“Breeze in the Air: Birth Poems”
By Emily Wall; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022; 80 pages; $16.95.
By Marybeth Holleman; Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022; 88 pages; $16.95.
Boreal Books, founded and edited by former Alaskan writer Peggy Shumaker, has published exemplary poetry and prose by Alaskans since 2008. This summer, she is offering two new poetry collections that are very different but complementary. Emily Wall’s “Breaking into Air” was born out of a project bringing together birth stories from parents and others. Marybeth Holleman’s ‘Tender Gravity’ tenderly explores a wide range of life’s encounters with sorrow and comfort, particularly in the natural world.
Wall — who lives in Juneau, where she has three daughters and teaches English and creative writing at Alaska Southeast University — is the author of three previous poetry books. Although childbirth is one of the most common human experiences, it is not often the subject of literary works, and Wall brought — childbirth? – some of his varied experiences, both joyful and traumatic, in art. The content and form are surprisingly varied.
One poem, “Shaawatke’e’s Birth”, is inspired by X’unei Lance Twitchell’s account of the birth of a daughter. But it’s more than that; it also discusses the preciousness and necessity of the language and incorporates translated Tlingit passages into footnotes.
Wall writes, “And now your tongue is a salmon/swimming downstream, heading/towards the ocean of sound, ready to take your first sip/of salt water, ready to taste your first vowels/rain on the ocean , and your ear and your tongue , come now / and the pain is there too, and your mother suffers. A dramatic reading of this very moving poem was presented by Wall and Twitchell at an “Alaska Quarterly Review” event in 2017 and can be found on YouTube.
Other poems developed from the stories of new mothers, experienced mothers, grandmothers, lesbian mothers, an adoptive mother, doctors, a woman who had a miscarriage, a woman unable to conceive who found other ways to mother, biblical mothers, and even a woman in a painting. They capture the full gamut of emotions – from fear, pain and grief to hope, gratitude and immense joy. Wall’s own stories appear among them as italicized blocks of prose.
“Don’t Look at a Lunar Eclipse” is a found poem for which Wall collected ancient wisdom or superstitions associated with pregnancy and childbirth. “Don’t put scissors in your bed/or the baby will have a cleft palate.” “Don’t show anything ugly,/don’t criticize anyone/or the baby will be unpleasant.”
Another poem found, “What Does a Fetal Heartbeat Sound Like” collects the exact words of those who answered the Wall question posted on Facebook. “Like running feet on wet sand./Like horses/galloping horses/like a hummingbird/a hundred hummingbirds in a snowstorm.” This poem opens the whole collection, introducing the idea that the project is a collaborative project and that each person had different – and often beautifully expressed – experiences to share.
“Catching Babies: Haiku” is “for the doctors of Juneau, who shared these stories”. These 12 short poems capture memorable moments from the end of reception. “First a fist came out./Now I’m not just a doctor/But his first take.”
“Tender Gravity” is Anchorage writer Marybeth Holleman’s first collection of poetry, although she has previously written the nonfiction “Heart of the Sound”, co-authored “Among Wolves” and co-edited ” Crosscurrents North” and is well known as a writer and teacher. His work is marked by a deep care and respect for the natural world. The poems range from kayak-level considerations of ocean life to close-up looks at a wetland sundew to views of the moon, comets and the cosmos. They are, however, more than observations and celebrations of nature; they question questions of life and death, of responsibility towards human and non-human beings, and the contradictions with which we all live. Multiple references to the death of a younger brother add to the layering.
Holleman, similar to Wall, begins with a “heartbeat” poem. “The Beating Heart, Minus Gravity” is about a dream of diving “into the deep blue/and rising, rising, following/bubble after bubble, seeing/the golden light shining above/but never reaching/ no matter how hard I hit / the tender gravity of the air It gives the expectation of an immersion in humility before nature and its infinite mysteries.
Holleman’s love for the ocean and its life is expressed freely here, in “The Outer Coast”, “Culross Passage, Five Months After”, “Passing Through the Barren Islands”, “Whales at Night” and other poems. In “The Outer Coast”, the narrator dreams of a familiar place “…and yet/housing a primitive memory/of when, like those/moon jellies, I spent aimless days/aiming for what /I couldn’t see yet.” The “after” in “Culross Passage” refers to when tar balls and absorbent pads littered the beaches of Holleman’s beloved Prince William Sound after the massive oil spill. There she saw a goat mountains to swim from island to island, which biologists have declared impossible.
One of the collection’s most moving poems, “Skating After Many Moons,” takes readers to a frozen pond where the narrator once took her grandson. Their assignment one summer day was to record the sounds of wood frogs “for a scientist cataloging city frogs,/who wanted to see how the weather changed/changed them, would there be more/or less, would they be extinguished as the summers dried up.” She recalls not only time spent with her son, but her own childhood “searching for the certainty a child feels about/the world that keeps her steady…” Standing awkwardly on the ice, her limbs begin to remembering a past moment that makes her born “stunned with love again.”
Ada Limon, our recently named American Poet Laureate, told PBS NewsHour last month, “I truly believe in the power of poetry to help us reclaim our humanity, to allow us to feel all the feelings…I think, so often, we just compartmentalize and become numb to what’s going on in the world and poetry is where you can do that groundwork, where you can read a poem and have, like , oh, right. I’m a beginning human… And the other thing I really believe in is the ability of poetry to help us mend our relationship to the Earth. I think we’re so far apart of the earth, of nature, that we forget that the relationship is reciprocal.
These essential roles are precisely those filled by the deeply felt and shared new work of Wall and Holleman.