The first impression Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s Mother’s Milk gave me—and this may sound negative, but, for reasons I’ll explain, it needn’t be interpreted that way—was of a notebook filled with bits and pieces of poetry yet to be written. Many small fragments, repetitions, recursions, moments, ideas, pieces, jots, tittles. It feels like finding a poet’s moleskine on a bus bench and piecing together what she was working on.
Here’s my spin on why this … chaotic unfinish is appropriate for Mother’s Milk: Although there is plenty of evidence Heavenly Mother is in our discourse (evidence, evidence, evidence, evidence), it definitely feels like there isn’t. (Likely reason for this feeling [outside most people being unaware of what does exist]? There plain is not enough stuff.) Certainly we have not seen a single-author collection exploring this theology (I suppose this comes closest). Therefore: A collection that feels like the first steps of order being formed from chaos is exactly what people wanted to read—even if they didn’t realize it.
Also, for all the work of Paulsen and Pulido and others (including, I rush to add, Steenblik herself who helped with the research on their bylined project), research into past art alone cannot be the bud of a new branch of Mormon poetry. We need living voices to sing their songs, and Steenblick has taken that role. She’s opened the door and we can expect, surely, that more voices will follow.
Or, perhaps more accurately, there will now be ears attuned to hear voices already singing.
This is one of the gifts of Mother’s Milk, in fact. She frequently hearkens to the voices who have already sung but whom most of us missed. I was hard-pressed to keep up, but most of her launchpoints are outlined in the backnotes.
(Aside: I have mixed feelings about notes sections appendixed to poetry collections. For instance, this beautiful collection of mostly ekphrasitc poems was frustrating. And the notes just heightened my annoyance. It doesn’t do me much good to know the name of a painting I have no way of viewing. And in Mother’s Milk, it was nice to know that, yup, that was Jeffrey Holland and to know the intended reference, but the pleasure of catching allusions on one’s own is likewise diminished. This may be a snobbery issue.)
Let me try a few other explanations of what this collection is like:
This collection is stream-of-conscious in its short bursts of thought.
This collection is happy to put on its pink moccasins but is just as happy to lean toward gender inclusion.
This collection is willing to be childlike, referencing Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle, P.D. Eastman, and a certain Polynesian not-a-princess of the Disney persuasion.
This collection, by being fragmented, is able to address the same image or phrase or metaphor over and over afresh.
This collection is comfortable exploring traditional imagery like breasts and trees.
This collection both embraces and pushes through the idea of mothers-as-nourishers.
This collection is willing to disagree with itself, as in these poems that touch face-to-face when you turn the page:
For a Moment
When I was tired,
I hid my face
hid not her face
from me. (124)
The Mother is Not Absent
She is taking
a long shower,
a nap, and using
by Herself. (125)
This collection is not afraid to give the Heavenly Mother a physical body, with all that implies.
This collection finds it easy to find both Mother and Father in the word God, thus leaving theology intact while finding an infinite space for Her:
My First Article of Faith
I believe in God the Eternal
Father and Mother,
and in their Son, Jesus Christ,
and in the Holy Ghost. (132)
One of the progenitors name-checked towards the end of the collection is Eliza R. Snow, Mormondom’s priestess/prophetess/poetess/presidentess. Steenblik doesn’t mention any of those titles, but—intentionally or not—she is accepting that mantle. Not as a sole voice-in-the-desert sort of way, but more in Moses’s wish, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”
Through the kaleidoscopic nature of the text, Mother’s Milk works to reflect back all the voices that have come before and all that are yet to come. The introduction, in whole:
These are the poems that I could write with my questions, my hurt, my hope, and my reaching. Others could write other poems with theirs. I hope that they will. We need them all. (1)
Poet and prophet are traditionally conflated roles, just ask Isaiah.
When I first read this poem,
The Great She Is, II
She is the God of
She covenants with
Her daughters. (60)
I was once again saddened by poor Leah’s fate to always be left out.
It wasn’t until a hundred pages later that I realized
Rachel was talking about herself.
Would that we all were prophets.