’s lived emotional experience. There is distance here, but it is the distance imposed by the great ineffables – death and sorrow chief among them – and not the distance of the (masculine) hero-artist withdrawing from the world.
“Walking Beside the American River,” the book’s first poem, presents the reader with a poignant combination of lush pastoral description (“Water spreads a flat pewter between cottonwoods”) and reference to extreme personal loss (“I remember the doctor touching my arm,/ as if the bad news needed a place to enter”). The loss at the core of the poem is the almost-death of the narrator’s husband.
â€¦I saw then
death was a tearing apart
from all that did not stop, and nothing,
not even the lilies in a red glass
trembling as the nurses came and went,
or the stubborn grace of our children
hurling themselves over the hospital lawn,
could seal that sudden looming
between this world
and where you had almost gone.
The poem is addressed to the “you” who “had almost gone.” As a result, the reader identifies with the husband, landing in the absence at the poem’s center.
This opening poem is a microcosm of the book. Husband and children are major players, as is the beautiful but indifferent natural world. The children possess a “stubborn grace,” as if they maintained their relationship with innocence or the sacred by an act of sheer obstinacy. In contrast, the adult world is pierced; bad news does need a place to enter, and the narrator is sufficiently broken that the bad news finds its way inside. (Perhaps this is Levine’s PhD in Clinical Psychology showing through; her use of rupture calls Lacan to mind.)
Some of my favorite poems in the collection evoke the language of children’s literature. “The horse knows the sky is bitter with ash,” begins the poem “Fire,” reminding one of the sentient animal narrators of folk tales or the ashes of the original Cinderella. Then the poem takes a startling turn:
But horses know nothing of regret,
of the vast distance between this fire
burning down the hills and my brother
jumping the creek with me to crouch in thistlesâ€¦
Again, Levine speaks of loss. This time, instead of the loss that death (or near-death) presents, it’s the loss imposed by distance in place and time. We don’t know when or where exactly the narrator jumped a creek with her brother to crouch in thistles, but it’s clear that the image carries with it regret, and that, as with all memories, the moment can’t be recaptured.
In one hand, my father holds a glass of water.
He is drawing the other hand
across a map of the Russian Pale
into the complicated geography of exile.
He wants the boy to understand prayer
as water filling any shape that is offered,
and that fire, though it begins with so little,
must finally ask for everything.
Levine knows that exile, too, is a form of loss.
Words and concepts recur in Practicing for Heaven. Sometimes the recurrence feels intentional, as with Levine’s repeated allusions to her husband’s near-death, to her own traumas, and to depression. Others feel accidental, like her repeated usage of the word “thistle,” which made me wish someone had asked her to find another weed or wildflower with similar connotations.
On the whole, though, Levine’s words are well chosen. Her writing about child rearing, especially in the three poems that make up “Fontanelle,” is as imaginative and realistic as LeGuin could have desired.
The first poem in the series evokes the patchwork sleep schedule of the new mother:
Stranded in that clockless month of her arrival,
I listen to our neighbor sawing down back doors,
and rock her, tiny fists of breath uncurlingâ€¦
In the second poem, the narrator admits that she is “not tending [the children’s] fear, but my own.” In the third poem, the child “begins to arrive within her body,” and the narrator dares to touch
a vein visibly pulsing under that taut canvas,
tiny plates of skull still undone.
It is a joy to see such exquisite description applied to the body of an infant new to the world.
Psychologists and philosophers alike have proposed that self-consciousness arises through a shattering of the mother-child unity enjoyed in the womb, and that language marks that breakage. Levine grounds these theories in accessible narrative in poems such as “Before Language Speaks the Loss,” which shows us a child climbing “bearlike” up a tin slide, and “The Distance Apart from Her,” which brings to life a child trailing her mother into the kitchen and grieving for her mother’s necessary separateness.
In her best poems, Levine’s images are so clear that they approach benediction. As she writes in “Migration,”
What is winter
if not the heart before faith,
a history of summers
weeping alone, the rinsed sweetness
after you first come through grief?
take the certain arrow of these geese
flying down the delta
and moments later, this lone bird
crying for her flock.
Imagine how she listens for answer.
as the longing we carry,
as a last call
to wings still folded inside.
Even if we never fly,
even if we are only flying,
we are not lost or left behind.
With the image of the lone goose streaking the sky in search of her flock, Levine assures her readers of what some theologians would call grace. Levine’s world is not an easy one, but its complexity comes with some reassurances. This may be all we can do, she suggests, but “all we can do” is both occasion to mourn and cause to rejoice.