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The Mystery and The Mess: Motherlines and Motherless Women with Poet Andrea O’Brien

photo of poet Andrea O'Brien

Poet Andrea O'Brien

 

In “Child Who Haunts My Womb,” (published earlier on The Fertile Souce here) the speaker in the poem states: I have too much religion / and not enough God in me / to make a right decision regarding carrying a child to term and raising a child. I love how this line highlights that religion (when one is young) might fill one with a sense of  what is “right” while the possibility of bringing a child into the world (when one begins to mature and face adulthood) might call for a more visceral, internal prompting from the God of one’s body. Can you talk to us about this dilemma?

It seems to me we are taught to put the mind above the body, that logic trumps the bodily experience. In many religions, the body’s temporal existence results in it being viewed as less significant than the mind and spirit. What I seek, in this poem and in general, is wholeness—a unity of the mind-body-spirit connection. Maybe it is more particular to the female experience, but for me, the body cannot be separated from the person. We live in a physical world; why would we not expect to find the spiritual in the physical?

By day, I’m a technical writer so I often approach the world—even poems—in a logical, procedural way. But there’s another part of me—the poet self, I suppose—who resists this order and wants to live in the mystery and mess of the world, knowing there are not always answers to the questions.

There’s also a beautiful vulnerability portrayed in the relationship between mother and daughter, as that daughter turns to face motherhood herself, and finds she still needs her own mother: I am still a child / really, always fleeing, / asking, and needing: / how to clean silver, / how to check / transmission fluid…Can you talk about writing this poem and how you decided which aspects of the mother /daughter relationship to include?

I imagine all women continue to need their mothers throughout their lives to some extent, but this is especially true for women who have lost their mothers at a young age. We—and I’m taking a leap speaking for all motherless women—understand loss much earlier in life and experience successive loss, even small losses, as a form of abandonment. I wanted to convey the longing, and the intense need, through the memories of what once was, as well as through the description of what is left unfulfilled.

The motherline is strong; it’s how a woman learns about being a woman—through story, through example—and when that is cut, a woman may feel adrift. The reference point has become a memory.

Maybe that is one reason The Fertile Source is such a valuable resource. It is a place for stories—for a specific type of story—that one can use as a touch point (ah, this is how one person experienced childbirth, and this is how someone else experienced miscarriage).

There’s a difficult backdrop presented in “Child Who Haunts My Womb “as well: the speaker’s mother grappling with illness. Can you talk about the process of writing about such a poignant threshold (birth and death simultaneously) in this poem?

I love exploring the paradoxical in poems and using the structure of a poem to bring opposites into play. From my limited experiences, it seems we have become more and more isolated from death (and birth!). But in nature, we can see all the time how connected birth and death really are. One life ending becomes the fertile ground for a new one. That doesn’t make dying easier to accept. But with passing of time and practicing her craft and a little bit of luck, a writer might transform the stuff of life into art.

Any writing mentors you’d like to share with us?

Too many to name! Early on, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marilyn Taylor, who has since represented the Badger state as poet laureate, was extremely influential. She introduced me to contemporary formal poetry. Even though I write a great deal of my poems as free-verse or semi-formal, I love how writing in form is unexpectedly freeing. Leaning into the structure of a form leads to surprises in subject and language that would not evolve otherwise.

More recently, I am indebted to Leatha Kendrick, whose guidance helped my writing break open in new ways after a long stagnant period. Both Marilyn and Leatha have the unique combination of being both brilliant writers and passionate, devoted teachers.

I have moved around a bit over the years and have found a number of places that celebrate writing: The Loft in Minneapolis, The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY, The Lighthouse in Denver. Writing may be a solitary event, but the communal aspect can’t be ignored. Across the many states I’ve moved, I have been fortunate to have worked with many excellent poets and writers.

Can you tell us about your first poetry collection (it’s subjects and themes)?

 My first manuscript, which includes “Child Who Haunts My Womb,” shares many of the themes and images found in the poem (mother loss, family lines and legacies, religion versus spirituality). A number of the poems developed out of the story of my mother’s life with and death from cancer.

And your second, forthcoming collection?

 The second manuscript is still evolving, but it carries forward from the first collection. I would say the poems have become less narrative. Also, the writing seems lighter and more playful, especially in terms of form. Some things I am exploring include ekphrasis (writing poems in response to art work, which I’ve also extended to include ballets); writing two distinct poems driven from the same image or moment; and relaxing the boundaries of a formal poem. 

Other projects in the wings?

 Working full-time often means it is difficult to make the time or energy for writing, but I always have a list of things I’m writing or wanting to write. Foremost, I am eager to finish the second collection of poems. There’s also a little bug that gets me to try my hand writing fiction every few months, so I will continue to follow where that leads.

 As mentioned earlier, I love working from prompts or within a form, which liberates the writing process, perhaps because it takes some of the pressure off when faced with a blank page. I’m always surprised to see what surfaces when responding to a prompt or form. Certainly, the subject has been on my mind; it just develops in a different way.

Andrea O’Brien’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Hopkins Review, Connecticut Review, Nimrod International Journal, and The New York Quarterly. In 2007, the Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded Andrea an Artist Enrichment grant to begin writing her second collection of poems. She lives in Denver with her husband and works as a writer and editor.

Child Who Haunts My Womb

A Poem by Andrea O’Brien

I.
Stay unformed,
not yet human in the hot
depth of me like the dove-
birds of unbroken
sand dollars. The feel
of their gritty out-
sides comes back to me
this November night.
An amnesiac,
I am remembering
how to uncork wine,
plant daylilies,
dream each month
of latent
daughters and sons.

II.
We took Interstate 75
south to Sanibel,
to beaches made of all
shells, the discarded
hard bodies of animals.
I hated not going barefoot.
But without sandals
the musical edges of shells,
sharp as the pains
you give, knocking
against my organs, tore
the flesh of my feet,
so unlike my mother’s
calloused ones.

III.
Did she want me torn
from her belly because she foresaw
the hardships of raising
a fifth child
as she was dying?
Or did she simply accept me
as she accepted
the lunar tides, the morning
paper, a new president
every four or eight years,
arias rising
from her children’s lungs,
radiation, chemotherapy,
colored scarves, and wigs?
Did she accept me
as she accepted the air,
heavy with the lives around
her, the Jesus-like
pain in her palms
after her mother’s death,
her scarred rosary
like a crown of dried
roses in her fist?

IV.
I am still a child
really, always fleeing,
asking, and needing:
how to clean silver,
how to check
transmission fluid,
what the right word is
for this situation,
this poem, this feeling
which I know but cannot shake
out into language. Vowels
and the rest of the alphabet
are never enough.
I know others well,
their bodies, even flashes
of their souls which click by,
luminescent and fleeting
as lightening bugs, the seasons
in which we love ourselves best.
But to know myself
I look along fault lines,
the caves of Kentucky,
our moon’s temporary face.

V.
If I swallow enough
bourbon, rum, and schnapps,
if I take enough
antibiotics, enough anti-
depressants will you
come plunging out?

VI.
I have too much religion
and not enough God in me
to make a right decision.

VII.
In kindergarten,
I was the bareback rider
with my red-leotard-body
between two sides
of my wild cardboard horse,
lively and painted.
But when my sister took me riding
on a real farm, I gripped
my black horse, tried to wrap
my legs around his thick middle.
This is not the mother
I want to be.

VIII.
I want to teach you to ride
bareback, to be unafraid
of the dark and spiders
and the moment after
death. I want you to fill up
and spill over with words
and your God and the smells
of burnt coffee and pollen.
I want you to gorge yourself
on Lithuanian tortes and symphonies,
snowflakes as they fall, stories
from my father and his mother
so you can find your way back
to the cliffs of Ireland.
I want you fat with the blessings
of marble and sponge cakes
on birthdays, piles of books
spreading wildly away from shelves,
reams of Black-Eyed Susans and blankets
(quilted, army, and down) to wrap
and unwrap yourself in
when the world is too harsh
for both of us.
Mostly, I want you
to wait, to coil yourself
in the dark of my body.
Keep haunting
me even. But wait
to hurl yourself
into this world.

Andrea O’Brien’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Hopkins Review, Connecticut Review, Nimrod International Journal, and The New York Quarterly. In 2007, the Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded Andrea an Artist Enrichment grant to begin writing her second collection of poems. She lives in Denver with her husband and works as a writer and editor.

Read our interview with Andrea O’Brien conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz: The Mystery and the Mess: Motherlines and Motherless Women with Poet Andrea O’Brien




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