Review by Sarah W. Bartlett
Come out here. So I dried my hands.
This opening of the first poem stopped me in my tracks with the breath-holding immediacy of this familiar phrase, even as it compelled me into the poem. And into the book, this introductory moment, or ‘Interlude,’ being a portent of moments to come. What existed in a blink between two people now exists for the rest of us forever. Not only because the poet took the time to write it down, but more, because she took the time to allow the experience in the first place.
Such allowing is a hallmark of this compact collection of poems. That, and the permission to dwell in small moments of time, observation, meaning – all of which add up to an entire bigger story map.
Williams-Noren’s use of language makes reading this collection especially enjoyable. Memorable metaphors — I become a cradle/for the swarm of bees/packed under my skin (‘At the Metrodome’); compact language – Say you wanted. Say enjoy/and grateful. Say while you can. (the entirety of ‘Answer Complaint’); layered meaning – no adjective changes baby . . . Baby/swallows every other word …/ mashed and strained (‘Writing About the First Months’).
And rhythm – did I mention the lilting read-aloud quality to ‘Sea Turtles’, one I especially love with its rhythm of nod and breathe, nod and breathe; and the wonderful metaphor of needing to live moment to moment with every decision made, while yearning for a map, a big picture view when all you have is a half-submerged view and some instinct that keeps you nodding and breathing on the same wave(length) as those in your care. Motherhood, in a nutshell.
‘Letter from the Lioness to the Expectant Mother’ took me by storm, remembering how many collages and poems I myself have created as the protective lioness to my offspring. But why should I be surprised? We are mothers; this is mother instinct incarnate. What is most compelling here, however, is that this lioness speaks to that particular mother. The particularity of individual detail embedded in the universal experience:
soon you’ll know the night …
the muscle that can’t unclench, the breath
that won’t reach bottom.
We wild ones use this night: we are teeth first
and ready to snarl and wrestle,
our young behind us. Shriek and claw
belong to us.
It is no accident that food, hunger and feeding – and therefore, mouths and teeth – recur and morph as foundational themes in this collection. Such are the most basic of human needs: to hold and protect the young; to feed and be fed; to create safe containers for raising the young and at the same time, to be free from those constraints. Only a mother knows the depth of how each moment of each day carries the full weight of such paradox. Mostly these potentially colliding considerations remain unspoken, from tradition or shame or hope they will somehow resolve. We question, we challenge, we carry on. In this collection, Williams-Noren has shown us in beautiful, clear, concise and exquisite poetic language how the both/and not only can, but in fact DO, co-exist. Every day, in every detail as small as a tooth.
This is one of those collections that must be read and re-read; savored; each poem internalized in relationship to the others; the arc of the collection felt; the big picture seen in stepping away and returning again and again to the page. I tried to capture this is by gathering especially resonant lines from the collection to create a kind of summary:
We are resin, poured into father and mother,
tired arms with known, whole hands,
one strong heart that swallows every other word
mashed and strained, the cadence faster than breath,
the muscle that can’t unclench, the breath
that won’t reach bottom
waiting for release, waiting.
What if you didn’t know about depth? Then what
would you believe? Only a sound
inside the body can be heard like this, feel
where you must hold yourself.
I have found the spot.
But, as LeVar Burton used to say on “Reading Rainbow,” don’t take MY word for it! Pick up a copy of this collection, read through it at one sitting or several. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. You’ll identify your own pulls both toward and away from this most instinctive and challenging of roles, shared here in powerful small moments with heart-connecting transparency.
Small Like a Tooth
by Carolyn Williams-Noren
Dancing Girl Press 2015
An experienced writing coach, facilitator, change agent and mediator, Sarah W. Bartlett has, for two decades, midwifed the stories that evoke and celebrate voice among women. Whether battered women, cancer survivors, adolescent girls, or the incarcerated, each community practices the philosophy and intentionality of Women Writing VT. In January 2010, she co-founded writing inside VT, where truth-telling in a judgment–free setting encourages incarcerated women to reflect on and change life choices through writing.